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

An article published in the new issue of Science & Global Security, "A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser Uranium Enrichment Technology," (Free PDF) by Ryan Snyder, provides a detailed analysis of the physical principles and operationalization of uranium isotope separation through laser excitation and preferential condensation repression of uranium-235 hexafluoride. The SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation) system that was licensed for commercialization in the United States by General Electric, Hitachi, and Cameco as the Global Laser Enrichment project may be based on such a mechanism.

The article provides a model laser enrichment cascade able to produce enough weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (90 percent uranium-235) for at least one weapon per year, and a preliminary assessment of key associated signatures--the physical space, energy consumption and technical skills required for such a cascade--suggesting that these may be less than for an analogous centrifuge-based set-up. Lasers that could be used in such a system are described in an online supplement that also details aspects of the enrichment mechanism, associated enrichment factor (which may be significantly larger than for centrifuges) and cascade model. The results highlight the need for a formal public proliferation assessment of laser enrichment technologies such as SILEX and the Global Laser Enrichment project with access to actual design information and key operating parameters and signatures.

Christian Stoffaës, a former director of planning at Électricité de France, the French utility company, and founder of the "Cercle des ingénieurs economistes" published an op-ed article "Plutonium : le débat manqué de la transition énergétique" challenging France's long-standing policy of reprocessing spent fuel and using the recovered plutonium in MOX fuel. IPFM publishes a translation of the original article.

Plutonium: A debate missed by the energy transition

From the beginning, choices in the French nuclear enterprise have been dominated by nuclear material issues. Will this still be the case tomorrow, at a time of budgetary cuts in the nuclear sector and at EDF, when the atomic bomb is no longer a priority?

By Christian Stoffaës

After having long been protected by its monopoly, EDF is now facing serious budgetary cuts. Plutonium is very expensive so the following question should arise: what is its purpose today?

The plutonium sector (euphemistically referred to as the "fuel cycle" to avoid pronouncing the inflammatory name of an evil material filled with mystery) is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, the breeder reactors renamed "fourth generation", and the MOX fuel. To understand this chain of choices, one has to go back to after the end of the Second World War and the national ambition to acquire the atomic bomb, indispensable to maintaining the status of great power. Then we must look at the periods of dispute - which I experienced from the inside, as a young mining engineer [graduating from the École des Mines], collaborator of the founding fathers Pierre Guillaumat and André Giraud, and later as director of planning at EDF.

Two possible paths

To build the bomb, it is necessary to acquire fissile materials. Two paths are possible, both complex and expensive. Enriched uranium, produced through isotopic separation: with a high fraction of 235, it is of military grade; with a low fraction, it is used as fuel to produce electricity. The plutonium path consists first in irradiating natural uranium and then separating chemically the plutonium produced (also called reprocessing). The transmutation happens in atomic piles, consequently renamed nuclear power reactors when the hierarchy of their purposes was later inverted - the production of electricity becoming the primary goal, and plutonium a side-product, a "waste."

Atomic sector vs electricity sector, who must decide?

What is the product and what is the side-product? This is the perfect dual technology, with mixed civilian and military purposes. To manage the nuclear sector, two state controlled institutions were created at the end of World War II: the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique [CEA, Atomic Energy Commission] and Électricité de France.

Since then, the question has been to know who should make the decisions related to strategic materials, when the legal texts - as well as the political balance of power - give equal legitimacy to both the atomic and electricity sectors. Much more than strategic public companies, these are two powerful social entities, two major institutions of the new post-war France. On one side: planning, investments in reconstruction, the CGT [Confederation Generale du Travail, General Confederation of Workers, one of France's major labor unions], public service, an ubiquitous presence over the whole territory, in every town, in every family; on the other: the great scientists, national independence, the Gaullists.

In the name of the strategic imperative, CEA imposed its choice; the development of gas-graphite reactors that allowed generating plutonium from natural uranium, while France still only possessed one single enrichment plant of a modest size dedicated to military applications. Yet, CEA was not chosen to operate the power plants, unlike in the USSR, for example, where it is the atomic ministry that managed the nuclear power plants and not the electricity sector.

EDF, for its part, preferred Westinghouse's pressurized-water reactors: but these had the serious problem of being American. While almost being accused of betraying the national interest, EDF made the correct technical choice, which eventually prevailed everywhere, while England failingly continued pursuing gas-graphite reactors.

The great nuclear Yalta

After the accident in Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux in 1969 [a partial meltdown of the core of the gas-graphite reactor], the dispute was resolved first by the renunciation of gas-graphite reactors (who remembers that the pioneering Fessenheim power plant was supposed to be a gas-graphite reactor?) and the appropriation (for a modest cost and an important French success) of the Westinghouse technology, frenchified by EDF and Framatome; second, when the CEA undertook the construction of the Tricastin enrichment plant and the reprocessing plant at La Hague, the successor of the Marcoule site.

In the ensuing agreement, EDF imposed the choice of its favorite reactor technology. In return, the CEA reasoning about the fuel cycle prevailed as a continuing justification for plutonium production.

