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

By David Lowry, with Mycle Schneider

The UK Government has announced that it has struck an agreement with German and Swedish governments to take title to plutonium arising from the reprocessing at Sellafield and management at Dounreay respectively of spent nuclear fuel from the two nations.

In a written statement to the UK Parliament on 3 July 2014 by then energy minister Michael Fallon--who has since been promoted to become Defense Secretary--it was revealed that the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has agreed to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) taking ownership of about 800 kg of material previously owned by a Swedish utility, and about 140 kg of material previously owned by a German research organization. It was reported earlier this year that Sweden was seeking to transfer to the United Kingdom of 834 kg of plutonium.

As of 31 December 2013, the UK held around 123 tons of separated civil plutonium on its territory, of which 23.4 tons is foreign owned, according to the latest published government data.

In April 2013 DECC announced taking over 750 kg of plutonium belonging to German utilities, 1,850 kg previously loaned from France, and 350 kg from Dutch firm GKN. At the same time, 650 kg of plutonium stored at Sellafield was transferred from German to Japanese ownership. A similar deal with Germany in 2012 saw the UK take ownership of four tons of plutonium.

Mr Fallon said in his statement:

"These transactions, which have been agreed by the Euratom Supply Agency, will not result in any new plutonium being brought into the UK and will not therefore increase the overall amount of plutonium in the UK. We have agreed to these transactions as they offer a cost effective and beneficial arrangement, which: removes the need to transport separated plutonium, allows the UK to gain national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK and enables an outstanding contract with a Swedish utility to be concluded.
In line with the DECC policy statement, the NDA continues to engage with other third parties regarding taking ownership of further overseas plutonium in the UK arising from overseas reprocessing contracts. As well as UK government approval, these transactions will require consent from the relevant overseas Governments and regulatory bodies, and thereafter EURATOM Supply Agency agreement, before any contracts are enacted."


In December 2011, DECC published its response to the consultation on Plutonium Management, which indicated that the UK Government's preferred option was to reuse the plutonium as MOX fuel, but that it would be open to consider alternative options if they offered better value to the UK taxpayer.

In addition, the UK Government said that overseas owners of plutonium stored in the UK could have that plutonium managed in line with UK plutonium, subject to commercial terms that are acceptable to the UK Government. 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 as a result of which it would be treated in the same way as UK-owned plutonium. The Government stated that it "considers that there are advantages to having national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK, as this gives us greater influence over how we ultimately manage it."

However, one way the UK government could manage the plutonium, is to remove at least some of it from safeguards, and provide it for any form of unsafeguarded (military) uses it wishes.

In a written Parliamentary answer on 10 July 2014, (Official Report : Column 412W) Minister Fallon assured Labour MP Paul Flynn: "There is no intention to withdraw from safeguards the plutonium recently allocated to the UK by Germany and Sweden." He explained that all civil nuclear material in the UK is subject to Euratom safeguards and the terms of the 1977 UK/Euratom/IAEA Voluntary Safeguards Agreement, including its Article 14. What he did not say was Article 14 permits the UK Government to withdraw unlimited quantities of nuclear materials from safeguards at any time.

Fallon did however add: "As part of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the Government announced that as a matter of policy future withdrawals of nuclear material from safeguards would be severely limited, and that the quantities of material involved would be orders of magnitude less than the amounts used to make nuclear weapons. "According to information provided by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), over the past decade 2004 to 2013, the UK withdrew small quantities of plutonium from safeguards on 53 occasions. According to the declarations, the material involved did not exceed gram quantities on each occasion and they were officially withdrawn from safeguards for use in instrument calibration, radiation detectors, analytical tracers or radiological shielding.

At this point in time, the question is not whether the UK intends to use foreign origin plutonium for military purposes, but rather that according to the existing tripartite agreement, the UK is free to withdraw any amount of material from safeguards any time. Once the UK has taken title to foreign plutonium, there will be no distinction between UK origin and foreign origin plutonium.

