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A nuclear start-up company could undermine Canada’s global non-proliferation policy: experts

A nuclear start-up company could undermine Canada’s global non-proliferation policy: experts

the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that “Nuclear weapons can be fabricated using plutonium containing virtually any combination of plutonium isotopes.” All plutonium is of equal “sensitivity” for purposes of IAEA safeguards in non-nuclear weapon states.

Similarly, a 2009 report by non-proliferation experts from six U.S. national laboratories concluded that pyroprocessing is about as susceptible to misuse for nuclear weapons as the original reprocessing technology used by the military, called PUREX.


Important national and international issues are at stake, and conscientious Canadians should sit up and take notice. Parliamentarians of all parties owe it to their constituents to demand more accountability. To date however, there has been no democratic open debate or public consultation over the path Canada is charting with nuclear energy.

The recent effort to persuade Canada to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has stimulated a lively debate in the public sphere. At the same time, out of the spotlight, the start-up company Moltex Energy received a federal grant to develop a nuclear project in New Brunswick that experts say will undermine Canada’s credibility as a non-proliferation partner.

Moltex wants to extract plutonium from the thousands of used nuclear fuel bundles currently stored as “high-level radioactive waste” at the Point Lepreau reactor site on the Bay of Fundy. The idea is to use the plutonium as fuel for a new nuclear reactor, still in the design stage. If the project is successful, the entire package could be replicated and sold to other countries if the Government of Canada approves the sale.On May 25, nine U.S. non-proliferation experts sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing concern that by “backing spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium extraction, the Government of Canada will undermine the global nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime that Canada has done so much to strengthen.

The nine signatories to the letter include senior White House appointees and other U.S. government advisers who worked under six U.S. presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama; and who hold professorships at the Harvard Kennedy School, University of Maryland, Georgetown University, University of Texas at Austin, George Washington University, and Princeton University.

Plutonium is a human-made element created as a byproduct in every nuclear reactor. It’s a “Jekyll and Hyde” kind of material: on the one hand, it is the stuff that nuclear weapons are made from. On the other hand, it can be used as a nuclear fuel. The crucial question is, can you have one without the other?

India exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1974 using plutonium extracted from a “peaceful” Canadian nuclear reactor given as a gift many years earlier. In the months afterwards, it was discovered that South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Argentina—all of them customers of Canadian nuclear technology—were well on the way to replicating India’s achievement. Swift action by the U.S. and its allies prevented these countries from acquiring the necessary plutonium extraction facilities (called “reprocessing plants”). To this day, South Korea is not allowed to extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel on its own territory—a long-lasting political legacy of the 1974 Indian explosion and its aftermath—due to proliferation concerns.

Several years after the Indian explosion, the U.S. Carter administration ended federal support for civil reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. out of concern that it would contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons by making plutonium more available. At that time, Canada’s policy on reprocessing also changed to accord with the U.S. policy—although no similar high-level announcement was made by the Canadian government.

Moltex is proposing to use a type of plutonium extraction technology called “pyroprocessing,” in which the solid used reactor fuel is converted to a liquid form, dissolved in a very hot bath of molten salt. What happens next is described by Moltex chairman and chief scientist Ian Scott in a recent article in Energy Intelligence. “We then—in a very, very simple process—extract the plutonium selectively from that molten metal. It’s literally a pot. You put the metal in, put salt in the top, mix them up, and the plutonium moves into the salt, and the salt’s our fuel. That’s it. … You tip the crucible and out pours the fuel for our reactor.”

The federal government recently supported the Moltex project with a $50.5-million grant, announced on March 18 by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc in Saint John. At the event, LeBlanc and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs described the Moltex project as “recycling” nuclear waste, although in fact barely one-half of one per cent of the used nuclear fuel is potentially available for use as new reactor fuel. That leaves a lot of radioactive waste left over.

From an international perspective, the government grant to Moltex can be seen as Canada sending a signal—giving a green light to plutonium extraction and the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel.

The U.S. experts’ primary concern is that other countries could point to Canada’s support of the Moltex program to help justify its own plutonium acquisition programs. That could undo years of efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of countries that might want to join the ranks of unofficial nuclear weapons states such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The Moltex project is especially irksome since its proposed pyroprocessing technology is very similar to the one that South Korea has been trying to deploy for almost 10 years.

In their letter, the American experts point out that Japan is currently the only non-nuclear-armed state that reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, a fact that is provoking both domestic and international controversy.

In a follow-up exchange, signatory Prof. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University explained that the international controversy is threefold: (1) The United States sees both a nuclear weapons proliferation danger from Japan’s plutonium stockpile and also a nuclear terrorism threat from the possible theft of separated plutonium; (2) China and South Korea see Japan’s plutonium stocks as a basis for a rapid nuclear weaponization; and (3) South Korea’s nuclear-energy R&D community is demanding that the U.S. grant them the same right to separate plutonium as Japan enjoys.

Despite the alarm raised by the nine authors in their letter to Trudeau, they have received no reply from the government. The only response has come from the Moltex CEO Rory O’Sullivan. His reply to a Globe and Mail reporter is similar to his earlier rebuttal in The Hill Times published in his letter to the editor on April 5: the plutonium extracted in the Moltex facility would be “completely unsuitable for use in weapons.”

But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that “Nuclear weapons can be fabricated using plutonium containing virtually any combination of plutonium isotopes.” All plutonium is of equal “sensitivity” for purposes of IAEA safeguards in non-nuclear weapon states.

Similarly, a 2009 report by non-proliferation experts from six U.S. national laboratories concluded that pyroprocessing is about as susceptible to misuse for nuclear weapons as the original reprocessing technology used by the military, called PUREX.

In 2011, a U.S. State Department official responsible for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries went further by stating that pyro-processing is just as dangerous from a proliferation point of view as any other kind of plutonium extraction technology, saying: “frankly and positively that pyro-processing is reprocessing. Period. Full stop.”

And, despite years of effort, the IAEA has not yet developed an approach to effectively safeguard pyroprocessing to prevent diversion of plutonium for illicit uses.

Given that history has shown the dangers of promoting the greater availability of plutonium, why is the federal government supporting pyroprocessing?

It is clear the nuclear lobby wants it. In the industry’s report, “Feasibility of Small Modular Reactor Development and Deployment in Canada,” released in March, the reprocessing (which they call “recycling”) of spent nuclear fuel is presented as a key element of the industry’s future plans.

Important national and international issues are at stake, and conscientious Canadians should sit up and take notice. Parliamentarians of all parties owe it to their constituents to demand more accountability. To date however, there has been no democratic open debate or public consultation over the path Canada is charting with nuclear energy.

Countless Canadians have urged Canada to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that came into force at the end of January this year. Ironically, the government has rebuffed these efforts, claiming that it does not want to “undermine” Canada’s long-standing effort to achieve a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty. Such a treaty would, if it ever saw the light of day (which seems increasingly unlikely), stop the production of weapons usable materials such as Highly Enriched Uranium and (you guessed it) Plutonium. 

So, the Emperor not only has no clothes, but his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing.

