Fissile Material Programs in the US Congress Omnibus Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Biden Administration Congressional Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2023

Frank N. von Hippel

US Fiscal years begin on 1 October of the previous calendar year. In FY2022, however, Congress did not finalize the budget until 8 March 2022, almost halfway through the fiscal year. As a result, for the first half of the fiscal year, government expenditures continued at the rates laid out in the budget for FY2021.

When it did finally emerge, the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY2022 included three important developments relating to fissile materials:

  • The potential termination by Congress of the Idaho National Laboratory's (INL's) proposed liquid-sodium-cooled, plutonium-fueled "Versatile Test Reactor."
  • Modest funding for an array of proposals, including reprocessing of spent naval fuel, by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) to produce high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to fuel some of the "advanced" reactors NE is promoting.
  • Continued funding, despite opposition from DOE's Office of Naval Reactors, of R&D on LEU fuel for naval reactors.

In addition, Congress approved continued heavy spending on restoring DOE's capacity to make new plutonium pits for warheads and a relatively low level of spending for disposing of almost 50 tons of excess plutonium.

During April 2022, DOE published, bit by bit, its detailed justification to Congress of its proposed budget for fiscal year 2023. This budget shows relatively little change from the Trump Administration's priorities.

Termination of DOE's Versatile Test Reactor? The VTR, which is being sought by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor of the type that DOE promoted until Congress cancelled the Clinch River Demonstration [Plutonium] Breeder Reactor in 1983. Its design is based on INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was shut down in 1994 for lack of mission. The VTR's currently estimated capital cost range is $2.6-5.8 billion.

During the Trump Administration, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE), under the influence of INL, began promoting sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors again. Bill Gates, under the influence of former Livermore nuclear-weapon designer, Lowell Wood, had already created a nuclear startup, "Terrapower," with the mission of commercializing such reactors. NE has committed up to $2 billion to co-fund a prototype of Terrapower's 345-MWe Natrium (sodium in Latin) reactor in Wyoming.

INL argues the VTR is needed to test new fuels and structural materials for Natrium and other future commercial fast-neutron reactors and proposes that it be built by Terrapower in partnership with General Electric-Hitachi.

To maximize the number of excess neutrons available for irradiation tests with the VTR, INL proposed that the VTR be fueled by plutonium (fast neutron fission produces more neutrons from plutonium than from uranium-235) and estimated that "up to 34 tons" of plutonium would be required to fuel it over 60 years - suggesting an alternative use of the 34 tons of weapons plutonium the US declared excess in parallel with Russia in 2000 (Draft Versatile Test Reactor Environmental Impact Statement, p. 2-15, Footnote 11; see also below).

In its budget request for fiscal year 2022, NE requested $145 million in to continue developing the design of the VTR. The Omnibus Appropriations Act provided zero dollars. The reasons appear to have been lack of private sector interest and redundancy of the VTR with the Natrium reactor. (Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists had suggested that the Natrium reactor, which is to be virtually complete before the VTR enters construction, could be designed to conduct the irradiation tests.)

NE has requested another $45 million for VTR design work in its proposed budget for FY 2023.

Searching for High-assay low-enriched uranium in all the wrong places. Fast neutron reactors like Natrium require more highly enriched uranium than conventional slow-neutron reactors because the fission cross-section of the U-235 nucleus falls with increasing neutron energy. Natrium is to be fueled by "high-assay" low-enriched uranium (HALEU), enriched to just below 20 percent U-235, the internationally agreed threshold for weapon-usability.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, compiles and submits to the Department of Energy anonymized projections for HALEU requirements by Terrapower and nine other nuclear startups. These projections - probably based on promotional materials produced for investors in these startups - are truly fantastic. NEI would have us believe that, by 2030, eight years hence, US requirements for HALEU will be 215 tons. That would be sufficient to provide the annual fuel requirements of 60 Natrium reactors! (Assuming, based on Edwin Lyman's estimates, 3.6 tons of HALEU annual reload). NEI projects that five years later, in 2035, these requirements would triple.

