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).

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.