by Frank von Hippel

The U.S. government's fiscal year 2018 of began on 1 October but the Senate and House Armed Services Committees only completed on 9 November 2017 their work on the policy framework relating to military activities in the form of a Conference Report on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Three elements relating to fissile materials are discussed here:

  1. The development of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for naval reactors;
  2. The disposition of excess weapons plutonium, and
  3. The reestablishment of a U.S. capability to make plutonium "pits" for nuclear weapons.

Development of LEU fuel for naval reactors. The U.S. nuclear navy accounts for about one third of the global consumptive use of highly-enriched uranium. During the past few years, some members of the House of Representatives have been trying to launch a program to develop LEU fuel. Other members have insisted that the funding for such an effort should come from the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) nonproliferation program rather than from its budget for naval reactor R&D. For the third year in a row, the NDAA authorizes $5 million for the development of LEU fuel for naval reactors. It authorizes an additional $30 million if the Secretaries of Navy and Energy submit a required joint determination to proceed with the program.

Technically, NNSA's Office of Naval Reactors agrees that it should be possible to convert U.S. aircraft carriers to LEU fuel but believes that the LEU fuel design it is considering "is unlikely to enable conversion of current life-of-ship submarine reactors to LEU." The problem is that an LEU lifetime core would be larger than an HEU lifetime core. To clarify the issue, the Conference Report (Section 3115) requires "a report on the cost and timeline required to assess the feasibility, costs, and requirements for a design of the Virginia-class replacement nuclear attack submarine that would allow for the use of a low-enriched uranium fueled reactor, if technically feasible, without changing the diameter of the submarine."

Disposition of excess weapons plutonium. Under the Russia-U.S. Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000, the two countries committed to dispose of 34 tons of excess weapons plutonium each - enough for about 10,000 nuclear warheads. The U.S. committed to dispose of 25 tons of its plutonium in mixed-oxide (MOX) uranium-plutonium fuel for U.S. power reactors. The G.W. Bush Administration increased that to the full 34 tons. However, the estimated cost for constructing the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where much of the plutonium had originally been produced and separated, grew from $4.8 billion in 2007, for a completion date in 2016, to $17.2 billion in 2016 for a completion date in 2048. The Obama Administration declared that the project was "unaffordable" and proposed as an alternative to "dilute and dispose" of the plutonium in the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a deep mine in a salt bed under New Mexico. This change, along with U.S. sanctions relating to Russia's incursions in Ukraine and the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, caused Russia to suspend its participation in the agreement.

The Trump Administration also favors dilute and dispose because of its lower cost. The Congressional delegation of South Carolina has led a so-far-successful congressional struggle to keep the MOX project on life support, however, and Congress has imposed a number of requirements before it will accept the dilute and disposal alternative (Section 3121). These include that:

  1. The cost of the dilute and dispose option "be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost of the mixed-oxide fuel program;"
  2. The Secretary of Energy must provide "the details of any statutory or regulatory changes necessary to complete the option." (The federal and state regulatory issues that must be dealt with to assure that WIPP, which was originally designed for transuranic waste can physically and legally accommodate an order of magnitude more plutonium than originally envisioned were recently reviewed by the Government Accountability Office); and
  3. A "sustainable future" is established for the Savannah River Site, which, since the end of plutonium production there in 1988, has been primarily a tritium processing and radioactive cleanup site at a cost of about $1 billion per year for cleanup with the end date currently projected for 2065.

Plutonium pit production. The U.S. has about 4,000 "operational" nuclear warheads plus a reserve of plutonium pits from about as many more dismantled nuclear warheads. These pits, mostly manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s, show virtually no signs of degradation and have estimated lifetimes of one hundred years or more. Nevertheless, Congress, in the Defense Authorization Act for FY2015 required the establishment of a capability to produce 80 pits per year by 2027 (50 U.S.C. 2538a). It appears that this requirement was driven primarily by NNSA's interest in developing new warheads that will be interoperable between land- and sea-based strategic missiles.

Industrial-scale pit production of pits at the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver, Colorado was shut down by environmental violations at the end of the Cold War. In 1996, it was decided that a small pit production capacity would be established at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where pit production R&D has been conducted since the World War II Manhattan Project. At the time, no construction was thought necessary to establish pit production capacity in the large Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos.

The Plutonium Facility is 40 years old, however, and was not designed to withstand a seismic risk that has been revised significantly upward since 1996. An extensive program of reinvestment is underway, with the goal of extending the life of the facility to 2039. The cost of projects to replace buildings housing supporting analytical chemistry and waste management capabilities grew in cost to the point where they were cancelled.

