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

Kazakhstan and the IAEA signed an agreement that will establish an LEU bank that could be used to provide low-enriched uranium to countries that face disruption of supply. The agreement was approved by the government of Kazakhstan in April 2015 and by the IAEA in June 2015. The bank will be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk).

Frank von Hippel

In 2013, when it submitted its proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 to Congress, the Obama Administration declared, that the "current [U.S.] plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable."

This approach has been, in parallel to Russia, to fabricate at least 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium (enough for about 10,000 warheads) that has been declared excess for the down-sized U.S. nuclear arsenal into mixed-oxide (MOX, uranium-plutonium) fuel for use in U.S. power reactors. The estimated costs of both constructing and operating the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) that is being built at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Savannah River Site in South Carolina has increased many-fold.

The Administration therefore proposed to freeze construction of the MFFF while it considered alternatives. The Congressional delegation from South Carolina, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, fought back and managed to keep construction moving forward temporarily, albeit at a much reduced rate.

In April 2014, the DOE produced a study of the alternatives and concluded that, even with $5 billion sunk in the MFFF, it would be less costly to dilute the plutonium and dispose of it as waste in the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) a deep repository under New Mexico. Senator Graham demanded an independent study. The DOE hired the Aerospace Corporation, which did a study that arrived at the same conclusion. Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, which deals with this part of the DOE budget, requested yet another study to be led by Thom Mason, the Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who, a year earlier had led a study that had devised a strategy that had saved the DOE's similarly over-budget Uranium Processing Facility.

Mason's "Red Team" study of the MOX program was delivered to DOE Secretary Moniz on 13 August 2015 and was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It comes to the same conclusion as the previous studies but its reasoning is more transparent. It points out that preparing plutonium for disposal is much less costly than for MOX fuel fabrication because costly purification is not necessary. Also, mixing the plutonium with a diluent for disposal is much simpler than the manufacture of tens of millions of high-quality sintered and machined MOX pellets.

The plutonium processing would still take place at the Savannah River Site as well as at Los Alamos where the plutonium-containing weapons pits would be dismantled. With regard to negotiations with New Mexico about expanding the mission of the WIPP facility and with Russia to accept direct disposal, the red team is relatively optimistic. It points out that New Mexico's current governor, Susana Martinez, has declared the Los Alamos National Laboratory and WIPP as "critical assets to our nation's security, our state's economy, and the communities in which they operate." It also pointed out that the U.S. renegotiated the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with Russia in 2010 to allow Russia to use its excess plutonium to fuel breeder reactors instead of light water reactors. (The U.S. had originally volunteered to pay most of the cost for Russia's MOX plant but the plant's cost increased in parallel with the cost of the U.S. MOX plant and the U.S. was unwilling to increase its financial commitment. Thus, Russia's MOX plant was deemed unaffordable before the U.S. MOX plant.)

The Red Team report concludes by urging the Administration and Congress, "Regardless of the DOE chosen path forward, it is vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible and secure consistent funding to prevent further degradation of the Pu Disposition Program."

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has released a new research report, Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs: Status, Problems, and Prospects of Civilian Reprocessing Around the World (pdf file).

The report looks at the history, current status and prospects of programs aimed at separating plutonium for civilian use from spent fuel produced by nuclear power reactors. Today only China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom have active civilian reprocessing programs, and all of these programs are detailed in the report. The report also looks at the rise and fall of reprocessing in Germany and the agitation in South Korea for starting a program.

There are also three technical chapters assessing the utility of reprocessing for managing spent nuclear fuel; the economics of reprocessing and plutonium use; and the radiological risk from reprocessing plants. The report also briefly outlines the international security implications of reprocessing.

This global overview of reprocessing shows the world is closer to the end of separating plutonium and the associated security, economic and environmental dangers. The country studies in the report offer insight into the institutional forces that have sustained national commitments to separating plutonium in the face of economic incentives to desist from this practice. The report also outlines various processes that can overcome such institutional resistance in time and lead to the end of spent fuel reprocessing and plutonium separation.

Contributors to the report are Anatoli Diakov, Klaus Janberg, Jungmin Kang, Gordon MacKerron, M. V. Ramana, Mycle Schneider, Masafumi Takubo, Gordon Thomson, Frank von Hippel, Hui Zhang, and Yun Zhou. The report was edited by Frank von Hippel and M. V. Ramana. Michael Schoeppner provided editorial support.

