As part of its plutonium disposition program, the United States has been sending some material to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The repository, which opened in 1999, suspended operations after an accident in February 2014. During that time, WIPP accepted about 5.7 MT of plutonium in various forms. The graph and the table below provide data on the amount of plutonium emplaced in WIPP in 1999-2014. The table is based on the official information that the Department of Energy released to researchers.

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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 2015.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-19) reported having 10.7 tons of plutonium in the country and 37.1 tonnes abroad (the 2014 numbers were 10.8 and 37.0 tons respectively). In July 2016 Japan also released a more detailed internal version of this report, "The Status of Plutonium Management in Japan".

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-19) reported 1.8 tons of separated plutonium in the country (2.1 tons in 2014). Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-15) declared "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium in all 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.4-20) declared "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium "held elsewhere" (no change from 2014).

  5. France - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  6. The United States - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  7. China (INFCIRC/549/Add.7-15) reported 25.4 kg of separated plutonium (no change from 2014).

  8. The United Kingdom - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  9. Russia (INFCIRC/549/Add.9-18) reported 55.4 tons of civilian plutonium. This includes 53.1 tons of material in storage, 1.5 tons of plutonium in unirradiated MOX and 0.8 tons of plutonium stored elsewhere. The numbers in 2014 were 52, 0.3 and 1.3 tons respectively for the total of 53.6 tons

I addition to reporting plutonium stocks, some countries also submit data on their civilian HEU:

Germany reported 0.3 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel, 0.93 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.03 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere." The numbers have not changed since 2014.

U.S. National Academies published a report of the Committee on State of Molybdenum-99 Production and Utilization and Progress Toward Eliminating Use of Highly Enriched Uranium, Molybdenum-99 for Medical Imaging. The committee was asked to assess the status of U.S. domestic and international Mo-99 production, assess progress made so far in ensuring reliable supply of medical imaging isotopes, and evaluate the effort to eliminate HEU from the Mo-99 production process.

The report noted that despite significant progress in reducing the use of HEU in the Mo-99 production chain, further "progress is being impeded by several factors, including the continued availability of molybdenum-99 produced with highly enriched uranium targets." The committee recommends that "the U.S. government and others should take additional actions to promote the wider utilization of molybdenum-99 and technetium-99m produced without the use of highly enriched uranium targets."

The National Academies also looked at the issue of HEU role in medical isotope production in the report Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium, published in 2009.

A new uranium enrichment centrifuge plant may be under construction at the Khan Research Laboratories site at Kahuta in Pakistan. In an article published in Jane's Intelligence Review IHS Jane's and Project Alpha, a research group based at King's College London, identified the site, which is located at 33°36'48.4"N 73°22'20.1"E. It can be seen on Google Maps image dated July 8, 2016:

According to IHS Jane's assessment, the construction began at some point in 2015 and may be completed in 2017 or early 2018. Although the actual function of the facility cannot be determined with certainty from the satellite imagery at this time, a uranium enrichment plant appears to be a strong possibility.

Pakistan is believed to have two operational enrichment facilities, Kahuta and Gadwal, each having an estimated capacity of about 15-45 tSWU/year. The Kahuta complex has an older North production area where enrichment may have ended and a South area that was constructed later and may be active. It is possible that the plant currently under construction may use more advanced centrifuges, and could replace the South area facility. The Gadwal complex, located in a different place, is believed to be a relatively new facility that produces HEU from LEU produced at Kahuta.

The total enrichment capacity that Pakistan can operate may be constrained by uranium resources, since it also needs to fuel its four plutonium production reactors at Khushab, the fourth of which began operating in January 2015. Pakistan has had issues with availability of natural uranium. In 2009, Pakistan announced a new project "to mine uranium from Shanawa Uranium Mine, District Karak in NWFP". The mine is located at 32.8740 N, 71.0740 E. The project, estimated to cost Rs 3.348 billion (about $40 million at the time), was to be completed in 2014. Project funding was cut in 2011, but was apparently restored in 2013--the Government of Pakistan Public Sector Development plans since show a funding line for "MPB-2, Shanawa Uranium Mining Project (Karak), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa." There is no information concerning uranium production from this new mine.

Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel

On 29 August 2016, Mainichi Shimbun reported on an ongoing review by Japan's Cabinet Secretariat of options for the future of Monju. According to Mainichi, the Secretariat estimates that it would cost ¥600 billion (~$6 billion) to operate Monju for ten years. Japan's Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) estimated in December 2012 that decommissioning the reactor would cost ¥300 billion (~$3 billion).

JAEA completed construction of its 350-MWe Monju prototype fast-neutron reactor and connected it to the grid in August 1995 but the reactor 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. Since 2012, it has been impossible to restart the plant because of safety inspection violations. The plant therefore has operated a total of only 250 days in two decades. In November 2015, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority called for new (non-JAEA) management but none of Japan's nuclear utilities has been willing to take the project on.

With the huge projected costs for restarting the plant and no operator in sight, it would be natural for the Shinzō Abe Administration to consider cancelling Monju - as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their prototype breeder reactors in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cancelling Monju would bring Japan's whole plutonium program into question, however. The Abe Administration's new reprocessing law, discussed below, suggests that it is unwilling to accept such a prospect.

The price for restarting Monju would include the cost of upgrading it to post-Fukushima-accident safety standards for fast-breeder reactors. Those standards have yet to be established. It also would include the cost of upgrading the safety of Japan's Tokai Plutonium Fuel Production Facility (PFPF) so that it could produce fuel for Monju at an estimated cost of nearly ¥100 billion(~$1 billion). Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which funds Monju, says some of its fuel would have to be replaced even before startup because of the loss of reactivity due to decay of the 14-year half-life isotope Pu-241. Sixty percent of the 1995 core had to be replaced in 2010 for this reason.

The ¥1.2 trillion (~$12 billion) spent on Monju thus far already makes it comparable in cost to France's much larger (1240 MWe) Superphénix breeder reactor, which was shut down in 1998 after operating for 13 years at an average capacity factor of only 5.5 percent. (The global average capacity factor for water-cooled power reactors was 74 percent in 2015.)

The total failure of the Monju project creates an opportunity for Japan to reconsider the future of Japan's Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP), now the only remaining plant dedicated to separating nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium in a non-nuclear-weapon state. Although the commercial operation of the RRP has been repeatedly delayed - cumulatively for 20 years at this point - the Abe Administration's plan is to start operations as soon as possible.

Japan's fast-neutron breeder-reactor program, with Monju as its flagship, was the original and is still the ultimate rationale for the reprocessing program. In the 1960s and 1970s, the purpose of civilian plutonium separation in Japan and other countries was to supply startup plutonium fuel for breeder reactors that, thereafter, would supply their own plutonium fuel by "breeding" it out of the abundant non-chain-reacting uranium isotope, U-238. But the liquid-sodium-cooled breeder reactors proved economically uncompetitive with water-cooled reactors fueled with uranium enriched in natural chain-reacting U-235.

Due to the economic failure of their breeder programs and the resulting accumulation of separated plutonium in France and Japan, the near-term rationale for their fast-neutron reactor development programs shifted to fissioning separated plutonium and other long-lived transuranic elements (reactor-produced elements heavier than uranium) so as to remove them from radioactive waste to be placed in final geological disposal sites. The slow neutrons in water-cooled reactors can only fission some of these isotopes. Breeder-reactor advocates promoted fast-neutron reactors to fission transuranics despite the fact that those responsible for radioactive management in both countries had concluded that doing so would not significantly reduce the danger to surface waters from deeply buried radioactive waste.

Despite the loss of the rationale for reprocessing, Japan's Government recently buttressed the RRP financially by passing a law to create an organization authorized to collect funds from Japan's nuclear utilities for reprocessing spent fuel at the time it is generated. The purpose of the law is to guarantee that all of Japan's low-enriched power reactor fuel will be reprocessed and the recovered plutonium fabricated into MOX fuel, even if the utilities owning the power plants producing the spent fuel go bankrupt when Japan fully liberalizes its electricity market.