Susan O’Donnell is a researcher specializing in technology adoption and environmental issues at the University of New Brunswick and is based in Fredericton.Gordon Edwards is a mathematician, physicist, nuclear consultant, and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, and is based in Montreal.

June 12, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, politics, technology | Leave a comment

Production of new plutonium triggers at Savannah River Site to mean more radioactive trash for South Carolina?

Advocates fear tons of nuclear waste from new Savannah River Site project,  Charleston City Paper 5th June 2021 A plan to restart a defunct South Carolina nuclear facility with a new mission has safety advocates worried about tons of new nuclear waste in an area of the state with a checkered radioactivity record.

“The essential problem with the work at the Savannah River Site (SRS) is there have been a number of newfangled ideas to either downgrade or reuse plutonium or other nuclear byproducts,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Often, that just means we bring in more waste that is indefinitely stored in South Carolina and often not used even for the purpose it was brought in for.”

The new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) budget includes a request for $603 million toward the production of plutonium pits, a key component in nuclear warheads, at SRS. Nearly all pits currently in the U.S. stockpile were
produced from 1978 to 1989 because the U.S. had only one active site for decades to produce new pits. The recent funding request marks a 37% increase from 2020, which moves the department closer to its goal of restoring pit production and producing 50 pits per year by 2030.

Under the project plan, SRS would repurpose its unfinished Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility as a proposed Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF).

June 7, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, weapons and war | 1 Comment

New research highlights need for international standards to safeguard against plutonium ”hot” particles.

New study delves into issues relating to soils around Maralinga region,, Luca Cetta,  

A new study has highlighted the first international standards needed to safeguard against contamination from nuclear testing, and a Kokatha Elder says the impact of nuclear testing at Maralinga cannot be forgotten.

More than 100 kilograms of highly toxic uranium and plutonium was dispersed in the form of tiny ‘hot’ radioactive particles after nuclear tests were conducted by the British in remote areas of South Australia, including Maralinga.

Scientists have new evidence these radioactive particles persist in soils to this day, more than 60 years after the detonations.

The British detonated nine nuclear bombs and conducted nuclear tests in South Australia between 1953 and 1963.

There had previously been limited understanding in how plutonium was released from the particles into the environment for uptake by wildlife around Maralinga.

The new study, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, led by Monash University researchers, warns the hot particles are more complex and varied than previously thought.

Currently, there are no international best practice standards for the environmental impact or risk assessment of plutonium and uranium-rich hot particles released during nuclear testing.

This study provides the first mechanism for future modelling to predict the environmental life cycle of plutonium from hot particles, including how they are slowly broken down in the environment over a long period, and potentially exposed to animals and humans through inhalation, soil or ground water.

“The resulting radioactive contamination and cover-up continues to haunt us,” lead study author from Monash University’s School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment Dr Megan Cook said.

“The results of our study profoundly changes our understanding of the nature of hot particles at Maralinga – despite the fact that those were some of the best studied particles anywhere in the world.”

Sue Haseldine, who grew up in the Koonibba district in the 1950s and 1960s, has long campaigned against nuclear testing and weapons.

She has been part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an organisation awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, and has spoken about her experience growing up in the shadow of nuclear testing at Maralinga.

Ms Haseldine said the people in the area had long-suspected there were health issues deriving from those tests.

“Experts would tell you that radiation will not last for 60 years, nor 60,000, but for a long, long time, and it is still causing troubles today,” she said.

“The old ladies told me these cancers and illnesses were not around before the bomb and over the years I have seen the rates go up.

“There are a lot more younger people with heart problems – it is known that radiation problems can cause heart diseases – and it is coming down through the generations.”

Ms Haseldine said the testing and fallout from Maralinga was not spoken about enough and that was why her campaigning with ICAN was so important.

“It is important to let people know what the government’s legacy is to us through their testing and we have to keep the past alive to protect the future, so they don’t do it to future generations,” she said.

“I grew up in the Koonibba district, but the radiation didn’t just stay in the Maralinga area.”

Study co-author professor Joël Brugger said the study invited a revisit of the implications of earlier results for the fate of plutonium at Maralinga.

“Understanding the fate of hot particles in the arid environment setting of the Australian outback is critical for securing Australia in case of nuclear incidents in the region, and returning all the native land affected by the British tests to the traditional Anangu owners of the Maralinga Tjarutja lands.”

The research team used synchrotron radiation at the Diamond Light Source near Oxford in the United Kingdom to decipher the physical and chemical make-up of the particles.

At Monash, they dissected some of the hot particles using a nano-sized ion beam, and further characterised the complex make-up of these particles down to the nano-size.

“It’s a major breakthrough,” study co-author associate professor Vanessa Wong said.

“Our observations of the hot particles from Maralinga provide a clear explanation for the complex and variable behaviour of different hot particles with respect to the chemical and physical weathering that has hindered predictive modelling to this day.

“This study provides a mechanistic foundation for predicting the future evolution of hot particles from high-temperature nuclear events and the likely exposure pathways.”

The researchers demonstrated the complexity of the hot particles arose from the cooling of polymetallic melts from thousands of degrees Celsius in the explosion cloud during their formation.

“We found that the particles contained low-valence plutonium-uranium-carbon compounds that are typically highly reactive – which is unexpected for particles that survived for over 30 years in the environment,” corresponding author Dr Barbara Etschmann said.

May 27, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, AUSTRALIA, environment | Leave a comment

Plutonium ”hot particles” are not as stable as we assumed. Research on contaminated landscape around Maralinga in outback South Australia.

We sliced open radioactive particles from soil in South Australia and found they may be leaking plutonium

Barbara Etschmann, Research officer, Monash University

Joel Brugger, Professor of Synchrotron Geosciences, Monash University

Vanessa Wong, Associate Professor, Monash University

May 21, 2021 Almost 60 years after British nuclear tests ended, radioactive particles containing plutonium and uranium still contaminate the landscape around Maralinga in outback South Australia.

These “hot particles” are not as stable as we once assumed. Our research shows they are likely releasing tiny chunks of plutonium and uranium which can be easily transported in dust and water, inhaled by humans and wildlife and taken up by plants.

A British nuclear playground

After the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, other nations raced to build their own nuclear weapons. Britain was looking for locations to conduct its tests. When it approached the Australian government in the early 1950s, Australia was only too eager to agree.

Between 1952 and 1963, Britain detonated 12 nuclear bombs in Australia. There were three in the Montebello Islands off Western Australia, but most were in outback South Australia: two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga.

Besides the full-scale nuclear detonations, there were hundreds of “subcritical” trials designed to test the performance and safety of nuclear weapons and their components. These trials usually involved blowing up nuclear devices with conventional explosives, or setting them on fire.

The subcritical tests released radioactive materials. The Vixen B trials alone (at the Taranaki test site at Maralinga) spread 22.2 kilograms of plutonium and more than 40 kilograms of uranium across the arid landscape. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki contained 6.4 kilograms of plutonium, while the one dropped on Hiroshima held 64 kilograms of uranium.

