Rosatom's subsidiary TVEL has delivered the first batch of fuel to China's CFR-600 fast-neutron reactor. CFR-600 is the first of the two fast-neutron reactors that are built in Xiapu, Fujian province. The construction of the two units began in 2017 and in 2020. The first unit is scheduled to begin operations in 2023.

Russia provides China with assistance in building the reactors. In 2019, TVEL and CNLY signed a fuel supply contract that will provide the first unit with HEU fuel throughout 2030. To support this contract, Russia expanded the HEU enrichment production line at Electrochemical plant (EKhZ) in Zelenogorsk in 2019 and set up a dedicated fuel production line at the MSZ Plant in Electrostal in 2021.

According to an analysis of the trade data, the fuel was delivered in three shipments, in September, November, and December 2022. The composition of the CFR-600 fuel is not known, but it may be similar to that of the BN-600, which uses uranium with enrichment of 17%, 21%, and 26%. If that is the case, the estimated mass of HEU in the core is about 7.6 MT (with 21% and 26% enrichment) or about 2 MT of 90% HEU equivalent.

The United Kingdom approved project AURORA that will "provide an enduring plutonium manufacturing capability for warhead components, directly supporting the requirements of the UKs warhead programme." The new facility will be part of the Atomic Weapon Establishment and will apparently replace the existing facilities located there. The project is still at the "initial Assessment Phase" stage, with the budget of £108M, which will determine the full cost and time of the program. At this point, the total cost of the project is estimated to be between "£2Bn and £2.5Bn."

Frank N. von Hippel

At the end of November, the US National Academies posted a report in response to a request from Congress to "examine the merits and viability of different nuclear fuel cycle options, waste aspects of advanced reactors and their fuel cycles, and nonproliferation and security risks of these technologies." The US Department of Energy (DOE) has been promoting spent fuel reprocessing as a way to dispose of accumulating spent fuel and exotic types of helium, molten sodium and molten-salt-cooled "small modular reactors" as an alternative to the new large water-cooled conventional power reactors that have become too costly to be economically competitive in the United States and most other countries.

With regard to the proliferation dangers of reprocessing, the study panel acknowledged the obvious:

...Fuel cycles involving reprocessing and separation of fissile material [such as plutonium] that could be weapons usable pose greater proliferation and terrorism risks than the [current] once-through uranium fuel cycle with direct disposal of spent fuel... - Finding 20

The panel also expressed concern that many of the small modular demonstration reactor types DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy has been co-funding are to be fueled with "high-assay low-enriched uranium" (HALEU) enriched to between 10 and 20 percent U-235. Current-generation power reactors are fueled with uranium enriched to less than five percent,

Expanding the global use of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) would potentially exacerbate proliferation and security risks because of the potentially greater attractiveness of this material for nuclear weapons compared with the low-enriched uranium used in light water reactors. The increased number of sites using and states producing this material could provide more opportunity for diversion by state or nonstate actors. - Finding 19

The panel went on to critique the claimed benefits of spent fuel reprocessing that are being using to justify reprocessing to manage the country's accumulating spent fuel. (In October, the DOE gave out another dozen grants to universities, private companies, and its national laboratories to develop new ways to separate plutonium and other transuranic elements from spent fuel.)

The committee found no benefits but many potential costs. These are the same conclusions arrived at by a 1996 National Academies report on the management of US spent fuel. That report was commissioned by DOE but has been ignored by the offices within DOE responsible for funding nuclear energy research, development, and demonstration (the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Advanced research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E]).

The Executive Summary of the new report states,

the introduction and use of advanced reactors will do little, if anything, to mitigate the need for successful management and disposal of nuclear waste.

Instead, the panel urged Congress to get on with the task of creating an organization responsible for finding a deep repository for US spent fuel. That responsibility was undertaken by the federal government forty years ago in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. DOE's effort to implement that commitment collapsed after Congress picked Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for the national repository and Nevada fought DOE to a halt.

Congress will need to establish a single-mission entity with responsibility for managing and disposing of commercial nuclear waste. The entity will need continuity of leadership and funding, as well as a consistent disposal strategy; it will also need high technical and scientific competence, and the ability to organize and lead research programs and large construction projects. Importantly, such an entity will need to engage the public in a way that engenders trust. Finally, the entity will need to operate effectively over the many decades that will be required to manage the present inventory of nuclear waste, as well as waste generated by future advanced reactors (emphasis added).

