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

Russia has officially confirmed that it is supplying HEU for the fuel of the FRM-II research reactor, operated by the Technical University Munich, Germany. The 2015 annual report of the TVEL company, a subsidiary of Rosatom that supplies nuclear fuel and enrichment services, includes the following statement (p. 88):

In 2015, the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant produced and prepared for shipment uranium metal for the Munich-II research reactor located in Germany.

The report also confirms that production of uranium for export was one of the reasons Russia reopened HEU production line at the Electrochemical plant (EKhZ) in Zelenogorsk in 2012. "Production by the EKhZ of highly enriched product for the uranium metal to be supplied to the Munich-II reactor" is listed among main developments in 2015 (p. 86 of the report).

The FRM-II in Munich, which went critical in 2004, is estimated to require about 33 kg of HEU annually to operate. It appears that FRM-II reactor was the primary user of the 300 kg of HEU that Russia supplied to Germany under an 1998 intergovernmental agreement. It cannot rely on the HEU supply from the United States, since it requires a commitment to convert the reactor to LEU. FRM-II operators appeared to have made a commitment to convert at some point but reversed it later and decided to continue to use HEU fuel. According to one estimate, made in 2012, the reactor had enough HEU to work through 2016. After that, fuel supply was uncertain.

However, in in 2013, the Technical University Munich contracted Areva to produce HEU fuel elements for FRM-II. Although the source of HEU was not disclosed at the time, by all indication the material was expected to come from Russia (which also agreed to supply 27% HEU for the initial load of France's Jules Horowitz reactor). In 2013, Russia opened an HEU production line, and in 2014 the Russian government relaxed some legal restrictions on HEU export. Now the TVEL company confirmed that Russia is indeed the supplier of HEU for the FRM-II reactor.

WNISR2016.pngThe World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016 (WNISR) was released on 13 July 2016 in Tokyo. The report provides a comprehensive overview of nuclear power plant data, including information on operation, production and construction. The WNISR assesses the status of new-build programs in current nuclear countries as well as in potential newcomer countries. The WNISR2016 edition includes again an assessment of the financial status of many of the biggest industrial players in the sector. This edition also provides a Chernobyl Status Report, 30 years after the accident that led to the contamination of a large part of Europe. The Fukushima Status Report gives an overview of the standing of onsite and offsite issues five years after the beginning of the catastrophe. The Nuclear Power vs. Renewable Energy chapter provides global comparative data on investment, capacity, and generation from nuclear, wind and solar energy. Finally, an annex to the report presents a country-by-country overview of all 31 countries operating nuclear power plants, with extended Focus sections on Belgium, China, France, Japan, and the United States.

Industrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB), the company in Brazil that controls the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, has signed a contract with Argentina's Combustibles Nuclear Argentinos SA (Conuar) to export enriched uranium. The enrichment level of the uranium to be shipped ranges from 1.9% to 3.1% of uranium-235. The purpose of the uranium is to fuel the Carem reactor, which uses uranium enriched to up to 3.1% of U-235. If the contract goes through, this would be the first time Brazil exports enriched uranium.

INB comes under the National Commission on Nuclear Energy, which is within the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry. The enrichment technology, however, belongs to the Navy, which comes under the Defense Ministry. The uranium enrichment centrifuges are built by the Navy but operated by the INB at its Nuclear Fuel Factory at Resende; INB does not have access to the technology itself. There have been disputes between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Brazil over the Agency's visual access to the centrifuges.

The CAREM reactor has been in development since the 1980s and construction of the reactor was scheduled to begin in 2001. In 2009, CAREM developers promised that the reactor was "expected to be finished by the end of 2014." According to an update from February 2016, the reactor is scheduled to achieve first criticality in the second half of 2018.

According to a license application submitted to NRC on June 28, 2016 (XSNM3774), the United States will supply to China 0.141 kg of HEU containing 0.130 kg of U-235. The application specifies that the material will be used in "thirty six (36) fission chambers containing 3.9 grams each of enriched uranium used in neutron flux monitoring systems at two reactors." The application was submitted by Thermo Fisher Scientific company, based in San Diego, CA, the recipient of the equipment is listed as Huaneng Shandong Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Company in Rongcheng, Shandong Province.

Previous HEU export license for supplying the material to China, XSNM3702, was issued in July 2012. It covered export of a similar amount of HEU - 0.1342 kg of U-235 in 0.144 kg of HEU.

An article published in the new issue of Science & Global Security, "A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Uranium Enrichment Technology," (Free PDF) by Ryan Snyder, provides a detailed analysis of the physical principles and operationalization of uranium isotope separation through laser excitation and preferential condensation repression of uranium-235 hexafluoride. The SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) system that was licensed for commercialization in the United States by General Electric, Hitachi, and Cameco as the Global Laser Enrichment project may be based on such a mechanism.

The article provides a model laser enrichment cascade able to produce enough weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (90 percent uranium-235) for at least one weapon per year, and a preliminary assessment of key associated signatures--the physical space, energy consumption and technical skills required for such a cascade--suggesting that these may be less than for an analogous centrifuge-based set-up. Lasers that could be used in such a system are described in an online supplement that also details aspects of the enrichment mechanism, associated enrichment factor (which may be significantly larger than for centrifuges) and cascade model. The results highlight the need for a formal public proliferation assessment of laser enrichment technologies such as SILEX and the Global Laser Enrichment project with access to actual design information and key operating parameters and signatures.

Christian Stoffaës, a former director of planning at Électricité de France, the French utility company, and founder of the "Cercle des ingénieurs economistes" published an op-ed article "Plutonium : le débat manqué de la transition énergétique" challenging France's long-standing policy of reprocessing spent fuel and using the recovered plutonium in MOX fuel. IPFM publishes a translation of the original article.

Plutonium: A debate missed by the energy transition

From the beginning, choices in the French nuclear enterprise have been dominated by nuclear material issues. Will this still be the case tomorrow, at a time of budgetary cuts in the nuclear sector and at EDF, when the atomic bomb is no longer a priority?

By Christian Stoffaës

After having long been protected by its monopoly, EDF is now facing serious budgetary cuts. Plutonium is very expensive so the following question should arise: what is its purpose today?

The plutonium sector (euphemistically referred to as the "fuel cycle" to avoid pronouncing the inflammatory name of an evil material filled with mystery) is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the breeder reactors renamed "fourth generation", and the MOX fuel. To understand this chain of choices, one has to go back to after the end of the Second World War and the national ambition to acquire the atomic bomb, indispensable to maintaining the status of great power. Then we must look at the periods of dispute - which I experienced from the inside, as a young mining engineer [graduating from the École des Mines], collaborator of the founding fathers Pierre Guillaumat and André Giraud, and later as director of planning at EDF.

Two possible paths

To build the bomb, it is necessary to acquire fissile materials. Two paths are possible, both complex and expensive. Enriched uranium, produced through isotopic separation: with a high fraction of 235, it is of military grade; with a low fraction, it is used as fuel to produce electricity. The plutonium path consists first in irradiating natural uranium and then separating chemically the plutonium produced (also called reprocessing). The transmutation happens in atomic piles, consequently renamed nuclear power reactors when the hierarchy of their purposes was later inverted - the production of electricity becoming the primary goal, and plutonium a side-product, a "waste."

Atomic sector vs electricity sector, who must decide?

What is the product and what is the side-product? This is the perfect dual technology, with mixed civilian and military purposes. To manage the nuclear sector, two state controlled institutions were created at the end of World War II: the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique [CEA, Atomic Energy Commission] and Électricité de France.

Since then, the question has been to know who should make the decisions related to strategic materials, when the legal texts - as well as the political balance of power - give equal legitimacy to both the atomic and electricity sectors. Much more than strategic public companies, these are two powerful social entities, two major institutions of the new post-war France. On one side: planning, investments in reconstruction, the CGT [Confederation Generale du Travail, General Confederation of Workers, one of France's major labor unions], public service, an ubiquitous presence over the whole territory, in every town, in every family; on the other: the great scientists, national independence, the Gaullists.

In the name of the strategic imperative, CEA imposed its choice; the development of gas-graphite reactors that allowed generating plutonium from natural uranium, while France still only possessed one single enrichment plant of a modest size dedicated to military applications. Yet, CEA was not chosen to operate the power plants, unlike in the USSR, for example, where it is the atomic ministry that managed the nuclear power plants and not the electricity sector.

EDF, for its part, preferred Westinghouse's pressurized-water reactors: but these had the serious problem of being American. While almost being accused of betraying the national interest, EDF made the correct technical choice, which eventually prevailed everywhere, while England failingly continued pursuing gas-graphite reactors.

The great nuclear Yalta

After the accident in Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux in 1969 [a partial meltdown of the core of the gas-graphite reactor], the dispute was resolved first by the renunciation of gas-graphite reactors (who remembers that the pioneering Fessenheim power plant was supposed to be a gas-graphite reactor?) and the appropriation (for a modest cost and an important French success) of the Westinghouse technology, frenchified by EDF and Framatome; second, when the CEA undertook the construction of the Tricastin enrichment plant and the reprocessing plant at La Hague, the successor of the Marcoule site.

In the ensuing agreement, EDF imposed the choice of its favorite reactor technology. In return, the CEA reasoning about the fuel cycle prevailed as a continuing justification for plutonium production.

In reality, at the time, we didn't really need more [plutonium] for the French nuclear forces. The atomic argument changed: the challenge then was to recycle [spent fuel] to feed the breeder reactor, a source of almost renewable energy, and to fabricate the MOX fuel, which brings nothing compared to enriched uranium. EDF accepted without complaint to pay the heavy bill for the plutonium industry, which was eventually charged to the taxpayer.

After twenty years of harmonious co-existence, which allowed the remarkable success of our nuclear program, the rivalry came back, this time for the leadership in the exports of the "French nuclear team," the Cogema-Framatome merger in 2000 creating Areva. This broke the delicate balance of forces and Areva set itself (recklessly) as a rival of its client [EDF].

Debating the plutonium sector does not weaken France's choice

Now, the authority [over the nuclear sector] has been clarified under the auspices of the richest partner. The logic of financial power, championed by EDF, has finally prevailed over the strategic objective. The atomic sector, finally recognizing that it does not have the means to meet its industrial ambition, can no longer impose its choices on EDF. Now, competitiveness and a hunt to cut unnecessary costs are required.

However, EDF, rich as it was, has now started to experience serious financial constraints. It is besieged on all sides by competition and lower electricity prices, political support for renewable energy, safety and maintenance requirements, and the cost of its international ambitions.

So, will we soon wonder about the cost-benefit of plutonium? Yesterday, a Promethean priceless material, soon an atomic waste? If the plutonium sector is a choice endured in the name of the strategic imperative and the result of an outdated competition, a transparency measure could consist in incorporating its cost in the tax associated with the public supply of electricity, similar to the cost of renewable energy (included in the CSPE [Contribution au Service Public de l'Electricite, contribution to the public supply of electricity]), and of the same order of magnitude, a few billion euros.

The economic viability of the French nuclear choice, yesterday unquestioned, is today under review in a tense financial environment.

But nuclear power is not a monolith: it is possible to discuss the plutonium sector without weakening the entire French nuclear enterprise. Surprisingly, this question has not been asked yet: it is the missed debate missed of the energy transition. Even more so when the time is long gone where Pierre Messmer, father of the nuclear power program, was declaring before the National Assembly: "There are military secrets that translate into budgetary silences"...

In an application submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Energy requested a license to export 0.6 kg of 99% HEU (XSNM3772). According to the application, "the materials are Certified Reference Materials for use as calibration and quality control standards for the JNFL [Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd.] facilities analytical laboratory measurement systems."

In March 2016, the Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK•CEN in Mol, Belgium withdrew its request for 144 kg of highly-enriched uranium to be used to manufacture the reactor's fuel. The move was explained by the change of a fuel provider. Now SCK•CEN submitted a request for an export license (XSNM3771) for the same amount of material - 134.208 kg of U-235 in 144 kg of HEU enriched to 93.20% - this time to be exported as "325 BR2 Reactor standard HEU driver fuel elements." The fuel will be shipped in increments of up to 5 kg over a period of six years. This material should be able to support operations of the reactor with HEU fuel for another decade. Indeed the HEU license application stated that the conversion of the BR-2 reactor is planned in 2026.

The last time the United States supplied a comparable amount to the BR-2 reactor was 2010, when it shipped 93.5 kg of HEU containing 87.3 kg of U-235. Smaller quantities of HEU, from 0.3 kg to 13.5 kg of HEU, were supplied in 2012-2014 as well.

Shortly before the current HEU application was submitted, SCK•CEN requested 9.3 kg of 19.80% HEU in U-Mo alloy to be supplied to its former fuel fabricator, AREVA CERCA (license XSNM3770). This suggests that SCK•CEN may be conducting some work on converting the BR-2 reactor to LEU.

The Mayak Production Association in Ozersk, Russia is preparing to launch a production line that will allow its RT-1 reprocessing plant to handle spent fuel of VVER-1000 reactors at the end of 2016. Today, the plant is reprocessing spent fuel of VVER-400 reactors as well as spent fuel of naval and research reactors. Also, in 2015 Rosatom completed a program that will allow the RT-1 plant to reprocess damaged spent fuel of RBMK reactors and plutonium production reactors. RT-1 is working on a technology that would reprocess uranium-zirconium fuel used in some icebreakers and uranium-beryllium fuel.

Earlier, Mayak reported that in 2015 it reprocessed 200 tons of spent fuel, which is almost double of its historical load of 100-130 tons of fuel annually. The nominal capacity of the plant is 400 tons. According to a Mayak representative, the plant will reach that level in the next few years.

According to the 2015 Euratom Annual Report, EU-28 countries used 10,780 kg of plutonium in MOX fuel of their nuclear reactors, bringing the cumulative total to 195,019 kg of plutonium used in MOX in 1996-2015. The quantity of MOX fuel loaded into power reactors in the EU in 2015 is a 7% decrease over the 11,603 kg used in 2014.