The only current source for HALEU, which is also used to fuel research reactors, is blended down excess Cold War weapon-grade uranium. US excess weapon-grade uranium is largely committed, however, and, since Russia invaded Ukraine, buying HALEU from Russia has become toxic.

This has resulted in NE promoting a whole array of costly initiatives that would each produce a relatively small amount of HALEU.

This includes contracting with Centrus, the reorganized successor of the bankrupt US Enrichment Company, for $115 million in prior fiscal years to build a 16-centrifuge cascade at DOE's shutdown gaseous-diffusion enrichment plant in Portsmouth Ohio. NE has also requested funding for INL to extract highly enriched uranium for blend-down from EBR II spent fuel ($15 million for pyroprocessing in the Omnibus Appropriation Act for FY2022) and from naval and Advanced Test Reactor spent fuel ($10 million for developing ZIRCEX reprocessing technology). In its budget request for FY 2023, NE requests $95 million to continue these activities.

Despite a Congressional hearing on its sole-source contract with Centrus, and URENCO USA's expressed willingness to supply HALEU if there is a market, NE appears determined not to turn for HALEU to URENCO USA, the only commercial enrichment company in the United States.

The struggle to get the nuclear Navy to consider LEU fuel. In the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY 2022, Congress gave the Office of Naval Reactors (NR), which is part of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), $2,801 million, $471 million more than requested, explaining the increase only as "to address project increases and to mitigate the risk of schedule delays." Congress is very deferential toward NR.

Despite NR's own finding in 2016 that a high-density fuel design could make it possible to convert its new Ford class aircraft carriers to LEU fuel without increased refueling frequency and the findings of an NR-commissioned review by the JASON group of technical consultants that this same fuel would make it possible to design the Navy's next-generation attack submarine to use LEU fuel, the Trump administration refused to work on the development of LEU fuel for naval reactors. NR has continued this policy under the Biden Administration (see, for example, the answer submitted by NNSA for the record to a question from Representative Langevin after the 10 June 2021 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, pp. 83-84).

The use of weapon-grade uranium to fuel US and UK naval reactors has become a nonproliferation issue as a result of the joint proposal by President Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines based on US and UK designs and Iran's invocation of the US practice as a justification for Iran's production of highly enriched uranium.

Nevertheless, in the FY2022 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Congress added $20 million to the budget of DOE's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, as it had in FY2021, to support the development of "nonproliferation fuels," i.e., LEU fuel for naval reactors. In its FY2023 budget request, DOE again requested no funding for this program, leaving its continuation in the hands of Congress.

Billions for unneeded pit production and little to study pit aging. Plutonium pits are the cores of the fission triggers of US nuclear weapons. In 2006, based on pit aging studies done at the Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, the JASON group concluded that the plutonium "pits" in US nuclear weapons had credible life expectancies of at least 100 years. Ten years later JASON found that "studies on Pu aging and its impacts on the performance of nuclear-weapon primaries have not been sufficiently prioritized over the past decade. A focused program of experiments, theory, and simulations is required to determine the timescales over which Pu aging may lead to an unacceptable degradation of primary performance." Instead, on the recommendation of DOD and NNSA, Congress mandated in the 2020 Defense Authorization Act that DOE achieve a production capability of 80 pits per year (ppy) by 2030: 30 ppy at Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) existing plutonium facility and 50 ppy in a new facility at the DOE's Savannah Site (SRS). NNSA has indicated it will not be able to meet the mandated deadline for completion of the SRS facility, which it's FY2023 budget justification shows as scheduled for completion in 2035. That budget justification shows an estimated total cost for the upgrades required at LANL as $3.6 billion and for the SRS facility as $11 billion. The combined request for the two projects for FY2023 is $1.3 billion.

