On July 13, 2017 U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration in cooperation with the IAEA, China, and Ghana completed conversion of the GHARR-1 research reactor located at the National Nuclear Research Institute, Accra. GHARR-1 is the first Chinese-origin MNSR-type reactor outside China that was converted to LEU.

According to the NNSA press release, it is cooperating with Nigeria, China, and the IAEA to convert Nigeria's MNSR, NIRR-1 at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 2018. Researchers from Pakistan, which operates an MNSR reactor PARR-2 at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), Nilore, also observed the conversion work in Ghana.

On 7 July 2017, a draft treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons was adopted at the United Nations in New York.

The process leading up to the draft was set up by a United Nations General Assembly resolution of 23 December 2016 calling for a "United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination."

The draft treaty is built on a comprehensive set of prohibitions of activities associated with nuclear weapons and weapon programs with far reaching implications.

Article 1: Prohibitions

  1. Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to:

    (a) Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;

    (b) Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly;

    (c) Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly;

    (d) Use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;

    (e) Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;

    (f) Seek or receive any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;

    (g) Allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in its territory or at any place under its jurisdiction or control.

The draft also requires states that have nuclear weapons to eliminate them through a verifiable and irreversible time bound process agreed with the States Parties to the treaty. This may have a significant impact on debates and policies concerning the production, stockpiling and use of fissile materials.

Article 4.2 states requires that each State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices shall:

  • immediately remove its nuclear weapons from operational status, and destroy them as soon as possible but not later than a deadline to be determined by the first meeting of States Parties.
  • This destruction will be in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan for the verified and irreversible elimination of that State Party's nuclear-weapon program, including the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons-related facilities.
  • This plan will be submitted by the state to the States Parties or to a competent international authority designated by the States Parties no later than 60 days after the entry into force of this Treaty for that State Party.
  • The plan shall be negotiated with the competent international authority, which shall submit it to the subsequent meeting of States Parties or review conference, whichever comes first, for approval.

In addition, a State Party that has nuclear weapons shall conclude a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency sufficient to provide credible assurance of the non-diversion of declared nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities and of the absence of undeclared nuclear material or activities in the State as a whole. Negotiation of such a safeguards agreement shall commence no later than the date upon which implementation of the nuclear program elimination plan is completed.

Any state that had nuclear weapons after 7 July 2017 and eliminated them and completed the elimination or irreversible conversion of all its nuclear weapons-related facilities before joining the treaty is required to cooperate in a process to verify the irreversible elimination of its nuclear-weapon program.

States that only host nuclear weapons (currently Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey, which host US weapons) are required to "ensure the prompt removal of such weapons, as soon as possible but not later than a deadline to be determined by the first meeting of States Parties" and "submit to the Secretary-General of the United Nations a declaration that it has fulfilled its obligations".

As a treaty based on international humanitarian law and principles, the treaty also contains provisions for assistance for people affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons and environmental remediation of areas contaminated as a result of the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The draft treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 in favor to one against (Netherlands), with one abstention (Singapore). There are 193 states in the United Nations.

Zia Mian

UN talks will begin in 15 June 2017 on the recently released draft text of the Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The nuclear weapon states have chosen not to join the talks.

The draft text proposes that, when the weapon states are ready to do so, one way they could fulfill their obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament is by agreeing "provisions for the verified and irreversible elimination of any remaining nuclear weapon programmes under strict and effective international control" that could take the form of "additional protocols" to the treaty. It is unforeseeable at present when any of the weapon states would join the ban treaty.

It is likely that when weapon states decide to join the ban treaty, the "provisions for the verified and irreversible elimination" of the weapons will have to be agreed on a case by case basis, including the timeline for elimination. It may still be useful to have a sense how quickly they could eliminate arsenals of their current sizes.

The greatest challenge may be for the United States and Russia, which each hold about 7000 warheads (as of 2017), including almost 3000 warheads each already awaiting dismantlement.

In the early 1990s, Russia was dismantling an estimated 2000 warheads per year. It has been estimated that the dismantlement rate in Russia currently is about 300-500 warheads a year. Russia currently has two operating nuclear weapon assembly/disassembly plants that together handle all steps of the disassembly cycle: Lesnoy (formerly Sverdlovsk-45) and Trekhgorny (Zlatoust-36).

