M.V. Ramana

In December 2022, India's Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions & Prime Minister's Office--and the parliamentary spokesperson for the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)--informed the upper house of the parliament that the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), of 500 MWe (megawatt-electrical) capacity, is now expected to be completed in 2024. Just nine months prior, on 31 March, the same spokesperson had offered 2022 as the year for completion.

As previously documented on this blog, completion of the PFBR has been repeatedly delayed. As a result, the construction period is now more than thrice the early projections. The DAE started building the PFBR in 2004. In 2005, less than a year after construction started, the director of the agency that designed the PFBR announced at a public meeting that he was "confident" that they would construct the reactor "in five years and a half", and that "four more FBRs, of 500-MWe capacity each, would be built... by 2020". With this latest delay, PFBR's project will be at least twenty years old.

The initial project cost estimate for the PFBR was 34.92 billion Rupees. That too has gone up in steps, and the last official update was in November 2019, when the same spokesperson informed the lower house of the parliament that the PFBR's projected cost was "being revised" to 68.40 Rupees. (As of 28 January 2023, the conversion rate for Indian Rupees is 81.5 per U.S. dollar but this has not been constant. However, the PFBR cost estimates are in mixed-year Rupees and so directly converting it into other currencies using one conversion rate would be misleading.)

The other breeder reactor operating in India, the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), managed to reach its "design power capacity of 40 MWt (megawatt-thermal)" only in 2022, thirty seven years after it started operating.

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 2021. The total amount of plutonium declared as civilian was about 360 tonnes, an increase of about 5 tonnes since the end of 2020. Only about 130 tons of this material are under international (IAEA or Euratom) safeguards. The other 230 tonnes are not safeguarded, but are covered by various obligations not to use the material for military purposes.

Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-25) reported owning the total of 45.8 tons of plutonium, 9.3 tons of which is in Japan (the numbers in 2020 were 46.1 tons and 8.9 tons respectively). According to the Status Report on Plutonium Management in Japan - 2021 released in July 2022, out of the 36.5 tons of plutonium abroad, 21.780 tons are in the United Kingdom and 14.760 tons are in France.

Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-25) 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.

Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-21) 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 2021.

Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4-26) 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).

France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5-26) reported having 99.9 tons of separated unirradiated plutonium in its custody. Of this amount, 15 tons belongs to foreign countries. It appears that almost all that plutonium - 14,760 kg - belongs to Japan. The amount of plutonium owned by France is 84.9 tons, an increase of 5.4 tonnes from previous year (79.5 tons).

In its 2021 report (INFCIRC/549/Add.6-24) declared 49.4 tons of separated plutonium, of which 4.6 tons are in MOX fuel and 44.8 tons are "held elsewhere" (most of this material is believed to be in weapon components). This amount was reported to be 44.7 tons in 2018, but went back to 44.8 tons in 2019 (as indicated by the "previous year" number in the 2020 declaration). These changes appear to reflect changes in the accounting for the material - the amount reported as "disposed as waste" was 4.6 tons in 2018, but was reverted to 4.5 tons in 2020.

China has not has not submitted its 2017-2021 reports as of 27 January 2023. The last INFCIRC/549 report submitted to the IAEA showed 40.9 kg of separated plutonium as of 31 December 2016.

The United Kingdom (INFCIRC/549/Add.8-25) reported owning 116.5 tons of separated plutonium, an increase from 116.1 in 2020. In addition to that, the United Kingdom stores 24.1 tons of foreign plutonium (of which 21.780 tons is owned by Japan).

Russia (INFCIRC/549/Add.9-24) reported owning 63.5 tons of civilian plutonium, an increase of 0.1 tons from 2020.

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, 0.94 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.01 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere." None of the numbers have changed since 2020.

France declared 5313 kg of HEU (5319 kg in 2020), of which 3760 kg (3785 kg) is unirradiated material - 804 kg (852 kg) of HEU at fuel fabrication or reprocessing plants, 60 kg (74 kg) at civil reactor sites, 2896 kg (2859 kg) at various research facilities. Also declared are 1553 kg (1533 kg) of irradiated HEU - 62 kg (79 kg) at civil reactor sites and 1491 kg (1454 kg) in other locations.

The United Kingdom reported having 734 kg of HEU (737 kg in 2020). Of this amount, 598 kg is unirradiated HEU (601 in 2020): less than 1 kg of unirradiated HEU is stored at the enrichment plants, less than 1 kg is at civil reactor sites, 420 kg - at fuel fabrication facilities, and 178 kg - at other sites (421 kg and 180 kg respectively in 2020). Irradiated HEU is located at civil reactor sites (5 kg) and other sites (132 kg).

In December 2022 US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management completed the first shipment of plutonium from the K-Area of the Savannah River Site to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Mew Mexico. The amount of material in the shipment was not disclosed.

The shipment begins the implementation of the DoE "dilute and dispose" program. The program, approved in 2016, is authorized to dispose up to six tons of excess plutonium that is stored at the Savannah River Site in oxide by mixing it with an engineering substance, known as "stardust," and placing it in WIPP. In the FY2021 budget request, US administration envisioned that plutonium will be disposed at a rate of about 1.5 tons a year. For FY2022, Congress approved the request of $156 million to build glovebox capacity at SRS.

