U.S. to supply HEU for the High Flux Reactor in France

The Y-12 National Security Complex filed a request with NRC for a license to export 160 kg of highly-enriched uranium ("149.36 kg of U-235 contained in maximum of 160 kg uranium, enriched to maximum of 93.35%") to France. The material would be used to manufacture fuel for the High Flux Reactor (Réacteur à Haut Flux, RHF) at the Institut Max von Laue-Paul Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble. The license application is dated March 9, 2010 (License Number XSNM3633).

Since the U.S. HEU would be used in fuel, the U.S. law requires a commitment to convert RHF core to LEU as a condition of the transfer. This requirement effectively prevented ILL from getting the 69 kg of HEU that it procured from the United States in 1990 (in 2006 the credit for this material was used by Belgium to provide fuel for its BR2 reactor). According to a Nuclear Fuels report (01/16/06), in 1998 the United States secured a strong commitment from ILL to convert the reactor as soon as LEU fuel is available. However, by that time France began receiving HEU from Russia, so the conversion efforts were suspended.

Russia agreed to supply France with 620 kg of HEU as part of an intergovernmental agreement of 19 April 1996, which also called for broad scientific cooperation between the two countries. Russia agreed to supply HEU for two reactors - RHF at Grenoble and the Orphée research reactor at Saclay. The first shipment, which included 62,5 kg of HEU for Orphée and 162 kg - for RHF, was completed in December 1998. The second shipment took place in 2001, and the third one - before January 2006. Russia offered to consider a possibility of continuing supply of HEU for Orphée (about 16.25 kg/year), but no agreement has been reported so far. Apparently there was no discussion of continued shipments of HEU for RHF from Russia.

According to ILL, the reactor has enough fuel to operate to about 2011 (Nuclear Fuels, 01/16/06), although the institute expects that it can operate until at least 2013 and as long as 2020-2025. ILL has not ruled out conversion to LEU, but it is not clear if that would be implemented in practice. The conversion would require development of a new fuel, which presents a number of technical challenges in a high-flux reactor, and licensing the reactor to use LEU.

For the export license to be issued by NRC, ILL would probably have to make a commitment to conversion as soon as suitable fuel is available, but the strength of this commitment will depend on the U.S. willingness to enforce it.

If the license is granted, the material is expected to be delivered in two shipments of about 80 kg each "in the form of broken metal". The first shipment would take place in 2010, the second is expected in 2012.

UPDATE 3/19/10: Frank Munger at Atomic City Underground interviewed the Y-12 spokesman about the planned shipment.

UPDATE 4/2/12: The application was updated in November 2011 to change the quantity to "186.4 kilograms uranium (174.0 kilograms U-235)" (Federal Register / Vol. 76, No. 228 / Monday, November 28, 2011 / Notices / pp. 72984-72985)

UPDATE 9/24/20: The license XSNM3633 was granted on 16 March 2012.