A leaked summary of an NNSA "Assessment of Alternatives" indicates that the completed but not yet equipped MOX fuel production building on the Savannah River Site is being considered as an alternative to Los Alamos for pit production. This would solve the problem of a "sustainable future" for SRS. Section 3141 of the FY2018 NDAA contains an unrealistic "poison pill" amendment introduced by advocates of Los Alamos requiring that, if NNSA cannot make a decision on Savannah River within 3 months, pit production must stay at Los Alamos. Such requirements are not written in stone, however.

Despite the earlier plans to use LEU fuel in reactors that will power its new icebreakers, Russia has apparently decided to develop HEU fuel for these reactors. The "integrated propulsion unit" with a nuclear reactor, known as RITM-200, was developed by the Afrikantov OKBM design bureau in Nizhniy Novgorod. The unit will be installed on icebreakers of the Project 22220 series (referred to as UAL, Universal Atomic Icebreaker, in Rosatom documents). The lead ship of this class, Arktika, is expected to enter service in 2018, followed by two more ships, Sibir and Ural.

In 2012, OKBM reported that it was working on a technical design of two types of "active zones" or cores - 14-15-1 with an "intermetallic fuel" and 14-15-2 with "metal-ceramic fuel" (OKBM 2012 Annual report, p. 26). In its 2013 annual report the TVEL corporation described the 14-15-1 and 14-15-2 cores as "HEU intermetallic" and "LEU metal-ceramic" respectively. In 2016, TVEL reported that it completed the production and "acceptance tests" of the 14-15-1 core (TVEL 2016 Annual report, p. 83). First fuel assemblies were produced by the MSZ Plant in Electrostal in July 2017. It appears that these are the HEU fuel elements of the 14-15-1 core and that the Arktika icebreaker will begin operations with HEU fuel. The enrichment of the HEU used in icebreaker fuel is not known.

It is worth noting that in announcing its decisions to resume production of HEU in 2012, TVEL referred to "a number of new projects, in particular, related to icebreakers."

India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) has failed to "go fully functional" in October 2017, despite the assurance given in Parliament in February 2017 on behalf of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

The reactor is now expected to be commissioned by mid-2018. According to BHAVINI, the DAE agency building the PFBR, "Sodium coolant has been poured into the secondary system of the reactor. It would take another six months before fuel loading."

In addition to the eight year delay in bringing the PFBR into operation, the overall plans for breeder reactors have been massively delayed. The original DAE plan called for starting construction of two more breeder reactors by 2017 - these are now are expected to start generating power by 2029 and 2031. This puts in doubt DAE plans for construction starts on an additional four fast breeder reactors between 2017 and 2027.

The Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk reported that it completed removal of all irradiated fuel of plutonium production reactors from the site. The fuel was transferred to the Mayak reprocessing facility.

The last production reactor in Zheleznogorsk, ADE-2, was shut down in April 2010. Reprocessing of natural uranium fuel elements was completed in 2012. The reprocessing facility in Zheleznogorsk, however, could not process HEU-containing "spike" fuel elements (known as DAV-90). These fuel elements were normally reprocessed by the plant at Mayak.

Alexander Glaser and Pavel Podvig

The Forschungsreaktor München II (FRM-II) has been using Russian-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) for many years. It has now become clear that since 2012 Russia has used its role as a supplier for FRM-II to justify production of fresh weapon-grade HEU. This poses a major problem for German policy on HEU purchase and is not consistent with international and German nuclear nonproliferation policy.

The FRM-II is one of the very few reactors that have been designed for the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) since in the late 1970s when the efforts to eliminate this directly weapon-usable material from the civilian nuclear fuel cycle were launched. The choice of HEU as fuel led the United States to make clear that it would not supply this material for the reactor. While the FRM-II was under construction, the German Federal Government and the reactor operators in Munich therefore began to seek an alternative supply of HEU and, in 1998, the German Government entered into a first HEU supply agreement with Russia. Combined with some legacy material the operators were able to secure in Europe, the FRM-II was able to operate up until 2016-2017 with this original stock of HEU. To extend reactor operations beyond that date, a new agreement was negotiated with Russia to supply the HEU needed for FRM-II fuel fabrication in France.

The German Government and the reactor operators argue that since Russia has large amounts of HEU from the Cold-War era, the Russian uranium supplied for FRM-II come from existing stocks. TUM makes this statement directly on its website:

It is important to state that it comes from military disarmament stocks.

