Tag Archives: enriched uranium

The Geopolitics of Enriched Uranium: controlling Urenco

Image from URENCO.

The Japanese government has entered into negotiations to acquire U.K.-based Urenco, a major European producer of enriched uranium, in a deal that is expected to be worth several billions of dollars.  The state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation is expected to make an offer together with U.S. nuclear energy company Centrus Energy [formely known as United States Enrichment Corporation].  The not-so-ulterior motive is to block companies from Russia and China — two countries that are increasing their influence in the global nuclear power market — from taking control of the company.

The Japanese government is holding talks with major shareholders of Urenco, sources close to the matter said. Ownership of Urenco is evenly split by three parties — the governments of the U.K. and the Netherlands as well as German electric utilities including RWE.The German side is exploring a sale as the government plans to phase out nuclear power. The U.K. government, working on fiscal consolidation, is also looking for a buyer.  Urenco is engaged in turning natural uranium into enriched uranium, which is critical in generating nuclear power [and nuclear weapons]. The company ranks second in the world after Tenex — a unit of Russian nuclear concern Rosatom — in terms of capacity to produce enriched uranium, holding a global share of around 30%…

According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, China had 35 nuclear reactors in operation as of January 2017, while Russia had 30. Including reactors in the planning stage, however, the numbers grow to 82 in China and 55 in Russia, surpassing Japan’s 53.

Excerpts from Japan in talks over bid for UK uranium powerhouse, NIkkei Asian Review, Jan. 19, 2018

Nuclear Materials in Iraq and 2014 Civil War

university of mosul. image from http://www.uomosul.edu.iq/en/

The U.N. atomic agency said on Thursday (July 10, 2014) it believed nuclear material which Iraq said had fallen into the hands of insurgents was “low grade” and did not pose a significant security risk.  Iraq told the United Nations that the material was used for scientific research at a university in the northern town of Mosul and appealed for help to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad”.

Iraq’s U.N. envoy this week also said that the government had lost control of a former chemical weapons facility to “armed terrorist groups” and was unable to fulfill its international obligations to destroy toxins kept there.  An al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took over swathes of Syria and Iraq before renaming itself Islamic State in June and declaring its leader caliph – a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details”, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.  “On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk,” she said. “Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a July 8 letter that nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds were kept at the university.  “Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” he said.

However, a U.S. government source said it was not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a nuclear weapon. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported seizure likely posed no direct threat. But, he said: “The sheer fact that the terrorists … show unmistakeable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming”.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially serious as militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb”, experts say.  Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said that if the material came from a university it could be laboratory chemicals or radiation shielding, consisting of natural or depleted uranium.  “You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous,” Heinonen told Reuters. “This material is also not ‘good’ enough for a dirty bomb.”  In a so-called “dirty bomb”, radioactive material such as might be found in a hospital or factory is combined with conventional explosives that disperse the hazardous radiation.

Citing U.N. investigations dating back ten years or more, Heinonen said there should be no enriched uranium in Mosul. The Vienna-based IAEA helped dismantle Iraq’s clandestine nuclear programme in the 1990s – during Heinonen’s three decades there.  “Iraq should not have any nuclear installation left which uses nuclear material in these quantities,” he said.  Another proliferation expert, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said: “The Mosul region and several university departments were scoured again and again by U.N. inspectors for a decade after the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and they know what materials were stored there.”  “These included tons of uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides, and uranium tetrafluoride. Some of these items are still there, but there’s no enriched uranium,” he said.

Excerpts from Fredrik Dahl, UPDATE 4-Seized nuclear material in Iraq “low grade” – UN agency, Reuters, July 10, 2014

The Y-12: nuclear weapons alive and well

Nearly three weeks after a stunning security breach shut down the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the government on Wednesday (Aug. 15, 2012) authorized the restart of nuclear operations…..

B&W Y-12, the managing contractor, ordered a “security stand-down” on Aug. 1, 2012 soon after the unprecedented intrusion July 28 by three Plowshares protesters, who reportedly scaled a ridge on the north side of Y-12 and walked all the way to the plant’s high-security inner core. The protesters …. used bolt-cutters to pass through a series of sensor-laden security fences and reach the fortresslike uranium storehouse, which they defaced with spray-painted protest messages and human blood. The breach raised deep questions about site vulnerabilities and prompted multiple investigations, which are still under way.The approval to restart nuclear operations has no bearing on the “show cause” notice that the National Nuclear Security Administration sent to B&W Y-12 last week, Wyatt said.

