Tracking highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the key nuclear weapon materials

On November 30, 2015 President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina took part in a ceremony that appears to beginning of operations at the Pilcaniyeu enrichment plant. The start of operations, in fact, was announced earlier, in February 2015, but it is possible that the plant was operating in test mode since then. The work on restarting the facility began in 2010.

The initial capacity of the plant, built in the late 1970s and shut down in 1996, was 20,000 SWU/year. The current project calls for increasing the capacity to as much as 3 million SWU/year.

The launch of the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho has been delayed again. The operator of the plant, Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL) announced that the launch was postponed until the first half of FY 2018 (i.e. April-September 2018). JNFL cited the need to complete safety upgrades and get regulatory approval.

According to the JNFL press release (in Japanese) the amount to be reprocessed in FY 2018 (April 2018-March 2019) would be 80 tons of spent fuel (BWR 48 tons, PWR 32 tons). The local newspaper, Toonippo, that closely follows the issue, reported that actual reprocessing might start in January 2019.

Previous delay was announced in October 2014. At the time, JNFL was planning to open the plant in March 2016. The current delay is the 22nd in the history of the plant. Its construction began in 1993 and at the time the plant was expected to open in 1997.

Completion of the MOX fabrication facility was postponed as well - until first half of FY2019 (i.e. September 2019), instead of the previously planned October 2017.

Martin Forwood

Stumbling along at half speed to its scheduled end-date of 2018, Sellafield's 'flagship' Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) continues to notch up missed targets - this time the completion of all overseas reprocessing contracts by the end of 2016. Overseas customers must now wait (at least) until 2018 (the closure date for the plant itself) to see the end of what has been, for them, a less than rewarding reprocessing experience.

In early 2014, a Sellafield stakeholder meeting was told that the shearing of all remaining overseas LWR fuel - scheduled to be dealt with in roughly equal tranches over financial years 2014/15 - 2016/17 - would be completed by November 2016. Featuring high on Sellafield's 'to do' list, the 2016 projection was highlighted as a 'key activity' by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in its Business Plan 2014-17, an annotation that reflected the pressure exerted by successive UK Governments - concerned by the loss of face from any failure of inter-government contract agreements - for the earliest completion of overseas reprocessing work.

By October 2015 however, Sellafied Ltd admitted to the same stakeholders that technical difficulties within THORP had prevented the reprocessing of any overseas fuel in 2015/16 and that the outstanding tonnage was now scheduled for completion by THORP's closure in 2018. As shown in the Table below, published by the UK Government's Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) in January 2015, the outstanding contracts amount to some 150 tonnes with German utilities dominating the list at 146 tonnes. The remnant overseas contracts are likely to be dealt with via 'virtual reprocessing', where equivalent amounts of fissile materials and waste would be allocated to each client.

Table contains data at 9 January 2015 for Sellafield THORP and Magnox fuels. Note: all overseas Magnox fuel has been reprocessed.

Providing only limited detail of the technical difficulties within THORP that has forced the new delay in completing the German contracts, Sellafield Ltd has pointed the finger at the problems associated with insoluble fuel debris (including the cladding of the fuel) which results from the initial stage of reprocessing when the spent fuel is sheared and dissolved in nitric acid. Whilst some debris is sieved out at the dissolver stage, other insoluble debris is transported within the dissolved liquor through further stages of the plant where, in the form of 'coarse fines', it causes internal scouring, pipework erosion and system blockages.

Whilst such events have caused a number of extended THORP stoppages over the years, in this case the problem lies apparently with the development of a pinhole in a decanter, which is designed to remove any remaining fuel debris from the dissolved fuel liquor prior to its further chemical separation. Given the historic experience of the zirconium alloy fuel cladding of overseas LWR fuel proving more problematic than UK AGR fuel in terms of blockage and erosion, the former has been re-scheduled in order to protect the remnant life of 21-year old THORP by providing an easier run-in to its 2018 closure date.

The fallout from the enforced re-scheduling of overseas fuel falls squarely on the unfortunate German utilities that own the 146 tonnes of LWR fuel that remain to be reprocessed, some of which was contracted for THORP's first ten year Baseload period and projected for completion by 2004. The prospect of that completion now slipping to 2018 - an overall delay of 14 years - will doubtless further infuriate the very same Baseload Customers (BLC) who, in a leaked document relating to a meeting with British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) in September 2000, warned of a loss of confidence in Sellafield's technical ability that was enhanced by "BNFL's apparent inability to reprocess our fuel within the agreed baseload period". The German power stations from whom Baseload contracts had been secured for THORP included Krummel, Brokdorf, Unterweser, Grohnde, Biblis, Neckarwestheim, Gundremmingen and Lingen.

