Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pu Pits Made into MOX Fuel?

Yesterday, Friday, February 3, 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) hosted a public meeting at the Cities of Gold Conference Center, in Pojoaque, NM; the meeting was a necessary step in the NEPA process (National Environmental Policy Act.) According to rules set forth in NEPA legislation, NNSA is required to publicly explain its most recent plans to turn 7 tons of pit plutonium (Pu), declared surplus from the nuclear weapons program into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, to be burned in commercial nuclear power reactors; this would be in addition to the 34 tons tons of pit Pu and 6 tons of non-pit Pu declared surplus in 2003. (The term "pit plutonium" refers to Pu that has been fashioned into "pits", or triggers, for inclusion in nuclear weapons.) NNSA must also offer the public an opportunity to comment on its plans, and to suggest alternatives to these plans.

The meeting began with a ~1 hour long poster session, in which NNSA sketched out its surplus Pu to MOX plans, while NNSA experts were present to answer questions. This was followed by a ~1/2 hour long talk, on the same topic, by the NEPA Document Manager, S. McAlhaney. Perhaps the most gripping info to be conveyed during these presentations was that NNSA retains the option of sending all of its surplus Pu pits to LANL, where they will be transformed chemically into Pu oxide powder, for eventual shipment to Savannah River Site (SRS), there  to be converted into MOX fuel; i.e., 34 tons, or more, of Pu might be added to the large Pu inventory already present at LANL.

Nevertheless, given the time allotted, only a brief outline of the topic could be conveyed by the NNSA presenters. More information is available on the world-wide web, and I'll quote here relevant sections taken from the website of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), a trade group "representing the people and organizations of the global nuclear profession"; This material also gives a sense of the politics involved, and suggests the financial interests that may be in play.


“Disarmament will give rise to some 150-200 tons of weapons-grade plutonium (Pu). Weapons-grade plutonium has over 93% of the fissile isotope, Pu-239, and can be used, like reactor-grade Pu, in fuel for electricity production. Options considered for it included:

•           Immobilization with high-level waste - treating plutonium as waste,
•           Fabrication with uranium oxide as a MOX fuel for burning in existing reactors,
•           Fabrication with thorium as a fuel for existing Russian reactors,
•           Fueling fast-neutron reactors.

In 1994 the USA announced that 52.5 tons of its military plutonium stockpile was surplus to military requirements. This included non-pit material, and about 20 tons of it was of such quality that it might not be possible to utilize it for MOX.

In June 2000, the USA and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. The US undertook to pursue a dual track program (immobilization and MOX), self-funded, while the G-7 nations were to provide some US$ 2.5 billion to set up Russia's program. The latter was initially MOX-oriented for VVER reactors, the high cost being because this was not part of Russia's fuel cycle policy. A revised agreement signed in April 2010 allows the Russian plutonium to be used in BN-800 fast neutron reactors, and stretches the timeline to 2018. However, the G7 funding is not available on this basis and Russia will fund most of the program, with the USA contributing $400 million. The 68 tons of plutonium in both countries is equivalent to about 12,000 tons of natural uranium.

Weapons-grade plutonium entering the civil fuel cycle needs to be kept under very tight security, and there are some technical measures needed to achieve this.  MOX fuel made from it should degrade it so that Pu-239 cannot be extracted.  As it became clear that this could be achieved, the USA dropped its immobilization plans for most military plutonium, and this is reflected in the April 2010 agreement with Russia.

After environmental and safety reviews, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant at the DOE Savannah River site in South Carolina by Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster. Construction started in August 2007, by Shaw Areva MOX Services.  It will make about 1700 civil MOX fuel assemblies from depleted uranium and at least 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, unlike other MOX plants which use fresh reactor-grade plutonium having around one third non-fissile plutonium isotopes.  US reactors using the fuel will need to licensed for it.  Shaw Areva MOX Services is under contract to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which will own the plant, expected to be in operation from 2016.  The high cost of the plant - $3.5 billion plus $1.3 billion contingency and $183 million per year to operate - is justified on non-proliferation grounds.  Annual cost will be offset by revenue.

