by Mycle Schneider

Chronical understaffing, "frantic cost-cutting", serious incidents--trade unions are raising "a serious alert message" concerning deteriorating working conditions and their impact on safety. One should add, and potentially on security.

On 23 March 2017, international news agency Reuters revealed the existence of an unsigned, internal memo from the Committee on Health, Safety and Working Conditions (CHSCT) dating from late 2016. The document reveals a list of serious shortcomings in management and working conditions. In particular, management measures are said to "only confirm a situation of already precarious, chronical under-staffing". These shortcomings would lead to "situations, where there is only one or two persons in the control room to manage four, five or six centralized control-command positions". The document claims that, in order to reach production targets, "management tolerates without any problem that the staffing is topped up by trainees".

At least five, possibly more high-level vitrified waste canister have been produced that do not meet technical specifications, because a leak in the glass feed went undetected. Even after detection of a suspicious change in the exhaust gas composition, management refused to investigate as "production shall not be stopped". French Nuclear Safety Authority's (ASN) is still investigating the incident.

The health department's annual report indicates that "the number of consultations of the work psychologist by employees has exploded". In fact, a disproportionately high number of suicides at the La Hague facility is notorious.

"We are launching a serious alert message: Until recently we pursued excellence in matters of safety, now we just try to be okay, which makes no sense in an industry that has no room for error," the CHSCT note said.

Helene Heron, head of the ASN Caen unit, which oversees La Hague, told Reuters: "We have not observed a deterioration of safety on the site." It remains unclear, what the ASN's thermometer for "deterioration of safety" looks like.

ASN's boss Pierre-Franck Chevet told the press in January 2017 that he considers the general context of nuclear safety in France "worrying, even more so than in the beginning of the year 2016". Chevet stated: "The [nuclear] industry is still in an extremely difficult financial, economic and budgetary situation, while it is confronted with very significant challenges. The Nuclear Safety Authority, which is participating in the control of the whole system, is also lacking human and financial means."

As the union paper put it, "frantic cost-cutting is jeopardizing long-established procedures".

Note: See also a French edition of the Reuters release: "Les syndicats alertent sur la sûreté du site de La Hague d'Areva", 23 March 2017

The first session of the High Level Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) Expert Preparatory Group took place in New York on March 2-3, 2017. The Group was established by the UN Secretary General at the request of the UN General Assembly. The meeting in New York was open to all Member States. Some statements are available at the UNODA web site.

The discussions will continue in Geneva on July 31, 2017 among the 25 members of the High-Level Group. As of March 3, 2017, the following states were invited to join the High-Level Group:

  1. Algeria
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Brazil
  5. Canada
  6. China
  7. Colombia
  8. Egypt
  9. Estonia
  10. France
  11. Germany
  12. India
  13. Indonesia
  14. Japan
  15. Mexico
  16. Morocco
  17. Netherlands
  18. Poland
  19. Republic of Korea
  20. Russia
  21. Senegal
  22. South Africa
  23. Sweden
  24. United Kingdom
  25. United States

China has not yet confirmed its participation. Pakistan was approached, but indicated that it will not join the group (see Pakistan's statement at the meeting).

A group of 21 states--Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States--made a commitment to minimize and eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications. The text of the Joint Statement was published by the IAEA as a document INFCIRC/912. The Joint Statement is a result of the commitment made by the signatories of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit Gift Basket on HEU minimization. Indonesia, who subscribed to the gift basket, did not sign the Joint Statement, probably because it has already removed all HEU).

Signatories of the Joint Statement "commit themselves to the following elements of a comprehensive plan aimed at minimizing -- and ultimately eliminating -- the use of HEU in civilian applications:"

  1. Refrain from use of HEU in new civilian facilities or applications;
  2. HEU reactor conversions or shut downs;
  3. HEU stocks removals, downblending or disposition;
  4. LEU alternatives for medical isotope production.

In an important step, the states that signed the joint statement made a commitment to establish a Template for a Voluntary Reporting Mechanism on Minimising and Eliminating the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Applications. The template includes the following information:

  1. Current inventories of civilian HEU (with the level of detail currently reported by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as part of their INFCIRC/549 reports),
  2. Removals of HEU through repatriation or other export,
  3. Conversions or shutdowns of HEU research reactors,
  4. Efforts to downblend excess HEU inventories.

The reports will be updated annually and submitted to the IAEA by March 1. The first report, which is due on May 1, 2017, could cover historical activities.

This initiative is an important step toward greater transparency in the area of HEU minimization. It should be noted, however, that it does not cover military use of HEU (such as naval reactors). The list of signatories does not include Russia, who is the largest user of HEU in civilian applications, as well as a number of other states. One notable absence from the list is Germany that has been purchasing newly produced HEU from Russia for its research reactor.

The U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is taking ownership of about 600 kg of separated plutonium that has already been stored in the country. The material is described as "600 kg of material previously owned by a Spanish utility" and "5 kg of material previously owned by a German organisation."

This move continues the practice of United Kingdom's taking ownership of foreign plutonium that is stored on its soil.

In a press release summarizing progress since 2009 on the policies known as the Prague Nuclear Agenda the Obama administration announced that it "unilaterally reduced the U.S. nuclear stockpile by approximately 500 warheads this year [apparently FY2016] and added these weapons to the dismantlement queue." Despite this reduction, no additional fissile material was declared as excess to weapon or military purposes.

The White House factsheet noted that "As of September 2016, the U.S. active stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 4,018 warheads." Previous data released by the United States showed that its active stockpile as of September 2015 included 4,571 weapons. The data indicates a reduction of 553 warheads.