Martin Forwood with Mycle Schneider

The case for re-using the UK's separated plutonium in nuclear reactors looks less secure than previous official pronouncements would suggest. The U.K.'s stockpile is estimated by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to have reached 140 tons by the time reprocessing operations at Sellafield are completed around 2020. A Sellafield local stakeholder committee meeting on June 9th, 2015 heard that the UK's Regulators, the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation, had been tasked by the NDA to review the option of immobilizing plutonium. Clarifying some detail of the review in a subsequent email to local group CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment), the NDA responded:

Research work on the immobilization of plutonium is being carried out to find out if the process can be "industrialised" so that it could be used to treat material that is unsuitable for reuse or for disposition of the entire stockpile if Government decided not to pursue re-use. (emphasis added).

Until now, research on the immobilization option has been specifically targeted at the treatment of the small proportion of stockpiled plutonium termed as "residues" and considered through chemical contamination to be beyond re-use. The research is funded by the NDA and carried out by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in Workington, north of Sellafield, in collaboration with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). The residues are estimated by the NDA in tens of kilograms rather than tons. The NNL is quoting about 100 kilograms of residues and that it was looking at purer plutonium and not just waste. The conditioned plutonium waste would be stored until final disposal in a geological repository.

The current revelation that, should the Government change its mind, immobilization might be used to dispose of the entire stockpile is the latest hint that the re-use of plutonium as plutonium-uranium Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel in the UK is not yet irrevocably cast in stone. Following its public consultation on the management of UK plutonium, the Government concluded on the December 1st, 2011 that of the three high level plutonium management options (re-use, immobilization or indefinite storage) identified earlier through a suite of NDA consultations, plutonium re-use was its "preferred option". That option continues to be officially advocated today.

Yet signs of a wavering commitment to the re-use as MOX option surfaced in February 2012--just eight weeks after the Government had announced its preferred option--when the NDA took the somewhat mystifying step of inviting nuclear third parties to submit "additional alternatives" to the re-use as MOX option. Whether or not the Authority had even at that stage been "spooked" by some aspect of the option's deployment in the UK remains to be seen but the invitation clearly begs the question as to why the NDA needed to cast its net for other ideas so soon after providing the original advice on which the Government based its preference.

The invitation drew responses from GE Hitachi and from CANDU Energy, the former proposing the deployment at Sellafield over a 60-year period of its PRISM reactor as part of an integral fuel fabrication/reactor plant solution for Plutonium disposition, and the latter proposing the deployment of its Enhanced CANDU 6 (EC6) reactor and associated facilities to provide a solution for plutonium disposition. However, both reactor designs so far exist only on paper.

A progress update on both proposals, published by the NDA in January 2014, noted that

currently, we believe there is insufficient understanding of the options to confidently move into implementation and consider that significant further work must be undertaken, focusing on technical and commercial risks and uncertainties, to enable DECC and UK Government to ultimately select and subsequently implement its preferred reuse option.

The time needed for this further work was estimated at between 1-2 years. The same update also revealed further doubt on the commitment to the re-use as MOX option by the NDA who had been keeping an eagle eye on the "significant cost increases and schedule overruns" at the U.S.DOE's MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility project at Savannah River--the development of which "affects NDA confidence in the predictability of implementation and costs of reuse as MOX". The continuing escalation of costs and increasing delays to the Savannah River project is unlikely to bolster NDA confidence levels.

The immobilization option currently being funded by the NDA and researched by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) is the Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) process which, under high pressure and temperature, converts the plutonium into a ceramic waste form suitable for long-term storage and ultimate disposal. Though the HIP process for Sellafield's residues has taken preference to other immobilization technologies including immobilization in cement-based grouts, as glass via vitrification or as a ceramic in "low specification" MOX, the NDA's Plutonium Credible Options Analysis (Gate A) published in 2010 concludes that whilst the HIP process is technically immature for large scale bulk plutonium, it requires less development and is economically more favorable than the vitrification option.

A pilot plant for the immobilization of plutonium residues at NNL's central laboratory at Sellafield is expected to start active commissioning in 2017. The process is described by NNL as "a powerful emerging technology that offers a route for the immobilisation of orphan waste streams and also has the potential to meet wasteform requirements for future nuclear fuel cycles".

Flagged up for spring this year, a Government policy announcement on plutonium management never materialized and there is currently no indication as to when such an announcement will now be made. No date has been provided for the completion of the Regulators' review of the immobilization option.

On June 30, 2015 Areva and China's CNNC signed a memorandum of understanding regarding potential supply of a spent fuel reprocessing facility to China. According to Areva's press-release,

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) with CNNC [is] marking a new step forward in the Chinese project for a used fuel processing and recycling facility. The MoU formalizes the end of technical discussions, defines the schedule for commercial negotiations and confirms the willingness of both groups to finalize the negotiations in the shortest possible timeframe.