The UK has a history of withdrawing nuclear materials--mainly plutonium, enriched uranium and depleted uranium--from safeguards hundreds of times since 1978, when the tripartite voluntary safeguards agreement came into force. In the first announcement to Parliament in 1998, twenty years after the withdrawal option became activated, it was revealed that 591 withdrawals had been carried out over that period (Official Report, 29 July 1998 : Column: 358).

Information on nuclear material withdrawn from safeguards is available on the Office for Nuclear Regulation website.

By Shaun Burnie, with Mycle Schneider

On July 1st, 2014 the forty-one year old Borssele nuclear reactor in the Netherlands was reported to have generated electricity for the first time using plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel (MOX). Eight assemblies of MOX have been loaded into the 482 MW Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), with plans to load a further 12 assemblies from 2015 onwards. The reactor is licensed to operate with 40 percent MOX share of core. Until now, the Borssele reactor has operated with 121 uranium fuel assemblies amounting to 38.8 tons. Over the coming years, Borssele operators intend to load a further 36 MOX assemblies to reach its license limit.

The Netherlands for over thirty years has shipped spent fuel arising from its two power reactors, Borssele and Dodewaard to the reprocessing sites at la Hague in France and Sellafield in the UK. The MOX fuel was manufactured by French company AREVA at its Melox plant in Marcoule. In 2004, the then operator of Borssele, EPZ, announced the extension of its reprocessing contract with AREVA. While stating that it was committed to separation and use of plutonium, it was declared that, "it won't recycle its plutonium in Borssele as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel "because our plant is too small" ("Dutch utility announces renewal of reprocessing with Cogema", Ann MacLachlan, Nuclear Fuel, March 15th, 2004).

French state utility Électricité de France (EDF) has taken title to previous quantities of plutonium separated from Dutch spent fuel in La Hague. Dutch utilities have paid EDF for keeping the plutonium as plutonium has a zero book- and a negative market-value. The decision to use MOX in one of the oldest operating reactors in the world is thus a noteworthy strategic change from earlier policy. This is all the more remarkable considering the fact that spent MOX fuel will certainly not be reprocessed anymore and the Netherlands will have to deal with a category of spent fuel that either needs over 100 years additional cooling prior to final disposal or several times larger storage volume in the disposal site.

The license approving MOX fuel use in Borssele is based upon a safety case prepared not by Dutch authorities but by Gesellschaft für Anlagen-und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS). As the GRS states,

"Since the Netherlands operate only one nuclear power plant, they do not have their own TSO. GRS fulfils the role of a Technical Safety Organisation in Germany. As it has the technical competence required, GRS is now also assuming to a growing extent the role of TSO for the Netherlands... One of the tasks involved in the scientific and technical support was e.g. the assessment of the use of so-called MOX fuel assemblies at Borssele."

India has ratified an Additional Protocol (AP) to its safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2006, India had committed to negotiate an AP with the IAEA as part of the US-India nuclear deal.

The Model Additional Protocol (INFCIRC/540) was developed in the 1990s to strengthen the safeguards system in non-nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its main goal is to expand the range of information about its peaceful nuclear activities that a state reports to the IAEA. As of May 2014, 123 countries had an AP in force, including all five NPT nuclear-weapon states.

While non-weapon states subscribe to the original Model Additional Protocol, the NPT nuclear weapon states have negotiated their own AP agreements with the IAEA, which differ widely from each other in reporting obligations and in the degree of access offered to the IAEA for inspections and all are far more restrictive than the Model Additional Protocol. India has accepted even fewer obligations under its AP agreement, committing only to report details about exports to non-weapon states of source materials, uranium and thorium, when they exceed 10 tons per year and 20 tons per year respectively. This undertaking is also found in the APs of other states, but in India's case it seems to be the only new obligation it has accepted. For comparison, the Model Protocol has 30 specific reporting obligations on the "provision of information." As detailed below, a number of facilities with military significance are not included in the scope of the AP.