The planned closedown of THORP in November 2018 - described as a political decision unlikely to be reversed - will lead to a 4-year period of Post Operative Clean Out (POCO) of the plant. As a pre-cursor, THORP's Receipt and Storage Pond water will be caustically 'dosed' to enable the long-term storage of the estimated 5400 tonnes of AGR spent fuel that will remain un-reprocessed and pond-stored prior to disposal. Such a status has enraged Sellafield's trades unions and some local authority members who are threatening to withhold any further support for the UK's ongoing search for an underground waste dump that will contain spent fuel they consider best reprocessed.

Bringing in much needed revenue to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to help towards Sellafield's ever rising clean-up and decommissioning costs, completing this overseas work has long been a priority for the UK Government and Sellafield Ltd. Put in context, THORP's original order book included some xxx tonnes of LWR fuel from overseas utilities. All such contracts, plus those secured from the UK's fleet of AGR power stations, were originally scheduled for completion in 2010, a date that had to be abandoned in 2005 when THORP suffered a major leak accident (INES 3) which closed the plant for almost 2 years and reduced its future 'throughput' by around 50%.

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority on 4th November 2015 decided that a new entity would be required to manage the MOX fueled Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) at Tsuruga in Fukui prefecture. The new body would be tasked with demonstrating that the reactor can be operated safely. The NRA has asked that Government to identify a new agency, or, if that proves not possible, take a decision to permanently shut down the reactor. Any decision to shutdown Monju would have major implications for Japan's long-standing nuclear fuel chain policy.

The 280 MW reactor, which began operation in April 1994, has not operated since an accident in 1995 in which liquid sodium leaked from cooling pipes - with the exception of a limited period of operation between May and August 2010, when it was shut down following another accident.

A safety inspection of Monju in 2012 showed that more than 9,000 of about 49,000 parts had not received necessary checks. Subsequently, the NRA recognized seven instances in which Monju violated safety regulations, including equipment malfunctions and failure to properly manage documents. In May 2013, the NRA ordered JAEA not to embark on preparations for its restart. In March 2015 the JAEA provided assurances to the NRA that it had implemented reforms, however further revelations had emerged during the previous two years that the agency had violated safety regulations and committed errors by not conducting thorough checks of other pieces of equipment.

The 4th November 2015 decision by the NRA Commissioners was their first ever "admonition", in this case against the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), a government body under the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, deeming it not qualified to run the Monju reactor. Shunichi Tanaka, the NRA chairman stated at an emergency meeting on 2nd November: "Our assessment is that the agency is unfit to manage and operate the Monju...The agency cannot solve its problems on its own, and we will make our own judgment." JAEA President, Toshio Kodama, told NRA officials that the JAEA is taking measures to review its inspection regime, and seeking the NRA's understanding by stating: "No entities other than the JAEA can manage Monju." Asahi newspaper noted in an editorial that "pulling the plug on the Monju program is the only reasonable option. The decision to do so should be the government's answer to the NRA's recommendation."

The Monju FBR is one of the few such reactors worldwide, and as such is central to both Japan's domestic and international research and development program on sodium cooled fast reactors. In May 2014 extended cooperation was announced by the Governments of France and Japan, with Monju playing a central role, including in the testing of fuel for France's new demonstration breeder ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration).

On 7th October 2015, a panel of the NRA concluded that a seismic fault line beneath the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor is likely inactive, after finding the fault line would not move in tandem with an active geological fault 500 meters away. A full report will be prepared for NRA Commissioners.

Two Chinese academic institutions, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and China Institute of Nuclear Information and Economics released a report, "Study on Japan's Nuclear Materials" (local copy), that expresses concern about the amount of fissile materials in Japan.

The report estimated that "Japan has 47.8 tons of high sensitive separated plutonium, 10.8 tons of which are stored in Japan, enough to make 1350 nuclear warheads. In addition, Japan also has about 1.2 tons of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for research reactors."

According to the report, "the large amount of nuclear materials stored by Japan and its imbalance between supply and demand constitute serious risks of nuclear proliferation, nuclear safety and nuclear terrorism." The authors suggest that

Japan [...] should take measures to properly solve the problem of the current nuclear materials inventory, such as reducing the growth of nuclear materials, and realizing the balance between supply and demand. Japan should also enhance the transparency of nuclear materials management, strengthen the safety and security of its nuclear facilities and voluntarily put them under stricter safeguards by the IAEA.

As of October 8, 2015, the IAEA had published as INFCIRC/549 documents reports by eight out of nine countries that submit annual civilian plutonium declarations. The new declarations reflect the status of civilian plutonium stock as of 31 December 2014. [UPDATED 11/12/15 There is no report yet for the United States].

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1/18) reported having 10.8 tonnes of plutonium in the country and 37.0 tonnes abroad (the 2013 numbers were 10.8 and 36.3 tonnes respectively). In July 2015 Japan also released a more detailed internal version of this report, "The Status of Plutonium Management in Japan".

