By Piet de Klerk

Veerman.jpegIn the 1970s Frits Veerman (1944-2021) was a young professional photographer in Amsterdam. He was the first to blow the whistle on what was to become the most prominent nuclear technology smuggling ring in history, but was punished for his honest and courageous action. Veerman died a few weeks ago.

At the time Veerman worked at the consultancy FDO (which stands for Fysisch-Dynamisch Onderzoek), part of the Stork concern. One of FDO's large clients was UCN (Ultra Centrifuge Netherlands), for which it researched the metallurgical aspects of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment. In May 1972 a new colleague arrived: Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist who had studied in Germany and the Netherlands and who had done his PhD in Leuven, Belgium.

Veerman got along well with his new Pakistani colleague, the two shared an office. Khan was an attentive, easy going young man with a ready smile. After a while Veerman started to join Khan for dinner from time to time at his home in Zwanenburg, near Schiphol Airport, where he met Khan's wife Hendrina and their two daughters.

Veerman's new colleague was sent to the UCN plant in Almelo, because Khan's expertise was wanted. Pretty quickly Khan spent a lot of time in Almelo and despite his low clearance he didn't spend his time only in his designated office, but managed to roam around the facility, helping UCN colleagues with their problems.

Veerman started to be somewhat suspicious in 1973, but it was only in mid-1975 that alarm bells went off. He saw highly classified drawings in Khan's house - against all rules. Veerman was asked by Khan to photograph those classified centrifuge drawings before the originals went back to the plant (which Veerman refused). Moreover he heard Khan discuss sensitive centrifuge matters by telephone with his old professor in Leuven. Veerman was concerned and informed his superiors at FDO and other relevant players. The net result of his efforts was that he was told to keep his mouth shut.

The A.Q. Khan story is well known: Khan's letters, prompted by the Indian explosion in May 1974, to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - who had instructed Pakistani scientists to work on nuclear weapons in 1972; his efforts to collect as much information about centrifuges as possible in the course of 1975; his return to Pakistan, taking control after a while of the Pakistani enrichment efforts, and building the Kahuta enrichment plant that supplied the highly enriched uranium for the Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998.

Veerman was not the only one who became suspicious. In the second half of 1975 several incidents came to light: an order in the UK for frequency converters used for the motors that drive centrifuges, an order in France from the Pakistani embassy in Brussels clearly based on an UCN document, and Khan's suspicious behaviour at a nuclear exhibition in Basel. But Veerman was the first whistle-blower in the Khan case and he was treated the worst.

Veerman and Khan carried on a correspondence after Khan's return to Pakistan in late 1975. Khan's letters included technical questions about classified matters. When Veerman showed one of these letters to his superiors he was told to burn it. In 1978 he was fired.

In 1981 the A.Q. Khan letter resurfaced and played a pivotal role in the Amsterdam court case against Khan. The court sentenced Khan to four years in prison, but that sentence was later annulled for formal reasons: the summons had never reached the accused. The Netherlands Government had done what it could to reach Khan, had gone to his house, where the doorbell wasn't answered, had then invoked the assistance of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, which said 'no problem', accepted the summons and then probably dropped the document in the waste paper basket.

Frits Veerman's role was one of the many pieces of the Khan Affair, especially if we define the Khan Affair not only as Khan's key part in the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, but include also his central part in the smuggling ring that offered centrifuge technology to Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea - until his enterprise came crashing down in 2003. But Veerman's role is important because he took classification and non-proliferation rules seriously and acted on his suspicions in an honest and courageous way.

Veerman was starting to be recognized for his actions when the Whistleblowers Authority - a Dutch institution that was created in 2016 - came to the conclusion that Veerman was unfairly treated at the time, as it considered it likely that whistleblowing was the reason for firing him in 1978. And he was at the center of the documentary Under the Spell of the Bomb.

It is likely that commercial interests explain to a large extent why Veerman's s efforts in the 1970s were ignored, but what else played a role is unclear. There are still many unanswered questions in the Khan Affair, related to events in the Netherlands, the United States, Pakistan and elsewhere. Getting to the bottom of them would help make non-proliferation policy more effective.

Photo: Transparency International Netherlands

The MSZ Plant in Electrostal, near Moscow (part of the TVEL division of Rosatom), set up a production line that will manufacture uranium fuel for China's CFR-600 fast neutron reactor. According to the fuel supply contact that was signed in December 2018, TVEL will provide fuel for the initial load and then for reloads during first seven years of CFR-600 operation. The production line will also manufacture fuel for Russia's BN-600 reactor and for China's CEFR reactor. The first shipment of CFR-600 fuel is expected in 2023, when the reactor is expected to begin operations.

