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

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.

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), released a report, "DOE Made Progress to Secure Vulnerable Nuclear Materials Worldwide, but Opportunities Exist to Improve Its Efforts," GAO-15-799 that evaluates the results of the initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, announced by President Obama in April 2009.

The key finding of the report is that

DOE exceeded its goal for removing or disposing of 1,201 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium by more than 400 kilograms, and it exceeded its goal of downblending [(i.e., mixing HEU with either depleted or natural uranium, or low-enriched uranium (LEU), to produce a new product that has a lower concentration of uranium-235) [...] 2,700 kilograms of HEU by an additional 2,200 kilograms. However, it missed its goal for providing physical protection upgrades at 43 buildings by 11 buildings and missed its goal of converting 34 foreign reactors to more proliferation-resistant LEU by 11 reactors.

The new goal set by DoE is "to remove or dispose of an additional 1,029 kilograms of fresh and spent HEU, as well as plutonium worldwide from 2014 to December 2019, and convert 27 foreign research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to LEU by the end of fiscal year 2019."

However, the report noted that "DOE and other U.S. agencies have not completed an inventory of U.S plutonium overseas," which limits U.S. ability to determine whether this material is adequately protected.

GTRI is said to have completed an inventory of U.S.-origin HEU in June 2013. According to the GAO report, GTRI has found that "more than 13,000 kilograms of U.S.-origin HEU remain worldwide, including 3,526 kilograms of unirradiated or fresh U.S.-origin HEU and 1,771 kilograms of irradiated U.S.-origin HEU eligible for return [as well as] 4,605 kilograms of U.S.-origin irradiated HEU [...] ineligible for return to the United States." It is not clear, however, why the amount of HEU in these categories does not add up to the total of 13,000 kg. Note also that these numbers are different from the ones provided in the NRC report on foreign HEU, released in May 2014, which concluded that "approximately 6,100 kg of that U.S.-supplied HEU presently remains in 20 countries." The discrepancy may reflect the fact that the NRC report did not include "HEU exported for purposes other than use as fuel or targets in [research and test reactors]."

All HEU removed from Jamaica

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced today that it has completed removal of HEU fuel from the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences at the University of West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, which operates SLOWPOKE-II nuclear reactor. NNSA worked with Jamaica and Canada to convert the reactor to LEU fuel. According to the NNSA press release, the HEU core of the reactor is now "stored at the DOE Savannah River Site, pending final disposition." The core contains approximately 1 kg of HEU.

After the removal of HEU, Jamaica became the 28th country from which all HEU has been removed (HEU has been removed from Taiwan as well). Earlier this month NNSA announced successful removal of all HEU from Switzerland.

Tom Clements, Director, Savannah Site Watch

A shipment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) spent fuel from Switzerland has been confirmed to have recently arrived in the United States.

It is believed that the shipment could mark a significant non-proliferation milestone as the cargo may have been the last U.S.-origin HEU remaining in Switzerland. According to the IPFM data and others, Switzerland has possessed less than 10 kilograms of HEU but that holding may have now been eliminated. [UPDATE: Switzerland has been moved to the list of countries cleared of HEU.]

Both the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Swiss Government have confirmed the shipment from the AGN-211-P reactor consisted of a single cask holding 13 spent fuel assembles. Neither government has commented on the possibility of this being the last HEU shipment from Switzerland.

The Swiss government confirmed, in an email message of 11 September 2015, the arrival of the spent fuel in the U.S. on 18 August and stated that "in accordance with applicable Swiss law, the shipment had been approved on 24 June 2015 by the competent Swiss authorities."

The AGN-211-P reactor, which began operation in 1959, is operated as a training and research reactor by the Department of Physics at the University of Basel.

As part of an operation conducted by the NNSA's M3 Program (formerly Global Threat Reduction Initiative, GTRI), the spent fuel arrived in the port of Charleston, South Carolina on the UK-flagged nuclear transport ship Oceanic Pintail. On arrival, the spent would have been transported directly to DOE's nearby Savannah River Site, for storage in the cooling basin of the long-shuttered L-Reactor along with other research and medical isotope reactor spent fuel.

The Oceanic Pintail, according to publicly available ship tracking information, departed from the German port of Nordenham on 30 July. The Pintail also carried low enriched uranium spent fuel from the BER II research reactor in Berlin, with 33 assembles being contained in one cask, according to NNSA. More such BER II LEU spent fuel is expected to be transported to SRS in the coming two years.

DOE has not yet finalized long-term disposal plans for the research spent fuel though reprocessing and dry cask storage are being explored. Reprocessing could occur at SRS in the 60-year-old H-Canyon, the operation of which was halted on 11 September due to violation of criticality controls while preparing plutonium oxide.

UPDATE 09/16/15: In a press-release issued today, NNSA confirmed that the shipment was indeed the last HEU in Switzerland and that the country is now HEU free. Switzerland became the 27th country that was cleared of HEU (plus Taiwan for the total of 28). According to NNSA, the shipment included "approximately 2.2 kilogram of U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium" in 13 irradiated fuel elements.

U.S. Department of Energy is shutting down the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio, with a cascade of 120 advanced AC100 centrifuges, operated by Centrus Energy Corp. (formerly USEC). The cascade began operations in March 2010.

According to a statement issued by Centrus, the new contract between the company and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is acting on behalf of DoE, reduces funding of the American Centrifuge project "by about 60% to approximately $35 million per year" and does not include funds for the AC100 cascade operation in Piketon. The new contract will continue to fund some "development activities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee."

A DoE representative was quoted as saying in an e-mail that "the Department has been evaluating the availability of existing enriched uranium supplies for tritium production, among other options, for meeting national security needs. DOE has concluded that sufficient supplies exist to extend the date by which additional enriched uranium would be needed for national security missions." However, DoE "will continue its efforts to preserve the option to deploy the AC100 centrifuge technology in the future, while using additional uranium from the inventory to provide schedule contingency for the eventual reestablishment of a domestic uranium enrichment capability."

The Director of India's Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research has announced that construction of a new fast reactor fuel reprocessing plant is to begin in two months' time at Kalpakkam in southern India. The plant is to reprocess spent fuel from the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) that has been under construction at Kalpakkam since 2004.

The reprocessing plant's cost is estimated at 96 billion Rupees (about 1.45 billion U.S. dollars at current exchange rates). It is said to have a capacity adequate to deal with "the spent fuel of PFBR and also other two fast reactors expected to come up at Kalpakkam". Based on a neutronic model of the PFBR, this would mean that it should be able to reprocess roughly 27 tons of spent fuel (both core and blanket). However, the plant has only been approved to reprocess spent fuel from the PFBR only (i.e, only one reactor) by the local Pollution Control Board.

The Fast Reactor Fuel Cycle Facility (FRFCF) has been significantly delayed and is currently planned to be commissioned towards the end of 2019. Plans for the facility have been under review by India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from as early as 2004. In September 2007, the Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission announced that a reprocessing plant to deal with the PFBR spent fuel had been planned and that its construction was to commence in 2008. The plant only received approval by the national cabinet in 2013 and, again, the Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission announced that construction was to begin the same year.

Construction of the PFBR has also been significantly delayed from its initial expected start date of September 2010. As of early this year, the reactor was to become critical in September 2015. But last month, the Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission announced that the reactor was yet to receive the necessary clearances from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

Kazakhstan and the IAEA signed an agreement that will establish an LEU bank that could be used to provide low-enriched uranium to countries that face disruption of supply. The agreement was approved by the government of Kazakhstan in April 2015 and by the IAEA in June 2015. The bank will be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk).