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

Shaun Burnie, with Mycle Schneider

Two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports published 8 May 2015 on the U.S. plutonium disposition program are a major setback for the prospects for the operation of the yet to be completed plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

On 8 May 2015, DOE released an independent review on costs for two methods of plutonium disposition. The report prepared by the Aerospace Corporation (Aerospace) provides dramatically escalating cost estimates for the MFFF project, now under construction by French company AREVA at DOE's Savannah River site, in South Carolina. The report, using the term "real year" (RY) for equivalent cost in future years, states that the MOX plant "construction cannot be completed at current (FY14) funding level (350 million RY$/year cost cap on construction/capital) and the assumed escalation rates (4% construction and capital, 2% labor)."

Aerospace cost estimates for the option of completing the MOX plant and its operation range from $27.2-29.8 billion ($2014), while the alternative to MOX option, to downblend with waste followed by disposal, was $13.1 billion ($2014). At a funding level of $375 million per year-- little more than the current funding level, but decreasing in real terms over the years with decreasing money value--the MOX plant would start operation in 2100. Both cost estimates include other costs, notably those of extracting plutonium from weapons pits, estimated as $8.4 billion and $5.5 billion respectively for the MOX and down-blend options in the 2014 DOE study that was updated in the Aerospace study.

Congress directed DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to task a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) to conduct an independent review of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group (PWG) report. In December 2014, the Aerospace Corporation was approached by DOE/NNSA to perform this review. Aerospace regularly performs technical and risk assessments of large scale complex facility developments for use for civil, commercial, and national security programs.

As stated, the Aerospace review assessed two of five options for disposal of surplus plutonium, converting the plutonium to MOX fuel for use in commercial reactors (program of record) and to downblending the plutonium with inert material and disposition in a geologic repository. The other three options, irradiation of plutonium in fast reactors, immobilization with high level waste and deep borehole disposal are to be assessed in a subsequent report.

In a reversal of its previous preferred option for 13.1 tons of contaminated plutonium, the U.S. DOE notified Congress on 8 May 2015 of its Final Environmental Impact Statement that they had no preferred alternative. This is a reversal of its previous position, when in 2012 in a draft Supplementary EIS in July 2012, the DOE stated that the "MOX Fuel Alternative is DOE's Preferred Alternative for surplus plutonium disposition." The notification to Congress, via the Federal Register, follows the DOE release of its Final Environmental Impact Assessment, as reported by IPFM on April 30th 2015.

Meanwhile, MFFF builder AREVA is fighting for survival. After filing a huge €4.8 billion ($5.5 billion) loss in 2014--this compares to less than €3.5 billion ($4 billion) capital and €8.3 billion ($9.5 billion) turnover--debt reaches €5.8 billion ($6.6 billion). This means the French 87 percent state-owned company is technically bankrupt and will not survive the year in its current form. What will happen to the construction department that is building MFFF remains unclear.

On 8 May 2015, Alexander Glaser and Zia Mian gave a presentation at the 2015 NPT Review Conference side event, sponsored by New Zealand and Canada. They presented the IPFM Global Fissile Material Report 2015, which outlines the current status of nuclear weapon and fissile material stocks and production.

The presentation slides are available in the IPFM library (PDF file).

The U.S. Department of Energy released Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (PDF file). Draft EIP was issued in 2012.

In this document DOE "describes the environmental impacts of alternatives for disposition of 13.1 metric tons (14.4 tons) of surplus plutonium for which a disposition path is not assigned, including 7.1 metric tons (7.8 tons) of plutonium from pits that were declared excess to national defense needs after publication of the 2007 NOI, and 6 metric tons (6.6 tons) of surplus non-pit plutonium. The analyses also encompass potential use of MOX fuel in reactors at the Sequoyah and Browns Ferry Nuclear Plants of TVA, and at generic reactors." The document was not intended "to reconsider DOE's previous decisions about pursuing the MOX fuel approach for 34 metric tons (37.5 tons) of weapons-grade plutonium."