The United States has declared that from fiscal years 1994 through 2016, it dismantled 10,681 nuclear warheads. This is done at the Pantex warhead assembly and disassembly plant in Texas.

A rate of over 1000 disassemblies in one year was achieved in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998. The current rate is below 300 warhead disassemblies per year. At the current rate, it will take about a decade to dismantle the 2,800 warheads currently in the queue for elimination. The low rate of current US dismantlement is due to the US using most of the work space at Pantex for warhead life extension. Were the United States to join the ban, there would be no more life extension activities.

The United States and Russia may have eliminated most of the warheads currently awaiting dismantlement if they decide the ban treaty decade from now. This would leave them with stockpiles of roughly 5000 warheads each to eliminate.

The past level of warhead dismantlement suggest that if the US and Russia were to focus on dismantling warheads, and operating at the same levels as they did in the 1990s, it would take Russia about 3-5 years and the United States about 4-6 years to dismantle all their nuclear weapons. Since the earlier high rates of dismantlement took place without international monitoring, the actual timeline for verified elimination of the 5000 remaining warheads may be somewhat longer. This does not include the time that would be required if the ban included an obligation to eliminate dedicated nuclear-warhead delivery vehicles - specifically, intercontinental and submarine launched ballistic missiles.

One indication of the speed at which such warhead delivery systems can be verifiably eliminated is offered by the US Cooperative Threat Reduction programs that between 1994 and 2013 helped Russia eliminate 914 ICBMs and 695 SLBMs and 155 bombers.

The number of delivery systems eliminated over this twenty year period is more than twice the current number of such systems deployed by the United States and Russia. As of March 2017, under the New Start treaty counting rules, Russia has 523 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers, while the United States has 673 such deployed systems.

It would appear that in agreeing "provisions for the verified and irreversible elimination of any remaining nuclear weapon programmes under strict and effective international control" Russia and the United States could be encouraged to set a deadline of no longer than 10 years to eliminate their weapon stockpiles.

President of the United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination released the text of a Draft Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (courtesy of ReachingCriticalWill.org). The conference, established by the UN General Assembly in 2016, held its fist session in March 2017. It will resume its work on June 15, 2017.

Some provisions of the draft address the issue of fissile material production. The annex on safeguards requires parties to submit to safeguards all their source or special fissionable material. It also requires that the equivalent of INFCIRC/153 comprehensive safeguards are applied on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of a State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere.

Chinese naval reactors

Hui Zhang

On April 25, 2017 China put on public display the Changzheng-1, its first Type 091 Han-class nuclear powered attack submarine. It entered service in 1974 and was decommissioned in 2013.

China launched its nuclear-powered submarine program in 1958, soon after starting its nuclear weapon program. To avoid the nuclear submarine program competing with the nuclear-weapon program for scarce HEU, according The Secret Course, an authoritative book on China's nuclear history, the decision was made to use LEU fuel for naval reactors.

A land-based prototype naval reactor began tests in May 1970, becoming fully operational in July 1970. The test of this reactor core ended in December 1979 and the spent fuel was discharged in 1981. China's first nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarine (Type 092 Xia-class) was launched in 1982.

China's official nuclear history (Modern China's Nuclear Industry, published in 1998) indicates that the first generation naval reactors in both the Type 091 and the Type 092 vessels may have used LEU enriched below 5% uranium-235 (comparable to modern nuclear power reactor fuel). The first generation naval reactors were mainly in use from the early 1970s to mid-2000s.

Zhang Jinlin, the chief designer of China's second generation nuclear-powered submarines, has said that the first of the second generation nuclear-powered attack submarines, the Type 093 Shang-class, was delivered in 2006, and the first of the second generation ballistic missile submarines, the Type 094 Jin-class, was delivered in 2014. China currently possesses five nuclear powered attack submarines and four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. These are all believed to use LEU fuel.

