Exports of U.S. civilian HEU

This chart presents data on experts of U.S. highly-enriched uranium for civilian purposes. The data for 1957-2012 are taken from the "United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report to Congress on the Current Disposition of Highly Enriched Uranium Exports Used as Fuel or Targets in Nuclear Research or Test Reactors" (2014). The chart also presents data on export licenses granted by NRC after 2008. The actual amounts of material shipped abroad may not correspond to the amount in the license and the dates of shipments are normally not disclosed.

The Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk began serial production of MOX fuel for the BN-800 fast-neutron reactor. The first batch of 18 MOX fuel assemblies was sent to BN-800 on 16 August 2019. It is now stored at the reactor site.

The construction of the production line was completed in 2014 and it was formally launched in September 2015. The BN-800 reactor began operations in 2015 with a mixture of HEU fuel and MOX fuel assemblies manufactured elsewhere.

It is important to note that the Zheleznogorsk MOX fabrication plant used reactor-grade plutonium, referred to as a "high-background material" in Russia. According to the original plan, the plant was to process weapon-grade plutonium that Russia committed to eliminate under the US-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA). However, Russia suspended the implementation of the agreement in 2016. Even though it confirmed at the time that the 34 tonnes of the weapon-grade plutonium covered by that agreement will not be used for any military purpose, Russia apparently postponed the disposition of that material, turning to its civilian plutonium stock. Russia reported having 59 tonnes of civilian plutonium as of the end of 2017. The plutonium for the first MOX fuel assemblies also came from the civilian stock, although it was said to be a weapon-grade material produced in fast-neutron reactor blankets in the past.

Anatoly Diakov, Pavel Podvig

According to a story published in Kommersant, Russia's BN-1200 fast neutron reactor is unlikely to come online until 2036. An earlier plan called for the first BN-1200 unit to begin operations in 2030 with dense nitride uranium-plutonium fuel.

Russia's national nuclear company (Rosatom) believes that, in the longer term, the development of nuclear power requires a closed fuel cycle based on fast-neutron plutonium-breeder reactors. In February 2010, Russia's government adopted the federal target programs (FTP2010) "Nuclear Energy Technologies of the New Generation for the Period of 2010-2015 and until 2020." The program focused on the development and demonstration of a variety of prototypes of fast-neutron lead, lead-bismuth and sodium cooled reactors with closed fuel cycles. Although the most developed fast-reactor technology in Russia is sodium-cooled reactors, the FTP2010 gave priority in financing to lead-cooled fast-neutron reactors with dense nitride fuel. The program included two projects - the BREST-300 lead-cooled fast reactor with associated nitride fuel fabricating/re-fabricating and spent fuel reprocessing facilities and the SVBR-100 lead-bismuth fast reactor, which were expected to be completed in 2020.

As for the sodium-cooled reactor, FTP2010 allocated funds only for the design of a larger commercial reactor, the BN-1200. The design work was expected to be completed in 2016. Rosenergoatom, the Russian utility operating nuclear power plants, planned to begin construction of three power units with BN-1200 reactors in Russia by 2030. The Beloyarskaya NPP has been selected as a site for the first BN-1200 unit.

The decision to begin construction of the reactors has been delayed, however. One reason given is the need to reduce the construction cost to the level comparable to that of light-water reactors. Another is the need to develop the fuel fabrication technology for both MOX and dense uranium-plutonium mixed nitride fuel, based on the operating experience of the BN-800 reactor.

In August 2015, Rosatom's Scientific & Technical Board undertook a review of the BN-1200 project. The review concluded that BN-1200 technology will not have a competitive advantage in the market. In addition, the Board wanted to have a better understanding of all aspects of the fuel cycle. Taking into account the economic factors and the need to improve fuel for the BN-1200 Rosenergoatom decided to delay the construction decision to at least 2020. Meanwhile, operating experience of the BN-800 reactor is to be used to work on fuel fabrication technology for both MOX and dense uranium-plutonium mixed nitride fuel.

In March of 2018, the Government of the Russian Federation, citing the economic slowdown that has led to lower energy demand projections, issued a decree that amended the FTP2010. Now the program is to be focused only on the construction of the nitride fuel fabrication module and the first stage of the fuel re-fabrication facility. Recently Rosatom announced that the nitride fuel fabrication/re-fabrication facility will be commissioned no earlier than 2022. The BREST-300 reactor is now expected to begin operations in 2026. SVBR-100, which Rosatom was planning to build without support from the state budget, has been effectively discontinued. It is also important to note that the BN-800 reactor, which was supposed to provide BN-1200 with the operating experience and data on the closed fuel cycle, is yet to operate with a fully loaded MOX core.

