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.

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 has not yet submitted its 2016 report. In 2015 it reported 25.4 kg of separated plutonium.

  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."

The National Nuclear Security Administration and the South Africa company NTP completed conversion of medical isotope production in South Africa to low enriched uranium. According to NNSA< "NTP is the first major producer of Mo-99 to convert its production from HEU to LEU."

The reactor that is used to produce medical isotopes, Safari-1, was converted to LEU in 2008. Spent HEU fuel was removed to the United States in 2011.

by David Lowry

"As part of preparations for EU Exit, the UK is establishing a domestic nuclear safeguards regime to ensure that the UK continues to maintain its position as a responsible nuclear state and that withdrawal from Euratom will not result in the weakening of our future safeguards standards and oversight in the UK", Greg Clark, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in a written statement to the UK Parliament on 14 September (Commons HCWS137).

The UK believes that it is "vitally important" that the new domestic nuclear safeguards regime, to be run by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, is as comprehensive and robust as that currently provided by Euratom (see IPFM Blog post).

The UK claims it "is seeking to conclude new agreements with the IAEA that follow the same principles as our current ones," arguing this will "ensure that the IAEA retains its right to inspect all civil nuclear facilities, and continue to receive all current safeguards reporting, ensuring that international verification of our safeguards activity continues to be robust".

Whatever the outcome of those discussions, the UK asserts it is "committed to a future regime that provides at least the existing levels of assurance." The legislation to provide for this was announced in the Queen's speech and will be brought forward "in due course".

On August 28, 2017, the UK BREXIT department issued a related policy paper Technical note on spent fuel and radioactive waste, which included this important explanation of the UK position:

The UK would expect reciprocal assurance that spent fuel and radioactive waste generated in a Euratom Member State, and present on UK territory on the date of withdrawal, will remain the responsibility of the relevant Euratom Member State. This is the current position set out under Euratom Community Law in accordance with Article 4 of Council Directive 2011/70/Euratom establishing a Community framework for the responsible and safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste. This principle should apply equally to any radioactive waste recovered as a by-product from the treatment or reprocessing of this spent fuel and radioactive waste.

It adds:

The UK would also expect assurance that spent fuel and radioactive waste generated in a Euratom Member State, and transferred to UK territory following the date of withdrawal as part of contracts or agreements concluded prior to the date of withdrawal, will similarly remain the responsibility of the relevant Euratom Member State.

The technical note provides further information on spent fuel and radioactive waste to support the UK's position published on July 13, 2017, in the UK's position paper on nuclear materials and safeguards.

Meanwhile, Angela Hepworth, Corporate Policy and Regulation Director for EDF Energy (UK) speaking at a House of Lords parliamentary hearing jointly with Dr Mina Golshan, Deputy Chief Inspector at the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation on the impact of Brexit on Britain's energy security, on September 13, 2017, said:

If we fail to have a safeguard regime in place and if we fail to have nuclear cooperation agreements in place from key third countries, we wouldn't be able to share nuclear components.

The forthcoming UK talks with the European Union on Euratom are scheduled to take place in the last week of September 2017.

rr16A new research report, The Use of Highly-Enriched Uranium as Fuel in Russia, (PDF copy) released by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), provides unprecedented details of the military and civilian use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Russia, the country which holds the world's largest stockpile of this nuclear weapon-usable material. Russia's HEU stockpile is estimated to be about 680 tons and Russia currently operates more HEU facilities than the rest of the world combined. It is also the only country producing HEU for export.

Edited by Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the Program on Science and Global Security, with contributions by six other leading Russian experts, the report describes Russian programs that use HEU as fuel or have used it for this purpose in the past (as opposed to HEU in weapons use). Russia uses HEU to fuel military and civilian naval reactors, fast neutron power reactors, plutonium and tritium production reactors, research reactors, and critical assemblies. It currently has 58 reactors and critical assemblies that use HEU on land and over 50 HEU-fueled naval reactors. As of 2017, Russia is estimated to use about 8.5 tons of HEU of various enrichments annually, a large fraction of which is weapon-grade material.