These tests resulted in long-lasting radioactive contamination of the environment. The full extent of the contamination was only realised in 1984, before the land was returned to its traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja people.

Hot potatoes

Despite numerous cleanup efforts, residual plutonium and uranium remains at Maralinga. Most is present in the form of “hot particles”. These are tiny radioactive grains (much smaller than a millimetre) dispersed in the soil.

Plutonium is a radioactive element mostly made by humans, and the weapons-grade plutonium used in the British nuclear tests has a half life of 24,100 years. This means even 24,100 years after the Vixen B trials that ended in 1963, there will still be almost two Nagasaki bombs worth of plutonium spread around the Taranaki test site.

Plutonium emits alpha radiation that can damage DNA if it enters a body through eating, drinking or breathing.

In their original state, the plutonium and uranium particles are rather inactive. However, over time, when exposed to atmosphere, water, or microbes, they may weather and release plutonium and uranium in dust or rainstorms.

Until recently, we knew little about the internal makeup of these hot particles. This makes it very hard to accurately assess the environmental and health risks they pose.

Monash PhD student Megan Cook (the lead author on our new paper) took on this challenge. Her research aimed to identify how plutonium was deposited as it was carried by atmospheric currents following the nuclear tests (some of it travelled as far as Queensland!), the characteristics of the plutonium hot particles when they landed, and potential movement within the soil.

Nanotechnology to the rescue

Previous studies used the super intense X-rays generated by synchrotron light sources to map the distribution and oxidation state of plutonium inside the hot particles at the micrometre scale.

To get more detail, we used X-rays from the Diamond synchrotron near Oxford in the UK, a huge machine more than half a kilometre in circumference that produces light ten billion times brighter than the Sun in a particle accelerator.

Studying how the particles absorbed X-rays revealed they contained plutonium and uranium in several different states of oxidation – which affects how reactive and toxic they are. However, when we looked at the shadows the particles cast in X-ray light (or “X-ray diffraction”), we couldn’t interpret the results without knowing more about the different chemicals inside the particles.

To find out more, we used a machine at Monash University that can slice open tiny samples with a nanometre-wide beam of high-energy ions, then analyse the elements inside and make images of the interior. This is a bit like using a lightsaber to cut a rock, only at the tiniest of scales. This revealed in exquisite detail the complex array of materials and textures inside the particles.

Much of the plutonium and uranium is distributed in tiny particles sized between a few micrometres and a few nanometres, or dissolved in iron-aluminium alloys. We also discovered a plutonium-uranium-carbon compound that would be destroyed quickly in the presence of air, but which was held stable by the metallic alloy.

This complex physical and chemical structure of the particles suggests the particles formed by the cooling of droplets of molten metal from the explosion cloud.

In the end, it took a multidisciplinary team across three continents — including soil scientists, mineralogists, physicists, mineral engineers, synchrotron scientists, microscopists, and radiochemists — to reveal the nature of the Maralinga hot particles.

From fire to dust

Our results suggest natural chemical and physical processes in the outback environment may cause the slow release of plutonium from the hot particles over the long term. This release of plutonium is likely to be contributing to ongoing uptake of plutonium by wildlife at Maralinga.

Even under the semi-arid conditions of Maralinga, the hot particles slowly break down, liberating their deadly cargo. The lessons from the Maralinga particles are not limited to outback Australia. They are also useful in understanding particles generated from dirty bombs or released during subcritical nuclear incidents.

There have been a few documented instances of such incidents. These include the B-52 accidents that resulted in the conventional detonation of thermonuclear weapons near Palomares in Spain in 1966, and Thule in Greenland in 1968, and the explosion of an armed nuclear missile and subsequent fire at the McGuire Air Force Base in the USA in 1960.

Thousands of active nuclear weapons are still held by nations around the world today. The Maralinga legacy shows the world can ill afford incidents involving nuclear particles.

May 22, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, 2 WORLD | Leave a comment

China building uneconomic closed fuel cycle nuclear breeder reactors – for plutonium for nuclear weapons?

the kind of plutonium breeder reactors being built on Changbiao, they are among the least cost-effective ways to derive energy from nuclear power.

That raises the question of why China is developing these reactors for its energy use if it doesn’t make sense economically. ……. “They may be dual-purpose.

Concerns grow over China nuclear reactors shrouded in mystery

No one outside China knows if two new nuclear reactors that are under construction and that will produce plutonium serve a dual civilian-military use.  By Al Jazeera Staff, 19 May 21,

Like many of the over 5,000 small islands dotting China’s coastline, the islet of Changbiao is unremarkable in its history and geography. Jutting out from the shoreline of Fujian province like a small right-footed footprint, it has only gained recognition recently – and even then among a small handful of experts – for being home to China’s first two CFR-600 sodium-cooled fast-neutron nuclear reactors……..

The two reactors being built on Changbiao are closed fuel cycle nuclear breeder reactors. They produce plutonium. That plutonium could be reprocessed and used as a fuel source for other nuclear reactors. It could also be used to produce nuclear warheads, a lot of nuclear warheads, and produce them very quickly.

But no one outside of the Chinese officials and companies overseeing the projects knows if the intended use is purely for civilian energy, or if it serves a dual purpose for the country’s perceived nuclear deterrent needs.

That question gained even more urgency this week after a United States official accused Beijing of resisting bilateral talks with Washington on nuclear risk reduction.

The reason these breeder reactors are shrouded in mystery is that China, which had been transparent about its civilian plutonium programme until recently, stopped annual voluntary declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] on its stocks of civilian plutonium in 2017 and has not added the reactors to the agency’s database to date.

While there are occasionally reporting delays of up to a year among the nine members party to the IAEA voluntary guidelines for the management of plutonium, Frank von Hippel, a senior nuclear research physicist and co-founder of Princeton University’s Program on Science & Global Security, said China’s lack of transparency is beginning to draw concern among non-proliferation experts and governments around the world.

“This is unique at this point,” von Hippel said of the silence over China’s plutonium activities.

I’m worried’

A recent paper (PDF) co-authored by von Hippel and several other nuclear non-proliferation experts drew attention to this issue. The findings stated that China could “conservatively produce 1,270 nuclear weapons by 2030 simply by exploiting the weapons-grade plutonium this program will produce” or even increase that by a factor of two or more if China used highly enriched uranium or composite uranium-plutonium cores from the reactors in bombs and missiles.

This would feed a huge increase from the number of estimated nuclear warheads in China’s arsenal, currently thought to be around 300 to 350.

“Well, I’m worried,” von Hippel said. “They may be dual-purpose.”

While the IAEA management guidelines have been something of a failure over the years, at least they “did provide transparency”, von Hippel says. Now, everyone but China is in the dark about the plutonium programme and it is starting to draw attention……..

The China Atomic Energy Authority, the agency responsible for reporting to the IAEA, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about why China stopped reporting on its civilian plutonium programme. Similar requests from Al Jazeera made through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Energy Administration and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology were likewise not acknowledged…….

The country has 50 nuclear reactors operating and 14 other conventional reactors under construction, not counting the two breeder reactors, according to IAEA data. China undershot its previous five-year target by around seven gigawatts, so appears to be making a major push to advance its nuclear power capacity over the next five to ten years.