In addition to a No Action Alternative, DOE considered four disposition options:

(1) Immobilization to DWPF [Defense Waste Processing Facility] Alternative - glass can-in-canister immobilization for both surplus non-pit and disassembled and converted pit plutonium and subsequent filling of the canister with high-level radioactive waste (HLW) at DWPF;

(2) MOX Fuel Alternative - fabrication of the disassembled and converted pit plutonium and much of the non-pit plutonium into MOX fuel at MFFF for use in domestic commercial nuclear power reactors to generate electricity, as well as potential disposition of the surplus non-pit plutonium that is not suitable for MFFF as contact-handled transuranic (CH-TRU) waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP);

(3) H-Canyon/HB-Line to DWPF Alternative - processing the surplus non-pit plutonium in H-Canyon/HB-Line and subsequent vitrification with HLW (in DWPF) and fabrication of the pit plutonium into MOX fuel at MFFF; and

(4) WIPP Alternative - preparing for potential disposal as CH-TRU waste at WIPP the surplus non-pit and disassembled and converted pit plutonium in H-Canyon/HB-Line and the K-Area Complex at SRS, or preparing the surplus nonpit plutonium in H-Canyon/HB-Line and the K-Area Complex at SRS and preparing the surplus disassembled and converted pit plutonium in Technical Area 55 (TA-55) facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

As a result of the assessment, DOE stated that it "has no Preferred Alternative at this time for the disposition of the 13.1 metric tons (14.4 tons) of surplus plutonium."

Tom Clements

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it will soon restart the last remaining reprocessing plant in the United States to reprocess research reactor spent fuel. DOE claims that renewed operation of a reprocessing plant at the Savannah River Site is part of a non-proliferation effort but the economic impact to the site of the program may be of higher priority.

The aging government-owned plant that DOE seeks to restart, called the H-Canyon, is located at the DOE's 800-square kilometer Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It has been operated in the past to reprocess aluminum-clad research reactor and medical isotope reactor spent fuel containing highly enriched uranium (HEU).

According to a news release dated 15 April 2015 and issued by both DOE and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the contracting company that operates the facility, the required environmental documentation has been completed and the aim with restart is to "process up to 1,000 bundles of Material Test Reactor (MTR) spent nuclear fuel and 200 cores of High Flux Isotope Reactor fuel." The now-demolished MTR was located in Idaho and the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) is still operating at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The separated HEU would be downblended to low-enriched uranium and be fabricated for use in reactors operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a utility owned by the federal government.

H-Canyon was constructed in the early 1950s and commissioned in 1955. It was a key part of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, separating HEU from fuel removed from the five now-closed defense reactors at SRS. SRS is also the site of another now-closed reprocessing plant, the F-Canyon, which was primarily used to separate 36 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium. Due to its operation over six decades, the H-Canyon has developed safety problems, most recently with degraded condition of the exhaust system in case of a seismic event. In addition, proper implementation of operating procedures has been a concern, as indicated by the failure to follow specified critically safety controls in an incident in February 2015 that caused operations to be halted.

According to comments by SRS officials at public meetings near SRS, H-Canyon employs about 800 people and has a base-line annual budget of about $150 million. Highlighting the importance of the new reprocessing campaign, SRS stated in its April 15 news release that "the spent fuel processing campaign is the current major mission for H Canyon." Overall employment is around 11,000 at SRS, where DOE and CB&I AREVA MOX Services are struggling to build a plutonium fuel (MOX) plant (see "Two new reports raise fundamental questions on Savannah River MOX plant").

Both SRS and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) receive foreign and domestic research reactor spent fuel, with SRS preferring to receive aluminum-clad fuel and stainless-steel clad fuel and TRIGA fuel primarily going to INL. According to a January 2015 Global Threat Reduction Initiative list of research reactor spent fuel imports, SRS has in recent years received spent fuel from Italy, Germany, Mexico, Canada and South Africa.

SRS currently stores about 30 MT of spent fuel in the cooling pool (basin) of the old L-Reactor, which began receiving spent fuel in 1997, comprising about 1% in weight and 30% in volume of all the DOE-owned spent fuel. INL has about 275 MT, including spent submarine fuel, all destined to be placed in dry storage.

Hanford, in the state of Washington, is repackaging the 2,130 MT of DOE spent fuel stored at the site. Both Hanford and INL operated reprocessing plants but those facilities are now permanently closed, leaving the H-Canyon as the last operational facility in the DOE complex. The only commercial reprocessing plant in the U.S. was located at West Valley, New York and operated from 1966-1972. Under U.S. law, the intact spent fuel or high-level nuclear waste streams associated with its reprocessing must go to a geologic repository.

It is unclear why DOE has not developed a uniform policy of dry storage for all its spent fuel but the short-term positive funding impact on SRS for continued operation of H-Canyon is believed to be a primary reason for this.

