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 as of 20 January 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).

Frank von Hippel

On 20 May 2020, the US Department of Energy (DOE) submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) its plan for the next phase of the cleanup of the West Valley reprocessing plant, the only commercial reprocessing plant that ever operated in the United States.

The plant was built in western New York in the early 1960s by W.R. Grace, a chemical company conglomerate, at a cost of $33 million, equivalent to about $200 million in 2020 dollars. It was heavily subsidized by the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which paid to have it reprocess fuel from its N-reactor, a dual-purpose plutonium- and power-production reactor in the AEC's plutonium-production complex in Hanford Washington. It would have been far less costly to reprocess the fuel at Hanford. The AEC also paid the equivalent of $60 per gram in 2020 dollars for plutonium separated at West Valley from spent fuel delivered by U.S. nuclear utilities. The plant operated from 1966 to 1972, reprocessing 640 tons of spent fuel before it shut down for upgrades. About 1.5 tons of plutonium was recovered.

After Congress broke up the AEC and created the NRC as an independent agency in 1974, the magnitude of the safety and worker protection upgrades required at the West Valley plant became clear. W.R. Grace estimated the cost at $340 million (about $1.2 billion in 2020 dollars) and abandoned the plant, leaving its decommissioning and site cleanup costs to the federal government and New York State. The facility was renamed the West Valley Demonstration Project with its mission changed from demonstrating reprocessing to demonstrating the decommissioning of a reprocessing facility.

Four decades later, as of the end of 2017, the DOE had spent $1.4 billion for its 90-percent share of the cleanup cost. This paid for vitrification (glassification) of the high-level liquid reprocessing waste into 275 three-meter-tall containers that are stored on site, shipment of 125 unreprocessed spent fuel assemblies to the Idaho National Laboratory, and disposal of over 33,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste, mostly onsite.

In the next phase of decommissioning, DOE proposes to dismantle the thick-walled process building down to ground level and ship an estimated 1,400 truckloads of the resulting debris to national low-level radioactive waste facilities . It also hopes to end on-going ground-water contamination due to leakage from the plant and its various radioactive waste storage facilities. In 2010, DOE estimated the cost of this phase at $1.2 billion.

Still undecided is the final phase of decommissioning. In 2010 DOE estimated an additional cost of $0.5 billion if the remaining radioactive contamination were managed indefinitely onsite and $5.4-8.2 billion if it were removed. DOE committed then that a decision on that choice would be made by 2020. With the current phase yet to begin, however, that decision is not in sight.

This is another example of the cleanup costs for reprocessing plants dwarfing their construction costs. Another example is Germany's WAK pilot reprocessing plant, which operated from 1971 to 1990 and reprocessed 207 tons of spent fuel. The plant cost the equivalent of $80 million to build. Around 2010, the cost for decommissioning was estimated at about $4 billion (both in 2020 dollars).

For modern, much more costly reprocessing plants built to higher safety standards, with vitrification part of the process, the ratio of decommissioning to construction costs will be less but still greater than one, in part due to the multi-decade duration of the decommissioning process.

The government of Japan released The Status Report of Plutonium Management in Japan - 2019, which details its plutonium holdings. According to the report,

As of the end of 2019, the total amount of separated plutonium both managed within and outside of Japan was approximately 45.5 tons, approximately 8.9 tons of which was held domestically and the rest of approximately 36.6 tons was held abroad.

The amount of domestic storage was approximately 8.9 tons at the end of 2019, as electric utilities (Kyushu Genkai unit 3) irradiated approximately 0.2 tons of separated plutonium.

Of the plutonium stored abroad, 15,435 kg are stored in France (15,460 in 2018) and 21,180 kg - in the United Kingdom (21,205 in 2018). The reprocessing of Japan's spent fuel held in France had been completed by the end of 2017. The United Kingdom still holds about 0.6 tonnes of Japan's plutonium in spent fuel. It appears that none of that material was separated since the end of 2017.

In 2018, Japan reported having a total of 45.7 tons of separated plutonium, of which 9.0 tons were held domestically.

The Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, the operator of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, has delayed the launch of the plant until at least "the first half of fiscal 2022." In May 2020, the facility passed safety checks and received an approval from the Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority. It was expected to begin operations in 2021. JNFL, however, delayed the launch, citing the need to implement additional safety measures.