But both Roth and von Hippel said, based on the experience of other countries that have tried the kind of plutonium breeder reactors being built on Changbiao, they are among the least cost-effective ways to derive energy from nuclear power.

“There’s a strong case, and we’ve seen this in other countries, that reprocessing [spent fuel] is not economical,” Roth said. “The reality is it’s cheaper not to reprocess your fuel than it is to reprocess. A once-through fuel cycle with low enriched uranium is a more economical approach.”

That raises the question of why China is developing these reactors for its energy use if it doesn’t make sense economically.

If the reactors are dual-use, it would, particularly from a China concerned about the adequacy of its nuclear deterrent, says von Hippel.

China’s actions, however, may spur others in the region, namely Japan and Korea, to speed up their own plutonium reactor plans.

“I think it’s in China’s best interest not to go down that path,” Roth said. “From an economic perspective, from an environmental perspective, and the impact it has regionally … they seem set on pursuing this reprocessing path, but I don’t think it is going to help them with their nuclear power goals.”

I think it’s in China’s best interest not to go down that path.

A commercial plutonium ‘timeout’?

The way forward, Roth says, is for the US to engage with China to find out why it stopped the declarations to the IAEA and pursue a path to disincentivise others in the region from pursuing plutonium reprocessing.

“I would hope that the Biden administration is choosing to engage with China on non-proliferation issues,” Roth said.

Requests made by Al Jazeera through the US Embassy in Beijing about whether the administration of US President Joe Biden was engaging with China on its halt in reporting on its civilian plutonium programme were declined.

These questions are becoming acutely important, von Hippel said, at a time of increased tension between the US and China, the potential flashpoint of Taiwan, and a growing chorus suggesting the two superpowers are engaged in a Cold War 2.0.

Whether there is interest in China discussing these matters with the US or countries in the region is unknown.

On Tuesday, the issue was thrown back into the spotlight after Robert Wood, US ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, accused Beijing of being unwilling “to engage meaningfully” with Washington on nuclear weapons talks.

“Despite China’s dramatic build-up of its nuclear arsenal, it continues to resist discussing nuclear risk reduction bilaterally with the United States – a dialogue we have with Russia,” Wood told a UN conference.

Beijing’s representative reportedly pushed back on the claim, telling the same conference that China is “ready to carry out positive dialogue and exchange with all parties”.

The increasing acrimony that characterised US-China relations under the administration of President Donald Trump didn’t exactly instil confidence in engagement on nuclear security policy, von Hippel said.

Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst on nuclear policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists who is now based in Japan, said that the good level of engagement built up between the US and China on nuclear policy prior to the early 2000s is something of a distant memory now, with the US side bearing much of the blame for the shroud of silence from China.

“The [George W] Bush Jr administration’s decision [in 2002] to withdraw from the ABM [1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty pretty much gutted any real interest in China in pursuing arms control talks of any substance with the United States,” Kulacki said.

The Bush administration’s moves were made due to its commitments to deploy missile

defence systems in what it saw as protecting against “growing missile threats” at the time, from a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea. China saw those actions as restricting its own military capabilities in its back yard.

According to von Hippel and his co-authors, the US should work with Japan, South Korea and China on declaring a “commercial plutonium timeout” with offers to delay breeder reactors and commercial plutonium programmes if China agrees to do the same.

If all of these countries could increase the amount of transparency related to uranium holdings and related activities, it would boost confidence for all parties to scale back those programmes, he said.

The trick is figuring out who would take the first steps.

May 20, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, business and costs, China, weapons and war | 1 Comment

USA govt to delay removing plutonium nuclear waste from the decommissioned Hanford nuclear reservation

Washington State Nuclear Site to Delay Moving Waste Off-Site

The U.S. Department of Energy and its regulators have proposed extending the deadline to ship waste contaminated with plutonium off the decommissioned Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.

By Associated Press|May 13, 2021, RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy and its regulators have proposed extending the deadline to ship waste contaminated with plutonium off the decommissioned Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.

The proposal moves the deadline back 20 years — from 2030 to 2050 — to ship the waste to a national repository in New Mexico for permanent disposal, the Tri-City Herald reported Wednesday.

“We realized that the existing milestone dates were unachievable,” said John Price, a manager with the state Department of Ecology, which is a regulator for the nuclear site.

The Hanford nuclear reservation produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War and World War II, leaving 56 million gallons (212 million litres) of radioactive waste in underground tanks. The 580-square-mile (1,500-square-kilometer) site is located in Richland, Washington about 200 miles (322 kilometers) southeast of Seattle.

Price also said there were some newly proposed deadlines that the Department of Ecology “enthusiastically” supports, including a commitment by the Department of Energy’s to start shipping some waste as early as 2028.

The federal agency and its regulators — the Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — set waste cleanup plans and deadlines for the nuclear site.

The latest proposed deadlines cover suspected transuranic waste, or debris contaminated with plutonium, including about 11,000 containers stored at a Hanford complex.

Waste with artificially-made elements above uranium on the periodic table is also classified as transuranic.

A public meeting to discuss the latest proposed changes and answer questions was scheduled for Thursday.

May 15, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, USA | Leave a comment

UK’s Magnox nuclear reprocessing plant to close, leaving world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium


Plutonium Policy,  No2NuclearPower, No 132 May 2021,  Update Introduction ..The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) now expects the Magnox Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield to close this year (2021) – one year later than previously planned. The newer Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) was shut in November 2018. Reprocessing, which has always been unnecessary, is the chemical separation of plutonium and unused uranium from spent nuclear waste fuel.

When reprocessing ends there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield – the world’s largest stockpile of separated civil plutonium. (1) In 2008 the NDA launched a consultation on options (2) for dealing with this embarrassing stockpile – it is highly toxic, poses a permanent risk of proliferation, and will cost taxpayers around £73 million a year to store for the next century. (3) Today, after almost a decade and a half of dithering, the UK Government has failed to make any decisions, but still appears to favour the re-use option, which would probably involve transporting weapons useable plutonium or MoX fuel to reactor sites, such as Hinkley Point C and Sizewell B (and C if it is ever built) with an armed escort. 

The NDA itself said in 2008 that deciding soon could save money by removing the need to build further plutonium stores. And the Government’s refusal to admit that using the plutonium as fuel for new reactors is not only extremely technically challenging but also probably unaffordable, means funds are being spent developing both re-use and immobilisation options thus maximising the cost of plutonium disposition at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. 

The story so far When reprocessing ends in 2021 there will be around 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium stored at Sellafield. About 23 tonnes of this is foreign-owned, largely but not exclusively by Japanese utilities, and is managed under long-term contracts. (4) The UK’s stockpile of plutonium has been consolidated at Sellafield by transporting material at the former fast reactor site at Dounreay in Caithness down to Cumbria. The NDA says it has been working with the UK government to determine the right approach for putting this nuclear material beyond reach. (5) The options it is considering are all predicated on the development of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) – a subsidiary of the NDA – is assuming that a GDF will be available to receive its first waste in the late 2040s. Then it will take around 90 years to emplace all existing waste before it can begin emplacing other materials such as immobilised plutonium or spent plutonium fuel. And there are no guarantees this timetable will be achieved. In Sweden, for example, which is perhaps one of the countries most advanced in its development of an underground repository, nuclear utilities have warned reactors may have to close early because of delays in the approval of the repository. (6) 

The Options Options considered for dealing with plutonium include using it as a fuel called Mixed Oxide Fuel (MoX) in nuclear reactors (followed by storage as spent fuel pending disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF)). 
Storage Problems Meanwhile plutonium will have to continue to be stored at Sellafield. The NDA’s 2008 report said “If a decision were taken today on a solution for the inventory, there could still be a requirement to provide storage for around 40 years.” (17) Continued long-term storage of civil plutonium is not as easy as it sounds nor is it cheap, and there are many technical challenges. ……………..

The NDA considers some of the older plutonium packages and facilities used in early production to be amongst the highest hazards on the Sellafield site. Therefore, it is aiming to gradually transfer all plutonium to a new store, the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) which opened in 2010……..

A proportion of the plutonium canisters at Sellafield are decaying faster than the NDA anticipated. A leak from any package would lead to an ‘intolerable’ risk as defined by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). The NDA has therefore decided to place the canisters more at risk in extra layers of packaging until SRP is operational. ………..

  In 2014, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that the Government did not have a strategy in place for the plutonium stored at Sellafield. 7 years later, it has still not decided between the two options available to it: readying the plutonium stockpile for long-term storage in a geological disposal facility (that has yet to be constructed); or reusing it as fuel in new nuclear power stations. (25)

Conclusion The Government’s preferred option for the disposition of plutonium still appears to be to use the majority of the stockpile to fabricate Mixed Oxide Fuel for use in Light Water Reactors. This could mean transporting weapons-useable plutonium on our roads or rail network to Sizewell and Hinkley Point. These transports would need to be accompanied by armed police. 

This is despite the fact that a plutonium immobilisation plant would be required in any case to immobilise that portion of the plutonium stockpile which is not suitable for use in MoX fuel.

 Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority needs to continue its programme of modernising Sellafield’s plutonium storage facilities, which will involve the construction  extensions to the Sellafield Product and Residue Store (SPRS) and retreating and repacking some of the existing canisters which are considered unsuitable for storage in a modern store. This will also involve construction the Sellafield (Product and Residue store) Retreatment Plant (SRP). 

Had the Government decided soon after the publication of the NDA’s options report to immobilise the UK plutonium stockpile, as advised by environmentalists and proliferation specialists, it is likely that savings could have been made by removing the requirement for one or both of the plutonium store extensions. Indeed, if a decision is taken soon, it may still be possible to avoid the cost of building the second store extension. of two     

 In short, Government policy appears to be maximising the cost of plutonium disposition by requiring both a MoX fuel fabrication plant AND a plutonium immobilisation plant, and at the same time maximising the cost of plutonium storage. Under this policy MoX fuel containing weapons useable plutonium would have to be transported under armed guard around the country.

May 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, UK | 1 Comment

Sellafield’s plutonium waste has continued to circulate in the Irish Sea

  Plutonium Remobilisation in the Irish Sea, No2Nuclear Power No 132 May 2021,  Low-level aqueous radioactive waste has been discharged from the Sellafield site into the Irish Sea for more than 50 years. Originally it was thought that soluble radionuclides discharged from Sellafield (such as caesium and tritium) would be diluted and dispersed whereas long lived, transuranic nuclides such as Plutonium, and Americium would leach out of the liquid phase and become preferentially adsorbed to the surface of sedimentary particles in the water column, sink to the seabed and remain permanently bound and immobilised in seabed deposits and therefore isolated from human populations and the environment.

Unfortunately, it has since emerged that a proportion of such sediment associated radioactivity has, and is being actively transported around the Irish Sea while the remainder is temporarily “sequestered” in the seabed but subject to any future disturbance mechanisms such as storm, wave and seismic activity. In addition, a proportion of dissolved nuclides did not necessarily remain dissolved in liquid form in the water column, but could become incorporated into organic particles and deposited into sedimentary environments where they could be temporarily sequestered, but subsequently recycled back into the environment by dredging, trawling storm and seismic activity. 

Plans by West Cumbria Mining (WCM) for an under-seabed coal mine off the coast of Cumbria near Whitehaven and the possibility of a Geological Disposal Facility, also under the seabed off the coast of Cumbria have raised concerns that transuranic radionuclides currently sequestered in Irish Sea sediments could be further remobilised as a result of these activities,

 A large proportion of the Sellafield-derived radionuclides disposed to sea have become associated with the sediment at two sites close to the waste disposal pipeline: the Irish Sea Mudpatch and the Esk Estuary. The Mudpatch is a belt of fine-grained sediments located about10 km from the waste pipeline.   

In 1999 Kershaw et al showed evidence that sediment-bound radionuclides over the previous decade were being redistributed. There was a decrease in the coastal zone around Sellafield and increases in Liverpool Bay and the western Irish Sea. Levels of dissolved 239/240Pu in the water column decreased only slowly since the peak discharge rates in the 1970s and much more slowly than the drop in Sellafield discharges. This suggests that material is moving from contaminated sediments and becoming dissolved in seawater where it is available for transport. Indeed, in the western Irish Sea, evidence has been found that 239/240Pu is being transported from the eastern Irish Sea. There is also evidence of the direct transport of contaminated sediment. (1) 

Daisy Ray et al. highlight the fact that “once mobilised, the radionuclides can be transported elsewhere in the Irish Sea … Although waste discharges are continuing to decrease from the Sellafield site, the Mudpatch may continue to supply “historic” Sellafield-derived radionuclides to other locations. Indeed, recent data from Welsh and Scottish coastal areas suggest that the Mudpatch still acts as a source of radionuclides to UK coastal areas.” (2) 

The model developed by Aldridge et al. at the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) in 2003 strongly suggest that the principal source of 239/240Pu in the Irish Sea was sediments in the eastern Irish Sea contaminated from past discharges, rather than new inputs from Sellafield. (3) Radionuclide re-distribution can occur by two principal mechanisms. Directly, by the transport of contaminated sediment, or indirectly via exchange and transport in dissolved form (dissolution). The latter process operates when tidal, wind or trawling activity re-suspends bed material allowing transfer of radionuclides to the water column. (4) 

Ray el al. also suggest that bioturbation – the reworking of soils and sediments by animals or plants – at the Cumbrian Mudpatch will continue to act as a source of “historic” Sellafieldderived radioactivity to the UK Coastal Environment. If this redistribution of historical discharges of radionuclides is happening by natural processes, it can be assumed that the problem could become much more serious as a result of human mining activities under the seabed, 
A recent report by Marine Consultant, Tim Deere-Jones concludes that:     

  It is evident that any subsidence within the WCM designated seabed mining zone will generate some form and degree of seabed morphological distortion. It is equally evident that any such seabed distortion will remobilise previously sequestered seabed sediments, and their associated pollutants, which will subsequently be transported and re-distributed through the regional marine and coastal environments. It is inevitable that such re-mobilisation and re-distribution will expose marine wildlife and human coastal populations and stakeholders to some degree of exposure doses to those pollutants via a number of mechanisms and pathways.” (5)

May 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, Ireland | 1 Comment

Cyberattacks grind Hanford nuclear energy workers’ benefit program to a halt

Cyberattacks grind Hanford nuclear energy workers’ benefit program to a halt, Seattle Times May 10, 2021   By Patrick Malone

Cyber attacks on the U.S. government have abruptly paused processing of benefit applications for workers who were sickened while working on nuclear weapons programs at Hanford and other Department of Energy sites, delaying aid to some dying workers, according to advocates.