In reality, at the time, we didn't really need more [plutonium] for the French nuclear forces. The atomic argument changed: the challenge then was to recycle [spent fuel] to feed the breeder reactor, a source of almost renewable energy, and to fabricate the MOX fuel, which brings nothing compared to enriched uranium. EDF accepted without complaint to pay the heavy bill for the plutonium industry, which was eventually charged to the taxpayer.

After twenty years of harmonious co-existence, which allowed the remarkable success of our nuclear program, the rivalry came back, this time for the leadership in the exports of the "French nuclear team," the Cogema-Framatome merger in 2000 creating Areva. This broke the delicate balance of forces and Areva set itself (recklessly) as a rival of its client [EDF].

Debating the plutonium sector does not weaken France's choice

Now, the authority [over the nuclear sector] has been clarified under the auspices of the richest partner. The logic of financial power, championed by EDF, has finally prevailed over the strategic objective. The atomic sector, finally recognizing that it does not have the means to meet its industrial ambition, can no longer impose its choices on EDF. Now, competitiveness and a hunt to cut unnecessary costs are required.

However, EDF, rich as it was, has now started to experience serious financial constraints. It is besieged on all sides by competition and lower electricity prices, political support for renewable energy, safety and maintenance requirements, and the cost of its international ambitions.

So, will we soon wonder about the cost-benefit of plutonium? Yesterday, a Promethean priceless material, soon an atomic waste? If the plutonium sector is a choice endured in the name of the strategic imperative and the result of an outdated competition, a transparency measure could consist in incorporating its cost in the tax associated with the public supply of electricity, similar to the cost of renewable energy (included in the CSPE [Contribution au Service Public de l'Electricite, contribution to the public supply of electricity]), and of the same order of magnitude, a few billion euros.

The economic viability of the French nuclear choice, yesterday unquestioned, is today under review in a tense financial environment.

But nuclear power is not a monolith: it is possible to discuss the plutonium sector without weakening the entire French nuclear enterprise. Surprisingly, this question has not been asked yet: it is the missed debate missed of the energy transition. Even more so when the time is long gone where Pierre Messmer, father of the nuclear power program, was declaring before the National Assembly: "There are military secrets that translate into budgetary silences"...

In an application submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Energy requested a license to export 0.6 kg of 99% HEU (XSNM3772). According to the application, "the materials are Certified Reference Materials for use as calibration and quality control standards for the JNFL [Japan Nuclear Fuels Ltd.] facilities analytical laboratory measurement systems."

In March 2016, the Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK•CEN in Mol, Belgium withdrew its request for 144 kg of highly-enriched uranium to be used to manufacture the reactor's fuel. The move was explained by the change of a fuel provider. Now SCK•CEN submitted a request for an export license (XSNM3771) for the same amount of material - 134.208 kg of U-235 in 144 kg of HEU enriched to 93.20% - this time to be exported as "325 BR2 Reactor standard HEU driver fuel elements." The fuel will be shipped in increments of up to 5 kg over a period of six years. This material should be able to support operations of the reactor with HEU fuel for another decade. Indeed the HEU license application stated that the conversion of the BR-2 reactor is planned in 2026.

The last time the United States supplied a comparable amount to the BR-2 reactor was 2010, when it shipped 93.5 kg of HEU containing 87.3 kg of U-235. Smaller quantities of HEU, from 0.3 kg to 13.5 kg of HEU, were supplied in 2012-2014 as well.

Shortly before the current HEU application was submitted, SCK•CEN requested 9.3 kg of 19.80% HEU in U-Mo alloy to be supplied to its former fuel fabricator, AREVA CERCA (license XSNM3770). This suggests that SCK•CEN may be conducting some work on converting the BR-2 reactor to LEU.

The Mayak Production Association in Ozersk, Russia is preparing to launch a production line that will allow its RT-1 reprocessing plant to handle spent fuel of VVER-1000 reactors at the end of 2016. Today, the plant is reprocessing spent fuel of VVER-400 reactors as well as spent fuel of naval and research reactors. Also, in 2015 Rosatom completed a program that will allow the RT-1 plant to reprocess damaged spent fuel of RBMK reactors and plutonium production reactors. RT-1 is working on a technology that would reprocess uranium-zirconium fuel used in some icebreakers and uranium-beryllium fuel.

Earlier, Mayak reported that in 2015 it reprocessed 200 tons of spent fuel, which is almost double of its historical load of 100-130 tons of fuel annually. The nominal capacity of the plant is 400 tons. According to a Mayak representative, the plant will reach that level in the next few years.

According to the 2015 Euratom Annual Report, EU-28 countries used 10,780 kg of plutonium in MOX fuel of their nuclear reactors, bringing the cumulative total to 195,019 kg of plutonium used in MOX in 1996-2015. The quantity of MOX fuel loaded into power reactors in the EU in 2015 is a 7% decrease over the 11,603 kg used in 2014.

The IRT-T research reactor in the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute, Russia is expected to continue operations until 2035. IRT-T is one of the Russian research reactors that use HEU fuel. It has been brought to operation after an overhaul that began in 2014.