The decision to delay construction of BN-1200 to the 2030s can therefore be explained by a combination of factors, which include: the economic situation in the country, the reduced projected demand for electric power, the uncertainty about the economic effectiveness of BN-1200, as compared to VVER-1200, the lack of a proven technology for the production of dense nitride fuel as well as the fact that BN-800 is yet to begin operations with MOX and nitride fuels.

U.S. Department of Energy requested an export license (XSNM3810) (original application) to ship 4.772 kg of HEU to Europe. The material will be used to manufacture targets used in production of Mo-99.

The license application seeks approval of export of "4.455 kg uranium-235 contained in maximum of 4.772 kg uranium, enriched to maximum of 93.35%, in the form of unalloyed broken metal." The material will be shipped to a Framatome facility in France that will manufacture the targets, which will be irradiated in BR-2 reactor in Belgium, HFR reactor in the Netherlands, LVR-15 reactor in Czech Republic, and Maria reactor in Poland. Institute for Radioelements (IRE) in Belgium, where the targets will be reprocessed, is listed as the ultimate destination of the material. Previous license of this kind, XSNM3795 for 4.97 kg of HEU, was requested in August 2018 and granted in October 2018.

The government of Japan released The Status Report of Plutonium Management in Japan - 2018, which details its plutonium holdings. According to the report,

As of the end of 2018, the total amount of separated plutonium both managed within and outside of Japan was approximately 45.7 tons, approximately 9.0 tons of which was held domestically and the rest of approximately 36.7 tons was held abroad.

The amount of domestic storage was approximately 9.0 tons at the end of 2018, as electric utilities (Kansai Takahama unit 3, 4 and Kyushu Genkai unit 3) irradiated approximately 1.5 tons of separated plutonium.

Of the plutonium stored abroad, 15,460 kg are stored in France (15,486 in 2017) and 21,205 kg - in the United Kingdom (21,232 in 2017). The reprocessing of Japan's spent fuel held in France had been completed by the end of 2017. The United Kingdom holds about 0.6 tonnes of Japan's plutonium in spent fuel. It appears that none of that material was separated in 2018.

In 2017, Japan reported having a total of 47.3 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.5 tons were held domestically.

TVEL, the fuel-manufacturing subsidiary of Rosatom, delivered a batch of fuel for China's Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR). The CEFR reactor has been operating with Russia-supplied HEU fuel (reported to be 64.4% HEU) since 2010. Additional fuel supply agreements were reached in 2013 (one batch) and in 2016 (two batches). It is not immediately clear if the fuel delivered in July 2019 completes the supply under the 2016 agreement.

by Frank N von Hippel

If the US is to end its current practice of using weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel its nuclear submarines, then the design of the next generation of US attack submarines needs to preserve the possibility of using a larger low-enriched uranium (LEU) reactor core or of refueling the reactor, a recently released report from the JASON advisory panel indicates. While the report observes that "the transition to an all-LEU fleet could begin in the 2040s," there is opposition to LEU fuel from the US Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, the Trump Administration and some in Congress.

The heavily redacted November 2016 analysis by the Jason group of military-technology consultants on the feasibility of developing and using low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel in US naval propulsion reactors was released in June 2019 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The US Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (NNPP) redactions of the Jason report appear to go far beyond legitimate requirements for protecting classified design information.

Currently, US and UK naval reactors are fueled by weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) containing 93.5% of the chain-reacting isotope, U-235. (UK reactors are based on US designs and fueled with US HEU.) In 2012, the House Armed Services Committee asked NNPP to look at the possibility of developing LEU fuel for naval reactors. LEU contains less than 20% U-235 and is considered not to be directly weapon useable. The Congressional concern was that non-weapon states interested in acquiring or developing nuclear-powered submarines (Brazil and Iran, for example) could use the US example to justify producing and stockpiling weapon-usable HEU, which would destabilize the non-proliferation regime. France and China already use LEU fuel in their submarines. Russia and India use medium-enriched uranium.