Without warning, advocates from the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Group received notice late last Friday that effective Monday, a vital component of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program would be offline for two to four months.

The Radiation Dose Reconstruction Program databases’ sudden hiatus could delay approval of new benefits for groups of workers who believe they’ve been exposed to workplace hazards.

Among them are more than 550 workers from Hanford, a mothballed plutonium processing site in Richland, who were potentially exposed to radiation and toxins when they were provided leaky respirators, according to a Seattle Times investigation last year.

Those workers are seeking inclusion in the federal benefits program administered by the Department of Labor. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health plays an instrumental role in determining eligibility.

Hanford, born in secrecy during World War II in a rush to develop the first atomic bomb, processed the plutonium fuel for nuclear weapons for four decades, a process that fouled the 580-square-mile site with radioactive waste and toxic vapors that sickened and killed many workers.

Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Adam Smith, both Democrats, sponsored legislation in response to The Times investigation that would expand benefits to include the Hanford cleanup crew who were given faulty respirators and other nuclear workers across the country who aren’t yet eligible.

Others who could be affected are some 1,378 individual workers across the country currently applying for assistance, and those with recent terminal diagnoses, who normally would be eligible for benefits awarded as quickly as a day after application. Those benefits can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Terminally ill workers often do not have 2 to 4 months to live,” Terrie Barrie, ANWAG founder, wrote in a Monday, May 3, letter to NIOSH director to Dr. John Howard. “Will they no longer have the option to have their claim expedited so that they can receive the medical and financial benefits before they die?”

The source and nature of the cyberattacks are unclear, but in a May 4 letter to ANWAG, Howard said that an ongoing review of the energy workers’ compensation databases “identified very significant concerns about the cybersecurity integrity of the Program’s claimant database,” forcing an immediate and secret shutdown of the claims process…………………….

May 11, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, employment, secrets,lies and civil liberties | 1 Comment

The US Energy Department’s renewed promotion of plutonium-fueled reactors. 

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021  ”’…………. The US Energy Department’s renewed promotion of plutonium-fueled reactors. The US plutonium breeder reactor development program was ended by Congress in 1983. A decade later, the Clinton Administration shut down the Idaho National Laboratory’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II for lack of mission. At the time, I was working in the White House and supported that decision.

The nuclear-energy divisions at the Energy Department’s Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories refused to give up, however. They continued to produce articles promoting sodium-cooled reactors and laboratory studies on “pyroprocessing,” a small-scale technology used to separate plutonium from the fuel of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II .

During the Trump administration, this low-level effort broke out. With the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy headed by a former Idaho National Lab staffer and help from Idaho’s two Senators, the Energy Department and Congress were persuaded to approve the first steps toward construction at the Idaho National Laboratory of a larger version of the decommissioned Experimental Breeder Reactor II.

 The new reactor, misleadingly labeled the “Versatile Test Reactor,” would be built by Bechtel with design support by GE-Hitachi and Bill Gates’ Terrapower. The Energy Department awarded contracts to the Battelle Energy Alliance and to university nuclear-engineering departments in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Oregon to develop proposals for how to use the Versatile Test Reactor.

The current estimated cost of the Versatile Test Reactor is $2.6-5.8 billion, and it is to be fueled with plutonium. The Idaho National Laboratory’s hope is to convince Congress to commit to funding its construction in 2021.

The Energy Department also committed $80 million to co-fund the construction of a 345-megawatt-electric (MWe) “Natrium” (Latin for sodium) demonstration liquid-sodium-cooled power reactor proposed by GE-Hitachi and Terrapower which it hopes Congress would increase to $1.6 billion. It also committed $25 million each to Advanced Reactor Concepts and General Atomics to design small sodium-cooled reactors. And it has subsidized Oklo, a $25-million startup company financed by the Koch family, to construct a 1.5 MWe “microreactor” on the Idaho National Laboratory’s site to demonstrate an extravagantly costly power source for remote regions.

In all these reactors, the chain reaction would be sustained by fast neutrons unlike the slow neutrons that sustain the chain reactions in water-cooled reactors. The Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy has justified the need for the Versatile Test Reactor by the fast-neutron reactors whose construction it is supporting. In this way, it has “bootstraping” the Versatile Test Reactor by creating a need for it that would not otherwise exist.

This program also is undermining US nonproliferation policy..………..

April 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, reprocessing, USA | 1 Comment

Japan’s hugely costly nuclear reprocessing program.

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021,  ”………………Japan’s hugely costly reprocessing program. The United States has been trying to persuade Japan to abandon reprocessing ever since 1977. At the time, then prime minister Takeo Fukuda described plutonium breeder reactors as a matter of “life and death” for Japan’s energy future and steamrolled the Carter administration into accepting the startup of Japan’s pilot reprocessing plant. Today, Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. Despite the absence of any economic or environmental justification, the policy grinds ahead due to a combination of bureaucratic commitments and the dependence of a rural region on the jobs and tax income associated with the hugely costly program. The dynamics are similar to those that have kept the three huge US nuclear-weapon laboratories flourishing despite the end of the Cold War.

For three decades, Japan has been building, fixing mistakes, and making safety upgrades on a large plutonium recycle complex in Rokkasho Village in the poor prefecture of Aomori on the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. The capital cost of the complex has climbed to $30 billion. Operation of the reprocessing plant is currently planned for 2023.

A facility for fabricating the recovered plutonium into mixed-oxide plutonium-uranium fuel for water-cooled power reactors is under construction on the same site (Figure 3 on original). The cost of operating the complex is projected to average about $3 billion per year. Over the 40-year design life of the plant, it is expected to process about 300 tons of plutonium—enough to make 40,000 Nagasaki bombs. What could possibly go wrong?

Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reports that, because of the failures and delays of its plutonium useage programs, as of the end of 2019, Japan owned a stock of 45.5 tons of separated plutonium: 9.9 tons in Japan with the remainder in France and the United Kingdom where Japan sent thousands of tons of spent fuel during the 1990s to be reprocessed.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations pressed Tokyo to revise its reprocessing policy, especially after Japan’s decision to decommission its failed prototype breeder reactor in 2016.

Perhaps in response to this pressure, in 2018, Japan’s cabinet declared:

“The Japanese government remains committed to the policy of not possessing plutonium without specific purposes on the premise of peaceful use of plutonium and work[s] to reduce of the size of [its] plutonium stockpile.”