According to a 2011 estimate by Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, operating the RRP will cost about ¥200 billion (~$2 billion) per year to produce plutonium with a fuel value that is less than the cost of fabricating it into fuel. The economics of reprocessing in France are similarly irrational. One therefore needs to find other explanations than those stated for the persistence of reprocessing in France and Japan. Partial explanations include:

  • The thousands of jobs and government subsidies to local and regional governments associated with reprocessing and related facilities have become important to the rural areas where they are located;
  • Abandoning the pursuit of a plutonium economy would be seen by elite nuclear technocrats as an admission that they had wasted the equivalents of tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars;
  • Reprocessing is government policy and therefore not responsive to market economics; and
  • In Japan, some see its reprocessing capability as providing a virtual nuclear deterrent.

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced the completion of the down-blending of all HEU that remained in the country. The final batch of material consisted of about 1.4 kg of irradiated HEU stored in hot cells. Earlier this year, Indonesia announced the completion of down-blending of all fresh HEU.

Indonesia became the 31st country plus Taiwan that eliminated or removed all their HEU. Note that NNSA news release refers to Indonesia as "the 30th country" - the discrepancy is because NNSA list does not include Iraq.

In a letter to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Alan Kuperman, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (www.NPPP.org), draws attention to the fact that the planned export of highly-enriched uranium to Europe for medical isotope production would contradict the commitment made by Belgium, France, Netherlands, and the United States at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.

In a joint statement issued in Seoul in 2012,

Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, in cooperation with the United States, reaffirm[ed] their determination to support conversion of European production industries to non-HEU-based processes by 2015.

The statement goes on to say that this commitment is "subject to regulatory approvals," which means that a delay is possible. However, Alan Kuperman argues that there is no evidence that any of the Institute for Radioelements (IRE) customers requested a regulatory approval and in any event the delay is unreasonably long. Also, the request of 7.2 kg of HEU, which is an amount comparable to what was requested in the past, "shows that Belgium not only has reneged on its commitment to convert completely to LEU targets by the end of 2015, but it has failed even to convert a substantial fraction of its production to LEU targets."

The last U.S. reprocessing facility, H Canyon plant at the Savannah River Site, has resumed operations on August 5, 2016, for the first time in more than five years. The plant will reprocess 1,000 bundles of spent nuclear fuel of and 200 High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) cores that are currently stored in the SRS L Area Basin. The operation is expected to end in 2024. The HEU recovered from spent fuel will be down-blended to LEU and used to manufacture fuel for power reactors.

For a detailed description of the current reprocessing program, see an earlier IPFM post by Tom Clements.

Frank von Hippel and Sébastien Philippe

A July 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Naval Reactors Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel (PDF), sketches out a $1 billion, 15-year plan to develop, test and build a laboratory-scale line for production of high-density low-enriched uranium that could replace the highly enriched uranium currently used as fuel in U.S. naval reactors.

The report was requested by Congress in 2015 and follows on from the Office of Naval Reactors January 2014 Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores (PDF), which concluded that "the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that could increase uranium loading beyond what is practical today while meeting the rigorous performance requirements for naval reactors."

The report outlines an LEU naval fuel system development project that would involve "a laboratory scale manufacturing approach, and test data needed to engineer a reactor core design... with small fuel specimens to (1) establish basic manufacturing processes and (2) test irradiated fuel performance and properties." The proposed LEU fuel would be enriched to 19.75% U-235, in contrast to the existing HEU fuel that is enriched to over 90% and was produced originally for use in nuclear weapons.

The conceptual LEU fuel R&D plan would be launched in fiscal year 2018, which begins in October 2017. The effort is estimated to require 15 years and cost about $1 billion. The proposed budget level would be about 5% of the Office of Naval Reactors currently proposed budget for fiscal years 2018-21.

This report must now be critically examined to inform the public and Congress in taking its decision whether to support the program. This summer (2016), the JASON group of technical consultants carried out a classified review of the Office of Naval Reactors NR's proposed LEU fuel development program. It is important that an unclassified summary be made public.