The first pit type to be produced at the two facilities is to be the W87-1, to replace the W-78 warhead deployed on half of the 400 US silo-based ICBMs. Unlike the W78, the W87 contains insensitive high explosive, which reduces the chances of a plutonium dispersal accident, although no such accidents have occurred with US strategic ballistic missiles. The W87-1 security package is an upgraded version of that in the existing W87-0. The US has sufficient W87-0 warheads for its current ICBM loading of one warhead each under the New START Treaty, but that treaty expires in 2026 and Strategic Command wishes to retain the option of loading three warheads on each of its ICBMs. Strategic Command's new ICBM, the Sentinel, which is to replace the current Minuteman III beginning around 2030, is designed to be able to carry three W87s.

Slow-motion disposal of excess plutonium. In the Defense Appropriations Act for FY2022, Congress approved the $156 million request from NNSA's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation to build glovebox capacity at DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina to dilute excess US plutonium for disposal in DOE's deep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Thirteen tons of excess plutonium have been approved for disposal in this manner. An additional 34 tons of plutonium covered by the US-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000 is the subject of analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement that is expected to be completed in FY2023. For 2023, NNSA has requested $205 million for operating and expanding capacity at LANL for extracting plutonium from pits and for expanding capacity at SRS for diluting and packaging the plutonium for disposal. At NNSA's planned rate of disposal, it will be after 2050 before the plutonium is all in WIPP.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received a license request XSNM3828 from the Y-12 National Security Complex to export 113.2 kg of 93% HEU to Belgium. The material will be contained in 255 Driver fuel assemblies for the BR2 Reactor, which is operated by the Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK•CEN in Mol.

Previous export license, requested in 2016, covered the export of "325 BR2 Reactor standard HEU driver fuel elements," which contained 144 kg of HEU enriched to 93.20%. At the time, SCK•CEN changed the fuel provider, switching from the French CERCA to U.S. Babcock & Wilcox.

The United States announced that "there is now enough worldwide supply of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) made without using highly enriched uranium (HEU) to meet the needs of patients in the United States."

According to the DoE statement, this certification will trigger the ban on export of US HEU for medical isotope production. The ban was supposed to enter into force in January 2020, but was postponed for two years since at the time the United States could not obtain all Mo-99 from HEU-free sources. Now the ban is expected to be enforced. The most recent HEU export license for medical isotope production was issued in April 2020.

In addition to HEU export for medical isotope production, the United States also provides HEU for some research reactors. The most recent license application of this kind was submitted in September 2020.

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission received a request from the US National Nuclear Security Administration to license export of small quantities of fissile materials for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The license request XSNM3826 includes the following materials:

  1. Plutonium (93% Pu-239) metal - 30 g
  2. Uranium (94% U-235) metal - 50 g
  3. Uranium oxide (UO2) fuel pellet, 4% enriched - 1.5 kg of UO2 containing 99 g of U-235
  4. Uranium oxide (U3O8) powders, up to 97% enriched - 100 g of U3O8 (from depleted uranium to 97% enriched), containing 5 g of U-235
  5. Plutonium isotopic standard (50% Pu-239) - 10 g.

According to the application,

These materials are to be used at the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Materials Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. They are used for calibration and quality control of measurements performed in support of Safeguards Agreements and support the IAEA's safeguards and nonproliferation mission.

UPDATE: The license XSNM3826 was granted on 12 May 2022.

This post contains a summary of INFCIRC/549 reports by the countries that submit annual civilian plutonium declarations that reflect the status of civilian plutonium stocks as of 31 December 2020.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-24) reported owning the total of 46.1 tons of plutonium, 8.9 tons of which is in Japan (the numbers in 2019 were 45.5 tons and 8.9 tons respectively). According to the Status Report on Plutonium Management in Japan - 2020 released in July 2021, out of the 37.2 tons of plutonium abroad, 21.805 tons are in the United Kingdom and 15.411 tons are in France.

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-24) reported having no separated plutonium in the country for the second year in a row. Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country. It is believed to be less than 1 ton.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-20) declared no separated plutonium in storage or at reprocessing plants and "not zero, but less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium in other categories. It reported that it had no foreign plutonium as of 31 December 2020.