A step toward reductions that is being discussed would be for Japan to pay the United Kingdom to take title to and dispose of the 22 tons of Japanese plutonium stranded there after the UK mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant was found to be inoperable. Japan’s separated plutonium in France is slowly being returned to Japan in mixed-oxide fuel for use in reactors licensed to use such fuel.

If, as currently planned, Japan operates the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant at its design capacity of more than seven tons of plutonium separated per year, however, its rate of plutonium separation will greatly exceed Japan’s rate of plutonium use.  Four of Japan’s currently operating reactors are licensed to use mixed-oxide fuel but loaded only 40 percent as much mixed-oxide fuel as planned in 2018-19 and none in 2020. Two more reactors that can use mixed-oxide are expected to receive permission to restart in the next few years. In 2010, Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies projected that the six reactors would use 2.6 tons of plutonium per year. If the much-delayed Ohma reactor, which is under construction and designed to be able to use a full core of mixed-oxide fuel, comes into operation in 2028 as currently planned, and all these reactors use as much mixed-oxide fuel as possible, Japan’s plutonium usage rate would still ramp up to only 4.3 tons per year in 2033. (At the end of 2020 the Federation of Electric Power Companies announced its hope to increase the number of mixed-oxide-using reactors to 12 by 2030 but did not list the five additional reactors, saying only, “we will release it as soon as it is ready.”)

As of June 2020, construction at Rokkasho on the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility that will process the plutonium separated by the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was only 12 percent complete. It was still just a hole in the ground containing some concrete work with its likely completion years behind the currently planned 2023 operation date of the reprocessing plant.

Thus, as happened in Russia and the United Kingdom, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant could operate indefinitely separating plutonium without the mixed-oxide plant operating. The reprocessing plant includes storage for “working stocks” containing up to 30 tons of unirradiated plutonium. If and when it begins operating, the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant will itself have additional working stocks of at least several tons of plutonium. Therefore, even if Japan transfers title to the plutonium it has stranded in the United Kingdom and manages to work down its stock in France, the growth of its stock in Japan could offset those reductions.

The Biden administration should urge Japan’s government to “bite the bullet” and begin the painful but necessary process of unwinding its costly and dangerous plutonium program. A first step would be to change Japan’s radioactive waste law to allow its nuclear utilities to use the planned national deep repository for direct disposal of their spent fuel.

In the meantime, most of Japan’s spent fuel will have to be stored on site in dry casks, as has become standard practice in the United States and most other countries with nuclear power reactors. Because of its safety advantages relative to storage in dense-packed pools, the communities that host Japan’s nuclear power plant are moving toward acceptance of dry-cask storage. During the 2011 Fukushima accident, the water in a dense-packed pool became dangerously low. Had the spent fuel been uncovered and caught on fire, the population requiring relocation could have been ten to hundreds of times larger ………….

April 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, Japan, Reference, reprocessing | Leave a comment

The problem of plutonium programs

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021    Among the Biden administration’s nuclear challenges are ongoing civilian plutonium programs in China and Japan. Also, South Korea’s nuclear-energy research and development establishment has been asserting that it should have the same “right” to have a plutonium program as Japan. These challenges have been compounded by a renewed push by the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory to revive a plutonium program that was shut down in the 1980s. These foreign and domestic plutonium programs are all challenges because plutonium is a nuclear-weapon material.

Henry Kissinger’s State Department quickly discovered that the governments of Brazil, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan—all under military control at the time—had contracted for French or German spent-fuel “reprocessing” plants. The United States intervened forcefully and none of these contracts were fully consummated…………………..

…………….A possible path forward. During the Trump administration, the Energy Department fell back into the never-never land of plutonium-fueled reactors from which the United States extracted itself in the 1980s. Fortunately, the big-dollar commitments to the Versatile Test Reactor and the Natrium Reactor have not yet been made, and the Biden administration could use the excuse of budget stringency not to make those commitments.

In South Korea, the Biden administration will have to deal with the completion of the Idaho National Lab–Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute Joint Fuel Cycle Study. Although there will no doubt be obfuscation in the report, the conclusions of the 10-year study should have been obvious from the beginning: reprocessing is hugely costly, creates proliferation risks, and complicates spent fuel disposal. Fortunately, the anti-nuclear-energy Moon administration is unlikely to push for reprocessing. It will be much more interested in the opportunities that the Biden administration can provide to advance the Korean Peninsula denuclearization agenda. It should therefore be politically relatively easy for the Biden Administration to terminate cooperation on pyroprocessing.

China’s reprocessing and fast-neutron reactor program may be driven in part by China’s interest in obtaining more weapon-grade plutonium to build up the size of its nuclear arsenal. If that is the case, China’s incentive to build up could be reduced through nuclear arms control. Specifically, if China is building up its nuclear arsenal out of concern about the adequacy of its nuclear deterrent in the face of an unconstrained US missile-defense buildup, then the United States could examine the possibility of an agreement to limit missile defenses as an alternative to an open-ended, offense-defense arms race. That was the path of wisdom that the United States and Soviet Union chose with their 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

In Japan, the Biden administration will be faced with the continued unwillingness of the powerful Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry to wind down Japan’s dysfunctional plutonium program.  But, if a linkage could be made between constraining China’s nuclear buildup and ending Japan’s hugely costly reprocessing program, that might help tip the balance in Japan’s internal debate over reprocessing.

April 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, 2 WORLD, technology | Leave a comment

The United States collaborates on nuclear pyroprocessing with South Korea. 

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021,  ”…………………………………The United States collaborates on pyroprocessing with South Korea. The Idaho and Argonne National Laboratories also continue to promote the pyroprocessing of spent fuel. After the Clinton Administration shut down the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in 1994, the laboratory persuaded the Energy Department to continue to fund pyroprocessing as a way to process Experimental Breeder Reactor II spent fuel and blanket assemblies into stable waste forms for disposal in a deep underground repository. The proposal was to complete this effort in 2007. According to a review by Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, however, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2016, only about 18 percent of the roughly 26 metric tons of assemblies had been processed at a cost of over $200 million into waste forms that are not stable. (Since then, an additional three percent has been processed.)

During the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Cheney accepted Argonne’s argument that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” and the two US national laboratories were allowed to share the technology with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

At the beginning of the Obama administration, however, a group of safeguards experts from six Energy Department national laboratories, including Argonne and Idaho, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more resistant to proliferation than PUREX, the standard reprocessing technology originally developed by the United States to extract plutonium for its weapons.

In 2014, the US-Republic of Korea Agreement for Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy was due to expire, but the negotiations on a successor agreement bogged down over Korea’s insistence that the new agreement include the same right to reprocess spent fuel as the 1988 US-Japan Agreement for Cooperation.

The compromise reached the following year was that the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Idaho National Laboratory would complete their Joint Fuel Cycle Study on “the technical, economic, and nonproliferation (including safeguards) aspects of spent fuel management and disposition technologies.” If the United States could be convinced that the proliferation risks of pyroprocessing were manageable, the secretary of energy would give consent for South Korea to use the technology on its territory. The final report from the joint study is due this year.