The panel also found that advocates of separating and fissioning the plutonium in spent fuel have been misleading Congress and the public about the hazard-reduction benefits,

Radiological risks from disposed waste are dominated by the mobility of long-lived radionuclides and not by the radiotoxicity inventory...The long-term safety of disposal of actinides [plutonium and other transuranic elements] in appropriate geologic settings is largely independent of the actinide inventory of the repository, except in the off-normal situation where the geological barrier is bypassed--for instance, by human intrusion. - Finding 13

The panel implicitly criticized the indiscriminate way in which Congress and DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy have been supporting proposals for nuclear energy research, development, and demonstration.

Congress and DOE will benefit from obtaining an independent assessment of cost estimates of various scenarios for potential deployment of advanced reactor technologies and related fuel cycle components... - Executive Summary

It stated furthermore that disposal of the radioactive waste from the exotic reactors DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy is currently promoting could be much more complex than disposal of the spent fuel from today's water-cooled reactors (LWRs).

Sodium-cooled fast-[neutron] reactors would produce large volumes of irradiated sodium waste that would require treatment and disposal... Molten salt reactors produce two waste streams, radioactive off-gases and the spent fuel salt waste, that would require processing into waste forms suitable for disposal. These treatment methods and suitable wastes forms are in early stages of exploration. Most of these advanced reactors would produce large quantities of irradiated graphite waste--from use as moderators or reflectors--and this material would prove challenging to manage as well. - Finding 15

The panel warned specifically about the potentially huge down-stream costs of the programs whose exploration DOE is funding.

The costs of advanced reactors and their associated fuel cycles could range from at least several billion dollars--for pilot-scale non-light water advanced reactors and their fuel cycle facilities--to hundreds of billions of dollars--for full deployment of an alternative fuel cycle that would replace the existing once-through cycle and existing light water reactors. Congress and the U.S. Department of Energy will need better understanding of the cost estimates for various scenarios of reactor deployment and supporting fuel cycle requirements to aid their decision making as to what technologies to support in the coming years. - Finding 10

Because of its broad spectrum of views, however, the committee could not agree on the obvious implications of its assessment. Its compromise was to back more research in areas where no more research is needed.

The once-through fuel cycle is the baseline, and any new fuel cycles should have advantages over that baseline for them to be deployed. However, so as not to preclude these options in the future, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should continue fundamental studies to evaluate the feasibility of using recycling and transmutation for closing fuel cycles. Specifically, DOE should develop and implement a phased, long-range research and development program that focuses on advanced separations and transmutations technologies. - Recommendation D

It would be worth Congress asking, however: If, after 50 years of research and development on alternative nuclear fuel cycles, no alternative has been identified that is less costly and more proliferation resistant than the current once-through fuel cycle, why should DOE fund more research and development on "advanced" reprocessing technologies?

Worldwide promotion of spent fuel reprocessing R&D by DOE's predecessor agency, the US Atomic Energy Commission, produced India's and (in reaction) Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programs. If the State Department under Henry Kissinger had not intervened quickly and forcefully after India's first nuclear test in 1974, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan probably all would have followed India's path to nuclear weapons. All had military governments at the time, and all had ordered reprocessing equipment from vendors in France and Germany.

It also is worth remembering the warning from Theodore B. Taylor, a legendary nuclear-weapons designer who went public in the 1970s with his conclusion that the technology of detonators and plastic explosives had advanced to the point where, if terrorists had access to separated plutonium, they might be able to make nuclear explosives. Taylor was terrified by the Atomic Energy Commission's vision of a world powered by millions of weapon-equivalents of plutonium being separated, fabricated, and shipped annually in the commercial nuclear power plant fuel cycle.

On 9 September 2022 the BN-800 fast-neutron reactor at the Beloyarsk NPP began operations with its core fully loaded with MOX fuel. The reactor, first connected to the grid in 2015, began operations with a core with HEU and some experimental MOX fuel assemblies. In 2019, Rosatom began serial production of MOX fuel at the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk.

UPDATE 09/23/2022: The reactor achieved full power on 22 September 2022.

Frank von Hippel

France's government-controlled nuclear fuel company, Orano (formerly part of Areva), is facing significant operating problems at both its Melox uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in southern France and its spent-fuel reprocessing plant for plutonium-separation at La Hague on the English Channel. In a 19 January 2022 press conference, the Chairman of France's Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), Bernard Doroszczuk, stressed the seriousness of the situation, "if reprocessing is to be continued [in France], it will be necessary either to provide for the renovation of the current installations; or, if reprocessing is to be stopped, alternative solutions for the management of spent fuel, should be available by 2040" (translated quote provided by Yannick Rousselet of Greenpeace France).

France has been reprocessing its spent low-enriched-uranium power reactor fuel since 1976 and, since 1987, has been fabricating most of the recovered plutonium into MOX fuel for use in its oldest (900-MWe) reactors. France's government-owned national nuclear utility, Électricité de France (EDF), has agreed with Orano to continue the separation and fuel use of the plutonium in its spent low-enriched uranium fuel until about 2040.

MOX fuel production. According to information released by Orano and collected by Rousselet, Melox's output of MOX fuel fell from 124 tons in 2016 to 51 tons in 2021. Melox's production problems also resulted in an increasing fraction of its output being unusable. Orano states that Melox's production of defective MOX has increased to between 15 and 20 tons per year during the past three years, from its historical rate of five to ten tons a year.

The defective fuel is sent to Orano's reprocessing plant at La Hague for storage. This has contributed to a plutonium storage problem at La Hague. According to France's reports to the IAEA, during 2019 and 2020, the amount of unirradiated plutonium stored at La Hague increased at a rate of about 4 tons per year, about eight times the pre-2016 average. According to ASN, that has led to "the site's plutonium storage areas being filled to maximum capacity."

Orano attributes its MOX fuel production problem to the changed characteristics of the depleted uranium dioxide powder Melox uses to dilute the plutonium in the MOX fuel. This resulted from Orano changing the powder's production process. Orano is now building a new uranium oxide powder production facility based on the old process, which it hopes to put into operation by the end of 2023. In the meantime, Orano has requested permission to increase its plutonium storage capacity at La Hague.

Spent fuel storage. Orano is also facing a storage problem in its spent fuel intake pools at La Hague. ASN projects that Orano may run out of space there "earlier than 2028-29" due in part because of spent MOX fuel accumulating at La Hague with no disposal plans.

The filling rate of La Hague's spent fuel pools has been accelerated by the slowing of the rate of reprocessing there due to the need for equipment replacement. ASN points out that "the detection of corrosion in the existing evaporators in Orano's La Hague facility earlier than expected in the design has reduced reprocessing capacity until new fission product evaporators-concentrators are commissioned" and that this could "further degrade the saturation margins of the [spent-fuel] pools at La Hague."

EDF has proposed to build its own central storage pool for its spent MOX fuel but, according to ASN, this pool "will not be available before 2034 at best." Orano has proposed to increase the density of spent-fuel storage in the pools at La Hague but ASN has responded that denser spent fuel packing is "not a technical solution that meets current safety standards."

Orano therefore proposes to build a dry-cask spent-fuel storage facility at La Hague that could accommodate 900 tons of the spent fuel for which there are no current plans to reprocess: MOX fuel and spent fuel made from re-enriched uranium from reprocessed spent fuel.

Rousselet considers Orano's proposal to build dry cask spent fuel storage "a great first for France." Most countries use dry cask storage after years to decades of cooling in pool storage pending direct disposal without reprocessing in planned deep repositories. Critics of reprocessing have been advocating that France and Japan do the same.

The Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield completed its operations. According to a report by the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the plant took the final feed of spent fuel before midnight on 17 July 2022.

The plant was reprocessing spent fuel of Magnox reactors, the last of which was shut down in 2015. In operation since 1964, the facility reprocessed 54,920 tonnes of spent fuel.

The government of Japan released The Status Report of Plutonium Management in Japan - 2021, which details its plutonium holdings. According to the report,

As of the end of 2021, the total amount of separated plutonium both managed within and outside of Japan was approximately 45.8 tons, approximately 9.3 tons of which was held domestically and the rest of approximately 36.5 tons was held abroad.

The amount of domestic storage, 9.3 tons, is slightly higher than that at the end of 2020, 8.9 tons. The difference is the 0.6 tons of plutonium in fresh MOX fuel transported from France in September-November 2021 and 0.2 tons of plutonium loaded into the Ikata Unit 3 reactor.

Of the plutonium stored abroad, 14,760 kg are stored in France (15,411 in 2020) and 21,780 kg - in the United Kingdom (21,805 in 2020). The reprocessing of Japan's spent fuel held in France had been completed by the end of 2017.

In 2020, Japan reported having a total of 46.1 tons of separated plutonium, of which 8.9 tons were held domestically.