  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4-25) reported having less than 2 kg of plutonium in the country (in the "located elsewhere" category). The number has not changed since 2016 (it was "less than 50 kg" in 2015).

  5. France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5-25) reported having 95.0 tons of separated unirradiated plutonium in its custody. Of this amount, 15.6 tons belongs to foreign countries. It appears that almost all that plutonium - 15,411 kg - belongs to Japan. The amount of plutonium owned by France is 79.5 tons, an increase of 4.8 tonnes from previous year (74.7 tons).

  6. The United States has not submitted its 2019 report. In its 2020 report (INFCIRC/549/Add.6-23) declared 49.4 tons of separated plutonium, of which 4.6 tons are in MOX fuel and 44.8 tons are "held elsewhere" (most of this material is believed to be in weapon components). This amount was reported to be 44.7 tons in 2018, but went back to 44.8 tons in 2019 (as indicated by the "previous year" number in the 2020 declaration). These changes appear to reflect changes in the accounting for the material - the amount reported as "disposed as waste" was 4.6 tons in 2018, but was reverted to 4.5 tons in 2020.

  7. China has not has not submitted its 2017-2020 reports as of 24 October 2021. The last INFCIRC/549 report submitted to the IAEA showed 40.9 kg of separated plutonium as of 31 December 2016.

  8. The United Kingdom (INFCIRC/549/Add.8-24) reported owning 116.1 tons of separated plutonium, an increase from 115.8 in 2018 (most likely the result of taking title of already separated Japan's plutonium). In addition to that, the United Kingdom stores 24.1 tons of foreign plutonium (of which 21.805 tons is owned by Japan).

  9. Russia (NFCIRC/549/Add.9-23) reported owning 63.3 tons of civilian plutonium, an increase of 0.3 tons from 2019.

In addition to reporting plutonium stocks, some countries also submit data on their civilian HEU:

Germany reported 0.35 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel (an increase from 0.32 tonnes in 2019), 0.94 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.01 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere" (unchanged).

France declared 5319 kg of HEU (5373 kg in 2019), of which 3785 kg (3836 kg) is unirradiated material - 852 kg (930 kg) of HEU at fuel fabrication or reprocessing plants, 74 kg (51 kg) at civil reactor sites, 2859 kg (2855 kg) at various research facilities. Also declared are 1533 kg (1537 kg) of irradiated HEU - 79 kg (99 kg) at civil reactor sites and 1454 kg (1438 kg) in other locations.

The United Kingdom reported having 738 kg of HEU (734 kg in 2019). Of this amount, 601 kg is unirradiated HEU (598 in 2019): less than 1 kg of unirradiated HEU is stored at the enrichment plants, less than 1 kg is at civil reactor sites, 421 kg - at fuel fabrication facilities, and 180 kg - at other sites (417 kg and 181 kg respectively in 2019). Irradiated HEU is located at civil reactor sites (5 kg) and other sites (132 kg).

The government of Japan released The Status Report of Plutonium Management in Japan - 2020, which details its plutonium holdings. According to the report,

As of the end of 2020, the total amount of separated plutonium both managed within and outside of Japan was approximately 46.1 tons, approximately 8.9 tons of which was held domestically and the rest of approximately 37.2 tons was held abroad.

The amount of domestic storage was approximately 8.9 tons at the end of 2020, the same amount as in the previous year, since there was no domestic consumption or recovery of separated plutonium either.

Of the plutonium stored abroad, 15,411 kg are stored in France (15,435 in 2019) and 21,805 kg - in the United Kingdom (21,180 in 2019). The reprocessing of Japan's spent fuel held in France had been completed by the end of 2017. The change of the amount of plutonium in the United Kingdom appears to reflect the change of the classification of the 0.6 tonnes of the material, rather than a new reprocessing campaign. In 2019 this material was reported as being contained in spent fuel. According to the report,

the stockpile held abroad increased from 36.6 tons to approximately 37.2 tons by adding approximately 0.6 tons of plutonium uncounted as of the end of 2019 among the plutonium separated under the contract with U.K.