As of September 2016, the warhead dismantlement queue has increased to about 2,800 from the "approximately 2,500 warheads retired and in the queue for elimination" as of September 2014 (announced in April 2015).

The press release reports that "from fiscal year 2009 through the end of fiscal year 2016, the U.S. dismantled 2,226 warheads and retired an additional 1,255 weapons." The average warhead dismantlement rate has fallen significantly in this period - the press release notes that "Since September 30, 2013, the United States has dismantled 666 nuclear warheads." This suggests that 1560 warheads were dismantled from 2009 to 2013 and only 666 warheads were dismantled since 2013. In the past, the United States was able to dismantle well over 1,000 warheads per year.

It appears that 258 warheads were dismantled in fiscal year 2016. At the current rate of dismantlement, it will take over a decade to dismantle the 2,800 warheads currently in the queue for elimination.

Among other achievements mentioned in the press release is the "removal of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries - more than four metric tons of nuclear material." The document notes that "since 2009, 16 nations and Taiwan - countries from Argentina and Libya to Serbia and Vietnam - have eliminated their holdings of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, making Latin America, Central Europe, and Southeast Asia completely free of these dangerous materials."

The Japanese government formally decided to scrap the Monju prototype reactor. Spent fuel from the reactor will be removed by 2022 and the dismantlement is expected to be completed by 2047. The dismantlement is estimated to cost about ¥375 billion ($3.2 billion). A recent estimate suggested that restarting the reactor would take about eight years and ¥540 billion (about $4.82 billion) to operate.

The 350-MWe Monju prototype fast-neutron reactor was operational for only very brief period. It reached criticality in 1994 and was connected to the grid in August 1995, but was shut down four months later by a fire caused by leakage of its molten sodium coolant. It was restarted again 15 years later, in May 2010, but was shut down again three months later by a refueling accident. In November 2015, Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority announced that the current operator of the reactor, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, is unfit for purpose when it discovered a number of problems during a safety inspection.

However, the shutdown of the Monju reactor does not seem to affect Japan's plan to invest in fast neutron reactor or the policy regarding reprocessing of the spent fuel of its light-water reactors.

Martin Forwood

If nuclear power has been labelled an extraordinarily expensive way of boiling a kettle, then Evaporator D--known to the workforce as the 'Big Kettle'--must be breaking all records. Initially costed at £90 million in 2007 (then US$185 million) and due to come into operation in 2010-2011, the cost has increased eight-fold to £740M (now US$920M) by September 2015. With a still 'challenging' operational date penciled in as 2017-2018, and with updated figures yet to be disclosed, the sky is clearly the limit for Evaporator D.

Sellafield's Evaporator D story might bear some serious lessons for the upcoming evaporator replacement planned for the French La Hague reprocessing plant (see Evaporator corrosion at La Hague threatens future reprocessing - Time for a strategy rethink?). La Hague operator AREVA NC's replacement strategy looks strikingly similar to the largely failed approach implemented at Sellafield (see also Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, 2 December 2016).

More...

The RT-1 reprocessing plant at the Mayak Production Association in Ozersk received the first shipment of spent fuel of VVER-1000 reactor. According to the press-release issued by the company, the spent fuel shipment from the Rostov nuclear power plant was delivered to Mayak on 16 December 2016.

In June 2016, Mayak announced that reprocessing of the VVER-1000 fuel will allow the plant to reach its nominal capacity of 400 tons/year. Historically, the RT-1 plan was reprocessing about 100-130 tons of fuel annually.

In a statement made at the International Conference on Nuclear Security in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced that "the United States is beginning consultations with the IAEA to monitor the dilution and packaging of up to six metric tons of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina."

The material in question is part of the U.S. plutonium stock that was designated excess for military purposes. In addition to the 6 MT of non-pit plutonium covered by the current initiative, it also includes 34 MT of pit plutonium that was to be disposed as part of the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) as well as 7.1 MT of pit plutonium for which a disposition path is not yet assigned. The Department of Energy announced its intent to dispose of the 6 MT of non-pit plutonium in January 2016 (a formal record of decision was published in April 2016).

It appears that the United States will invite the IAEA to monitor the activities at the Savannah River Site, which include "blending the plutonium oxide with an adulterant, packaging the diluted materials in secure canisters, and preparing the canisters for permanent disposal in a geologic repository." The initiative does not seem to cover subsequent placing of the canisters in the WIPP geologic repository. [UPDATE 12/10/2016: U.S. officials indicated that the Unites States will be open to IAEA monitoring of the emplacement of plutonium to WIPP.]

The statement also does not say if the IAEA monitoring will be applied to the 34 MT of plutonium that was covered by PMDA. In 2010, the United States and Russia informed the IAEA of their intent to develop verification measures with respect to their disposition programs, but this arrangement is now in question after the United States indicated its intent to change the disposition method and Russia suspended the agreement in October 2016. It is likely that if PMDA is terminated, the United States will extend the transparency measures of the current initiative to the 34 MT of the plutonium as well. The statement make an implicit commitment to do so, as it states that "the total amount of surplus plutonium for which the United States has committed to verifiably eliminate to 40 metric tons."

Note that the Savannah River Site has already packaged some plutonium and prepared it for shipment to WIPP. Since this process began before the 2016 decision regarding surplus plutonium, it is not included in the 6 MT covered by the new initiative. As of the end of 2014, WIPP accepted 5.7 MT of plutonium.