In December 2016, then U.S. Secretary of Energy announced that the United States will begin consultations with the IAEA "to monitor the dilution and packaging of up to six metric tons of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site." However, there are no indications that the IAEA was involved in the December 2023 shipment.

Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel

On 26 December 2022, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited announced another delay in completion of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. The plant is already 25 years late; completion was originally scheduled for 1997 (in 2020 the startup of the plant was delayed until 2022). It is now projected to be completed in mid-2024 with plutonium-separation operations to begin a year later. The delays are significant for the accumulation and use of separated plutonium in Japan.

According to Japan's Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC), if and when the reprocessing plant operates at its design capacity of 800 tons of spent fuel per year, it will separate 6.6 tons of plutonium annually. This could lead to a rapid increase of Japan's stock of separated plutonium, which amounted to 45.8 tons as of the end of 2021: 36.5 tons in France and UK and 9.3 tons in Japan.

From breeders to MOX, and a growing plutonium stockpile

Between 1969 to 2001, Japan's utilities sent about 7100 tons of spent LWR and gas-cooled reactor fuel to France and the UK for reprocessing - originally to obtain startup plutonium for Japan's then-planned fleet of plutonium breeder reactors. About 45 tons of plutonium were separated from this fuel. Following the 1995 sodium fire at the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor, however, Japan's breeder-reactor program was delayed indefinitely.

To assure that Japan's plutonium accumulating in Europe and to be separated at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant would be used in fuel, FEPC announced in 1997 that, by 2010, 16-18 Japanese light-water-cooled power reactors (LWRs) would be loading 7-11 tons of plutonium annually in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. As of the end of 2021, however, Japan's LWRs have used an average of only 0.2 tons of plutonium per year and cumulatively only 4.7 tons since MOX fuel for LWRs was first shipped to Japan from France and the UK in 1999.

In 2018, in an attempt to allay international concern about the size of Japan's stock of separated plutonium, Japan's Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) issued a policy statement that Japan's stock of separated plutonium held in Japan and abroad would not increase from its then level of 46.6 tons (see also this IPFM blog post). Thus far, this policy objective has been realized - but only because of the continued delays in the startup of Japan's reprocessing plant.

Slow plutonium consumption

Between JAEC's 2018 declaration that Japan's stock of separated plutonium would not increase and the end of 2021, Japan's utilities used about 1.2 tons of plutonium in MOX fuel in four LWRs at an average rate of about 0.35 tons/year. (For the history of MOX fuel shipments and use by Japan, see Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Imports/Use/Storage in Japan.)

New plutonium use plan already obsolete

In 2020, FEPC revised its 2009 goal of 16-18 reactors using MOX by 2015 downwards to 12 reactors by 2030. In FEPC's February 2022 update of its plutonium use plan, it announced that 0.7 tons/year will be used during FY 2022-2024, 1.0 ton in FY 2025, 2.1 tons in FY 2026, and about 6.6 tons/year by FY 2030. The last would match the projected separation rate of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant operating at full capacity.

Signs of trouble to this plan were immediately observed, however. Chubu Electric announced an indefinite delay in its plan to introduce MOX into its Hamaoka #4, followed by J-Power's announcement of another delay in the start date of its under-construction Ohma reactor - this time until fiscal year 2030. The Ohma reactor carries great weight in Japan's plutonium use plans because, unlike other Japanese reactors, which are limited to one third or less MOX fuel in their cores, it is a high-powered reactor designed to use a full MOX core. It will take 5 to 10 years to ramp up to a full core, however, with a planned loading rate of 1.7 tons of plutonium per year.

In 2010, construction began on a MOX fuel production plant next to the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. As of 26 October 2022, however, the plant was only 9.4% complete. Although the current announced plan is to start operation of the MOX plant by the end of September 2024, that date too will likely be delayed. If the reprocessing plant operates but the MOX plant does not, separated plutonium will accumulate at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.

Plans for Japan's plutonium stockpile in Europe

Japan has almost 22 tons of plutonium stranded in the UK as of the end of 2021. The UK's MOX plant was shut down permanently in 2011, after 10 years of failed attempts to operate it. Japan's government has not yet officially responded to the UK government's 2011 offer to dispose of that plutonium for an agreed price with the UK's own 116.5 tons (as of the end of 2021) .

On the other hand, use of Japan's plutonium in France, where there is an operating MOX plant, is going slowly. Japan's utilities have begun trading plutonium to facilitate the use of this plutonium, amounting to almost 15 tons as of the end of 2021. Shikoku Electric and Kyushu Electric, which have almost used up their plutonium stocks in France, have a combined total of 2.5 tons in the UK. They plan to transfer the ownership of that plutonium to Tokyo Electric Power Company in exchange for TEPCO plutonium in France that TEPCO cannot use.

The challenge remains, however, of disposing of Japan's existing stock of 45.8 tons plus the 6.6 tons/year to be separated at the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant if and when it operates at full capacity. This challenge could be made much more manageable and less costly to Japan's utilities if completion and operation of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant were cancelled. For reasons it has never adequately explained, however, cancellation still appears unthinkable for Japan's government.

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.