In 2019, Japan reported having a total of 45.5 tons of separated plutonium, of which 8.9 tons were held domestically.

Frank N. von Hippel

On June 24, 2021, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to accept the recommendation of its staff to discontinue developing regulations for commercial reprocessing in the United States. The NRC Staff argued that making rules for reprocessing was not "cost-justified" since "no industry stakeholders indicated that they plan to submit an application to the NRC for a reprocessing facility in the foreseeable future" and, even looking ahead 10-20 years, there was "limited interest expressed or expected from potential applicants for reprocessing facilities, including advanced reactor designers, in the near-term use of reprocessed spent fuel." At the same time, entrenched interests within the Department of Energy (DOE) and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and a segment of the nuclear industry are trying to keep alive decades-old hopes for reprocessing and plutonium-fueled reactors.

Learning the reprocessing lesson, again The NRC staff's work on developing regulatory guidance for US reprocessing was initiated sixteen years ago in response to Nevada's legal battle against Congress' imposition of a geological repository for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. In 2005, the Congressional Appropriations Committees instructed the Department of Energy (DOE), "Given the uncertainties surrounding the Yucca Mountain [radioactive waste repository] license application process...we provide $50,000,000...for the Department [of Energy] to develop a spent nuclear fuel recycling plan." The committees gave the DOE two years to select a site for a government-financed reprocessing plant and three years thereafter to initiate construction.

This Congressional directive reflected the enthusiasm for reprocessing of Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), then chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and his former staffer, Clay Sell, who had been appointed Deputy Secretary of Energy in the administration of the second President Bush. In his 2004 memoir, A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy, Senator Domenici waxed almost lyrical about a 1998 tour he had been given of France's reprocessing plant at La Hague, concluding, "We must learn lessons from France's nuclear program" (pp. 161-163).

In 2006, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the current author were informed by the then chair and ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that DOE had told them that reprocessing would be less costly than dry cask storage. At the time, the actual cost of reprocessing was ten times higher than that for dry-cask storage.

With the Republicans' loss of control of Congress in the 2006 election, the pressure on DOE to reprocess abated. Industry continued to press the NRC to develop regulations, however. In 2011, France's government-owned fuel-cycle company, AREVA, wrote to the NRC,

"Assuming a final [NRC] rule in 20l5...projections suggest that construction [of an AREVA reprocessing plant in the US] could begin as early as 2020, with receipt of used fuel in 2025, and initial fuel treatment in 2030. Licensing by the NRC is on the critical path."

GE-Hitachi wrote similarly

"to express the continuing commitment of General Electric-Hitachi (GEH) to developing our Power Reactor lnnovative Small Modular (PRISM)/Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) technology."

AREVA went bankrupt in 2016, and was down-sized and restructured under a new name, Orano. GE-Hitachi was unable to find customers for its liquid-sodium-cooled PRISM reactor.

The dream of sodium-cooled reactors refused to die, however. Lowell Wood, a protégé of Edward Teller, who had driven the development of US thermonuclear weapons, convinced Bill Gates that "traveling-wave" sodium-cooled reactors could revive nuclear power. Gates founded a company, Terrapower to foster the development of these reactors.

After the traveling-wave concept proved to be infeasible, Terrapower shifted to promoting sodium-cooled plutonium-breeder reactors of the type that the US Atomic Energy Commission and other leading nuclear-energy establishments around the world had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. This earlier effort had collapsed as global nuclear capacity plateaued after 1990 due to cost and safety concerns. Sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors had proven to be more costly and much less reliable than light-water reactors and the effort to commercialize them failed despite the expenditure of about $100 billion on research, development and demonstrations worldwide. The program's most important legacy was its facilitation of nuclear-weapon proliferation to India (see, for example, Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo and Jungmin Kang, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power's Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare (Springer, 2019)).