LEU Fuel Development

In the preface of the new report, Director of Naval Reactors, Admiral James Caldwell, observes that the proposed R&D plan has "the potential to deliver a fuel that might enable an aircraft carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040's... The fuel is unlikely to enable converting current life-of-ship submarine reactors to LEU." [emphasis added].

This leaves open the possibility that the new fuel could provide life-of-ship cores in redesigned submarine reactors. For the current submarine reactors, shifting from HEU to the new LEU fuel would require mid-life refueling, a complex and time consuming operation due to the exclusion of refueling hatches in U.S. nuclear submarines. France, which has been operating LEU fueled reactors for over 30 years, is now moving to LEU fuel that is less than 6% enriched (produced in a civilian facility), has refueling hatches in its submarines and refuels them during standard overhaul maintenance periods every ten years.

The Office of Naval Reactors report accepts that a lifetime core could be made out of the new fuel but suggests that such a core would have to be larger than current cores. It believes that current aircraft carrier reactors could accommodate the larger cores that would allow them to continue to have only one refueling at midlife but that current submarine reactors could not accommodate LEU cores large enough to avoid midlife refueling. The report argues further that a larger submarine reactor core would require a larger submarine. This assertion must be questioned since the cores are very small in comparison to the submarines: the hull diameter of the smallest U.S. nuclear submarines, the Virginia-class, is about 10 meters, while the cavity height of the M-140 cask that the Navy uses to ship spent submarine fuel is only about one meter.

LEU Fuel Deployment

If the initial 15-year program of fuel development is successful, the report provides estimates of the additional costs that would be associated with deployment. Deployment is projected to require at least an additional 10 years and cost several billion dollars. The projected costs of deployment include:

  • $600 million for a fuel production line;
  • "Several billion dollars" for a land-based reactor for testing a prototype core; and
  • $1.5-2.4 billion for the first two cores to fuel the two reactors of a Ford-class aircraft carrier reactor. (Of this cost, $530 million is estimated to be in excess to the cost of HEU cores.)

These requirements and cost estimates should be critically examined.

The new report states that a "fuel development effort, such as this LEU work, is what builds, hones, and sustains [the Office of Naval Reactors' fuel development] expertise" between major reactor development efforts. It is important to the willingness of Congress to support the LEU fuel development program that the Office of Naval Reactors not attribute an undue share of the cost of refurbishing and upgrading its fuel development infrastructure to the LEU fuel development program.

For example, it is not clear why LEU fuel would require a several-billion-dollar new prototype reactor. The Office of Naval Reactors already has a prototype reactor at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory's Kesselring Site in West Milton, NY. It is currently being refueled to test fuel for the next class of U.S. ballistic missile submarines. Could it be used to test the new LEU fuel after that? The prototype reactor is too small to test a full aircraft carrier core but this need not be a constraint. The fuel for the Nimitz-class carriers was tested in a prototype reactor that was able to accommodate only one quarter of a Nimitz core. In any case, given the advanced state of computer simulations, prototypes of whole cores are becoming less necessary. Also, it is not obvious why an entirely new fuel production line should be required unless the new fuel design is a complete departure from that of the current fuel.

Benefits

According to the new Office of Naval Reactors report, "Development of an advanced naval fuel that uses LEU would demonstrate United States leadership toward reducing HEU and achieving nuclear non-proliferation goals." It is important to be clear that by itself LEU fuel development will not yield any reduction of HEU use or progress towards non-proliferation goals. That will require LEU fuel use. If the Navy's fuel fabrication facilities were shifted over completely to LEU, the report estimates a savings in security costs of about $30 million per year.

Rosatom is planning to shut down and decommission the Chemical-Metallurgical Plant (KhMZ) of the Seversk Chemical Combine (SKhK, formerly Tomsk-7). According to the report, the plant, also known as "M" Plant or Object 25, was established in 1961 to produce uranium and plutonium components for nuclear weapons. Recently, KhMZ was involved in "[component] dismantlement activities and conversion of weapon-origin HEU into U3O8."

The Radiochemical Plant (RKhZ) at Seversk that was reprocessing fuel of plutonium production reactors, was decommissioned in 2014.