Frank von Hippel and S├ębastien Philippe

A July 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Naval Reactors Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel (PDF), sketches out a $1 billion, 15-year plan to develop, test and build a laboratory-scale line for production of high-density low-enriched uranium that could replace the highly enriched uranium currently used as fuel in U.S. naval reactors.

The report was requested by Congress in 2015 and follows on from the Office of Naval Reactors January 2014 Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores (PDF), which concluded 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."

The report outlines an LEU naval fuel system development project that would involve "a laboratory scale manufacturing approach, and test data needed to engineer a reactor core design... with small fuel specimens to (1) establish basic manufacturing processes and (2) test irradiated fuel performance and properties." The proposed LEU fuel would be enriched to 19.75% U-235, in contrast to the existing HEU fuel that is enriched to over 90% and was produced originally for use in nuclear weapons.

The conceptual LEU fuel R&D plan would be launched in fiscal year 2018, which begins in October 2017. The effort is estimated to require 15 years and cost about $1 billion. The proposed budget level would be about 5% of the Office of Naval Reactors currently proposed budget for fiscal years 2018-21.

This report must now be critically examined to inform the public and Congress in taking its decision whether to support the program. This summer (2016), the JASON group of technical consultants carried out a classified review of the Office of Naval Reactors NR's proposed LEU fuel development program. It is important that an unclassified summary be made public.

LEU Fuel Development

In the preface of the new report, Director of Naval Reactors, Admiral James Caldwell, observes that the proposed R&D plan has "the potential to deliver a fuel that might enable an aircraft carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040's... The fuel is unlikely to enable converting current life-of-ship submarine reactors to LEU." [emphasis added].

This leaves open the possibility that the new fuel could provide life-of-ship cores in redesigned submarine reactors. For the current submarine reactors, shifting from HEU to the new LEU fuel would require mid-life refueling, a complex and time consuming operation due to the exclusion of refueling hatches in U.S. nuclear submarines. France, which has been operating LEU fueled reactors for over 30 years, is now moving to LEU fuel that is less than 6% enriched (produced in a civilian facility), has refueling hatches in its submarines and refuels them during standard overhaul maintenance periods every ten years.

The Office of Naval Reactors report accepts that a lifetime core could be made out of the new fuel but suggests that such a core would have to be larger than current cores. It believes that current aircraft carrier reactors could accommodate the larger cores that would allow them to continue to have only one refueling at midlife but that current submarine reactors could not accommodate LEU cores large enough to avoid midlife refueling. The report argues further that a larger submarine reactor core would require a larger submarine. This assertion must be questioned since the cores are very small in comparison to the submarines: the hull diameter of the smallest U.S. nuclear submarines, the Virginia-class, is about 10 meters, while the cavity height of the M-140 cask that the Navy uses to ship spent submarine fuel is only about one meter.

LEU Fuel Deployment

If the initial 15-year program of fuel development is successful, the report provides estimates of the additional costs that would be associated with deployment. Deployment is projected to require at least an additional 10 years and cost several billion dollars. The projected costs of deployment include:

  • $600 million for a fuel production line;
  • "Several billion dollars" for a land-based reactor for testing a prototype core; and
  • $1.5-2.4 billion for the first two cores to fuel the two reactors of a Ford-class aircraft carrier reactor. (Of this cost, $530 million is estimated to be in excess to the cost of HEU cores.)

These requirements and cost estimates should be critically examined.

The new report states that a "fuel development effort, such as this LEU work, is what builds, hones, and sustains [the Office of Naval Reactors' fuel development] expertise" between major reactor development efforts. It is important to the willingness of Congress to support the LEU fuel development program that the Office of Naval Reactors not attribute an undue share of the cost of refurbishing and upgrading its fuel development infrastructure to the LEU fuel development program.

For example, it is not clear why LEU fuel would require a several-billion-dollar new prototype reactor. The Office of Naval Reactors already has a prototype reactor at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory's Kesselring Site in West Milton, NY. It is currently being refueled to test fuel for the next class of U.S. ballistic missile submarines. Could it be used to test the new LEU fuel after that? The prototype reactor is too small to test a full aircraft carrier core but this need not be a constraint. The fuel for the Nimitz-class carriers was tested in a prototype reactor that was able to accommodate only one quarter of a Nimitz core. In any case, given the advanced state of computer simulations, prototypes of whole cores are becoming less necessary. Also, it is not obvious why an entirely new fuel production line should be required unless the new fuel design is a complete departure from that of the current fuel.