In the Aug. 10, 2015 letter to the contractor, the NNSA said security concerns raised by the break-in and the response to it were so severe as to potentially harm the ability to carry out the Y-12 contract. ….It wasn’t clear how long it would take Y-12 to get the uranium operations and other activities, including the dismantlement of old warhead parts, up and running or restart manufacturing programs.  In its “show cause” letter to B&W, the NNSA said a “high number” of cameras associated with the plant’s PIDAS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System) were inoperable at the time of the July 28, 2012intrusion in the predawn hours. ”

Excepts from   Frank Munge, Feds authorize restart of Y-12’s nuke operations,
Knoxville News Sentinel, Aug. 15, 2012

Iran’s Nuclear Program: the sequel

The U.N. nuclear agency said Friday [Sept. 2, 2011] it is “increasingly concerned” about a stream of intelligence suggesting that Iran continues to work secretly on developing a nuclear payload for a missile and other components of a nuclear weapons program.  In its report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said “many member states” are providing evidence for that assessment, describing the information it is receiving as credible, “extensive and comprehensive.”…The phrase “increasingly concerned” has not appeared in previous reports discussing Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons work and reflects the frustration felt by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano over the lack of progress in his investigations.

Other findings include:

— Confirmation of reports by diplomats to the AP that Iran has started setting up uranium enriching centrifuges at Fordow, a fortified facility dug into a mountain near the holy city of Qom. Iran intends to use Fordow to triple its 20-percent enrichment of uranium — a concern because that level is easier to turn into weapons grade uranium quickly than its main stockpile of low enriched uranium at 3.5 percent.

— Further accumulation of both low-enriched and higher enriched or 20 percent uranium. The report said Iran had now accumulated more than four tons of low enriched uranium and over 70 kilograms — more than 150 pounds — of higher enriched material. Those two stockpiles give it enough enriched uranium to make up to six nuclear warheads, should it choose to do so.

The report praised Iran for its decision earlier this month to allow IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts to tour a facility where it is developing more efficient centrifuges, saying Iran “provided extensive information” on its development of such machines.

It, however was generally critical of Iran’s record of secrecy and lack of cooperation, noting that without increased openness on the part of the Islamic Republic the IAEA is unable to “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Excerpts, UN nuke agency ‘increasingly concerned’ about Iran, says evidence credible of nuke arms work, Associated Press, Sept. 2, 2011

IAEA Report

ISIS Report

When Sanctions Start

Iran and the IAEA

Unable to Control its Virtual Borders

Assessing the North Korean Nuclear Threat

The North Korean nuclear weapons programme dates back to the 1980s when it began construction of its Yongbyon complex, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang. It consists of a five-megawatt reactor, a fuel fabrication facility and a plutonium reprocessing plant, where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.

The North tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, but still has not shown it has a working nuclear bomb. Proliferation experts say it has enough fissile material for up to 10 nuclear weapons.  Under the terms of a previous aid-for-disarmament agreement, North Korea dismantled the main reactor, and despite restoring parts of the plant, it is still not operational.

WHERE IS THE URANIUM ENRICHMENT PROGRAMME AT?

Last November, North Korea unveiled its uranium enrichment programme, which would give it another path to make atomic weapons, to the outside world. Uranium enrichment can be conducted away from the prying eyes of satellites, and the North can fuel it with its ample supplies of natural uranium.  Although, it was widely known that North Korea had such a programme, foreign experts who saw the facility said they were stunned by its sophistication.

The foreign experts said they were not able to establish whether the plant was designed to produce only low-enriched uranium needed to make fuel for a power plant or the highly enriched uranium for bombs. It is easier to design a nuclear bomb with highly enriched uranium (HEU) than plutonium, but harder to make a nuclear warhead with HEU to mount on a missile.

BUT CAN THE NORTH DELIVER A NUCLEAR BOMB?

Experts say they do not believe the North can miniaturise an atomic weapon to place on a missile, but it is trying to develop such a warhead. It needs more nuclear testing to build one.  North Korea’s ageing fleet of Soviet-era bombers would also have difficulty evading the advanced air forces of regional powers to deliver a nuclear bomb outside the country.

But, Washington says the North’s long-range ballistic missile programme is moving ahead fast, and that the American mainland could itself come under threat within five years.  The nuclear threat, however, could be delivered by other unconventional means such as aboard a civilian aircraft, boat or van to the target.

Experts agree, however, no nation would dare use a nuclear device against a nuclear-armed state, because the certainty of retribution would far outweigh whatever benefit might be gained. Non-nuclear armed states such as South Korea and Japan fall under Washington’s nuclear umbrella.

HOW DOES THE NORTH JUSTIFY ITS NUCLEAR ARMS PROGRAMME?

The North says the world has got it all wrong about its hostile intentions, and that it is only pursuing uranium enrichment for peaceful energy purposes.  As for its plutonium programme, Pyongyang says it was cornered into pursuing nuclear weapons because of the United States’ nuclear threat. It says it is as entitled to a deterrent as the Americans, and that when Washington denuclearises it will do the same.

COULD IT SELL THE NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY?

Apart from the direct threat of a nuclear weapon, the next biggest concern is the proliferation risk Pyongyang poses. Much of the North’s income in the past has been generated through arms sales.  Last year, a U.N. report suggested the North may have supplied Syria, Iran and Myanmar with banned nuclear technology. Equally, experts worry about the potential for subsequent proliferation to terrorists.

Jeremy Laurence, Q+A – Is North Korea’s nuclear programme a threat?, Reuters,-