HEU Spent Fuel from Switzerland Arrives at Savannah River Site; May be Last Shipment from Switzerland

Tom Clements, Director, Savannah Site Watch

A shipment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) spent fuel from Switzerland has been confirmed to have recently arrived in the United States.

It is believed that the shipment could mark a significant non-proliferation milestone as the cargo may have been the last U.S.-origin HEU remaining in Switzerland. According to the IPFM data and others, Switzerland has possessed less than 10 kilograms of HEU but that holding may have now been eliminated. [UPDATE: Switzerland has been moved to the list of countries cleared of HEU.]

Both the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Swiss Government have confirmed the shipment from the AGN-211-P reactor consisted of a single cask holding 13 spent fuel assembles. Neither government has commented on the possibility of this being the last HEU shipment from Switzerland.

The Swiss government confirmed, in an email message of 11 September 2015, the arrival of the spent fuel in the U.S. on 18 August and stated that "in accordance with applicable Swiss law, the shipment had been approved on 24 June 2015 by the competent Swiss authorities."

The AGN-211-P reactor, which began operation in 1959, is operated as a training and research reactor by the Department of Physics at the University of Basel.

As part of an operation conducted by the NNSA's M3 Program (formerly Global Threat Reduction Initiative, GTRI), the spent fuel arrived in the port of Charleston, South Carolina on the UK-flagged nuclear transport ship Oceanic Pintail. On arrival, the spent would have been transported directly to DOE's nearby Savannah River Site, for storage in the cooling basin of the long-shuttered L-Reactor along with other research and medical isotope reactor spent fuel.

The Oceanic Pintail, according to publicly available ship tracking information, departed from the German port of Nordenham on 30 July. The Pintail also carried low enriched uranium spent fuel from the BER II research reactor in Berlin, with 33 assembles being contained in one cask, according to NNSA. More such BER II LEU spent fuel is expected to be transported to SRS in the coming two years.

DOE has not yet finalized long-term disposal plans for the research spent fuel though reprocessing and dry cask storage are being explored. Reprocessing could occur at SRS in the 60-year-old H-Canyon, the operation of which was halted on 11 September due to violation of criticality controls while preparing plutonium oxide.

UPDATE 09/16/15: In a press-release issued today, NNSA confirmed that the shipment was indeed the last HEU in Switzerland and that the country is now HEU free. Switzerland became the 27th country that was cleared of HEU (plus Taiwan for the total of 28). According to NNSA, the shipment included "approximately 2.2 kilogram of U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium" in 13 irradiated fuel elements.