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

Switzerland submitted its declaration of civilian plutonium stock as of the end of 2013 - INFCIRC/549/Add.4/18. According to the document, as of December 31, 2013 Switzerland had less than 50 kg of separated plutonium, which is described as "held elsewhere." This has not changed since the 2012 Swiss declaration. The amount of plutonium in spent fuel has increased in 2013 - in the end of 2013 Switzerland reported having 14,000 kg at reactor sites and 4,000 kg "held elsewhere". The numbers in 2012 were 13 tonnes and 4 tonnes respectively. Also, in 2013 Switzerland reported no plutonium in spent fuel sent to reprocessing to other countries. In 2012 it reported 1,000 kg of plutonium in this category.

By Frank von Hippel

In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Naval Reactors (ONR) submitted to Congress a Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores (PDF).

The contrast to its 1995 Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion, was striking. The 1995 report rejected LEU fuel brusquely: "The use of LEU for cores in U.S. nuclear powered warships offers no technical advantage to the Navy, provides no significant non-proliferation advantage, and is detrimental from environmental and cost perspectives." It argued that the only alternatives to using weapon-grade uranium fuel in U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier reactors would be to either abandon the lifetime cores that the U.S. and U.K. were on the verge of achieving or to build reactor cores with three times larger volume, which would increase the U.S. Navy's costs by about a billion dollars a year.

The new report opens the door a crack:

"recent work has shown that the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that could increase uranium loading beyond what is practical today while meeting the rigorous performance requirements for naval reactors. Success is not assured, but an advanced fuel system might enable either a higher energy naval core using HEU fuel, or allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs." [emphasis added]

The report hastened to add, however, that "Advanced fuel system development would be a long-term effort that must start well in advance of a ship application." In a briefing to Congressional staff, ONR officials talked about a 10 to 15 year program costing roughly a billion dollars.

The report made clear that part of the motivation of ONR for seeking funding to pursue this research and development was that it soon would have much less to do after a busy period of designing a new generation of reactor cores. The Virginia-class attack submarine is in production and plans are to continue its production for another 30 years. According to the Department of Energy's budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2015, the design of the reactors for the next-generation Ford-class aircraft carrier is 99% complete and the design of the reactor for the next U.S. ballistic missile submarine is progressing rapidly: currently 25% complete and projected to be 74% complete in five years.

Therefore, even if the U.S. decides that it can shift to LEU fuel as France already has, the actual construction of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines or ships with LEU cores may be decades in the future.

The implications of a U.S. commitment to shift to LEU fuel for its next naval reactor design would be significant, however.

The 53 heads of state who who attended the recent Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague agreed to the following: "We encourage States to continue to minimise the use of HEU through the conversion of reactor fuel from HEU to LEU, where technically and economically feasible, and in this regard welcome cooperation on technologies facilitating such conversion."

The heads of state who agreed to this statement included those of the four countries that currently use HEU for naval reactor fuel: the U.S., Russia, U.K. and India.

If the U.S. shifted, the U.K. would do so as well, since it depends upon U.S. naval reactor design expertise. That would leave Russia and India as the only countries with naval reactors using HEU fuel. They could shift more easily than the U.S. or U.K., however, since they are believed to use HEU enriched to less than 90 percent and design their naval reactors to be refueled. Russia already has designed the reactor for its next-generation nuclear-powered icebreaker to be LEU-fueled. The transition to low enriched uranium in naval cores in the United States has long been advocated as part of a strategy of minimizing HEU use worldwide.

Moving future naval propulsion reactors from HEU to LEU fuel would eliminate the processing into fuel of an average of over 3 tons of HEU -- about 100 weapon equivalents -- each year and would make it unnecessary to produce new HEU for naval reactors when the current stockpiles are exhausted. It would make it possible to remove these stockpiles as a potential obstacle to deeper cuts in the world's nuclear weapon stockpiles. In 2006, the U.S. assigned to a naval reserve about 150 tons of weapon-grade uranium being recovered from excess Cold War warheads. That is enough for 6,000 nuclear warheads. Such a stockpile could cast a long shadow if the U.S. and Russia, were, for example, to consider seriously reducing their nuclear-weapon stockpiles to 1,000 warheads each.

With support of the U.S. GTRI program, Kazakhstan is working on conversion of the IVG.1M research reactors at the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Kurchatov. According to IPFM information, LEU fuel for the reactor, manufactured by Luch enterprise in Russia, has been delivered to the reactor site and is being prepared for tests in the reactor.

Kazakhstan is already converting its VVR-K reactor at Institute of Nuclear Physics, Almaty to LEU. Conversion of the IGR pulsed reactor in Kurchatov is being considered as well, but it is unclear if it would be possible to produce suitable LEU fuel.