While the official sources do not specify the level of enrichment of uranium in fuel, at least some of it will contain HEU. Russia's BN-600 reactor uses uranium fuel with three levels of enrichment - 17%, 21%, and 26%. It was reported earlier that CEFR fuel contains uranium with 64.4% enrichment. It is likely that CFR-600 will use HEU in some of its fuel elements as well, with enrichment similar to that of BN-600.

Russia has already supplied fuel for the CEFR reactor, which was reloaded in 2020. That fuel was also manufactured by MSZ, although at a different production line.

It appears that China plans to switch CFR-600 to plutonium-based fuel after 2030. It planned to begin irradiation of MOX fuel assemblies in CEFR in 2018 (or even in 2015), but it appears that the plan has been reconsidered.

In December 2020, China began construction of a second CFR-600 reactor, which is expected to begin operations in 2026. At this point it is not clear whether the reactor will start with HEU fuel and whether Russia will supply fuel for it as well.

Plutonium for the CFR-600 program is likely to be separated at two reprocessing plants that are currently under construction at Jinta, located near Jiuquan city of Gansu province. Construction of the first plant with the capacity of 200 MTHM/year began in 2015. A second 200 MTHM/year plant (Project II) appears to have begun in the late 2020 or early 2021. Jinta is also the site of a MOX fuel fabrication facility with the projected capacity of 20 MT of fuel per year. This combination of two reprocessing plants and a MOX facility appears to be sufficient to support operations of two CFR-600 reactors when they switch to MOX fuel.

Commercial satellite imagery obtained by the IPFM shows significant new construction at the Dimona site in Israel, officially known as the Negev Nuclear Research Center. The imagery was acquired by the SuperView-1 (SV-1) satellite on Monday, 4 January 2021. The construction site is located in the immediate vicinity of the buildings that house the nuclear reactor and the reprocessing plant (to the south-west from the buildings, around the point with coordinates 31.000, 35.143). It can be seen on the satellite image posted below.

dimona-spacewill-04january2021.jpg SuperView-1 image from 4 January 2021 at 2-meter resolution. Credit: SpaceWill

The exact date the construction began is uncertain. The last satellite image available from Google Earth, which was obtained in September 2011, does not show any activity at the site. The first signs of construction are visible on an image available from the HERE WeGo service (the date of that image is unknown).

The 2021 image shows that the construction has expanded and appears to be actively underway with multiple construction vehicles present. At this stage, the construction appears to be centered around a large-scale excavation area with the size of about 140 meters by 50 meters. The purpose of this construction is unknown.

dimona-comparison.jpg Satellite images of the Negev Nuclear Research Center. Left: Google Maps, September 2011, right: HERE WeGo, date unknown.

UPDATE 2/19/2021: The construction apparently began in late 2018 or early 2019 (via Samir @obretix). dimona-2019.png

China's Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) operated by the China Atomic Energy Institute (CAIE) has started what was described as "high-power operations," as quoted in a World Nuclear News Report.

The reactor, which is designed to operate with "65MW thermal power and 20MW experimental generation power", first reached criticality in July 2010 and it was connected to the grid in July 2011. In 2014, it operated at full power for 144 hours (72 hours according to a different source). It appears that CEFR was shut down after that to be restarted and connected to the grid for the second time in October 2015, at 20% nominal power.

According to a CNNC report, the reactor was shut down at some point after completing the low-power test phase. It was restarted on 19 June 2020 "for high-power operations." About 40 days of tests appear to have concluded with a "100 percent power manual emergency shutdown test," conducted on 31 July 2021. After that the reactor entered shutdown for its first refueling and maintenance.

The reactor was restarted again on 19 January 2021 and re-connected to the grid on 15 February 2021. It appears that this time CEFR entered the "power test phase" of the tests.

CEFR operates with HEU fuel (64.4% HEU) supplied by Russia. The most recent shipment of fuel took place in July 2019.

China started construction of the second breeder reactor of the CFR-600 type at the site at Xiapu, Fujian province, where it is building the first CFR-600 unit. Construction of the first unit began in December 2017. The first unit is expected to begin operations in 2023, which suggests that the second one will be operational in 2026.