The large number of HEU facilities in Russia means that substantial amounts of HEU are constantly moving through the fuel cycle, creating nuclear security risks. HEU poses special concerns since it can be used relatively easily in a simple nuclear explosive device by states with limited nuclear weapon expertise or even by non-state actors. Over the past several decades - and especially since 9/11 - there have been high-level international initiatives to address these risks, especially for HEU in civilian applications.

The new report assesses Russia's contribution to the effort to convert research reactors from HEU to non-weapon-usable low-enriched uranium fuel, and Russia's efforts to repatriate fresh and spent HEU fuel it had supplied to research facilities abroad. It contains a comprehensive list of Russian HEU facilities, a list of all Soviet-origin reactors outside of Russia, and data on the returns to Russia of HEU fresh and spent fuel from these Soviet-origin reactors abroad. The report also evaluates the organizational structure, rules and regulations that govern the security of HEU in civilian research facilities in Russia.

The report finds that, while Russia has been active in returning its HEU from research facilities abroad and has closed down some domestic HEU facilities, it has not made HEU minimization a priority. On the contrary, it is working on a number of new projects that involve the use of HEU and in 2012 resumed production of HEU for export. Thus far, this HEU has been shipped to China's Experimental Fast Reactor, France's Jules Horowitz reactor, and Germany's FRM-II reactor.

The report argues that securing Russia's commitment to this goal requires development of a comprehensive global HEU minimization strategy. Given the variety of applications that use HEU worldwide, such a strategy should include a consistent approach to the use of HEU to fuel high-performance civilian reactors, defense-related research facilities, and naval reactors. The report concludes that, eventually, this effort also must address the material security risks associated with HEU stocks for weapons.

The VNIIEF Research Center in Sarov, one of Russia's nuclear weapon laboratories, is planning to open production of medical isotopes on an Argus-M reactor, which is a modified version of the Argus aqueous homogeneous reactor at the Kurchatov Institute. That reactor was converted to LEU in 2014. The reactor in Sarov will also use LEU.

At the public hearing on the Argus-M reactor project, held in July 2017 in Sarov, Rosatom presented its estimate of the status of the Mo-99 market and provided some information about the isotope production in Russia.

According to Rosatom estimate, market shares of the key Mo-99 producers are as follows: ANSTO (Australia) - 10%, Nordion (Canada) - 20%, Mallinckrodt (Netherlands) - 31%, NTP (South Africa) - 20%, IRE (Belgium) - 14%. Rosatom's own share in Mo-99 production is 4%.

Until recently, the main Mo-99 producer in Russia was the Obninsk branch of the Karpov NIFKhI, which produces about 170 Ci/week. There were also two "regional producers" - the Khlopin Radium Institute (St-Petersburg) and the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute. Several years ago production of the isotope began at NIIAR in Dimitrovgrad.

According to Rosatom, three out of four producers (NIIAR, Tomsk, and NIFKhI) use HEU reactors, two out of four (NIFKhI and NIIAR) use HEU targets. NIFKhI and NIIAR use fission fragments technology, Tomsk an the Khlopin Radium Institute use neutron activation.

The reactor at the Obninsk branch of NIFKhI is the VVR-Ts, the reactor in Tomsk is IRT-T. NIIAR apparently uses several reactors to irradiate the targets. The Khlopin Institute does not operate a reactor. It irradiates Mo-98 targets in RBMK reactor of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant.

UPDATE: At an IAEA meeting "Opportunities and Approaches for Supplying Molybdenum-99 and Associated Medical Isotopes to Global Markets" held in July 2017 in Vienna, Rosatom representative presented a different set of numbers. The production capacity of the NIFKhI in Obninsk is said to be 350 Ci/week, that of NIIAR - 1000 Ci/week.

It should be also noted that Nordion stopped producing Mo-99 in 2016. Taking these corrected numbers into account, Russia's production capacity is closer to the 12% of the global capacity and 25% of the global demand. (Thanks to Alan Kuperman for the correction.)