The United States finally submitted to IAEA the INFCIRC/549 declaration of its civilian plutonium stock. The document was published by the IAEA on April 2, 2014 as INFCIRC/549/Add.6/16. According to IAEA, the United States submitted its declaration to the Agency on March 14, 2014, much later than usual.

According to the declaration, as of 31 December 2012 the United States had 44.4 tonnes of separated plutonium described as "held elsewhere", 4.6 tonnes - in unirradiated MOX fuel, and less than 0.05 tonnes - held in the fuel fabrication process. In December 2011 these numbers were 44.7, 4.6, and 0.05 tonnes respectively.

The declaration contains the following note:

Lines 3 [4.6] and 4 [44.4] together list 49.0 metric tons of separated plutonium that has been declared as excess to national security needs. This, in addition to 7.8 metric tons of the plutonium included on lines 1 [plutonium contained in spent fuel at civil reactor sites] and 3 [plutonium contained in spent fuel held elsewhere] of Annex C, 4.5 metric tons that has been disposed to waste after termination of safeguards, and 0.2 metric tons lost to radioactive decay (both after September 1994), constitute the total of 61.5 metric tons of government owned plutonium that the United States has declared as excess to national security needs. The change in Line 4 includes the (rounded) cumulative allowance for decay and an additional 0.1 metric tons disposed to waste during 2012.
The total amount of plutonium declared excess - 61.5 tonnes - has not changed since the 2011 declaration. However, the breakdown of this number is now different. The amount of plutonium disposed of as waste increased from 4.4 to 4.5 tonnes. Also, since 1994 0.2 tonnes was lost to radioactive decay. This decay and disposal of plutonium as waste are responsible for the decrease of the amount of separated plutonium from 44.7 to 44.4 tonnes.

The actual amount of separated plutonium that is excess to security needs is therefore 56.8 tonnes - 61.5 tonnes minus 0.2 tonnes lost to decay since 1994 and 4.5 tonnes disposed as waste and lost to decay in 2012.

Representatives of Areva and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) signed an agreement "related to the pursuit of the used fuel treatment and recycling facility project, the subject of a letter of intention signed in April 2013." In the April 2013 letter of intention France and China agreed to start a project that will include construction of a reprocessing facility and a MOX fuel fabrication plant in China. According to the press release, "the industrial negotiations for this project are advancing" and "the negotiations will be entering the commercial phase."

The United States and Japan announced today that they will remove all plutonium and HEU from the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment. The agreement to remove the plutonium was first made public in January 2014. The agreement announced today includes removal of HEU as well. According to the U.S. official statement:

[Plutonium and HEU], once securely transported to the United States, will be sent to a secure facility and fully converted into less sensitive forms. The plutonium will be prepared for final disposition. The HEU will be downblended to low enriched uranium (LEU) and utilized for civilian purposes.

The Fast Critical Assembly uses 331 kg of plutonium (see the January 27, 2014 post). According to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, this material was supplied by three states - the United Kingdom (236 kg), the United States (93 kg) and France (2 kg). The total amount of fissile plutonium in that material is 293 kg.

By David Lowry and Johan Swahn

The Swedish government is set to approve the transfer of ownership of 834 kg of separated plutonium from the Swedish nuclear power company OKG to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, NDA. OKG has applied to the government for permission for the transfer. On March 14 the regulator, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, announced that it supported the transaction in a consultation brief to the government.

The main part of the plutonium, 833 kg, comes from reprocessing of 140 tonnes of spent fuel from the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant under a contract from 1969. The spent fuel was sent to Sellafield between 1975 and 1982. It was not reprocessed until 1997 and the plutonium was to be returned to Sweden as MOX fuel to be used in the Oskarshamn 2 and 3 nuclear power plants.

The plutonium to be transferred also includes 1.2 kg of plutonium from 4.8 tonnes of spent fuel from the Swedish R-1 research reactor exported to Sellafield in 2007. The R-1 fuel was in metallic form and not considered suitable for final disposal using the Swedish KBS method for spent fuel disposition.

The Swedish MOX fuel was not produced before the shutdown of the dysfunctional Sellafield MOX Plant, SMP, in 2011. In its brief the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority considers four possible ways of managing the Swedish plutonium; waiting for a new MOX production facility to be built in the UK; the production of MOX in a third country; the return of the plutonium in separated form to Sweden; and the transfer of ownership of the plutonium to the UK. The regulator considers that the transfer of ownership to the UK is the best option as it avoids transportation of separated plutonium or MOX-fuel to Sweden.

