Fissile material programs in the US budgets for 2022 and 2023

Fissile Material Programs in the US Congress Omnibus Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Biden Administration Congressional Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2023

Frank N. von Hippel

US Fiscal years begin on 1 October of the previous calendar year. In FY2022, however, Congress did not finalize the budget until 8 March 2022, almost halfway through the fiscal year. As a result, for the first half of the fiscal year, government expenditures continued at the rates laid out in the budget for FY2021.

When it did finally emerge, the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY2022 included three important developments relating to fissile materials:

  • The potential termination by Congress of the Idaho National Laboratory's (INL's) proposed liquid-sodium-cooled, plutonium-fueled "Versatile Test Reactor."
  • Modest funding for an array of proposals, including reprocessing of spent naval fuel, by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) to produce high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) to fuel some of the "advanced" reactors NE is promoting.
  • Continued funding, despite opposition from DOE's Office of Naval Reactors, of R&D on LEU fuel for naval reactors.

In addition, Congress approved continued heavy spending on restoring DOE's capacity to make new plutonium pits for warheads and a relatively low level of spending for disposing of almost 50 tons of excess plutonium.

During April 2022, DOE published, bit by bit, its detailed justification to Congress of its proposed budget for fiscal year 2023. This budget shows relatively little change from the Trump Administration's priorities.

Termination of DOE's Versatile Test Reactor? The VTR, which is being sought by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor of the type that DOE promoted until Congress cancelled the Clinch River Demonstration [Plutonium] Breeder Reactor in 1983. Its design is based on INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was shut down in 1994 for lack of mission. The VTR's currently estimated capital cost range is $2.6-5.8 billion.

During the Trump Administration, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy (NE), under the influence of INL, began promoting sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors again. Bill Gates, under the influence of former Livermore nuclear-weapon designer, Lowell Wood, had already created a nuclear startup, "Terrapower," with the mission of commercializing such reactors. NE has committed up to $2 billion to co-fund a prototype of Terrapower's 345-MWe Natrium (sodium in Latin) reactor in Wyoming.

INL argues the VTR is needed to test new fuels and structural materials for Natrium and other future commercial fast-neutron reactors and proposes that it be built by Terrapower in partnership with General Electric-Hitachi.

To maximize the number of excess neutrons available for irradiation tests with the VTR, INL proposed that the VTR be fueled by plutonium (fast neutron fission produces more neutrons from plutonium than from uranium-235) and estimated that "up to 34 tons" of plutonium would be required to fuel it over 60 years - suggesting an alternative use of the 34 tons of weapons plutonium the US declared excess in parallel with Russia in 2000 (Draft Versatile Test Reactor Environmental Impact Statement, p. 2-15, Footnote 11; see also below).

In its budget request for fiscal year 2022, NE requested $145 million in to continue developing the design of the VTR. The Omnibus Appropriations Act provided zero dollars. The reasons appear to have been lack of private sector interest and redundancy of the VTR with the Natrium reactor. (Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists had suggested that the Natrium reactor, which is to be virtually complete before the VTR enters construction, could be designed to conduct the irradiation tests.)

NE has requested another $45 million for VTR design work in its proposed budget for FY 2023.

Searching for High-assay low-enriched uranium in all the wrong places. Fast neutron reactors like Natrium require more highly enriched uranium than conventional slow-neutron reactors because the fission cross-section of the U-235 nucleus falls with increasing neutron energy. Natrium is to be fueled by "high-assay" low-enriched uranium (HALEU), enriched to just below 20 percent U-235, the internationally agreed threshold for weapon-usability.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, compiles and submits to the Department of Energy anonymized projections for HALEU requirements by Terrapower and nine other nuclear startups. These projections - probably based on promotional materials produced for investors in these startups - are truly fantastic. NEI would have us believe that, by 2030, eight years hence, US requirements for HALEU will be 215 tons. That would be sufficient to provide the annual fuel requirements of 60 Natrium reactors! (Assuming, based on Edwin Lyman's estimates, 3.6 tons of HALEU annual reload). NEI projects that five years later, in 2035, these requirements would triple.

The only current source for HALEU, which is also used to fuel research reactors, is blended down excess Cold War weapon-grade uranium. US excess weapon-grade uranium is largely committed, however, and, since Russia invaded Ukraine, buying HALEU from Russia has become toxic.

This has resulted in NE promoting a whole array of costly initiatives that would each produce a relatively small amount of HALEU.