It is possible that China has adapted its second generation naval reactor for use as a small commercial power reactor. The China National Nuclear Corporation's ACP100 reactor is said to be derived from naval reactor technology. The ACP100 reactor is described as a 310 MWt (100 MWe) small modular PWR, using 4.2% enriched LEU fuel, with the core and cooling system integrated inside the pressure vessel and a passive safety system. This may suggest China has developed a compact integrated naval reactor, similar to ones previously developed by France and Russia.

by M.V. Ramana

India's Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) has been delayed again. This latest delay means that the time between the start of construction (in 2004) to reactor start-up is now more than double the originally "stipulated time of seven years" to achieve criticality.

In April 2017, an unnamed official from the Department of Atomic Energy told the Deccan Herald that "the middle of 2018 was being looked at [as] a more realistic target to put the new reactor into operation."

The new date for PFBR start-up pushes back by more than one year the start-up date that had been announced in a July 2016 answer to a question in the upper house of the Parliament of India about the "details... and the reasons for the delay." At that time, it was announced that the PFBR would reach "first criticality by March 2017."

A subsequent statement presented in Parliament on 9 February 2017 claimed "All the construction activities of 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) have been completed and the integrated commissioning activities have started. PFBR is expected to go fully functional by October 2017."

The 9 February 2017 parliamentary statement attributed the continuing delay primarily "to augmentation of certain additional assessments and checks on the installed equipment prior to commencement of their commissioning, which have essentially emanated owing to both increased regulatory requirements and as a matter of abundant caution."

As noted previously on this blog, problems with plutonium production and fuel fabrication have contributed to the delay.

Additional evidence for this came in October 2016 when the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission credited "never before [seen] performance of our nuclear recyle plants" that resulted in the "delivery of first core for PFBR" during his annual speech at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Russian State Corporation Rosatom reported removing all spent fuel from one of the facilities at the Scientific Research Technological Institute (NITI) in Sosnovy Bor. The fuel was shipped to the RT-1 reprocessing plant at the NPO Mayak, Ozersk. The transfer was completed in February 2017.

The facility in question is the KV-2 prototype pressurized-water naval reactor. It is believed to have used HEU fuel. According to the NITI 2015 annual report, removal of fuel from the KV-2 facility began in 2014 and was completed in February 2015. The KV-2 prototype was in operation since 1996.

NITI has also completed decommissioning of another prototype naval reactor, KM-1. It is a prototype of the lead-bismuth coolant reactor of the Project 705 Alfa submarines. KM-1 began operations in 1978 and was shut down in 1986. The reactor will be replaced by a new prototype of a naval reactor with liquid-metal coolant, referred to as AMB-8.

WIPP2017Apr8.pngOn April 8, 2017 the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) received its first shipment of transuranic waste since reopening in January 2017. The facility was closed for almost three years after an accident in February 2014.

The first shipment originated at the Idaho site. DoE released a video of the arrival. The facility expects about 128 shipments in the next 12 months. The amount of plutonium in these shipments, however, is not reported. Before the 2014 accident, WIPP accepted waste material containing 5.7 MT of plutonium.

The Office of Nonproliferation and Arms Control of the U.S. Department of Energy issued a notice of the change of end use terms of the HEU export license XSNM3622, issued in 2010, which authorized shipment of 93.5 kg of highly-enriched uranium (87.3 kilograms U-235) to France to manufacture fuel for the BR2 reactor. After the reactor switched fuel providers in 2016, the CERCA facility was left with some HEU that was no longer required for the fuel. In its notice, DoE seeks to use this material to manufacture HEU targets that are used in commercial isotope production.

According to the DoE notice, the material is "3.510 kg of U.S.-obligated high enriched uranium (HEU), 3.264 kg of which is in the isotope of U-235 (∼93.00 percent enrichment)." The material is "currently in the form of U-metal (1.410 kg UTot) and UAlx-powder (2.10 kg UTot)." HEU targets produced from this HEU will be irradiated in "BR2 (Belgium), High Flux Reactor (The Netherlands), LVR-15 (Czech Republic) and Maria (Poland) research reactors." After irradiation, the targets "will be transferred to the Institute for Radioelements facility in Belgium where Molybdenum-99 and other isotopes will be extracted."

It is worth noting that the original export license was followed by XSNM3622/01 in 2012. The new license authorized shipment of 6.2 kg of HEU (5.8 kg of U-235) specifically for use in manufacturing targets for isotope production (in BR2, HFR Petten, and OSIRIS reactors).

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