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2/18) reported 2.1 tonnes of separated plutonium in the country (3.0 tonnes in 2013). Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3/14) reported 900 kg of separated plutonium, all of it belonging to foreign bodies (1400 kg in 2013).

  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4/19) declared "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium "held elsewhere" (no change from 2013).

  5. France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19) declared 78.8 tonnes of separated plutonium, of which 16.9 tonnes belong to foreign bodies (78.1 and 17.9 in 2013).

  6. The United States (INFCIRC/549/Add.6/18) reported having 49.0 tonnes of separated plutonium. No changes have been made compared to the 2013 report.

  7. China (INFCIRC/549/Add.7/14) reported 25.4 kg of separated plutonium (an increase from 13.8 kg in 2013). It's the first increase of the amount of separated plutonium since 2010, when China first declared 13.8 kg.

  8. The United Kingdom (INFCIRC/549/Add.8/18) declared 126.3 tonnes of civilian plutonium, of which 23.0 tonnes belong to foreign bodies (123.0 and 23.4 in 2013).

  9. Russia's report (INFCIRC/549/Add.9/17) probably contains an error - it declares 5200 kg of separated plutonium in storage at reprocessing plants. The number reported in this category in 2013 was 50300 kg. There is no other ready explanation for the decrease in the amount of the material in the report. The amount of material in other two categories - plutonium in unirradiated MOX and plutonium stored elsewhere - has not changed since 2013. Russia reported the total of 1600 kg in 2014 and 2013 (300 and 1300 kg in 2014 and 400 and 1200 kg in 2013). UPDATE: Yes, it was indeed an error - IPFM has learned that the amount of plutonium that was meant to be declared is on the order of 50 tonnes. Given that Russia has been annually separating from 700 to 1,100 kg, most likely the correct number is 51,200 kg, corresponding to an increase of 900 kg. The number will be updated as soon as Russia issues a correction.

I addition to reporting plutonium stocks, three countries also submit data on their civilian HEU:

Germany reported 0.3 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel, 0.93 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.03 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere." The numbers in 2013 were 0.27, 9.3, 0.03 respectively.

France declared the total of 4,653 kg of HEU, of which 3,045 kg is unirradiated (4,717 and 3,114 kg in 2013).

The United Kingdom reported 1,398 kg of HEU, of which 1,261 kg is unirradiated (1,398 and 1,256 in 2013).

On 28 September 2015 Russia formally launched a commercial MOX fuel fabrication facility at the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk. The production line will fabricate MOX fuel for the BN-800 reactor at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station. The reactor reached criticality in June 2014. It is expected to be reaching full power and connecting to the grid in the summer of 2016. According to Rosatom, the construction of the MOX plant, which reportedly took 2.5 years (it began in 2011), cost about "little over $200 million, or 9.6 billion rubles."

The plant produced its first MOX fuel assemblies in 2014 - reportedly in two batches, 10 kg and 20 kg. It plans to manufacture 24 assemblies by the end of 2015 and expects to reach the capacity of 200 assemblies in 2016 and 400 - in 2017. This should provide enough fuel for the first reloads of the BN-800 reactor.

At the startup, BN-800 reactor operates with an active zone that contains three types of fuel assemblies. Of the total of 576, a third (about 180) are HEU-based assemblies, about 100 vibro-packed MOX and the rest - pellet-based MOX. The MOX assemblies for the first load were produced at NIIAR in Dimitrovgrad. The plant at Zheleznogorsk will be producing pellet-based fuel.

There is no official information as to whether the plant will use weapon-grade plutonium, which Russia committed to eliminate under the PMDA agreement with the United States, but Rosatom officials indicated that the facility was built to process weapon-grade material and that the use of reactor-grade plutonium is unlikely, at least in the short term. At the same time, speaking at the opening ceremony, the head of Rosatom, Sergey Kiriyenko, said that the plant can work with "any isotopic composition, any plutonium."

All HEU is removed from Uzbekistan

On September 24, 2015, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration assisted Uzbekistan in completing removal of the last remaining HEU from the country. The transfer, carried out in cooperation with Russia and the IAEA, was completed on September 24, 2015. The shipment included irradiated fuel if the IIN-3M/Foton reactor that was operated by the Foton Enterprise in Tashkent.

The Foton reactor is an aqueous pulsed reactor. Its active zone contained 27 liters of UO2SO4 solution containing about 5 kg of U-235. It was shut down in June 2013. The transfer has been part of the U.S.-Russia-IAEA effort to repatriate Russian-origin fuel (RRRFR program) with funding provided by the United States as part of its GTRI program (recently restructured to become the Material Management and Minimization Program, M3). The agreement with Russia was finalized in February 2014.