Concerns about India's AP agreement were made public courtesy of Wikileaks, with a 2009 cable from Ambassador Gregory L. Schulte (then U.S. Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations in Vienna), reporting that India's draft AP text "does not even go as far as the APs for Russia and China, the weakest among NWS, and is viewed in the Safeguards Department and the Office of the Legal Advisor as setting a bad precedent for not only Pakistan, but Brazil".

In a further development, India has announced it will put two additional pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) under IAEA safeguards by the end of 2014. When the process is completed, India will have a total of ten PHWRs under safeguards, eight of which were offered for safeguards after the Nuclear Suppliers Group waived its restrictions on India in 2008, and will have fulfilled another commitment made as part of the US-India nuclear deal.

A significant proportion of India's nuclear complex, including PHWRs, will remain outside IAEA safeguards, however, and could have a military role. This was made evident in a 2006 exchange between Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar and Pallava Bagla, a science journalist:

Bagla: "Is your strategic need for plutonium not met by CIRUS and Dhruva? Do you need additional capacity from civilian reactors?"

Kakodkar: "Yes, very clearly. Not from civilian reactors, but from power reactors."

India's unsafeguarded nuclear complex will include eight PHWRs: Tarapur III & IV, Madras I & II, and Kaiga I--IV. Together, these unsafeguarded reactors have 2350 MW of electricity generation capacity and could produce about 1250 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium every year.

India also will not accept safeguards on the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) and the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), both located at Kalpakkam. The former could produce up to 140 kg of weapon-grade plutonium each year, assuming 75% capacity factor.Facilities associated with the nuclear submarine propulsion program would not be offered for safeguards. Reprocessing and enrichment facilities also are to remain outside safeguards - including existing facilities and the new reprocessing and enrichment plants India is now building.

The two PHWRs to go under safeguards later in 2014 are Narora I & II, sited near New Delhi. In 2009 and 2010, India offered Kakrapar I & II and Rajasthan III--VI reactors for safeguards (see table below). In addition, six imported reactors (Tarapur I and II, Rajasthan I and II, and Koodankulam I and II) are safeguarded.

India's PHWRs and their IAEA safeguard status

Satellite imagery from 2013 suggests that Pakistan has started operating its third plutonium production reactor at the Khushab site. A fourth reactor appears to be still under construction.

Work on the Khushab-III reactor started in 2005 or 2006. Imagery from March 2013 and from December 2013 shows water vapor rising from some of its cooling towers suggesting the reactor was operating. If Khushab-III began operating in early 2013, the first batch of its spent fuel could have been taken out already, cooled and become available to be reprocessed in 2014 or possibly 2015. For more on reprocessing in Pakistan, see chapter 10 in Global Fissile Material Report 2010.

Work on the Khushab-I plutonium production reactor started in 1986-87 and it is believed the reactor came on-line in 1998. Construction of the second production reactor (Khushab-II) appears to have started in 2001-2002 and the reactor started operation in late 2009 or early 2010.

Work on the fourth reactor may have started in 2011, and its footprint seems similar to Khushab-II and III. Khushab-IV may be perhaps a year away from completion since the cooling towers had not been completed as of the end of 2013. ISIS has published a more detailed analysis of construction as of the end of 2013 of Khushab-IV.

The three operating reactors are believed to have a power of 40-50 MWt and to be natural-uranium-fueled and heavy-water-moderated. Operating at 50% capacity each of them could produce about 5.7-7.1 kg of weapon-grade plutonium per year, and operating at 80% capacity each of them would produce about 9-11.5 kg of plutonium per year (see Global Fissile Material Report 2010).