The following is a comment on this US situation from Dr C. Wolfe, former chairman of the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy's Plutonium Focus Area, whose task had been to advise on technology to enable the disposition of the excess plutonium: In discussion with Russia, ‘the USA often emphasized elaborate technology schemes to immobilize the plutonium in a proliferation-resistant state. These included grouts, synthetic rock, glass and co-disposal with spent nuclear fuel. The Russians were astounded. They couldn't believe that we were willing to take this material, which we had spent billions of dollars producing, and just throw it away. Not only throw it away, but spend a lot of additional money to get rid of it. The Russians saw it for what it was: a tremendous energy resource. The US eventually came to the same conclusion and opted for converting 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel to provide electrical energy for the US economy.’ (Aiken Standard 10/8/09)

In June 2005 the first four fuel assemblies with mixed oxide fuel made from US military plutonium (plus depleted uranium) started generating electricity in Duke Power's Catawba-1 nuclear power plant in South Carolina, on a trial basis. They incorporate 140 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. The plutonium was made into 2 tons of pellets at the Cadrache plant and then fabricated into fuel assemblies at the Melox plant in France. This trial was concluded satisfactorily.

In September 2007 the Department of Energy announced the release of a further 9 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads (cores, or pits). This will be made into MOX fuel at Savannah River. It brings to 61.5 tons the amount that is surplus to defense requirements and available for recycling into civil reactor fuel (leaving some 38 tons in the US nuclear weapons program.)

DOE is moving all its surplus non-pit weapons plutonium - reported to be 12.8 tons - to Savannah River by 2010. Once the material is consolidated there, the Department's plans for disposing of it involve the use of three Savannah River site facilities: the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (under construction) for 7.8 tons, the existing H-Canyon processing plant followed by a proposed new small-scale plutonium vitrification plant for the balance of 5.0 tons. The H-Canyon facility is the last such US plant able to treat used Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel and similar materials still operational.

H-Canyon dates from 1955 and originally recovered uranium, neptunium and plutonium from used military and research reactor HEU fuel. Since 1998 it has recovered HEU from degraded materials and spent fuel, to recycle it as Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). This program will continue to 2019.

Following the September 20007 addition of 9 tons of plutonium to the MOX program, NNSA decided that the Savannah River plant might also produce starter fuel for advanced fast reactors, part of the advanced fuel cycle initiative program.

Meanwhile the US has developed a 'spent fuel standard.' This specifies that plutonium should never be more accessible than if it were incorporated in spent fuel and thus protected from interference by strong gamma radiation. The plutonium immobilization plant, if and when it is eventually built, would thus incorporate the Pu in a version of Synroc ( artificial rock), and encase small discs of this in canisters of vitrified high-level radioactive waste. Alternatively, plutonium would be mixed with fission products and vitrified at the small plant proposed for Savannah River.

Europe's well-developed MOX capacity suggests that weapons plutonium could be disposed of relatively quickly. Input weapons-grade plutonium might need to be mixed with reactor grade material or blended with Pu-238, but using such MOX as 30% of the fuel in one third of the world's reactor capacity would remove about 15 tons of warhead plutonium per year. This would amount to burning 3000 warheads per year to produce 110 billion kW-hr of electricity. [Thus, the electrical energy needs of ~10 million homes could be satisfied for a year. But, ~10 large nuclear power reactors would probably be needed to burn so much nuclear fuel.]

Over 35 reactors in Europe are licensed to use MOX fuel, and 22 French reactors are licensed to use it as 30% of their fuel.

Russia intends to use its plutonium to fuel fast neutron reactors such as its BN-600 and BN-800, and later BREST at Beloyarsk.  The USA earlier insisted that it duplicate US plans to make it into MOX fuel for late-model conventional reactors, and for this Russia insisted that the USA pay all costs.  But after announcement of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in 2006 with its proposals for use of fast reactors, US objection to Russian plans disappeared. The 34 tons of plutonium initially available for MOX would have been enough for 1350 fuel assemblies for light-water reactors, but will now go into MOX fuel for BN-600 and BN-800 fast reactors - the former with one third MOX core and the latter with full MOX core, and accounting for most of the usage. The USA has agreed to contribute US$ 400 million towards the cost of this - much less than for the MOX option in VVER reactors.
Burning the plutonium in the BN-600 reactor is to commence in 2012, with the breeding blanket of depleted uranium removed and replaced by stainless steel reflector assemblies.  The BN-800 reactor now under construction will have a uranium blanket but will operated as a net plutonium consumer for the life of the disposition project.  Jointly they are expected to burn 1.5 tons of this weapons plutonium per year. The USA and Russia intend to continue cooperative development of a gas-cooled high-temperature reactor (GT-MHR) in Russia 'which may create additional possibilities for speeding up plutonium disposition from about 2015.

The 2000 US-Russian agreement precludes the reprocessing of MOX fuel using military plutonium if the plutonium is separated out, so such reprocessing will be either to give plutonium plus uranium or plus actinides.  Russia is said to have 40 tons of separated reactor-grade plutonium already from reprocessed fuel.”

Next, ~1  1/2 hours were given over to public comments, with each member of the public allowed 4 minutes to speak. Remarks were recorded both electronically and by stenographer.