This is the 24th delay in the history of the plant. In 1993, when the construction began, it was expected that the plant will begin operations in 1997. Previous delay was announced in December 2017.

The UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has approved resumed operations at the UK B205 Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield to allow completion of work on the remaining spent fuel from the UK's shutdown Magnox reactors. The B205 plant, which began operation in 1964, was scheduled to be closed in 2020 after having finished this work, but progress was halted when it was put into "controlled shutdown" in early 2020 because of the covid-19 pandemic.

The B205 plant will be shut down after Magnox reprocessing operations are completed in 2021, one year later than previously planned. The plant's original closure was planned for 2012 but this was delayed multiple times. The plant has had safety issues including a leak of radioactive condensation that lasted for and went unnoticed for 12 months. B205 operations have been the largest source of radioactive discharge to the Irish Sea from the Sellafield site.

The UK's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was shut in November 2018 . The troubled history of THORP was detailed in the 2019 IPFM report Endless Trouble: Britain's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) by Martin Forwood, Gordon MacKerron and William Walker.

The history and background of UK reprocessing was covered in the 2008 IPFM report The Legacy of Reprocessing in the United Kingdom by Martin Forwood.

The BN-800 fast-neutron reactor at the Beloyarsk power plant will be fully converted to MOX fuel by 2022. The transition will start in the first half of 2021, when MOX fuel will be in about a third of the active zone, and will be completed in 2022. Since its launch in 2015, the reactor has used a combination of HEU and MOX fuel.

The fuel fabrication plant at the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk, also launched in 2015, delivered the first batch of 18 serially-produced MOX fuel assemblies to BN-800 only in August 2019. Before that, the reactor used MOX fuel fabricated at experimental facilities.

On 24 March 1995, Ambassador Shannon of Canada submitted his report, CD/1299, to the Conference on Disarmament (CD). The report contained agreed language of the mandate to negotiate a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices," commonly referred to as a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty or FMCT. Yet, 25 years later, the Conference on Disarmament failed to achieve progress toward opening of negotiations.

The most recent notable development was the discussion held in 2018 at one of the five subsidiary bodies established by the CD that year. In 2019, however, the CD failed to reach an agreement on subsidiary bodies, so no substantial focused discussion was held.

The work of the CD 25-country Group of Governmental Experts in 2014-2015 and of the High-Level Expert Preparatory Group in 2017-2018 appears to have exhausted for now the opportunities for informal consultations on FMCT. It appears unlikely that further progress could be made outside of the formal CD process.

Some expert-level discussions might be held as part of the P5 process, a set of closed door consultations among the five permanent members of the US Security Council. According to the UK report, the US, UK, Russia, France and China planned to hold discussions on an FMCT.

During the 8 August 2019 session of the CD, several states made statements regarding FMCT. The United States stated that it completed a review of the issue in 2018 and "continues to support the commencement of negotiations on an FMCT, provided that the negotiations are governed by consensus and that all key States participate." China insisted more directly that "negotiations on an FMCT can and must be conducted only in the Conference on Disarmament."

The CD remains deadlocked on FMCT, formally because of Pakistan's position on the issue. Pakistan's delegate took the position in August 2019 that "we do not support ending our national production of fissile material at this stage" and "obviously we do not support a moratorium."

The disagreements over the treaty appear to be growing as the United States is now accusing China and Pakistan of actively seeking to block the negotiations. The United States delegate cited "actions in formally blocking negotiations by China and Pakistan, either together or individually, in 1999, 2007 and 2009." China's ambassador denied the accusation.

China continues to resist formally joining the moratorium on fissile material production maintained by the US, UK, Russia and France. Its ambassador argued that "a moratorium on production is not the fundamental path to completely and effectively resolving the FMCT issue. Especially in this day and age, what some countries affirm today they may deny tomorrow, and a current administration can arbitrarily repudiate all the policies and commitments made by a previous one, leaving the international community at an even greater loss as to what course to take."

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that the reprocessing plant in Rokkasho has passed safety checks. NRA is now soliciting feedback on its draft decision to grant the plant a permission to operate.

If the approval is issued, the plant can begin to operate in 2021, in line with earlier plans. When the construction of the plant began in 1993, it was expected to begin operations in 1997.