Previous agreement of this kind was concluded in March 2014 and the initial letter of intent was signed in April 2013

According to the 2014 annual report released by the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk (Tomsk-7), the enterprise began decommissioning of its reprocessing plant, RKhZ (Radiochemical Plant), which was part of the Soviet/Russian defense nuclear complex. The plant reprocessed last uranium fuel irradiated in the plutonium production reactors in 2009 (the last Seversk reactors were shut down in 2008). In 2013 it completed reprocessing of other material left from the program.

Shaun Burnie

The United States has granted for the first time advance programmatic approval for the Republic of Korea to ship spent fuel overseas for reprocessing. The protracted negotiations between both nations conducted since 2010, concluded with the signing on June 15, 2015 of a new Agreement For Cooperation Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. While most of the focus on the new agreement was that the Republic of Korea (ROK) would not be permitted to embark on spent fuel reprocessing and uranium enrichment, this specifically applies to the development and operation of such technologies and facilities within the ROK. Whereas, the new agreement grants the ROK advance programmatic approval to ship spent fuel overseas for reprocessing.

This is a departure from the prior agreement between the two nations signed in 1974, under which the right to reprocess would require a determination that it would be in compliance with Article XI. This effectively gave the U.S. a veto right over the reprocessing of ROK spent fuel during the last four decades, despite the efforts of European reprocessing companies to secure contracts.

In the case of the return of 'recovered material' - plutonium and uranium to the ROK, the U.S. has committed its approval, but with both parties required to agree to which form, almost certainly it would be in fresh MOX fuel. The process for the return of MOX fuel to the ROK, would require a U.S. 'Subsequent Arrangement' to be concluded. Under Section 131 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Act of 1978, U.S. agencies would have to determine that the return of plutonium MOX fuel would not be inimical to its "common defense and security".

With the conclusion of the new Agreement, the long standing question that has plagued U.S./Korean nuclear relations for decades, why should the ROK not have the same reprocessing rights as Japan, has in part been answered.

In a Minute to the new Agreement, it states that,

2 - The Parties agree that irradiated nuclear material subject to Article 10 and Article 11 of the Agreement may be transferred (such transfers being hereinafter referred to as "retransfers") by either Party for storage and reprocessing to France, the United Kingdom, and also to any other country or destination as may be agreed upon in writing by the Parties. All such retransfers described in this paragraph shall be made in compliance with the policies, laws, and regulations of the recipient country, group of countries where applicable, or destination.
4 - In the case of irradiated nuclear material subject to the Agreement transferred by either Party pursuant to paragraph 2 of this Section, the non-transferring Party agrees to provide its consent, under the applicable agreement for cooperation, to the return to the territorial jurisdiction of the transferring Party of nuclear material recovered from irradiated nuclear material so transferred subject to the conditions that: (a) Any such nuclear material returned to the territorial jurisdiction of the transferring Party shall be subject to the Agreement; (b) Any such nuclear material recovered from any reprocessing in the third country or destination shall be transferred in the form and subject to physical protection arrangements as agreed in writing by the Parties.
6 - Arrangements for Spent Fuel Management and Disposition 1. The Parties have initiated a joint study to review the technical, economic and nonproliferation (including safeguards) aspects of spent fuel management and disposition technologies (the Joint Fuel Cycle Study). Following the completion of the Joint Fuel Cycle Study, or at such other time as the Parties may agree, the Parties shall consult with a view to identifying appropriate options for the management and disposition of spent fuel subject to the Agreement and for further development or demonstration of relevant technologies. The Parties shall conduct all consultations referred to in this Section as promptly as possible so that nuclear energy programs of either Party would not be unduly hampered due to the delay of the consultations.
After 30 years of nuclear power plant operation, the ROK has yet to secure concrete plans for spent fuel disposal. Attempts have been made to establish an off-site central spent fuel interim storage site but they have failed due to public opposition.The ROK maintains its inventory of spent reactor fuel in wet storage spent fuel pools at each of the four reactor sites, and at a dry storage facility at Wolsong. As of December 2012, there was 5,829 tons of PWR spent fuel in storage at the ROK's reactor sites, with an additional 6,878 tons of Candu HWR fuel. Annual PWR spent fuel discharge in 2011 was 300 tons and 380 tons HWR.

According to a study performed by an expert group composed of members of the ROK's nuclear establishment, the storage pools at the ROK's four reactor sites, Kori, Ulchin, Yonggwang, and Wolsong are projected to be full by 2028, 2028, 2024 and 2025.

In granting advance programmatic approval to the ROK the U.S. has adopted the same approach as the recently concluded agreement with Taiwan, with one significant difference. Whereas, any separated plutonium or uranium from Taiwanese spent fuel would not be permitted to be returned to the country, the ROK has been given that option. Such transfers would be conducted on a case by case basis as was the case between the U.S. and Japan prior to 1988.

