Mycle Schneider

On 6 July 2018, the French Official Journal published a decree making formal a 23 November 2017 inter-governmental agreement for AREVA NC (now Orano) to reprocess at La Hague spent fuel from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) research reactor OPAL.

The reprocessing of OPAL spent fuel at the La Hague facility is foreseen to occur between January 2019 and 31 December 2034. The ownership of the extracted plutonium and uranium will be transferred to Orano. The plutonium is to be used in a civil reactor.

The reprocessing wastes are to be shipped back to Australia until 31 December 2035, unless the contract is extended for additional quantities of fuel. In that case, the very last date for waste return is 31 December 2040.

The quantity of spent fuel covered under the agreement and contract is "up to 3.6 tons." Under a previous agreement, 0.236 tons of OPAL spent fuel have been reprocessed at La Hague by the end of 2014.

As of the end of 2017, of the 9,970 tons of spent fuel stored in the La Hague spent fuel pools, 99.6 percent was domestic power reactor fuel belonging to √Člectricit√© de France (EDF). The La Hague facilities have a licensed reprocessing capacity of 1,700 tons per year of spent fuel.

France's Orano (formerly Areva) and China National Nuclear Corporation agreed to begin preparatory work on the "used fuel processing and recycling plant" in China.

In January 2018, New Areva and CNNC signed a "memorandum of commercial agreement." At the time, the cost of the contract was estimated to be $14.5 billion. The plant will have the capacity of 800 MTHM/year. China is also building a smaller indigenous reprocessing facility.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved a plan to decommission the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant. According to the plan, the decommissioning will take about 70 years to complete. The cost of the project is projected at 1 trillion yen ($9 billion).

The Tokai-mura plant is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. The decision to shut down the plant was taken in 2014.

Silex Systems Limited, an Australian company that own the Silex laser enrichment technology, announced that it will not be participating in the restructuring of the Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a venture that was set up by General Electric and Hitachi to use the technology to build uranium enrichment facilities in the United States. Canadian company Cameco joined the project in 2008.

In 2012 GLE obtained a license to build an enrichment facility in Wilmington, NC. That project, however, was put on hold as the demand for enrichment services dropped after Fukushima. In 2014, GLE expressed interest in building a facility in Paducah, at the site of the gaseous diffusion plant closed down in 2013. The new plant was supposed to enrich tails of the old enrichment operation to produce "natural-grade" uranium. In November 2016 GLE secured an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to acquire the tails. In April 2016, however, GE-Hitachi announced its intent to leave GLE. Silex Systems considered acquiring the GE-Hitachi stake in the company (which is 76%), but now ti decided against it.

In addition, Silex said it intends to give notice to GLE of the termination of the SILEX technology license "unless circumstances change dramatically in the short term". This most likely means that all plans to build a Silex-based commercial uranium enrichment facility in the United States are now terminated.

by Greg Mello

The U.S. Department of Energy's plans for plutonium pit production and for disposal of 34 tons of surplus plutonium are facing challenges in Congress as well as from litigation by South Carolina.

On May 10, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, and Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, issued a joint statement recommending development of an industrial plutonium warhead core ("pit") production capability at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, SC, centered in the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF).

The recommended pit production strategy involves substantial near-term "plutonium sustainment" investments at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), sufficient to create a 30 pits per year production capacity in Building PF-4 at by 2026, while simultaneously investing in a larger and more resilient capacity in a repurposed MFFF at SRS for the 2030s and afterwards. The one-page fact sheet describing the strategy shows no additional pit production buildings at either SRS or LANL.

Pit production capacities refer to accepted "War Reserve" (WR) pits only and do not include developmental pits, experimental units, rejected pits, etc. All capacities refer to single-shift operations. NNSA and DoD state required capacity in terms of the most demanding pit type, taken to be the W87 pit for the Minuteman III missile and Mark 21 reentry vehicle. After 2030, pit production is required to meet an 80 pits per year goal in 9 out of 10 production years.