The upcoming construction was first reported by Zhang Hui of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University - See "CNNC Embarks on Second CFR-600," Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, 22 May 2020 and Hui Zhang, "China is speeding up its plutonium recycling programs," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 76:4, 210-216.

By Greg Mello

Fundamental technical and political issues remain unresolved in plans to produce new plutonium pits for U.S. nuclear weapons. These plans aim at building and operating two pit factories to meet an Administration requirement (pp. 1, 5-6), subsequently made into law (50 U.S.C. 2538a; refined at Pub. L. 115-232, §3120), for an enduring production capacity of at least 80 pits per year (ppy) beginning in 2030. The plans call for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF) to produce 50 ppy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) plutonium facility (PF-4) to produce 30 ppy. Despite fully funding the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA's) pit production budget through fiscal year 2020 (FY20), Congress remains unsure about NNSA's approach, which independent reviews have criticized. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes (e-p. 2) that no detailed plan and schedule have been prepared for pit production.

The only authorized warhead program needing new pits is the W87-1 warhead for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), to begin production in 2030. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted in August 2020 that GBSD missiles would have the capability to carry three warheads each, up to 1,200 deployed warheads in all (p. 11). The ~540 W87 warheads available (p. 3) are not enough to provide this capability, if deployed on GBSD directly; neither can they provide enough re-used pits to build W87-1s for the same purpose. Even if rushed, planned pit production may be unable to meet the W87-1 schedule (e-p. 2; also pp. 29-38).

Pit production authorization and funding for FY21

Congress authorizes defense programs in each year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and funds them in appropriations acts. In late July, the House and Senate versions of the FY21 NDAA (H.R. 6395 and S. 4049 respectively) each authorized the full requested amount for NNSA's Weapons Activities budget line ($15.60 billion), including the pit production budget in every detail. A final NDAA has not yet been agreed.

There were concerns. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) draft FY21 NDAA requires (p. 417) a nationwide review of plutonium infrastructure by the GAO. The SASC also sees that the tentative assignment of the surplus plutonium oxidation mission to LANL's main plutonium facility (PF-4) strongly competes with LANL's pit production mission, as GAO has warned. The SASC requests a report detailing oxidation options by March 1, 2021. Currently, the plutonium from surplus pits stored at Pantex is to be oxidized at LANL's PF-4 and then sent to the Savannah River Site (SRS) to be packaged and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for final disposal.

In its markup of the FY21 NDAA, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) added Section 3115 (pp. 2284-2287), which seems intended to halt pit production at the SRPPF while providing a means of accepting a delay for "up to five years," (p. vii) in the 80 ppy requirement (the Senate had no comparable provision). SRS production, if paused or canceled this way, would be replaced by "temporarily surging the production of such pits at [LANL] and other mitigation strategies." The feasibility of any LANL "surge" is however uncertain at best. NNSA's 2017 Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) found that any PF-4 "surge" was infeasible (p. 2); NNSA's 2018 Engineering Analysis (EA) found that the alternative involving a surge had by far the highest risk (Alt. 2c, slide 8); in 2019 the Institute for Defense Analyses found that any surge in PF-4 would be "very high risk" (p. vii). GAO recently cited a classified LANL study which found that LANL was only "marginally capable" of reaching 30 ppy by 2026 "and sustaining that rate thereafter" (p. 35).

This year's appropriations process has been slow. The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) expiring on December 11, 2020, which limits Department of Energy (DOE) expenditures to FY20 levels for each budget line and prevents new programs and projects.

Prior to the CR, the House passed an appropriations bill (H.R. 7617) that provides $1.08 billion for pit production in FY21, $0.29 billion less than requested but $0.37 billion more than enacted the previous year. The bill cuts $135 million from SRS's and $157 million from LANL's pit production accounts while allowing most (at LANL) or all (at SRS) funds requested for pit infrastructure (pp. 170-171).

The Administration's budget request for FY21 for pit production ("Plutonium Modernization") was $1.39 billion, a dramatic increase from the $0.80 billion and $0.41 billion spent in FY20 and FY19, respectively. An additional $0.24 billion in FY21 was requested in other infrastructure improvements for pit production at LANL, as identified by Senator Heinrich (D-NM), bringing the nationwide FY21 total to $1.62 billion. Including these pit infrastructure projects, the projected FY19-25 total for pit production is $11.67 billion, of which $7.58 billion is earmarked for LANL, $4.09 billion for SRS, and $0.52 billion for other sites (slide 23).

In its report on the draft funding bill, the House Committee on Appropriations notes NNSA has no detailed plan for pit production:

The Committee remains concerned that NNSA has not prioritized the development of a resource-loaded integrated master schedule that includes all pit production-related, project-related and program activities as recommended by the GAO and does not appear to have plans to complete such a schedule until after it would have had to achieve certain pit production milestones. (p. 140)

A GAO report released on September 30 found that "NNSA's plutonium program...has not yet completed an integrated schedule for the overall pit production effort" (e-p. 2). NNSA is directed to submit such a plan within 30 days of enactment.

Noting that the risk of failure is high, the Committee also requires that NNSA submit, by 120 days after enactment, a contingency plan for managing the stockpile in the event the 2030 pit production deadline is not met. This contingency plan must be updated annually and submitted with the budget request. The plan must include:

options to ramp up pit production that extend the current need dates for pit production; how the hedge and fielded stockpile could be configured to serve as an interim solution; and an estimate of how many years current pit production need dates could be extended by advancing pit reuse concepts. (p. 140)

These appropriations requirements are binding even if omitted in the final conference report as long as they are not explicitly negated or modified.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted.

Costs

CBO estimates the marginal pit cost at a 50-ppy SRPPF at $6 million (p. 14), an order of magnitude higher than the $300-750 million estimated by NNSA (p. 22). LANL's costs may be far higher. In 2017 the cost of establishing an average 30 ppy production in the now-ended Plutonium Sustainment program (which "differs significantly" from today's at least 30 ppy requirement; see AoA, p. 1) at LANL was thought to be $3 billion (slide 2). GAO used a similar figure ("up to $3 billion," p. 15). Yet requested pit production startup costs at LANL are $7.6 billion through FY25 (slide 23) and will be about $14 billion through 2030 (slide 29).

One of the reasons for this great increase is the newly-revealed necessity of running PF-4 and surrounding facilities on a 24/7 basis (two production shifts and a maintenance shift) to achieve even 20 ppy (p. 15), necessitating a much larger staff and more support facilities and infrastructure. NNSA has now indicated indirectly that LANL needs 4,000 production and support staff to achieve 30 ppy (slide 29).

Assuming a steady-state production assumption of 43 ppy (AoA, p. 13, more optimistic than GAO's 30 ppy, p. 16), four reasonable production scenarios generate a cost per LANL pit in the range of $38-60 million (slides 29-31), almost an order of magnitude more than at SRS and two orders of magnitude beyond NNSA's estimate.

It is not possible to credibly predict future pit production at LANL, nor will it be, at least not until 2025 given the unresolved problems flagged by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) (slides 6-15), some of which may be resolved by then (slide 21).

For the long-standing issue of legacy transuranic (TRU) waste disposition, there is no timely solution. There are roughly 19,000 drums and other containers of TRU stored at LANL, with thousands of these in an unsafe condition above-ground near the public and other thousands in long-term but temporary shallow burial, subject to corrosion. Storage capacity for new TRU waste from pit production is also inadequate (pp. A-13,14).

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance

NNSA has issued final NEPA documents for pit production, including a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF) pit production complex at SRS (September 2020, EIS-0541), a Final Supplement Analysis (SA) for the continued operation of LANL under conditions of pit production (August 2020, DOE/EIS-0380-SA-06), and a Final SA for nationwide NNSA and DOE operations under conditions of pit production (December 2019, DOE/EIS-0236-S4-SA-02). Records of Decision (RODs) (site-wide, nationwide) have been issued for industrial pit production at LANL and SRS (project-specific, nationwide). Serious questions have been raised about the adequacy of these NEPA processes but no litigation has yet been filed.

The United States and Kazakhstan announced the elimination of unirradiated HEU fuel of the IGR research reactor. According to the statement, 2.9 kg of unirradiated HEU was transported to the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, where it was downblended. "The downblending process included crushing and grinding the graphite/uranium blocks, oxidizing the graphite material, dry mixing with LEU powder, dissolving the uranium, and adjusting to get the uranium oxide to 19.8% enrichment."

IGR is a pulsed reactor that used uranium-graphite fuel with 90% HEU. It is not clear any irradiated fuel remains on site. The reactor is likely to be decommissioned.

During the 2020 IAEA General Conference the United States and Kazakhstan confirmed their commitment to work together to eliminate all HEU in Kazakhstan and to complete conversion of the remaining HEU research reactor, IVG.1M, to LEU in 2021. In 2017, Kazakhstan conducted first tests of LEU fuel for IVG.1M, supplied by Russia.