An SRS official revealed to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, a federal advisory panel on clean-up, in a January 2015 presentation that a "limited quantity" of SRS spent fuel would need reprocessing in order to free space in the L-Reactor basin for receipt of research reactor spent fuel from foreign and domestic reactors until 2020. The official goal for most of the remaining fuel is to place it in an "interim dry storage facility" but there are indications that SRS hopes to receive spent fuel beyond the stated date and is reluctant to actively pursue a dry cask facility.

While SRS is seeking to reprocess all of the aluminum-clad spent fuel at the site, DOE headquarters in Washington, DC has balked at approving such reprocessing due to costs and concerns about the international non-proliferation message sent by continued operation of a facility based on the PUREX process. As Savannah River National Laboratory concluded in 2011 that "fuel can be stored in L Basin, meeting general safety functions for fuel storage, for an additional 50 years and possibly beyond," there is ample time for dry cask storage to be deployed.

While missions are dwindling for H-Canyon and its eventual closure is within sight, SRS has sought new work for the facility. One project that will be paid for by the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration is the processing of impure plutonium in the HB-Line, which sits atop H-Canyon, into plutonium oxide "feedstock" for the MOX plant now under construction at the site. The HB-Line is currently closed due to an incident earlier this year and DOE and the contractor are developing a "recovery plan" to restart the facility.

As the fate of the MOX project is up in the air and the future operation of H-Canyon will be limited at best, the focus at SRS should stay on closure of 51 tanks containing about 150 million liters of high-level nuclear waste remaining from production of nuclear weapons materials.

The Union of Concerned Scientists obtained the summary of a report on MOX program that was prepared for the Department of Energy by an independent contractor, the Aerospace Corporation.

The summary indicates that the cost of the MOX program is not estimated at a minimum of $47.5 billion, which is a significant increase from the previous estimates that ranged from $25.1 billion to more than $34 billion. Moreover, as the Union of Concerned Scientists argues in its analysis, the new estimate does not include various costs associated with the program.

UPDATE 05/12/15: The redacted text of the full report is now available (PDF file).

The U.S. president submitted to Congress the "Text of a Proposed Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy" (PDF file), known as 123 Agreement.

The agreement does not require approval of the Congress and will enter into force after 90 days of "continuous session" of Congress, unless Congress passes a law that would explicitly rejecting the agreement (see CRS analysis of the requirements that was done for the U.S.-Russian agreement in 2010)

Russia has completed transfer of all weapon-grade plutonium from the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk to the Federal Fissile Material Storage Facility, which is probably the storage in Zheleznogorsk.

The plutonium stored in Seversk as plutonium oxide, is part of the about 18 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium produced after 1994 (and separated after 1997). About 10 tonnes of plutonium was stored in Seversk.

Under the 1997 U.S.-Russian agreement on plutonium production reactors, this material will not be used for weapon purposes and the United States has the right to inspect the storage facilities that contain that material. All this plutonium was transferred from Seversk by the end of 2014. In April 2015, Seversk hosted a U.S. inspection team that confirmed the removal.

Russia's nuclear operator, Rosenergoatom, considers delaying an order for two BN-1200 breeder reactors, planned earlier. The company cited the need to develop the fuel and questioned the economic feasibility of the project. At the same time, the developers insist that the capital cost of BN-1200 would be comparable to that of a light-water VVER-TOI. The decision on BN-1200 is expected in the second quarter of 2015.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has released a new research report, Alternatives to MOX: Direct-disposal Options for Stockpiles of Separated Plutonium, by Frank von Hippel and Gordon MacKerron (pdf file).

The report reviews programs in France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to dispose of large stocks of separated plutonium in nuclear power reactor mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Most of these efforts have suffered long delays and large cost increases and all have failed to reduce plutonium stockpiles. This has led some of these countries to consider alternatives.

A less costly and more effective approach may be to treat plutonium as a waste to be processed into a stable form and deeply buried. These alternative approaches include disposal with radioactive waste or spent fuel or disposal down a 3-mile (5-kilometer) deep borehole.

The report recommends that more than one direct-disposal approach be pursued. It also recommends that the countries that share the problem of plutonium disposal collaborate on exploring direct-disposal options. Finally, it recommends that the quantities of plutonium disposed by the weapon states be verified by the IAEA.

On April 9th, 2015, France formally deposited a draft fissile material cutoff treaty at the Conference on Disarmament. The draft, "Projet français de Traité interdisant la production de matières fissiles pour les armes nucléaires ou d'autres dispositifs explosifs nucléaires (FMCT)" is available from France's Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament or from the IPFM library (English pdf, French pdf)