by Greg Mello

During her 8 February 2018 Senate confirmation hearings as President Trump's nominee to be the new National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) administrator, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said her "number one" priority would be building up the US capacity to produce plutonium cores (pits) for nuclear weapons, with a target of making at least 80 pits a year by 2030.

The United States currently has some pit production capability at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), centered in LANL's main plutonium facility at Building PF-4 in TA-55. PF-4 was build 40 years ago for the purposes of research, surveillance, and prototyping, not production. Despite hundreds of millions in ongoing structural and mechanical renovation, it has been dogged with persistent safety problems and has operated only sporadically for all activities involving pits since 2013. NNSA estimates that PF-4 will come to the end of its life around 2039.

Since 1992 NNSA has invested billions of dollars in pit production at LANL, but this investment has failed to create the reliable pit production capability NNSA repeatedly said LANL already had once. According to NNSA's November 2017 "Plutonium Pit Production Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Results and Next Steps," the agency expects to invest a further $3 billion in pit production at LANL over the coming eight years--$1 B for operations and $2 B for facility renovation and new equipment. The goal of this effort is to establish a 30 pit per year capacity in existing facilities by 2026.

Achieving an enduring post-2030 80 pit per year capacity will be even more costly. NNSA is currently considering two options. The first (and so far preferred, on bases of schedule and cost), involves repurposing all or part of the partially-completed Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The alternative option involves construction of new pit production facilities at LANL.

NNSA's pit production AoA document says the 80 pits per year requirement derives from "pit aging estimates and planned production schedules to meet military requirements." These requirements are also mentioned in the February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which stated, accurately enough, that "[t]oday, the U.S. capability to produce plutonium pits is limited to research and development pits unsuitable for stockpile use" and affirmed that "DoD requires NNSA to produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030." The report, however, contains no reference to any current or proposed warhead or warhead program which requires new pits.

The 2014 "Assessment of Nuclear Weapon Pit Production Requirements" notes that "in 2008, the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) ... established the requirement for 50-80 pits per year" by 2031. This 2008 justification is now a decade old and has not been re-examined in any detail in public. The only changes are the target date that has moved forward by one year from 2031 to 2030 and the production target that has increased from "50-80" pits per year to "no fewer than 80" pits per year.

The current US stockpile consists of approximately 4,018 warheads and bombs, each with a pit. This number does not include approximately 2,600 intact-but-retired weapons of recent vintage. In addition, there are in storage for possible reuse an unknown but large number of "National Security Asset" pits.

In 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD) wrote that "depending on warhead type, the best estimate of minimum pit life is 85-100 years." The oldest pits in the stockpile were made in 1978 and therefore are 40 years old as of 2018. These oldest pits will therefore be useable, according to DOE and DoD, until at least the 2063 to 2078 period. The newest pits were made in early 1989 and will be useable until at least the 2074 to 2089 period. This means that the earliest date that replacement of today's stockpile pits would need to start is 2063, and the earliest date that replacement would need to conclude is 2074.

Discounting for the moment whatever flexibility is available from pit reuse across warhead type and other compensatory measures (including partial pit rebuild), a stockpile of the same size as today's would require 50 years to fully replace at an average production rate of 80 pits per year. Production that began in 2030 at that rate would completely replace today's stockpile by 2080.

The FY 2018 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan shows NNSA has no stockpile pit production scheduled at all until 2023, when just one pit is required, followed by 10, 20 and 30 pits in 2024, 2025, and 2026 respectively. Additionally, the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, Sec. 4219) required achieving a 90-day production demonstration of 80 pits per year in 2027, with up to a two-year grace period. It is not clear how NNSA expects to achieve the almost three-fold jump in pit production from 30 pits per year in 2026 to 80 pits per year in 2027. Given that NNSA's pit production Analysis of Alternatives asserts a maximum production rate in PF-4 of 30 pits per year, meeting the 2027 deadline implies bringing additional facilities into operation by that time. NNSA states that achieving this goal is unlikely but possible, though not at LANL.

Under the previous administration, the proposed Interoperable Warhead (IW-1) was the only Life Extension Program (LEP) to require new pits until 2041, when an "IW-3" was to begin production, also said to require new pits. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review contains no reference to any interoperable warhead, except as a possible concept exploration for the future.

There is clearly a need to re-examine and publicly justify infrastructure strategies and pit production requirements. The FY18 NDAA (Sec. 3141) required NNSA to submit an analysis of alternatives regarding plutonium production capabilities and identify the preferred course of action. The report should have been submitted to the congressional defense committees in January 2018. The discussion of alternatives should focus on a number of key questions that will determine the future of U.S. pit production capability:

Is there really a need for any new pits between now and mid-century? How is the projected need in pit production capability dependent on stockpile size and composition? Where--at what site, in what facilities--should pit production take place, and with what capacity, starting when?

In practice, questions about management risk, facility age, institutional suitability, workforce training and skills, potential expansion capacity, and supporting infrastructure will loom large in NNSA's pit production decisions.

At no time since the dawn of the nuclear age has the United States been able to produce pits both safely and reliably. Can this really be done, and if so how? The United States has not been able to successfully build a plutonium handling facility since 1978. What lessons can be drawn from prior failures? Could such a facility be built and safely operated today?

Pit production decisions are intertwined with decisions about the disposition of surplus plutonium, so much so that firm decisions about the former may not be possible prior to firm decisions about the latter. Will there be a surplus plutonium disposition mission at MFFF, what will it be, and could pit production occur there as well?

Or, if the pit production mission is to stay at LANL indefinitely, how will it become institutionally compatible? Can it ever succeed? Given PF-4's advanced age, what replacement facilities will be required?

None of these questions are easy or going away soon, no matter what NNSA decides.

For more background about these issues, see US Pit Production: Background and Issues (PDF).

The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) and the Swedish Environmental Court submitted their recommendations to the government on the project to construct a nuclear waste repository. (See earlier post for the background.) While SSM has approved the application, the Environmental Court expressed doubts about the repository's safety: "There is still uncertainty about the ability of the capsule to contain the nuclear waste in the long term."

The final decision about the project will be made by the government. Reuters quotes the Environment and Energy Minister Karolina Skog as saying that no decision would be made in 2018.

Jungmin Kang, a member of IPFM from South Korea, has been appointed as chairman of South Korea's Nuclear Safety and Security Commission by President Moon. He took up the three-year position in January 2018.

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission is the counterpart of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Founded in 2011, it has a mission "to protect people and the environment from nuclear and radioactive threats, and regulate and supervise the safe management of nuclear facilities."

Prior to his appointment, he was a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington, DC. Previously, he was a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, in Daejeon, South Korea, and spent two years as a researcher with Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security.

He has contributed to several IPFM reports.

rr17cover.pngIPFM's new research report "China's Fissile Material Production and Stockpile" (PDF copy) by Hui Zhang uses information from newly available Chinese public sources to provide a more detailed and documented reconstruction of China's production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The report provides new evidence to constrain the operating histories for China's Lanzhou and Heping gaseous diffusion enrichment plants. Lanzhou stopped HEU production for weapons in 1980 and shifted to making low enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian power reactors and possibly for naval reactors. It was shut down on 31 December 2000 and in 2017 was demolished. The Heping plant may still be operating but not producing HEU for weapons. China also has centrifuge enrichment plants but they are believed not to produce HEU for weapons.

The new report also offers new details on the operational experience of the Jiuquan and Guangyuan weapon plutonium production reactors. China also used these reactors to produce tritium for weapons. The reactors were closed in the 1980s and have been undergoing decommissioning.

Despite the end of HEU and plutonium production for weapons thirty years ago, China has made no official policy declaration formalizing this situation.

The report offers an improved estimates of the amount of HEU and plutonium China has produced and of its current stockpiles. China's stockpile of weapon-grade HEU (assumed to be 90 percent uranium-235) is estimated to be about 14±3 metric tons, lower than the previous IPFM estimate. The stockpile of plutonium available for weapons is estimated to be about 2.9±0.6 tons, significantly larger than the previous IPFM estimate.

France's New Areva and its partner China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) signed "a memorandum of commercial agreement" for the reprocessing facility and MOX fuel fabrication plant that Areva expects to build in China. The parties confirmed their commitment to the project and expressed hope that it will be launched in 2018.

However, the history of negotiations and the difficulty of siting the facility suggest that the deal is unlikely to be concluded soon, if ever. The initial letter of intent to build the reprocessing facility was signed in 2013, followed by at least two other agreements - in 2014 and in 2015. It appears that Lianyungang, Jiangsu province was initially chosen as the site of the new facility, but that decision was met with local protests, so it is possible that the plant will have to be built elsewhere.

The total cost of the contract is reported to be 100 billion yuan ($14.5 billion).

According to a report, India's first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, suffered major damage in an accident that happened about ten months ago. According to the report, the damage was caused by the water that "rushed in as a hatch on the rear side was left open by mistake." The submarine has been undergoing repairs and clean up at the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam.