Ellen Lord, in her capacity as Chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council, certified that the joint pit production recommendation met the requirements of Section 3141 of the FY2018 NDAA, noting that there were "major construction and certification schedule risks inherent in the plan." "It is essential," she said, "that NNSA resource near-term surge pit production at [LANL's] PF-4 to the fullest extent practicable" to "hedge against potential schedule risks in repurposing MFFF." The next "construction major milestone decision point" - for reconstruction and outfitting the former MFFF - is estimated to occur in 2021, Ms. Lord said.

Also on May 10, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry waived DOE's obligation to continue MFFF construction in favor of a "dilute and dispose" (D&D) program to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium, with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico as the final repository for this plutonium. On May 14, NNSA issued a partial stop-work order to its MFFF construction contractor, effective immediately.

The changes in the pit production mandate have been questioned in Congress. On May 15, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report on the House's draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2019 (H.R.5515) asking for clarification on "whether and why the 2018 NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] has modified the pit production requirement [from at least "50-80" as stated in requirements from 2010, 2014, and 2015, to "80" pits per year now].

The Committee "directs the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of Energy and the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, to submit a report to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives by November 30, 2018, on the annual pit production requirement, including any associated timelines. Such report should include a detailed rationale and justification for any changes to the requirement, the drivers behind the requirement, and associated costs. Such report should also include a detailed assessment of the potential to reuse plutonium pits that are currently in the inventory of the United States." (p. 239)

As the leaked executive summary of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) 2017 Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) indicates, there is more to this difference than meets the eye. Whatever confidence level may have attached to the previous "at least" or "a minimum of" "50-80" pits per year, the "high confidence" requirement for "at least" 80 pits per year means, or is interpreted by NNSA to mean, that a future pit production capability must deliver at least 80 War Reserve pits per year in 9 out of 10 production years. The average pit production rate would be higher than 80 pits per year.

H.R. 5515 passed the House on May 24, but not before adopting a bipartisan amendment sponsored by all three New Mexico representatives to require a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) to assess the NNSA's plutonium plans and report to Congress by April 15, 2019, halting implementation of the pit decision in the meantime.

The Senate Armed Services Committee completed its markup of parallel legislation the same day. According to the final Committee report (p. 103):

Within available funds, NNSA is directed to contract with a third-party Federally-Funded Research and Development Corporation to conduct an independent assessment of the NNSA's decision to conduct pit production operations at two sites. NNSA shall identify and execute a contract with an independent FFRDC, not directly involved in plutonium pit production, not later than 60 days after enactment of this act. NNSA shall not proceed with conceptual design activities for the recently announced preferred alternative until an FFRDC is under contract. The assessment shall include an analysis of the four options evaluated in the recent Plutonium Pit Production Engineering Assessment [i.e. three options at LANL and one at SRS], all identified risks, engineering requirements, workforce development requirements, and other factors considered. The FFRDC shall submit its report to the Committees on Appropriations of both the Houses of Congress not later than 210 days after enactment of this act.

The Senate report (pp. 110-111) also aims at impeding the D&D option for surplus plutonium disposal, necessary for NNSA's preferred pit production plan by requiring that:

no later than February 1, 2019, the Department shall submit to the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress, a plan for obtaining all necessary final state and Federal permits; acquiring independent scientific and technical review of dilute and dispose processes and waste forms to ensure compliance with waste acceptance criteria; defining any legislative changes necessary to accommodate this material and the existing WIPP waste inventory; and outlining any necessary design and construction modifications to the current facility, including cost and schedule impacts of any modifications needed to WIPP facilities or for developing additional repositories.

Given this, and the inherent problems and costs of building and operating plutonium facilities of any kind, plus the previously discussed lack of need for new pits for decades, decisions about pit production are clearly vulnerable to setbacks and reversals.

The Pilot Demonstration Center at the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk successfully completed a test run of its reprocessing line. It reprocessed a spent fuel assembly delivered from the VVER-1000 reactor at Balakovo NPP. According to Rosatom, the Center will use a new reprocessing technology that does not produce liquid radioactive waste. The first reprocessing line is said to have the capacity of 5 tHM/year.