The reactor, which reached criticality in 1967, consumes about 2.2 kg of HEU annually. It was included in the list of six reactors for which the United States and Russia conducted conversion feasibility studies and was identified as one of the two reactors that can be converted (with IRT in MEPhI). In 2014, a team of U.S. experts visited Tomsk to discuss status of the conversion program. However, since most of the U.S.-Russian programs in this area were suspended in 2014, the reactor was relaunched on HEU fuel.

The IAEA and the Ulba Metallurgical Plant signed an agreement for the construction of the LEU Storage Facility at Ulba that will host a reserve of LEU to be used as a fuel bank operated by the Agency. This builds on the agreement between the IAEA and the Government of Kazakhstan, signed in August 2015. According to the agreement, the facility will begin operations in September 2017.

Tatsujiro Suzuki and Masa Takubo

On 11 May 2016, Japan's parliament passed a "Law Regarding Implementation of Reprocessing, etc. of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Generation" (our translation). The new law is to go into effect within six months. Its stated primary objective is to assure continued funding for reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication even if nuclear utilities go bankrupt after Japan's market for electric power is fully liberalized.

The new law amends the 2005 "Law regarding Deposit and Management of the Reserve Funds for Reprocessing, etc. of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Generation" and has three basic features:

  1. It establishes the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization, a government-approved entity responsible for collecting funds required for reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication (Article 10.14; although the law provides for the possibility of multiple "Organizations," there will most probably be only one). This Organization will contract out actual reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication operations to Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), which has built the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant and is completing the adjacent MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility.
  2. It requires Japan's nuclear utilities to pay "contributions" to the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization every fiscal year to cover the expected cost for reprocessing of all spent fuel they generated in the previous fiscal year and for turning the resulting separated plutonium into MOX fuel (Article 3.7). The contributions will be based on the amount of the electricity generated.
  3. It requires that the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization's reprocessing plan be approved by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) (Article 45), who is also responsible for approving the establishment of the Organization (Article 17).

The new law also has other several features that buttress Japan's commitment to plutonium separation:

  1. It provides for the funding of reprocessing of all spent fuel and producing MOX fuel from all plutonium, while the previous law covered only the funding for the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The funds that the utilities have voluntarily been setting aside for reprocessing spent fuel not to be dealt with by the Rokkasho plant will now be transferred to the Organization. This means that the new system will provide for a commercial reprocessing plant beyond Rokkasho, despite the fact that there currently appears to be no prospect for building another commercial plant.
  2. The new law gives the government stronger authority over the reprocessing business. The purpose of the law is "steady implementation of reprocessing," making it possible for the government to force utilities to reprocess all their spent fuel.
  3. Finally, the law forces Japan's utilities to continue separating plutonium regardless of future plutonium consumption plans. There is nothing in the law to enforce Japan's "no plutonium surplus policy."

Concerned about the inflexibility of the law and lack of consideration of Japan's plutonium balance, Japan's parliament added a required review of the law in three years instead of the five years originally proposed by the government and adopted a supplementary resolution that includes the following conditions:

  1. When the situation changes, the government must review and take necessary measures, taking into account the views expressed during the parliamentary debate.
  2. Direct disposal and spent fuel storage options must be developed to secure flexibility in spent fuel management. However the law which prohibits direct disposal of spent fuel remains in force.
  3. Given Japan's stated commitment "not to possess plutonium without purpose for use," the Minister of METI shall not approve any reprocessing plan violating this principle.
  4. Before approving a reprocessing plan, the Minister of METI must obtain the advice of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC). JAEC is supposed to review the annual "plutonium usage plan" submitted by the utilities to check the balance of plutonium supply and demand before reprocessing takes place. However, the utilities have not submitted a new plan since 2010.
  5. A scheme must be established to assess the implications and impacts of Japan's reprocessing program from a broad perspective, including taking into consideration its implications for international security.
  6. The government must take stronger responsibility for enhancing spent fuel storage capacity and tackling the challenges concerning final disposal of high level waste.
  7. Reprocessing should proceed with sincere dialogue with local communities to obtain understanding and cooperation. This condition is considered necessary as any change in the current reprocessing program may trigger opposition from Aomori prefecture, which hosts the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.

These conditions, however, are not legally binding and it is not clear if they will be effective in establishing a balance between plutonium separation and use in Japan.

GE-Hitachi announced that it intends to leave the Global Laser Enrichment joint venture that was formed to develop Silex technology. Here is the statement that the company made available to IPFM:


GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) has informed Cameco and Silex of its desire to reduce its equity interest in Global Laser Enrichment (GLE). This decision was made due to evolving business priorities at GEH and follows the restructuring of GLE operations announced in 2014. GEH remains committed to maintaining the safety and security of the technology and any sale or transfer of GEH's interest in GLE would be subject to government review and approval.

The company received an NRC license to build an enrichment facility in Wilmington, NC in 2012 and indicated its intent to build an enrichment plant in Paducah, KY in 2014. No construction has started at either site.

Australian company Silex Systems reportedly expressed interest in acquiring the GE-Hitachi share in GLE.