The submarine was accepted for service in October 2016. It is powered by a 83 MW pressurized-water reactor, which first reached criticality in 2013.

by Johan Swahn

On January 23, 2018 the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten, SSM) and the Swedish Environmental Court will separately submit their recommendations to the government on the nuclear industry's application to build, operate and close Sweden's final repository for spent nuclear fuel. The government has to give the final decision to proceed with the project but its decision and future decisions by the regulator may be open to legal challenge and appeal up to Sweden's Supreme Courts and possibly to the European Court system.

The license application was submitted in 2011, following a 2009 decision by the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB), which is owned by the nuclear utilities, to site the spent fuel repository at the Forsmark nuclear power plant. The plan is encapsulate the spent fuel in copper canisters that will be emplaced in holes lined with bentonite clay in mined tunnels at about 500 metres depth in the granite bedrock. (See the chapter on Sweden and Finland in Managing Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors: Experience and Lessons from Around the World)

The Radiation Safety Authority is expected to say "yes" to a repository construction permit, while recognizing that there are issues still to be resolved by SKB. The authority believes these issues can likely be dealt with before a repository operating licence is granted, which is a later step in the regulatory decision-making process. One important and contentious issue is whether the long-term integrity of the copper canisters can be guaranteed. The canisters, which are supposed to isolate the spent fuel from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, are critical for the long-term safety case. A conditional yes from the regulator would give SKB time to deal with this and other concerns while the decision-making process and construction work proceeds. According to SSM, all outstanding issues have to be solved, however, before an operating licence can be given.

It is not as certain whether the Environmental Court will also say yes. In September and October 2017 the Court met to conclude its license review process. According to Sweden's Environmental Act, the Court has at this time to be shown that the repository is safe. During the Court session, it was clear that SKB and academic experts in material sciences held very different views on copper corrosion and canister integrity. This makes it difficult for the court to conclude at this time that the repository has been shown to be safe and so enable it to make a license decision. Unlike the regulator, the Court has no extended decision-making process.

If the Environmental Court says no to the license application, the future of the repository project and of Swedish nuclear energy policy becomes uncertain. The government can in principle overrule the court and point to a go-ahead decision from Radiation Safety Authority as a basis for allowing the repository to proceed. This may depend on how the Court explains its negative decision, however. A government decision to move forward despite the Court also could create problems of public support in the community expected to host the repository.

The government has to ask the opinion of the community of Östhammar, where Forsmark is situated, before taking a decision. The people and politicians in Östhammar are in favour of a repository, and there is a local referendum planned for March 4. A no from the Court could lead to a no from Östhammar. The government could also override a community veto, but this will be even more difficult than going against the Court.

If the Environmental Court says yes to the repository on January 23 it will be a big step forward for the project. It is still unlikely that the government will come to a decision before the spring of 2019, however, as there are parliamentary elections in Sweden in September. Even then, it is unlikely that a construction start could come before 2022.

The upcoming decisions by the regulator and the court will be important also for the Finnish repository programme. In Finland, the regulator has given a construction license, but the Finnish decision-making process is also step-wise. A negative decision in Sweden may lead to new questions and a rethink in Finland.

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announced that it had started construction of the new 600 MWe fast breeder reactor, China Fast Reactor 600 or CFR-600, at Xiapu, Fujian province. The reactor is expected to begin operations in 2023.

The CFR-600 design, developed by the China Institute of Atomic Energy, is based on that of the China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) that was built with Russian assistance. The 20 MWe CEFR went critical in 2010 and was connected to the grid in 2011. That reactor uses uranium oxide HEU fuel (64.4% HEU), supplied by Russia.

CFR-600 is designed to use uranium oxide or MOX fuel. Irradiation tests of MOX fuel assemblies in CEFR are expected to begin at the end of 2018 and post-irradiation tests - in 2020. It is not clear if China will be able to produce enough civilian plutonium to support operations of the reactor. It started construction of a 200 tons/year demonstration reprocessing plant in Jiuquan, Gansu province and is negotiating a purchase of a 800 tons/year reprocessing plant and a MOX fuel fabrication facility from Areva.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd, operator of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, announced that the opening of the facility is delayed again, this time for about three years. Japan Nuclear Fuel does not expect operations of the plant to begin earlier than the first half of 2021 fiscal year. This is the 23rd delay in the history of the plant, which was supposed to begin operations in 1997. Previous delay was announced in October 2017.

According to Platts Nuclear News, the reprocessing facility and the MOX fabrication plant are expected to begin operations in September 2021 and September 2022 respectively.