Two members of the public criticized the Pu to MOX plan as being very unwise and volunteered specific alternatives: T. Mello suggested that Pu pits be “filled with wire and then buried”; J. Coghlan thought that the Pu pits should be “chopped up and the pieces buried.” But, it seems that these comments were made tongue-in- cheek.

An impassioned hour-long condemnation of the nuclear weapons program, and the nuclear power industry, was then presented by C. Montaño, aided by a group of 15 like-minded and “shy” individuals. However, rather than attempting to summarize these interesting and poetic views, I'll quote similar thoughts taken from the website of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NRIS), an advocacy group opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power; (In contrast to C. Montaño, the NIRS does not go so far as to condemn all forms of radiation; viz., without the prodigious amounts of radiation coming to us from the sun, life on planet earth would probably be impossible.)


“The Department of Energy’s (DOE) decision to mix 34 or more metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons with depleted uranium into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors is a direct reversal of decades-old U.S. policy aimed toward non-proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. A plutonium fuel program will increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and the international proliferation of plutonium.

A decision on the part of the U.S. government to engage in a large scale civilian plutonium program would encourage the continuation of the messy and dangerous reprocessing programs in Europe and Japan. A plutonium fuel program would destroy any leverage the U.S. might have to influence non-weapons states from creating their own civilian reprocessing programs.”


“The U.S. plutonium fuel program would create facilities and financial interests based exclusively upon the use and spread of plutonium. The corporation most involved in a potential U.S. plutonium fuel program is the French reprocessing company Cogema. This company has teamed up with Duke Power and Virginia Power to create a new consortium, and would be responsible for the storage, safeguarding, and some processing of weapons-grade plutonium.

This industry structure builds an economy upon the false and dangerous notion that plutonium is an asset. The involvement of these corporations places the responsibility of these deadly materials in the hands of corporate entities whose single goal is the generation of profits.”


“Reprocessing is the chemical process of separating plutonium and uranium from other fission products in the irradiated fuel from a nuclear reactor. The separated materials can then be made into a mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) which is reused in a reactor. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has had a policy of not allowing reprocessing, and instead treating the nuclear fission products as the high-level atomic waste it is. This policy is based primarily on non-proliferation grounds, and is met to discourage countries from engaging in the separation of plutonium and uranium—since these substances—once separated—can also be used to build nuclear weapons.

Even now, the Department of Energy says that its proposed MOX program will only be a "once-through" program, meaning that once the plutonium from nuclear weapons has been processed into MOX and used in civilian reactors, no further reprocessing would be allowed. But the industries involved in the plutonium fuel program will have a vested interest in the possibility of a U.S. commercial reprocessing industry as part of waste management policy. And the necessary infrastructure—including construction of all the need facilities—would be in place.”


“In recent years the US has seen a surge in devastating terrorist activities on its own soil. The knowledge necessary to create a nuclear weapon is available to the public. The best policy toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism is to ensure that the materials necessary to make a nuclear bomb cannot be obtained. The US plutonium fuel program would increase the risks of theft of weapons grade plutonium. The process of fabricating plutonium fuel involves the handling of bulk amounts of plutonium. This process makes accurate accounting of plutonium extremely difficult, which leaves measuring disparities that could be an open invitation for diversion of the plutonium for weapons purposes. In some cases it may be impossible to know whether plutonium has been stolen or is simply left in residues at processing facilities without an expensive clean-out. Once the plutonium fuel has been made, it would then have to be transported to commercial reactors where safeguarding of that plutonium will be the responsibility of the utility. This also makes the plutonium vulnerable to theft or diversion.

Irradiating weapons plutonium in a reactor does not make the plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. The U.S. government proved with a nuclear test in 1962 that so-called ‘reactor grade’ plutonium can be used in nuclear bombs. Using weapons plutonium in reactors does not effectively safeguard plutonium, and it undermines disarmament efforts.”


“A U.S. plutonium fuel program would send a clear signal to other countries: the U.S. government approves of separated plutonium fuel programs. This would undercut the government's ability to discourage reprocessing in other countries and may encourage other countries to pursue plutonium programs. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum explained the situation clearly in a memorandum to former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary:

‘U.S. decisions on plutonium disposition are inextricably linked with U.S. efforts to reduce stockpiles as well as limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The multi-decade institutionalization of plutonium use in US commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for US non-proliferation policy.’

The alternative, to encase the plutonium in ceramics or glass (immobilization), will not affect the government's non-proliferation goals, nor encourage civilian reprocessing in the U.S. or elsewhere. Immobilizing plutonium will send the proper signal that plutonium is a dangerous waste and needs to be treated as such.”

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