The experiment is part of the plan to create a new large spent fuel storage and preprocessing hub in Zheleznogorsk. It includes a wet and dry storage facility that can accept fuel of VVER-1000 and RBMK reactors. The Pilot Demonstration Center, a reprocessing plant with reported capacity of 250 tHM/year, will test the technologies that then will be used to build a larger reprocessing plant at the site. The hub also includes a MOX fuel fabrication facility that was launched in 2015.

Tom Clements

On May 10, 2018, US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry delivered to Congress a letter "waiving" the legal requirement to continue spending funds on construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at DOE's Savannah River Site. The delivery of the letter initiated a 30-day period after which spending of further funds on construction can be terminated.

The conditions for MOX termination were spelled out in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (NDAA), passed into law on December 12, 2017. Section 3121 of the NDAA authorized the Secretary of Energy to waive spending on MOX construction, if he could certify that the cost "for the alternative option would be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost of the mixed-oxide fuel program." The only active non-MOX option on the table is "dilute and dispose" (D&D) - blending plutonium with an inert material for disposal as transuranic waste in the Waste isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

A report on the dilute and dispose alternative to MOX was also delivered to Congress on May 10, 2018, along with Secretary Perry's waiver letter. The report, obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists and entitled Surplus Plutonium Disposition Dilute and Dispose Option Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) Report, appears to meet a congressional requirement for MOX termination and demonstrates, according to DOE, that the D&D option is less than half the cost of MOX.

The Independent Cost Estimate, claimed by DOE to have calculated the dilute and dispose life-cycle cost estimate "in a manner comparable to the cost estimating and assessment best practices of the Government Accountability Office," states that "the remaining Estimate-To-Complete (ETC) for the MOX fuel program is $49.4B," with $7.6 billion already sunk.

The ICE report states that the cost estimate for D&D "ranges between $17.2B and $19.9B, with a most likely ETC cost of $18.2B." The report concludes that "the remaining D&D ETC lifecycle cost is therefore 35% to 40% of the remaining MOX fuel program ETC lifecycle cost." It should be noted that the dollars quoted in these cost estimates are "then-year" dollars that would mostly be spent decades in the future because of an assumed limitation on annual expenditures for construction of $350 million. The annual escalation rate for costs assumed in these estimates was 4% for construction and 2% for labor.

Legislation passed by Congress on March 21, 2018 for U.S. Government funding in Fiscal Year 2018 for the first time brought the appropriating committees into agreement about stopping the MOX project, if terms of the NDAA were met (see Section 309). That section of the spending legislation stipulates that DOE "may not use funds provided for the Project to eliminate such Project until the date that is 30 days after the submission of the lifecycle cost estimate."

The Independent Cost Estimate submitted on May 10 states that the "MOX contract termination and construction close-out is defined as DOE directing the MOX prime contractor to develop a plan within 90 days to terminate the project and begin to secure information, materials, and equipment at the job site to protect government assets and ensure the safety of workers."

It is assumed that the termination plan is being developed and that an announcement will be made soon on when the last construction funds will be spent. Project termination and securing the MOX facility, according to the ICE report, could take several years and cost $1 billion. It is expected that MOX Services - now a consortium of McDermott International, Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I) and Orano (formerly Areva) - will carry out the yet-to-be-developed termination plan.

The company that operated the American Centrifuge Lead Cascade Facility, Centrus, began the process of decommissioning the facility. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received a license amendment application and initiated a public review of the decommissioning plan.

The cascade began operations in March 2010 and was shut down in 2015. The American Centrifuge Project, of which this cascade was a part, was terminated in 2016.

Ukraine's generating company Energoatom signed a contract with France's Orano (formerly Areva) "for assessing the feasibility of reprocessing services of spent fuel assemblies of Ukrainian VVER-1000 nuclear reactors in La Hague facility."

The contract is part of Ukraine's effort to diversify its nuclear fuel cycle. Ukraine is constructing a spent fuel storage facility and is working with Westinghouse to use its fresh fuel.