Benefits

According to the new Office of Naval Reactors report, "Development of an advanced naval fuel that uses LEU would demonstrate United States leadership toward reducing HEU and achieving nuclear non-proliferation goals." It is important to be clear that by itself LEU fuel development will not yield any reduction of HEU use or progress towards non-proliferation goals. That will require LEU fuel use. If the Navy's fuel fabrication facilities were shifted over completely to LEU, the report estimates a savings in security costs of about $30 million per year.

Rosatom is planning to shut down and decommission the Chemical-Metallurgical Plant (KhMZ) of the Seversk Chemical Combine (SKhK, formerly Tomsk-7). According to the report, the plant, also known as "M" Plant or Object 25, was established in 1961 to produce uranium and plutonium components for nuclear weapons. Recently, KhMZ was involved in "[component] dismantlement activities and conversion of weapon-origin HEU into U3O8."

The Radiochemical Plant (RKhZ) at Seversk that was reprocessing fuel of plutonium production reactors, was decommissioned in 2014.

According to various press reports (FT, NYT), people in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province in China took to the streets to protest the plans to build a large reprocessing facility near the city. The city, located in a coastal area north of Shanghai, has been named at one of possible sites for the large spent fuel reprocessing facility built by the French company Areva. Although negotiations between Areva and its partner, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), have not been completed yet - the parties signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2015 - it appears that CNNC began work on selecting the site for the plant. The protests forced the local administration to announce the suspension of this work. A statement released by the city government on August 10 said that "The government has decided to suspend preliminary work on site selection for the nuclear recycling project."

There has been a significant change in the Chinese public's attitudes towards nuclear facilities after the Fukushima accident. Indeed, two surveys from the very area that has been rocked by protests over the proposed reprocessing plant--Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province--conducted in August 2008 and March-April 2011 found a dramatic decline in support for nuclear power. The polls offered various propositions to residents living near the Tianwan nuclear power plant in Lianyungang, the closest nuclear plant to Fukushima, and recorded their responses. The percentage of respondents who agreed with the proposition "Nuclear power should be used in our country" went down from 68 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2011 and the fraction that agreed with the proposition "We should quickly increase the number of nuclear power stations in China" declined from 40 percent to 17 percent. The percentage of people who agreed with "I strongly welcome construction of a nuclear power station in my dwelling city, such as Lianyungang" declined from 23 percent to 8 percent, whereas those who were neutral came down from 64 percent to 38 percent. In contrast, the fraction of opponents increased from 13 percent to 54 percent. The surveys also found that perceived benefits of nuclear power and public trust in government had decreased significantly, whereas knowledge about nuclear power increased significantly.

It is also worth noting that a project to build a reprocessing facility inland, in Gansu province, have not met serious objections of the local population.

By M.V. Ramana

India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) has been delayed again, perhaps until mid-2017. According to an official statement presented in the Parliament of India on 28 July 2016, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is now expected to reach "first criticality by March 2017".

However, even this date is uncertain and an unnamed source within India's Department of Atomic Energy told The Hindu, a leading newspaper in India, that "reaching first criticality might take 'a couple of more months from March 2017'".

The PFBR, whose construction started in 2004 and which was originally expected to become critical in 2010, has been delayed repeatedly. In early 2015, according to P. Chellapandi, the chairman and managing director of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (BHAVINI), which is building the reactor, the PFBR was expected to attain criticality by either June or July 2015 and begin producing power by September 2015, with commercial operation by the last quarter of 2016.

According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the PFBR is currently among the reactors in the world that have the dubious distinction of being "under construction" for the longest periods of time.

An important reason for the delay in the completion of the PFBR has likely been problems in the production of Mixed Oxide Fuel elements for the core of the PFBR. According to the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, as of October 2015, only: "90% fuel pins for the core has been fabricated". The PFBR core "consists of 181 fuel subassemblies" (85 with 21% PuO2 content and 96 with 28% PuO2 content) and each fuel subassembly is made up of 217 pins; each pin has a "1000 mm column of MOX" and an upper and a lower column of depleted uranium.

U.S. Department of Energy submitted a license application (XSNM3776) to export 7.2 kg of HEU to France, where it will be used to manufacture targets used in Mo-99 production. The application requests a license to export "6.7 kg uranium-235 contained in maximum of 7.2 kg uranium, enriched to maximum 93.35%, in the form of broken metal." The material will be shipped to the Areva plant in Romans. The targets produced there will be irradiated in the following reactors: BR-2 (Belgium), HFR Petten (The Netherlands), LVR-15 (Czech Republic), and Maria (Poland). Institute for Radioelements (IRE) in Belgium, where the targets will be reprocessed, is listed as the ultimate destination of the material.

A similar license (XSNM3756), for export of 7.8 kg of HEU, was granted by NRC in February 2015.

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.