Since 2010 the UK Government has been working on policies to manage foreign plutonium and foreign spent fuel that may never be reprocessed in Sellafield. In a policy statement in a consultation response in December 2011 the UK government stated:

In the consultation paper we said that the UK would be open to consider the merits of taking over ownership of that foreign plutonium and to manage it with existing UK plutonium; any such change in ownership would need to be in compliance with inter-governmental agreements and subject to conclusion of acceptable commercial arrangements. For clarity, this does not include waste products from reprocessing which would be returned to the original owner of the fuel.

The UK Government has concluded that overseas owners of plutonium stored in the UK could, subject to commercial terms that are acceptable to the UK Government, have that plutonium managed in line with this policy. In addition, subject to compliance with inter-governmental agreements and acceptable commercial arrangements, the UK is prepared to take ownership of overseas plutonium stored in the UK after which it would be treated in line with this policy.

For each instance where there is a proposal for the UK to take title to overseas plutonium, the NDA will be required to demonstrate to the UK Government that there is an overall benefit to the UK in doing so.

Since then several transactions have been made between NDA and foreign owners of plutonium in the UK to transfer ownership of plutonium. The planned Swedish transfer is one of the larger. Mainly of historical interest, the OKG reprocessing contract did not specify that the reprocessing waste be returned to Sweden.

The decision to accept the transfer of the Swedish plutonium may still prove politically contentious in the UK, because it effectively reverses a policy adopted by the UK's then Labour government in the mid-1970s, to return all radioactive products from reprocessing.

Following a political row arising from revelations in the Observer newspaper in April 1975, Mr. Benn,the UK minister responsible for the so-called return-to-sender policy, made this statement on March 12, 1976, to the UK Parliament setting out the change of policy:

The Government have given full consideration to the safety and environmental implications of accepting more work of this kind, taking account particularly of the views which have been expressed in the recent extensive public discussion of the question. They have decided that the company may, subject to the negotiation of satisfactory terms, take on further work on the basis that the contracts will include terms to ensure that the company will have the option to return residual radioactive waste and will not be obliged to retain it in this country for long-term storage; and that suitable understandings in support of the return option are reached between the United Kingdom Government and the Government of the country concerned.
As a result of the decision to shut the Thorp reprocessing plant in Sellafield in 2018 the UK Government is also in the process of consulting on the possibility to take over ownership of about 30 tonnes of spent fuel that is under contract for reprocessing in the UK but that for various reasons may not be reprocessed before Thorp is to be shut down.

The FY2015 budget proposal released by the U.S. administration, will effectively terminate the construction of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) in Savannah River:

Following a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the Budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina into cold-standby. NNSA is evaluating alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost effectively. The Administration remains committed to the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, and will work with its Russian partners to achieve the goals of the agreement in a mutually beneficial manner.
Earlier, the Department of Energy estimated that construction of the facility would cost about $10 billion and the total cost of the plutonium disposition program via MOX route could reach $34 billion. About $3.9 billion has been spent so far and the facility is reported to be about 60 percent complete. The press quoted Anne Harrington, the deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, as saying that
"What we mean by (cold standby) is that we would perform activities associated with protecting the facility and equipment from elements and ensuring they are maintained. ... We will protect the investment should the project be restarted or used for something different."
It is unlikely, however, that the MOX project will resume. The process of evaluating alternative routes could take about 12-18 months.

Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) notified the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intent to apply for a license to construct and operate a laser enrichment facility at Paducah. According to the GLE letter, posted at the NRC site,

The license application is associated with GLE's plans to construct and operate a new laser enrichment facility on or near the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PGDP) site. This facility, referred to as the Paducah Laser Enrichment Facility (PLEF), is anticipated to be deployed as part of an agreement between GLE and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to purchase and re-enrich certain DOE inventories of depleted UF6.
In September 2012 GLE received an NRC license "to construct and operate a uranium enrichment plant using laser technology in Wilmington, N.C." Construction of that facility, known also as a Castle Hayne plant, has not started yet.

According to a Public Integrity report, a study by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that the construction cost of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) could be as high as $10 billion - almost 20% higher than the previous estimate of $7.7 billion. The total cost of the program to dispose 34 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium could be as high as $34 billion. Part of the increase is due to the fact that the utilities, who have been reluctant to use MOX fuel in their reactors, would likely ask DoE to pay a fee to do so.

In a recently issued report, "Plutonium Disposition Program: DOE Needs to Analyze the Root Causes of Cost Increases and Develop Better Cost Estimates"(GAO-14-231), the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized NNSA for failing to perform a proper assessment of the cost of the program and analyze the causes that increased its cost.