The JASON report's major conclusions are:

  1. NNPP is testing a fuel with higher uranium density. The process is expected to take 20-25 years, i.e. till the 2040s.
  2. If the fuel tests out, it will be possible to refuel with 19.75% LEU at mid-life (about 25 years) most of the ten US Ford-class aircraft carriers, the first of which was commissioned in 2017.
  3. If the next-generation attack submarines that the Navy expects to begin ordering in the mid-2030s to succeed the Virginia-class are designed to accommodate larger cores, then it will possible to equip them with LEU lifetime cores when the new fuel becomes available.
  4. It is too late to design the next-generation Columbia-class US ballistic-missile submarines to use LEU cores but, if and when they are replaced, starting around 2070, the new submarines, which have about 2.5 times the displacement of attack submarines, would be correspondingly easier to design for large LEU lifetime cores.

In its markup of the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2020, the House Armed Services Committee asked NNPP (see p. 494) if it could design the next attack submarine to fit a life-of-ship LEU core. It also asked about a possible alternative if the LEU core size constraint is too much of an obstacle:

"the committee directs the Administrator for Nuclear Security, in coordination with the Secretary of the Navy, to provide a report to the congressional defense committees not later than December 15, 2019, assessing the feasibility of a design of the reactor module of the Virginia-Class replacement nuclear powered attack submarine that retains the existing hull diameter but leaves sufficient space for an LEU-fueled reactor with a life of the ship core, possibly with an increased module length. If a life of the ship core is unattainable, the report should include the feasibility of a reactor design with the maximum attainable core life and a configuration that enables rapid refueling."

In its formulation of that question, the Committee raised an alternative approach to the challenge of LEU core life -- going back to mid-life refueling. Mid-life refueling was standard practice with the Los Angeles-class attack submarines, which still constitute the bulk of the US fleet of attack submarines; with the current Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines; and with all US aircraft carriers.

The JASON report accepts the nuclear navy's arguments for the economic benefits of lifetime cores for submarine reactors, which have been introduced in the Virginia-class attack submarines, 17 of which are deployed with one more launched and five under construction. The group was apparently unable to study France's rapid-refueling arrangements that have reduced the refueling times for French nuclear submarines to weeks versus the years it takes the US Navy. It also does not express concern, as at least one expert has, about possible corrosion failures of nuclear power reactor systems that would not be inspected for three to four decades. Problems with these life-of-ship systems, which are not designed for service access, can be very costly. In 2015, welding was found to be defective in a joint in the steam supply piping of three new Virginia-class submarines. Contriving a way to replace the joint took the first submarine out of service for two years. France's nuclear safety authority requires that French naval reactors be thoroughly inspected every ten years.

Five years ago, NNPP was receptive to Congressional interest in the development of LEU fuel - concluding in a 2014 study that "an advanced fuel system might enable either a higher energy naval core using HEU fuel, or allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs." (See also the 2016 report.)

More recently, however, NNPP has been lobbying against the LEU option with the result that, in 2018, the Trump Administration's Secretaries of the Navy and Energy wrote the Congressional Armed Services Committees:

"The replacement of highly enriched uranium with LEU would result in a reactor design that is inherently less capable, more expensive, and unlikely to support current life-of-ship submarine reactors. The LEU fuel system would affect operational availability of military assets due to necessary refueling, and would require significant new shipyard infrastructure."

As reported by Aftergood, the Trump Administration objected to funding for naval LEU fuel R&D in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 House Energy and Water Appropriations bill, and the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee, which had previously been passive on the issue, voted in its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for a "[p]rohibition on use of funds for advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium."

For its part, the House Armed Services Committee split on the issue. It accepted the report language cited above and directed the National Nuclear Security Administration to formally create a naval LEU R&D program, but it deleted by a 33-to-24 roll-call vote $20 million included in the Chairman's mark that had been authorized for research and development on LEU fuel. The amendment to delete funds was offered by Democratic Representative Elaine Luria, a former naval-reactor engineer representing a Virginia district containing the US Navy's largest shipyard, which builds all US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and half the modules for the Virginia-class attack submarines, and also contains Norfolk naval station, the world's largest naval base, homeport to four of seven US carrier strike groups. The full House did, however, approve $20 million in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill on June 19.

Until this year, naval LEU fuel R&D had been supported on a bipartisan basis with $5 million authorized and appropriated annually from FY16 to FY18, and $10 million in FY19 - all in bills signed into law by Presidents Obama and Trump.