The new agreement was signed only a week after an advisory body to the Government recommended that spent fuel dry storage should be undertaken prior to the establishment of a geological repository. There are currently no indications that the Korean nuclear industry have plans to enter into negotiations for the shipment and subsequent reprocessing in Europe.

The Public Engagement Commission (PECOS), an independent advisory body that was established in October 2013 to advise the government of South Korea on nuclear issues, issued a draft report (PDF file, in Korean) that outlined its recommendations regarding spent nuclear fuel management in South Korea. The commission recommendations are as follows, as translated by Jungmin Kang (IPFM) and Seok-Woo Kim:

  1. The top priority of spent fuel management is public safety. Spent fuel should be managed safely and effectively under government responsibility. Selected spent fuel management technologies should be proven by the experts. The results of technological application should not be an excessive burden for future generations.

  2. It should be made a rule to move spent fuel to reliable storage facilities before temporary storage capacity is exceeded or the operating permit of temporary storage facilities expires.

  3. Government should build a final geologic disposal site to be operational in 2051. To do this, it is desirable for government to select site for an Underground Research Laboratory (URL) at the disposal site or at a site with similar geologic characteristics by 2020, to construct the URL till 2030, and to do empirical study after 2030.

  4. With resident participation, an environmental radiation supervisory center (tentative) would be established at the final geologic disposal site and a site for URL. Paying for local communities is recommended to improve the quality of life and to improve a stable economic base for the communities that host the final geologic disposal site and the site for URL. First, it would create new jobs and vitalize local economy by locating related organizations of spent fuel research and management. Second, it would pay municipalities for the disposal of spent fuel. Third, it would help conserve the local communities' natural environment and establish urban development plans for the local communities with a special subsidy.

  5. A pre-disposal stage storage facility is to be built at URL site, which would be selected in 2020, to store NSF until operation of disposal site. If unavoidable, spent fuel would be stored at onsite temporary storage facilities till operation of disposal site begins. In addition, close cooperation between the countries would be required to prepare an international spent fuel management facility.

  6. If temporary storage facilities are built within NPP site to store spent fuel, "NSF storage fee" is to be paid to localities. A Resident Foundation (tentative) shall be established and run at each NPP region in order to ensure transparent and efficient collection and management of "NSF storage fees." It is also necessary for government and NPP hosting regions to negotiate in detail on the payment of reasonable fee for spent fuel currently stored at each NPP site.

  7. It is necessary to prioritize the technologies for storage, transportation, disposal, and for the reduction of volume and toxicity of spent fuel, as well as to set up and execute a detailed plan for the development of such technologies. We should establish, above all, standard for control. We should also set up an institutional mechanism and operate an integrated system for experts from various disciplines to initiate technology development with social responsibility.

  8. It is highly desirable to secure safety, responsibility, stability, efficiency, and transparency in spent fuel management. For this, we advise to establish NSF Technology and Management Corporation (tentative) in which government, utilities, and the public co-own the stake and share the responsibility for technology development and phased management.

  9. It is necessary to enact Special Law on NSF (tentative) or amend existing laws and regulations as soon as possible in order to provide transparency, stability and sustainability in spent fuel management as well as to uphold credibility of the spent fuel policy.

  10. In order to set up and execute spent fuel management policy immediately, an inter-ministry decision-making body (NSF Planning Committee) and its working-level executive arm (NSF Policy Implementation Committee) are to be set up and operated within the government.

The commission expressed its preference for the construction of an interim dry storage facility, described in item 5.

The IAEA Board of Governors approved the agreement with Kazakhstan that will establish a reserve of LEU that will be managed by the IAEA. The reserve, located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, will include up to 90 tonnes of LEU, stored as UF6.

The government of Kazakhstan approved the agreement in April 2015. The agreement will be signed at the end of August 2015 in Kazakhstan, after which it will take about two years to open the reserve.

U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) completed the shipment of 11 tonnes of "breeder material" from the Dounreay site to Sellafield. The material consists of natural uranium fuel rods that were irradiated in the Dounreay Fast Reactor before it was shut down in 1977. The first shipment took place in December 2012. Further 33 tonnes of the material remain in Dounreay. According to NDA, this material will sent to Sellafield as well. The transfer is expected to be completed in 2017.

At Sellafield, the breeder material is being reprocessed. Plutonium that is produced in a breeder reactor blanket would normally be a weapon-grade plutonium. Although there was no official information about the amount of plutonium separated from the fuel or its disposition, it is probably added to the U.K. stock of plutonium reported as civilian. Since the United Kingdom does not classify this material as spent fuel, it is not clear whether it is included in the INFCIRC/549 declarations. In its 2012 and 2013 INFCIRC/549 declarations, the United Kingdom declared "less than 500 kg" of plutonium in "spent fuel held elsewhere."