As of the end of 2013, IPFM estimates that Pakistan may have accumulated on the order of 170 kg of plutonium, from its Khushab-I and Khushab-II reactors. This would be sufficient for roughly 35-40 nuclear warheads, assuming 4-5 kg of plutonium per warhead

Google Earth imagery from March 2013: Khushab-III is the reactor at the top of the image, Khushab-II is the reactor at the bottom. The image shows vapor from the cooling towers associated with Khushab-II and Khushab-III suggesting both reactors were operating. The II/III designation is determined by the order in they were built. They can be distinguished by the slight difference in the layout of their respective cooling towers.
Khushab-III Mar 2013.png

Subsequent imagery from 9 December 2013 again shows both Khushab-III (top) and Khushab-II (bottom) seemed to be operating.
Khushab-III Dec 2013.png

Imagery from December 2013 showed that Khushab-I also seemed to be operating.
Khushab-I Dec 2013.png

The BN-800 fast neutron reactor reached criticality. The reactor is built at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant in Zarechny, Russia.

The reactor is expected to achieve full power in 2015. It currently operates with a mixed core - about 75% of the fuel assemblies contain HEU and the rest is MOX fuel.

Analysis of the public records of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and information submitted to IAEA shows that in 1999-2013, Japan has received a cumulative 4,409 kg of plutonium in MOX fuel (this does not include a 255 kg shipment from the United Kingdom in 1999, which was sent back in 2002). Of this amount, 1,888 kg has been irradiated in reactors and estimated 2,520 kg remain unirradiated in storage at reactor sites. These numbers reflect the fact that MOX with 640 kg of plutonium that was loaded in the Genkai #3 reactor in March 8-12 2011 has never been irradiated and therefore counted as part of the 2,520 kg of fresh MOX. The information submitted by the Japanese government to IAEA in 2012 and 2013 did not properly account for these 640 kg of plutonium. (See also the 2010 overview of Japan's MOX program.)

The first reactor that accepted MOX fuel was Genkai-3 in November 2009. It was joined by Ikata-3 in March 2010, Fukushima 1-3 in September 2010, and Takahama-3 in December 2010. In March 2011 Genkai-3 accepted a second load of MOX fuel assemblies (which were unloaded from the reactor unirradiated in March 2013).

In addition to the reactors that already use MOX, fresh fuel is stored at Kashiwazaki Kariwa, Hamaoka, and Takahama stations.

For details, download the pdf file with the summary of the MOX fuel status in Japan.

By David Lowry with Mycle Schneider

Officials have been unable to control costs at the multibillion-dollar MOX (mixed-oxide) nuclear fuel production project at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Caroline in the United States according to a new internal U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) audit released in May 2014.

The audit recalls that a March 2012 construction project review conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had already concluded that "the MOX Facility had a very low probability of being completed according to the approved baseline." The 2014 audit concluded: "Despite project expenditures of about $4 billion and a proposal to place the MOX Facility construction project into cold standby status in FY 2015, we remain concerned with the project management issues observed during the audit." A letter dated May 22, 2014, by Gregory H. Friedman, DOE Inspector General to Energy Secretary Moniz, accompanying the audit, states:

The Department formally approved a project baseline in April 2007, and started construction on the MOX Facility in August 2007. At that time, the MOX Facility project had an estimated total project cost of $4.8 billion and a scheduled completion date of September 2016. Through October 2013, about $4 billion had been spent on the MOX Facility project and latest available project estimates show that the project was about 60 percent complete. However, design work is still underway in a number of areas including software, instrumentation and control systems, as well as fire suppression and various mechanical systems.
The audit makes it clear that the NNSA and MOX Services have been largely unsuccessful in controlling the cost and schedule for the MFFF. The NNSA directed MOX Services to develop a baseline change proposal with updated project completion, cost and schedule projections, but under the revised baseline, it was estimated by DOE in its own budget justification for FY2014 that total project costs would grow to about $7.78 billion and that completion would slip to November 2019, representing cost growth of about $2.9 billion and project schedule slippage of over three years. The NNSA had estimated in 2002 that MFFF would cost about $1 billion to design and build.

