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.

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

According to the Request for Information DE-SOL-0008552 posted by the Department of Energy, the department seeks to establish domestic enrichment capability that would allow it to have access to "unobligated and unencumbered" enriched uranium that could be used in tritium production and in the fuel of naval reactors. Additionally, DoE plans to use domestically produced "high-assay LEU" for research reactors.

The document contains the following estimated requirements for enriched uranium production:

  1. High-assay LEU for research reactors by approximately 2030, as well as for test reactors in approximately 2025 and demonstration reactors in approximately 2030;
  2. LEU reactor fuel for tritium production by approximately 2038; and
  3. HEU reactor fuel for naval reactors by approximately 2060.

To provide the enrichment capability, DoE is looking at the domestic centrifuge technology, but is also willing to explore other options:

Potential strategies could include, but need not be limited to those based on the deployment and operation of a uranium enrichment plant utilizing technology to which DOE has current access (i.e., the AC100 centrifuge machine) and DOE-owned facilities and equipment. (DOE/NNSA may provide more information on request.) DOE intends to explore all practical options for meeting its need for enriched uranium, including incremental deployment and operations, and is also interested in approaches that might use a technology other than the AC100 centrifuge.

On 16 March 2017 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an export license XSNM3778 that authorizes shipment of 0.024 kg of HEU (0.02256 U-235, 95% enrichment) "for neutron flux monitoring in Krsko Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 1)." The material will be used in fission chambers that are manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Thermo Fisher Scientific also submitted a license application, XSNM3775, to provide fission chambers to Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation in South Korea. In that application, the company requested authorization to export 0.312 kg of 94% HEU (0.293 kg of U-235).

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.