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.

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.