Similarly, the Federal Government in a response to a question submitted by Sylvia Kotting-Uhl stated (see "Antwort der Staatsministerin Dr. Maria Böhmer vom 17. Oktober 2017," No. 14 in "Schriftliche Fragen mit den in der Woche vom 16. Oktober 2017 eingegangenen Antworten der Bundesregierung") that

according to the Russian producer TVEL (Annual Report 2015, p. 78), ... metallic uranium [was produced] from already highly-enriched source material for later use in FRM-II

Neither of these two statements is correct. In fact, Russia has resumed production of HEU in 2012, and FRM-II played a role in that decision.

Existing stocks versus new production of HEU in Russia

Neither TVEL, a subsidiary of Russia's State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM, nor any Russian government body ever stated that the material supplied to the FRM-II reactor under the current agreement is taken from existing HEU stocks or that it is a disarmament material. In fact, the information provided by TVEL makes is clear that the HEU provided to Germany is the new material produced by an enrichment cascade that was opened in 2012 with the specific purpose of resuming production of HEU, including weapon-grade HEU, i.e., material with a uranium-235 content of 90% and higher. FRM-II is the only customer of this production cascade that requires HEU of that enrichment level.

EKhZ_2012_HEU.pngThe Electrochemical Plant in Zelenogorsk, a subsidiary of TVEL, reported opening of the HEU production cascade in its 2012 Annual Report. It was described as part of a program to produce fuel for research and fast neutron reactors. According to TVEL's 2015 Annual Report, the Electrochemical Plant then worked on producing "highly enriched raw material to produce metallic uranium for Munich-II reactor." The Federal Government response from 17 October 2017 refers to this statement (included on p. 78 of the English edition of the report), but quotes it incorrectly. The statement does not say that this metallic uranium "was produced from already highly-enriched source material," as the Federal Government response suggests. The "highly-enriched raw material" referred to in the annual report is uranium hexafluoride with highly enriched uranium that was produced from natural uranium or equivalent feed through the enrichment process.

The original Russian text of this annual report is very clear and unambiguous on this point. It states that one of the key events of 2015 was "new production at the Electrochemical Plant of highly-enriched raw material to be used to produce metallic uranium for the Munich-II reactor."

TVEL2015.png The term that is used in the Russian text--наработка/narabotka--means new production from scratch, which in this context means enrichment of natural uranium to produce HEU. Had the production of HEU involved any other process, a different term and a different description of the process would have been used. It is also important to note that enrichment is the only production process that can be carried out at the Electrochemical Plant. Conversion of uranium hexafluoride produced there to metal is done at a different TVEL facility, the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant.

Why is Russia not using existing (excess) HEU stocks for FRM-II?

If Russia still has an enormous stockpile of weapon-grade uranium today, why is it not using existing stocks? There are no official explanations provided by the Russian suppliers. It could be logistically just more straightforward to make new HEU instead of processing existing stocks given that Russia has so much extra enrichment capacity. It is also possible that Russia recognizes that, since the United States is pushing to limit the use of HEU in civilian applications, there is now an opportunity to establish itself as a new international supplier of research reactor fuel. In addition to FRM-II, the new HEU line is currently used to produce material for CEFR in China (64%-enriched) and probably also for Jules Horowitz in France (27%-enriched). Once Russia built the capability to produce this kind of material, it can cover all markets, potentially replacing the United States, which is currently supplying fuel for older HEU-fueled reactors in Europe and elsewhere. FRM-II created an opportunity to build that capability.

Finally, existing HEU stocks may simply not meet the preferred or required isotopic requirements for uranium. As most weapon states, Russia originally optimized fissile material production for weapon purposes by using natural uranium first in plutonium production reactors, separating the irradiated uranium along with the plutonium, and then using this slightly depleted uranium for further enrichment. This strategy effectively doubles the amount of weapons materials that can be produced for a given amount of mined uranium. It also means, however, that most existing HEU stocks not only contain naturally occurring isotopes (U-234, U-235, and U-238), but also unwanted ones only produced in reactors (U-232 and U-236). U.S. uranium suppliers point out that "reprocessed material is usually less suitable due to the minor uranium isotope concentrations and the processing required to remove the impurities." They also note that the use of reprocessed uranium is not acceptable to some of the fuel fabricators and reactor users. To be a successful supplier, Russia should be able to provide "clean" HEU, not contaminated by reactor isotopes.

Whatever Russia's considerations are, it is clear that the opportunity to supply HEU to FRM-II played an important and perhaps critical role in the decision to re-start production.

In October 2017 the IVG.1M research reactor in Kazakhstan was tested with low-enriched uranium fuel assemblies in the core. The reactor reached the power level of 6 MW and worked for 5 hours 35 minutes. The test marks an important step in converting the reactor to LEU fuel.

The LEU fuel for the reactor, manufactured by the Luch enterprise in Russia, was delivered to the site before 2014. In 2015 Kazakhstan pledged to eliminate all its HEU reactor fuel.