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced that is completed the transfer of about 700 kg of HEU from the United Kingdom. The transfer was a result of a swap agreement reached in 2016. The United States would down-blend the UK material and used it in nuclear reactor fuel. The agreement also committed the United States to providing HEU for European research reactors, including those involved in production of medical isotopes. As it was noted at the time, the agreement, while removing some HEU from the United Kingdom legitimized the continuing practice of supplying HEU to Europe. The last transfer of this kind was approved in October 2018.

by Greg Mello

On March 25, DOE released the final installment of its fiscal year (FY) 2020 funding request for its nuclear weapons, naval reactor, and nonproliferation programs, including proposed outyear spending for FYs 2021-2024. (Subsequent page numbers without associated links refer to this document.)

For some programs, the details provided raise as many questions as they answer.

1. The huge and growing "Plutonium Sustainment" budget line, for which DOE is requesting $712 million for FY2020 (p. 82), about twice last year's budget. The program covers "all things plutonium" in the nuclear weapons program, including efforts to reestablish warhead core ("pit") production capability. It is expected to double in scale again by 2023, spending $5.7 billion over the coming 5 years (p. 83).

Alarmed by the scale and growth of pit production spending absent any firm project description or management structure, last year congressional appropriators required (pp. 107-108) that the expansion of pit production be placed within a well-defined new project, with normal fiscal and management controls. That hasn't happened yet.

In this budget request the "Plutonium Sustainment" program has three subprograms (p. 119), none of which are well-defined. The first is NNSA's "Plutonium Sustainment Operations" budget line, which includes among other things everything needed to "restore" the 10 pit per year (ppy) production capacity Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was recently said to already have. No dollar figure is attached.

2. A new "Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility" (SRPPF) project, no formal description of which is included, for which $410 million is requested (p. 122) for FY2020. Presumably most of these funds would be spent at or through the Savannah River Site, although an unknown portion will be spent at LANL.

3. The "Plutonium Pit Production" (P3) Project at LANL, the scope of which "is being redefined" (p. 135). Some $21 million is requested for FY2020.

Subsequent to the budget release, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty testified that in addition to the $410 million for SRPPF, NNSA is requesting "nearly $500 million" (at 1:18:57) for pit production at LANL. The latter figure is nowhere explained in the public budget. Neither is the apparent discrepancy between the total of these two efforts and the overall Plutonium Sustainment request.

4. The proposed $1.4 billion Material Staging Facility (MSF) (pp. 283, 288) at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant, located in House Armed Services Ranking Member "Mac" Thornberry's district.

Pantex is authorized to store up to 20,000 pits (p. 7; see also footnote 3 here) as well as nuclear warheads, in its "Zone 4" magazines as well as in Zone 12, the main production area. Possible replacement of the magazines - which date from World War II and have had numerous issues related to overheating, humidity, and safety, as well as flooding and corrosion and which now face security recapitalization costs - with a consolidated storage facility has been considered for decades.

The MSF project originated in Congress - not NNSA - via Section 3142 of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which required NNSA to choose a preferred concept within 30 days of enactment (!). By now, two years later, $29 million (p. 283) has been spent trying to define the project, none of which funds were actually requested by NNSA.

In March of this year DOE, NNSA, and their contractors met at Pantex to hammer out the facility's requirements, constraints, location, necessary support facilities, and other project details. A final conceptual design is due in August 2019.

Apart from $4 million in overhead requested for the coming year (p. 283), NNSA does not propose funding this project again until FY2024, when $371 million is projected (p. 288). Given the amount, this is apparently for detailed design and initial construction. Needless to say, much could change over the coming four years.

5. The disposition of surplus plutonium, which draws on much the same set of infrastructure assets as do NNSA's other plutonium programs. First, why does NNSA seek to spend $329 million -- $220 million in FY20 and the balance in FY21 - on the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF), which was canceled in FY18? That is a lot of money to spend laying that project to rest.

6. What is the large NN construction project proposed for LANL, presented without any explanation at all except an ever-rising funding level totaling $215 million over the FY21-24 period, with no overall cost or end in sight?

7. How will NNSA allocate its limited plutonium processing and storage space, especially in LANL's crowded PF-4, given the rising programmatic importance of pit production? Will disposition suffer?

Some of these projects are evolving even as funding decisions are being made. For some, Congress doesn't know what they are, NNSA admittedly doesn't either, no fiscal or project management controls are in place, and for most of them no environmental impact analysis has been done. A key question is whether Congress will demand full explanations of these and other programs before making multibillion-dollar, multi-decade commitments.