The audit establishes that:

The anticipated cost and time required to complete the MOX Facility were significantly underestimated due to a number of factors. This included most prominently, the Department's 2007 approval of a project baseline that was developed from an immature design, understating the level of effort to install various construction commodity items, and high personnel turnover rates. Prior to approval, the USDOE's own independent review of the project baseline found that the design review of the MOX Facility was incomplete.
An Associated Press report commented that criticism has "swirled around the project, which has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. MOX Services has said negotiations are underway with several utility companies interested in buying the fuel, but none have officially signed on."

Japan misreported some of its plutonium in two recent INFCIRC/549 declarations that described the status of its civilian plutonium stock as of 31 December 2011 and 31 December 2012.

The declarations, that draw on the annual Japan Atomic Energy Commission reports "The Current Situation of Plutonium Management in Japan" reported that Japan had 4.5 tonnes of plutonium in unirradiated MOX fuel. According to the Current Situation report, this number included 959 kg of fresh MOX fuel at power plants. This number, however, did not take into account the 640 kg of fresh MOX fuel that was loaded in Genkai #3 reactor on March 9-12, 2011. Since the reactor never went operational, the fuel was still unirradiated, but was not accounted for in any of the categories of the Current Situation report (or INFCIRC/549). It was removed from the reactor in March 2013 and may be again reported in Japan's 2013 INFCIRC/549 declaration.

The discrepancy was reported by Masafumi Takubo, a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, who reported it at Kakujoho, a nuclear information website.

Russia submitted its annual declaration that contains data on its holdings of civilian plutonium - INFCIRC/549/Add.9/15. According to the declaration, as of the end of 2012 Russia had 50.7 tonnes of unirradiated separated plutonium, 1.2 tonnes more than was declared in 2011.

Of this amount, 49,200 kg is stored at the reprocessing plant, an increase of 1,100 kg over the 2011 amount. Other reported amounts of separated plutonium are: 300 kg is in unirradiated MOX fuel held at reactor sites and elsewhere, and 1,200 kg is "held elsewhere" (an increase over 1,100 kg in 2011). Of the total amount of 50.7 tonnes, 0.3 kg of plutonium belongs to "foreign bodies". Also, Russia owns 0.6 kg of plutonium that is "held in locations in other countries". This amount is not included in the total.

In addition, Russia has 77,500 kg of plutonium in spent fuel that is stored at reactor sites, 4,500 kg - in spent fuel that is awaiting reprocessing at the reprocessing plant, and 53,500 kg - in spent fuel "held elsewhere". As of end of 2011, these numbers were 75,500 kg, 4,000 kg, and 51,500 kg respectively. Overall, Russia had 135.5 tonnes of plutonium still in spent fuel as of December 31, 2012, up 4.5 tonnes from December 2011.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a Report to Congress on the Current Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium Exports Used as Fuel or Targets in Nuclear Research or Test Reactors (PDF file). The report, that was prepared in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, deals with HEU exported by the United States.

According to the report, the records indicate that as of 31 December 2012,

Since 1957, ... the United States has exported a total of approximately 22,600 kilograms (kg) of HEU for use as fuel or targets in RTRs to a total of 35 countries ... . The records indicate that approximately 6,100 kg of that U.S.-supplied HEU presently remains in 20 countries, with 95 percent of that material located in five of those countries. Many of the 20 countries have converted their RTRs from HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel or have committed to doing so in the future.

... approximately 7,700 kg of HEU has been returned to the United States primarily as irradiated fuel.

Available information indicates that more than 4,300 kg of the U.S. HEU has been eliminated by down-blending to LEU; approximately 500 kg of HEU has been eliminated in highly-dilute processing waste; and at least 2,400 kg of HEU has been destroyed (burned up) through irradiation in RTRs. As of the issuance of this report, the NRC staff was not able to definitively reconcile records for approximately 1,600 kg of HEU that was exported by the United States.