This includes contracting with Centrus, the reorganized successor of the bankrupt US Enrichment Company, for $115 million in prior fiscal years to build a 16-centrifuge cascade at DOE's shutdown gaseous-diffusion enrichment plant in Portsmouth Ohio. NE has also requested funding for INL to extract highly enriched uranium for blend-down from EBR II spent fuel ($15 million for pyroprocessing in the Omnibus Appropriation Act for FY2022) and from naval and Advanced Test Reactor spent fuel ($10 million for developing ZIRCEX reprocessing technology). In its budget request for FY 2023, NE requests $95 million to continue these activities.

Despite a Congressional hearing on its sole-source contract with Centrus, and URENCO USA's expressed willingness to supply HALEU if there is a market, NE appears determined not to turn for HALEU to URENCO USA, the only commercial enrichment company in the United States.

The struggle to get the nuclear Navy to consider LEU fuel. In the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY 2022, Congress gave the Office of Naval Reactors (NR), which is part of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), $2,801 million, $471 million more than requested, explaining the increase only as "to address project increases and to mitigate the risk of schedule delays." Congress is very deferential toward NR.

Despite NR's own finding in 2016 that a high-density fuel design could make it possible to convert its new Ford class aircraft carriers to LEU fuel without increased refueling frequency and the findings of an NR-commissioned review by the JASON group of technical consultants that this same fuel would make it possible to design the Navy's next-generation attack submarine to use LEU fuel, the Trump administration refused to work on the development of LEU fuel for naval reactors. NR has continued this policy under the Biden Administration (see, for example, the answer submitted by NNSA for the record to a question from Representative Langevin after the 10 June 2021 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, pp. 83-84).

The use of weapon-grade uranium to fuel US and UK naval reactors has become a nonproliferation issue as a result of the joint proposal by President Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines based on US and UK designs and Iran's invocation of the US practice as a justification for Iran's production of highly enriched uranium.

Nevertheless, in the FY2022 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Congress added $20 million to the budget of DOE's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, as it had in FY2021, to support the development of "nonproliferation fuels," i.e., LEU fuel for naval reactors. In its FY2023 budget request, DOE again requested no funding for this program, leaving its continuation in the hands of Congress.

Billions for unneeded pit production and little to study pit aging. Plutonium pits are the cores of the fission triggers of US nuclear weapons. In 2006, based on pit aging studies done at the Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, the JASON group concluded that the plutonium "pits" in US nuclear weapons had credible life expectancies of at least 100 years. Ten years later JASON found that "studies on Pu aging and its impacts on the performance of nuclear-weapon primaries have not been sufficiently prioritized over the past decade. A focused program of experiments, theory, and simulations is required to determine the timescales over which Pu aging may lead to an unacceptable degradation of primary performance." Instead, on the recommendation of DOD and NNSA, Congress mandated in the 2020 Defense Authorization Act that DOE achieve a production capability of 80 pits per year (ppy) by 2030: 30 ppy at Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) existing plutonium facility and 50 ppy in a new facility at the DOE's Savannah Site (SRS). NNSA has indicated it will not be able to meet the mandated deadline for completion of the SRS facility, which it's FY2023 budget justification shows as scheduled for completion in 2035. That budget justification shows an estimated total cost for the upgrades required at LANL as $3.6 billion and for the SRS facility as $11 billion. The combined request for the two projects for FY2023 is $1.3 billion.

The first pit type to be produced at the two facilities is to be the W87-1, to replace the W-78 warhead deployed on half of the 400 US silo-based ICBMs. Unlike the W78, the W87 contains insensitive high explosive, which reduces the chances of a plutonium dispersal accident, although no such accidents have occurred with US strategic ballistic missiles. The W87-1 security package is an upgraded version of that in the existing W87-0. The US has sufficient W87-0 warheads for its current ICBM loading of one warhead each under the New START Treaty, but that treaty expires in 2026 and Strategic Command wishes to retain the option of loading three warheads on each of its ICBMs. Strategic Command's new ICBM, the Sentinel, which is to replace the current Minuteman III beginning around 2030, is designed to be able to carry three W87s.

Slow-motion disposal of excess plutonium. In the Defense Appropriations Act for FY2022, Congress approved the $156 million request from NNSA's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation to build glovebox capacity at DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina to dilute excess US plutonium for disposal in DOE's deep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Thirteen tons of excess plutonium have been approved for disposal in this manner. An additional 34 tons of plutonium covered by the US-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000 is the subject of analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement that is expected to be completed in FY2023. For 2023, NNSA has requested $205 million for operating and expanding capacity at LANL for extracting plutonium from pits and for expanding capacity at SRS for diluting and packaging the plutonium for disposal. At NNSA's planned rate of disposal, it will be after 2050 before the plutonium is all in WIPP.