HEU has now been completely removed from 29 countries plus Taiwan. Still, 27 countries have at least 1 kg of highly-enriched uranium in their stocks.

Frank von Hippel

On 21 September 2015, the High Bridge consulting group issued a report that presented the contractor's view of the cost of the MOX plutonium disposition route. The work was funded by MOX Services, the CB&I-AREVA joint subsidiary that has the DOE contract to build and operate the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) on the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. High Bridge critiques the conclusions of the DoE "Red Team" report, which was made public in August 2015. The Red Team concluded that disposing of U.S. excess plutonium in DOE's deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico would be much less costly and risky than continuing with the current program of manufacturing mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for U.S. light water reactors.

The MFFF contract was signed in 1999 to support one of the two plutonium disposition paths selected by the Clinton Administration--MOX and direct disposal. In 2002, when the Bush Administration decided to drop the direct disposal part of the program, it estimated that the net cost to extracting 34 tons of excess U.S. weapons plutonium from weapons pits and manufacturing it into MOX fuel would be $3.8 billion ($4.9 billion in 2014 dollars; see Table ES-3).

As of 2015, about $5 billion has been spent on construction of the MFFF and the latest estimate done for DOE was that an additional $27.2 billion (2014 dollars) would be required to complete the job (Red Team Report, Table 3, assuming a budget cap of $0.5 billion/year). The High Bridge report estimated a somewhat lower additional cost of $19.4 billion for a total cost of about $25 billion. This would still be a five-fold increase over the 2002 cost estimate.

Despite the enormous increase in the cost of the program, High Bridge argues that the benefits of the MOX program would exceed the cost because the 875 tons of MOX fuel (measuring it by its weight of contained plutonium plus depleted uranium) could be used to generate $35 billion in electricity (at the electricity's retail price). However, this argument is nothing less than creative accounting, since this electricity could be much more cheaply generated with $1.4 billion of standard LEU fuel.

The cost of 1 kg of LEU fuel can be estimated as follows: 8 kg of natural uranium at $100/kg; 5.8 SWU at $70/SWU (assuming enrichment to 4% U-235 with 0.25% left in the depleted uranium); conversion of 8 kg of natural uranium from uranium oxide to UF6 for enrichment and 1 kg of enriched uranium back at $8/kgU, and fuel fabrication at $300/kgU. This means that 875 tonnes of LEU fuel that would produce $35 billion worth of electricity would cost about $1.4 billion, which is less than 6% of even High Bridge's estimate of the cost of the MOX fuel.

Hui Zhang

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is reported to have started preparations for what appears to be a demonstration reprocessing plant with a capacity of 200 tonnes/year at Jinta near Jiuquan city of Gansu province. This site is over one hundred kilometer away from China's pilot reprocessing plant (located at Plant 404, the former Jiuquan plutonium production complex), The new demonstration plant is assumed to be based on a scale-up of the pilot plant which has a capacity of 50 tons/year. Works seems to be at a very preliminary site preparation stage.

After the pilot facility at Plant 404 finished its hot test in December 2010, CNNC began to plan a medium-scale demonstration plant. In December 2011, the National Energy Administration (NEA) (under the National Development and Reform Commission, NDRC), issued the 12th five-year energy plan that called for construction of a spent fuel reprocessing demonstration project by 2020. In 2012, CNNC issued the "Long Teng 2020 (Dragon Soars 2020)" technology innovation plan that selected the 200 tonnes/year demonstration plant as one key project. The government eventually approved the demonstration plant in early 2015. According to an account in National Business Daily, in July 2015 CNNC started construction activities at the CNNC Gansu Nuclear Technology Industrial Park. The report suggests that this activity will involve construction of the demonstration reprocessing plant at Jinta of Gansu. It is also said that the entire project will cost about 100 billion RMB (about $16 billion), although it is not clear from the report how much of this would be allocated to the reprocessing facility. CNNC Longrui Co Ltd, established in March 2015, is said to be responsible for the project. While the CNNC Longrui is separate from Plant 404, both share the same CEO.

CNNC also is negotiating with AREVA the purchase of a commercial reprocessing plant (800 tons/year). These talks have moved from establishing the technical specifications for the plant to the stage of commercial negotiations. CNNC Ruineng Co Ltd, established in November 2011, would be responsible for the 800 tonnes/year plant. Unlike the 200 tonnes/year demonstration plant located at remote inland area, the 800 tonnes/year plant could be sited at the east coastal area. According to another report, in July 2015 CNNC Ruineng started working on a preliminary evaluation of the seismic safety at two pre-selected coastal sites for the proposed plant with a spent fuel storage capacity of 6000 tonnes and reprocessing of 800 tonnes/year. The evaluation work is planned to be finished by 30 September 2015.