Nuclear Idaho The persistence of US interest in reprocessing comes in large part from Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the center since the 1960s and 1970s of US efforts to develop sodium-cooled plutonium breeder reactors. INL has remained enamoured with its concept of Integral Fast Reactor complexes in which groups of sodium-cooled plutonium-breeder reactors would have their own "pyroprocessing" plants (INL's preferred reprocessing technology) onsite to recycle plutonium from their spent fuel into fresh fuel. INL has sustained its pyroprocessing program for three decades by using it to convert the spent fuel of its shutdown Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR II) into a stable waste form suitable for disposal in a deep-underground radioactive waste repository. The EBR II fuel could not be disposed directly in a spent fuel repository because it contains liquid sodium to conduct heat from between the fuel "meat" and cladding. Sodium burns on contact with air or water. INL's pyroprocessing program has, however, suffered huge cost overruns and schedule slippages, and has failed in its mission to produce stable radioactive waste forms.

Idaho's Republican Senators took the lead in the effort to get DOE funding to promote the demonstration of sodium-cooled reactors. They were joined by an influential group of Senate Democrats who had become convinced that a revival of nuclear power would be necessary to achieve the goal of phasing out fossil fuels. Together, the bipartisan group managed to pass the Nuclear Energy Innovations Capabilities Act of 2017 which mandated that DOE pursue the construction of a "versatile reactor-based fast neutron source" and bring it into operation by 2025.

Under the Trump Administration, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, led by a former INL staffer, decided to contract with Terrapower and GE-Hitachi to construct a multi-billion dollar, plutonium-fueled "Versatile Test Reactor" (VTR) at INL to test fuels and materials for fast-neutron reactors. It also initiated a cost-sharing arrangement with Terrapower and GE-Hitachi for the construction of a "Natrium" demonstration power reactor (natrium is Latin for sodium). The designs of both reactors are based on the PRISM reactor, whose design is based in turn on that of the EBR II, which operated at INL from 1964-94. Congress has thus far only supplied the first tranches of funding for these efforts.

The INL fuel design that GE-Hitachi and Terrapower have adopted must be reprocessed to create a stable waste form. On May 19, 2021, DOE announced a $40 million initiative to "limit the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors" - code for reprocessing - and, on June 28, 2021, it announced a cost-sharing agreement under which Argonne National Laboratory is to transfer pyroprocessing technology for separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to Oklo, a $25-million startup that proposes to mass-produce potassium-cooled, 1.5 megawatt fast-neutron microreactors, which would also use the INL fuel design.

In parallel, in Canada, Moltex, a UK startup, proposes to pyroprocess spent Canadian nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium to fuel small molten-salt-cooled fast-neutron reactors, and to make Canada a hub for exporting these reactors and their small pyroprocessing plants. Canada's Ministry of Natural Resources has announced a CAD50.5 million grant in support the development of this proposal. A group of senior US nonproliferation experts wrote to Canada's government requesting a non-proliferation and waste-management review of Moltex's proposal. A similar request for a nonproliferation review of DOE's promotion of reprocessing has been submitted to the Biden Administration.

Reprocessing is much more costly than spent-fuel storage and direct disposal. Since nuclear energy is already struggling economically to compete with renewables, making it still more costly will do it no favors. And DOE's promotion of pyroprocessing could once again legitimize reprocessing R&D in countries seeking a nuclear-weapon option.

Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center reported that it completed the process of downblending the HEU fuel of the IGR uranium-graphite research reactor. On 23 April 2021, the material was delivered to the reactor site in Kurchatov, where it was placed in storage. Fresh HEU fuel was downblended at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant.

The IGR reactor is expected to be decomissoned. There is still some irradiated HEU fuel stored at the reactor site.

By Hui Zhang

20210321 Jinta.png Figure 1: The demo reprocessing and MOX facilities under construction at Jinta, Gansu. Satellite image from 1 March 2020 (Coordinates: 40.333750, 98.494167). Credit: DigitalGlobe. Note that significant construction activities for reprocessing facility project II likely started after December 2020. This March 2020 image just shows related ground preparations.