U.S. Department of Energy filed a request with NRC for a license to export 130 kg of highly-enriched uranium ("121.16 kg of U-235 contained in maximum of 130 kg uranium, enriched to maximum of 93.20 weight %") to France. The material will 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 XSNM3819 is dated 18 September 2020.

This would be the third batch of HEU supplied by the United States to the High Flux Reactor in recent years. The United States supplied HEU to France until 1991. In the 1990s France switched to Russian HEU, partly because the United States insisted on a commitment to convert the reactor to LEU fuel. Under an agreement signed in 1996, Russia supplied 620 kg of HEU to France for two reactors, Orphée and RHF. These shipments were completed in 2006.

Previous license, XSNM6333, to export 186.4 kg of 93.35% HEU (174 kg of U-235), was requested in March 2010 and granted in March 2012. The shipment of the material was completed in 2012 and the NNSA spokesman said at the time that it was expected to be the last shipment as the DoE was working with the ILL to convert the reactor to LEU fuel.

The conversion efforts apparently stalled and the United States agreed to send another 130 kg of 93.2% HEU (121.1 kg U-235) to France for the RHF reactor. The license XSNM3757 was issued in October 2016.

The current license application suggests that the shipment of material will be completed by the end of 2023.

France does not use for civilian purposes the HEU from its military stock, estimated to be about 25 tonnes. In its most recent annual INFCIRC/549 report France reported having 3836 kg of unirradiated civilian HEU as of 31 December 2019.

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 2019.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-23) reported owning the total of 45.5 tons of plutonium, 8.9 tons of which is in Japan (the numbers in 2018 were 45.7 tons and 9.0 tons respectively). According to the Status Report on Plutonium Management in Japan - 2019 released in August 2020, out of the 36.6 tons of plutonium abroad, 21.180 tons are in the United Kingdom and 15.435 tons are in France.

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-23) reported having no separated plutonium in the country for the second year in a row. Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country. It is believed to be less than 1 ton.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-19) declared no separated plutonium in storage or at reprocessing plants and "not zero, but less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium in other categories. It reported that it had no foreign plutonium as of 31 December 2018.

  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4-24) reported having less than 2 kg of plutonium in the country (in the "located elsewhere" category). The number has not changed since 2016 (it was "less than 50 kg" in 2015).

  5. France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5-24) reported having 90.2 tons of separated unirradiated plutonium in its custody. Of this amount, 15.5 tons belongs to foreign countries. It appears that all that plutonium - 15,435 kg - belongs to Japan. The amount of plutonium owned by France is 74.7 tons, an increase of 7 tonnes from previous year (67.7 tons).

  6. The United States has not submitted its 2019 report. Its 2018 report (INFCIRC/549/Add.6-22) was followed by INFCIRC/549/Add.6-23, released in October 2021.

  7. China has not has not submitted its 2017-2019 reports as of 20 January 2021. The last INFCIRC/549 report submitted to the IAEA showed 40.9 kg of separated plutonium as of 31 December 2016.

  8. The United Kingdom (INFCIRC/549/Add.8-23) reported owning 115.8 tons of separated plutonium, the same as in 2018. In addition to that, the United Kingdom stores 24.1 tons of foreign plutonium (of which 21.8 tons is owned by Japan). The amount of foreign plutonium increased by 1 ton.

  9. Russia (NFCIRC/549/Add.9-22) reported owning 63 tons of civilian plutonium, an increase of 1.7 tons from 2018.

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

Germany reported 0.35 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel (an increase from 0.32 tonnes in 2018), 0.94 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.01 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere."

France declared 5373 kg of HEU (5144 kg in 2017), of which 3836 kg (3654 kg) is unirradiated material - 930 kg (996 kg) of HEU at fuel fabrication or reprocessing plants, 51 kg (101 kg) at civil reactor sites, 2855 kg (2517 kg) at various research facilities. Also declared are 1537 kg (1530 kg) of irradiated HEU - 99 kg (91 kg) at civil reactor sites and 1438 kg (1439 kg) in other locations.

The United Kingdom reported having 734 kg of HEU (742 kg in 2018). Of this amount, 598 kg is unirradiated HEU: less than 1 kg of unirradiated HEU is stored at the enrichment plants, less than 1 kg is at civil reactor sites, 417 kg - at fuel fabrication facilities, and 181 kg - at other sites. Irradiated HEU is located at civil reactor sites (5 kg) and other sites (132 kg).