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 2016.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-20) reported having 9.9 tons of plutonium in the country and 37.1 tonnes abroad (the 2015 numbers were 10.7 and 37.1 tons respectively). In August 2017 Japan also released a more detailed internal version of this report, "The Status of Plutonium Management in Japan".

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-20) reported 0.5 tons of separated plutonium in the country (1.8 tons in 2015). Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country. It is believed to be about 2-3 tons.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-16) declared no separated plutonium in storage or at reprocessing plants and "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium in all other categories. It is likely that all material belongs to foreign bodies (900 kg was reported in this category in 2014).

  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4-21) declared "less than 2 kg" of separated plutonium "held elsewhere" (it was "less than 50 kg" in 2015). This reflects the removal of 18 kg of plutonium to the United States.

  5. France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5-21) reported having 81.7 tons of separated unirradiated plutonium in its custody. Of this amount, 16.3 tons belongs to foreign countries. Almost all that plutonium - 16,217 kg - belongs to Japan. The amount of plutonium owned by France is 65.4 tons. The numbers indicate that France separated 2 tons of plutonium in 2016.

  6. The United States (INFCIRC/549/Add.6-20) 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 is an increase of 0.4 tons compared to the 2015 declaration. The document explains that the additional material was "accepted by the United States from other nations under nuclear nonproliferation programs." This should include the 331 kg of plutonium removed from Japan as well as the material removed from Germany and Switzerland (believed to be 30 kg and 18 kg respectively).

  7. China (INFCIRC/549/Add.7-16) declared having 40.9 kg of separated plutonium, an increase from 25.4 kg reported in 2015.

  8. The United Kingdom has not yet submitted its 2016 report. In 2015 it declared the total of 129.4 tons of plutonium in the country, of which 23.2 tons belonged to foreign bodies.

  9. Russia (INFCIRC/549/Add.9-19) reported 57.2 tons of civilian plutonium. This includes 54.9 tons of material in storage, 1.7 tons of plutonium in unirradiated MOX and 0.6 tons of plutonium stored elsewhere. The numbers in 2015 were 53.1, 1.5, and 0.8 tons respectively for the total of 55.4 tons.

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

Germany reported 0.33 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel, 0.94 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.01 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere." It's a slight increase from the 2015 numbers - 0.3, 0.93, and 0.03 tons respectively.

France declared 4806 kg of HEU (4598 kg in 2015), of which 3004 kg is unirradiated material - 1028 kg of HEU at fuel fabrication or reprocessing plants, 111 kg at civil reactor sites, 2125 kg at various research facilities. Also declared are 1593 kg of irradiated HEU - 147 kg at civil reactor sites and 1394 kg in other locations. The increase of 247 kg of HEU at fuel fabrication plants probably reflects the HEU held by Areva, which manufactures fuel for the German FRM-II reactor. This material is being supplied by Russia.

The United Kingdom has not yet submitted its 2016 report. It declared 1404 kg of HEU (unirradiated and irradiated) in 2015.

Miguel-Marin-Bosch.jpgMiguel Marín Bosch, a distinguished diplomat from Mexico was one of the early and enthusiastic supporters of IPFM. He supported the initial idea of the panel and participated in the April 2005 workshop in Washington, DC, that explored the idea of the panel. He joined the panel in 2006 when it was set up.

Born in Mexico City in 1942, Miguel was educated as a historian at Yale and received a Master's degree and PhD from Columbia University. He joined Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1969. He served as its Permanent Representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament from 1989-1995, and as Deputy Foreign Minister of Mexico for Africa, Asia, Europe and multilateral affairs, including disarmament from 2000 to 2002.

In 1994, Miguel chaired the first year of the negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He also contributed to achievement of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Land-Mine Ban Treaty.

Miguel was well described by US Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr in Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law. Writing about the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, Ambassador Graham observed:

For twenty-five years, Mexico had been a thorn in the side of the United States at disarmament conferences ... Miguel Marin Bosch was seen by many as our greatest antagonist ... He was brilliant, witty and charming.

After his retirement in 2002, Miguel continued to give his time to disarmament issues. He served as Director-General of Mexico's Diplomatic Academy (Instituto Matías Romero), and was a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. He also was the founder and president of Desarmex, a non-governmental organization working on disarmament and arms control education. He was the author of five books on disarmament, international relations, and history.

IPFM member Rebecca Johnson who perhaps knew Miguel the longest, remembers the "unfailing kindness and generosity he showed to me and and so many NGO representatives and younger diplomats. He taught us so much about diplomatic strategies and tactics, and was one of the wisest and most passionately committed of his generation."