Commercial bidding and purchase documents and other accounts suggest China is likely to start construction of a second spent fuel reprocessing plant of the same capacity and at the same site as its first such plant, the CNNC Gansu Nuclear Technology Industrial Park in Jinta, Gansu province.

Since 2015, China has been constructing a civilian "demonstration" reprocessing plant for spent light-water reactor fuel, with a capacity of 200 tons per year (tons of Heavy Metal, tHM/year). The construction activities and equipment purchases suggest that this first plant (Project I) could complete its civil engineering stage and begin equipment installment in late 2020. Project 1 is expected to be operational in 2025. The start of work on the second reprocessing plant (Project II) in late 2020 or early 2021 suggests that it could be commissioned before 2030.

In contrast to the launch of construction of Project I, there have been no official statements or news coverage so far concerning this new facility. There have been a number of announcements, however, including bid requests for various studies and services for "spent fuel demonstration reprocessing plant project II":

  • Jiangsu Shentong company, an equipment supplier, stated in a report dated 18 November 2019 that the China National Nuclear Corporation planned to build two 200 tHM/year reprocessing plants according to CNNC's 2012 "Long Teng 2020" (Dragon Soars 2020) technology innovation plan.
  • Bid for investigation of the impact of Project II on the environment and the adjacent community to be completed by 28 February 2021(posted on 5 November 2020).
  • Bid for supplementary investigation of average and extreme weather conditions in the Project II area for completion by 28 February 2021 (posted on 5 November 2020).
  • Bid for analysis of the environmental noise around the site of Project II, with completion required before 30 December 2020 (posted on 2 November 2020).
  • Bid for statistical analysis of meteorological parameters required for the design of the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system for Project II (posted on 9 December 2020).
  • Bid for design of auxiliary facilities for Project II with a bidding period of 28 February 2021 to 5 March 2021 (posted on 28 February 2021).

Satellite images suggest that, as of November 2019 the buildings hosting spent fuel reception pools for the first demonstration reprocessing plant seem to have been finished and the high stack of the first reprocessing plant is also complete. The main processing buildings were under construction. The company started to order equipment for the reprocessing line in the same period. In December 2019, CNNC called for a bid for a fluidized-bed facility for the reprocessing plant to be received by September 2020. In January 2020, the company finished the bidding process for procurement of a nitrogen oxide exhaust gas treatment system.

Since 2018 CNNC has also been building a demonstration mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication line with a capacity of 20 tons/year near the demonstration reprocessing plant. In 2019, the company started to order equipment for the MOX fabrication line. The civil engineering stage was expected to be completed and equipment installation started in 2020, with the plant to be commissioned by 2025.

The two 200 tHM/year per year reprocessing plants, operating at 50% capacity, and the 20 tons per year MOX plant could support the plutonium needs (about 2 tons of plutonium) of China's two CFR600 fast reactors under construction at Xiapu, Fujian Province. Construction on these reactors started in December 2017 and December 2020, and they are planned to be operational in 2023 and 2026 respectively. The first CFR600 will commence operating with HEU fuel rather than MOX; Russia's TVEL contracted in 2019 to supply the initial HEU core and reloads for seven years. It is currently unclear if the second reactor also will start out with HEU fuel or operate only with domestic MOX fuel.

Based on the MOX fuel requirements of Russia's prototype BN800 fast reactor (an initial core of 15.8 tons of MOX with 20.5% plutonium content), each CFR600 could require an initial core of about 10 tons of MOX fuel. Assuming the CFR600 MOX fuel contains about 20% plutonium, the initial MOX core would require about 2 tons of plutonium. The 200 tons of spent light water reactor fuel processed annually by each of the reprocessing plants that are under construction would also contain about 2 tons of plutonium. Operating at a capacity of 20 tons per year the demonstration MoX plant could produce these two initial cores in a year. Thereafter, each CFR600 may require about 5.5 tons per year of MOX, containing about 1 ton of plutonium (assuming each has a power of 1500 MWt, and average burnup of 80 Mwt-day/kgHM, and a capacity factor of about 80%).