Meanwhile, in 2017, Moon Jae-in was elected president of the Republic of Korea on a platform that included not building any more nuclear power plants in South Korea. Fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing obviously do not fit with that policy. This gives the Biden administration an opportunity to end a cooperative nuclear-energy research and development program that is contrary to both US nuclear nonproliferation policy and South Korea’s energy policy. The United States could propose instead a joint collaborative program on safe spent fuel storage and deep underground disposal……………

April 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, South Korea, technology, USA | Leave a comment

China’s ambiguous plutonium policy.

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021 ”…………………….China’s ambiguous plutonium policy. China is estimated to have produced between 2.3 and 3.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium before it halted production in 1988. China is also estimated to have doubled the number of its nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War to about 300, with a public call from one government-owned journal for a further increase to 1000.

That would require more weapon-grade plutonium.

China is, in fact, building a “demonstration” reprocessing plant and two plutonium breeder reactors. Breeder reactors produce weapon-grade plutonium in the uranium “blankets” surrounding their cores. This plutonium ordinarily would be mixed in with the non-weapon-grade plutonium recovered from the core and recycled into new fuel, but could be kept separate and used for weapons.

One troubling development that suggests that China may be reconsidering the civilian character of its plutonium program is that, since 2017, it has halted making the public annual declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency of its civilian plutonium stocks required by the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. China was one of nine countries, including France and the United States, that committed to make those declarations starting in 1997. An International Atomic Energy Agency official has informed me that that the agency “does not request those member states to submit updates and has no role in connection with the implementation of these voluntary commitments.” One of the other states that are parties to the guidelines could, however, ask China why it has stopped submitting updates.

China’s National Nuclear Corporation has been negotiating since 2007 with France’s Orano to purchase technology for a large reprocessing plant like Japan’s that could separate up to eight tons of reactor-grade but weapon-usable plutonium per year. France’s finance minister said in 2018 that the sale could “save” France’s nuclear industry.

Unless the economic competitiveness of breeder reactors proves to be better in China than elsewhere, however, the rate of plutonium separation by the French plant would be vastly in excess of the amount that China could use to start a realistic number of breeder prototypes. Other countries, including France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have been down this road before and ended up with huge stocks of reactor-grade plutonium (Figure 1 on original). One would hope that China would learn from rather than emulate their folly.

The Biden administration should engage France on the wisdom of Orano’s continued promotion of plutonium separation worldwide through offers of both reprocessing services and technology.

If China moves ahead with its own large-scale reprocessing program, it will make it more difficult to pressure Japan to end its plutonium program, which both countries clearly understand provides Japan with a nuclear-weapon option.

The Obama administration suggested to Beijing a bilateral multidisciplinary dialogue on pros and cons of civilian reprocessing. The Biden administration could press again for such a private discussion. Perhaps, backing away from reprocessing would become more attractive in both Beijing and Tokyo if they made their decisions in parallel…………..

April 13, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, technology | Leave a comment

Bill Gates backs costly nuclear reactor design fueled by nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium

Bill Gates’ bad bet on plutonium-fueled reactors  BFrank N. von Hippel | March 22, 2021

One of Bill Gates’ causes is to replace power plants fueled by coal and natural gas with climate-friendly alternatives. That has led the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder to embrace nuclear power, and building nuclear power plants to combat climate change is a prospect worth discussing. But Gates has been persuaded to back a costly reactor design fueled by nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium and shown, through decades of experience, to be expensive, quick to break down, and difficult to repair.

In fact, Gates and his company, Terrapower, are promoting a reactor type that the US and most other countries abandoned four decades ago because of concerns about both nuclear weapons  proliferation and cost.

The approximately 400 power reactors that provide about 10 percent of the world’s electric power today are almost all water-cooled and fueled by low-enriched uranium, which is not weapon usable. Half a century ago, however, nuclear engineers were convinced—wrongly, it turned out—that the global resource of low-cost uranium would not be sufficient to support such reactors beyond the year 2000.

Work therefore began on liquid-sodium-cooled “breeder” reactors that would be fueled by plutonium, which, when it undergoes a fission chain reaction, produces neutrons that can transmute the abundant but non-chain-reacting isotope of natural uranium, u-238, into more plutonium than the reactor consumes.

But mining companies and governments found a lot more low-cost uranium than originally projected. The Nuclear Energy Agency recently concluded that the world has uranium reserves more than adequate to support water-cooled reactors for another century.

And while technologically elegant, sodium-cooled reactors proved unable to compete economically with water-cooled reactors, on several levels. Admiral Rickover, who developed the US Navy’s water-cooled propulsion reactors from which today’s power reactors descend, tried sodium-cooled reactors in the 1950s. His conclusion was that they are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” That captures the experience of all efforts to commercialize breeder reactors. The United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan all abandoned their breeder-reactor efforts after spending the equivalent of $10 billion or more each on the effort.

Today, despite about $100 billion spent on efforts to commercialize them, only two sodium-cooled breeder reactor prototypes are operating—both in Russia. India is building one, and China is building two with Russian help. But it is not clear India and China are looking only to generate electricity with their breeders; they may also be motivated in part by the fact that breeder reactors produce copious amounts of the weapon-grade plutonium desired by their militaries to expand their nuclear-weapon stockpiles.

The proliferation risks of breeder-reactor programs were dramatically demonstrated in 1974, when India carried out its first explosive test of a nuclear-weapon design with plutonium that had been produced with US Atoms for Peace Program assistance for India’s ostensibly peaceful breeder reactor program. The United States, thus alerted, was able to stop four more countries, governed at the time by military juntas (Brazil, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan), from going down the same track—although Pakistan found another route to the bomb via uranium enrichment.

It was India’s 1974 nuclear test that got me involved with this issue as an advisor to the Carter administration. I have been involved ever since, contributing to the plutonium policy debates in the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries.

In 1977, after a policy review, the Carter administration concluded that plutonium breeder reactors would not be economic for the foreseeable future and called for termination of the US development program. After the estimated cost of the Energy Department’s proposed demonstration breeder reactor increased five-fold, Congress finally agreed in 1983

Gates is obviously not in it for the money. But his reputation for seriousness may have helped recruit Democratic Senators Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, and Sheldon Whitehouse to join the two Republican senators from Idaho in a bipartisan coalition to co-sponsor the Nuclear Energy Innovations Capabilities Act of 2017, which called for the VTR.

I wonder if any of those five Senators knows that the VTR is to be fueled annually by enough plutonium for more than 50 Nagasaki bombs. Or that it is a failed technology. Or that the Idaho National Laboratory is collaborating on plutonium separation technology with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute at a time when about half of South Korea’s population wants nuclear weapons to deter North Korea.

Fortunately, it is not too late for the Biden administration and Congress to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to zero out the Versatile Test Reactor in the Department of Energy’s next budget appropriations cycle. The money could be spent more effectively on upgrading the safety of our existing reactor fleet and on other climate-friendly energy technologies.

Frank N. von Hippel

Frank N. von Hippel is a co-founder of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s School of Public and International…

March 23, 2021 Posted by | - plutonium, USA | Leave a comment