Tag Archives: highly 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

The Weapons-Grade Uranium of South Africa: more precious than gold

Yellowcake is a type of uranium concentrate powder obtained by the processing of uranium before fuel fabrication or enrichment.

In the early hours of 28 July 2012, three people, one of them an 82-year-old nun named Megan Rice, broke into the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex near the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 is where all of America’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) – for making nuclear weapons is stored… in November 2007, two groups of intruders cut through the security fences surrounding South Africa’s 118-acre Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, west of Pretoria. They got as far as the emergency operations centre before a barking dog alerted a stand-in security office….=

Pelindaba houses South Africa’s stockpile of HEU, which was extracted in 1990 from the six or seven nuclear bombs that the old National Party government had built. According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) report, the HEU was melted down and cast into ingots, which were stored at Pelindaba. Over the years, some of the HEU was used to make medical isotopes for sale…..

Now, according to the CPI report, about 220 kg of the HEU remains, with no immediate purpose. This gives Pretoria the theoretical ability to make nuclear weapons again. But what really bothers the US officials who the CPI interviewed is that terrorists could steal the HEU and use it to make nuclear weapons. The report says Pelindaba contains enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washingt

…US President Barack Obama has been trying very hard since 2011 to persuade President Jacob Zuma to relinquish the HEU stockpile, as part of his global effort to mop up such fissile material from nuclear states.

So why won’t South Africa give up its HEU stockpile? …Pelindaba is now probably more secure than most US nuclear facilities – especially after the US spent nearly US$10 million in helping South Africa to upgrade security there after the 2007 break-in. … [T]he main reason Pretoria wants to keep its HEU is because ‘it’s a stick they are using to beat up on the US for not dismantling its own nuclear weapons.’

In the end though, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium stored away in the depths of Pelindaba has much more than commercial or tactical value…the stockpile is a symbol of South Africa’s sovereignty, its power and its integrity: of its ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes – and even of its technical ability to construct an atomic weapon. But also of its firm moral determination never to do so.  In that sense, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium ingots are more precious to the African National Congress government than all the gold bullion in the Reserve Bank. They aren’t going anywhere.

Excerpt from Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa ISS,  Why is Pretoria so jealously guarding it fissile material? Mar. 19, 2014

The Drones and Nuclear Weapons of India 2014

India Mysore, image from

Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggests that India appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the  Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka.  Furthermore, [o]n June 20, 2014 IHS Jane’s revealed that India was possibly extending Mysore’s Indian Rare Metals Plant into clandestine production of uranium hexafluoride that could theoretically be channelled towards the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

This week the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested that the country appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the SMEF and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka, where, between 2009 and 2010, approximately 10,000 acres of land were allegedly diverted for various defence purposes.

Within this walled-off tract, 1,410 acres in Ullarthi Kaval and 400 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for the purpose of developing the SMEF, the ISIS said, adding that a further 4,000 acres in Varavu Kaval and 290 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Defence Research and Development Organisation for the purpose of developing and testing “long-endurance (48-72 hours) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.”…

The report’s authors, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, said that the new facility “will significantly increase India’s ability to produce enriched uranium for both civil and military purposes, including nuclear weapons”, urging India to therefore announce that the SMEF would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, committed only to peaceful uses….At the heart of India’s apparently strong enrichment thrust is an urgent need for Highly Enriched Uranium for the indigenously developed INS Arihant nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and probably for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

Excerpt from NARAYAN LAKSHMAN. Karnataka home to second covert nuke site, drone testing: report,  The  Hindu, July 2, 2014

Iran Nuclear Talks: the Khamenei Card

Gas centrifuge cascade. Image from wikipedia

On July 7, 1014 as critical nuclear negotiations got underway in Vienna between Iran, the United States, Europe, Russia and China, Khamenei (Iranian Supreme Leader) started talking hard numbers.  The Supreme Leader’s remarks were unprecedented both because they represented a blatant intervention from his perch in Tehran in the super-sensitive talks in Vienna, and because they relayed confidential technical details that had not been aired publicly before by Iranian officials.

The moment could not be more critical. An agreement is supposed to be reached before July 20, 2014 that will rein in the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and end or curtail the Western sanctions that have put so much pressure on Tehran. Failure to reach an accord will add yet more potentially apocalyptic uncertainties to the Middle Eastern scene…

The Supreme Leader started talking about SWUs, which it is fair to say few Iranians, or for that matter Americans, Europeans, Russians or Chinese ever have heard of.  In this context the acronym stands for “separative work units,” which relates directly to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium to levels that might feed into nuclear weapons. SWU defines the capability derived from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges and their efficiency. For example one thousand AR1 centrifuges with the efficiency of 0.9 translates into 900 SWU, whereas 225 AR2 centrifuges with an efficiency of 4 translates into 900 SW…

“They want us to be content with 10,000 SWUs,” he said. That is, he estimates the bottom line the West will accept. “But they have started from 500 and 1000 SWUs,” he added. “Our people say that we need 190,000 SWUs,” he went on. That’s a big spread to try to close.  Khamenei then raised the problem of American and European objections to the more-or-less bomb-proof underground facility Iran has built at Fordo, where much of its enrichment goes on. “They emphasize Fordo because they cannot get to it,” said Khamenei. “They say you must not have a place which we cannot strike. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

Last December [2013] Khamenei said publicly he would not interfere in the negotiations and would leave the details to the diplomats. Now it appears he is playing a more shadowy game, either dictating terms to the Iranian team in Vienna or, perhaps, providing them the cover they need to stand firm.

A source close to the negotiations told IranWire that the numbers Khamenei cited are precisely what American negotiators have put on the table, and constitute one of the confidential topics being discussed over the past few months. Two days before Khamenei spoke, Under Secretary of States for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the senior American negotiator, said that Iran must end up with a fraction of the centrifuges it currently runs, but she did not cite any numbers.

The source said that Khamenei’s statements are technically significant, and are in line with the terms of the negotiations, which deal with SWUs rather than the number of centrifuges as such.

According to a European diplomat who is a member of his country’s nuclear negotiating team, the accuracy of the numbers leaked by Khamenei is both astonishing and worrisome, because he is limiting publicly the concessions that might be made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s team….

It is clear Khamenei wants to leave no doubt about his regime’s red lines in the negotiations…  But Khamenei doesn’t see this crisis only in terms of nukes. For the West, he says, the nuclear issue “is just an excuse” to pressure Iran, he said. “If it is not the nuclear issue they will come up with another excuse—human rights, women’s right, etc.”

Excerpts from Reza HaghighatNejad, Iran Supreme Leader Spills the Nuke Talk Secrets, Daily Beast, July 9, 2014

From Germany to South Carolina: Nuclear Waste

castor cask

The U.S. Department of Energy said on June 4, 2014 it will study the environmental risk of importing spent nuclear fuel from Germany that contains highly enriched uranium, a move believed to be the first for the United States.  The department said it is considering a plan to ship the nuclear waste from Germany to the Savannah River Site, a federal facility in South Carolina.  The 310-acre site already holds millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste in tanks. The waste came from reactors in South Carolina that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1953 to 1989.

The Energy Department said it wants to remove 900 kilograms (1,984 pounds) of uranium the United States sold to Germany years ago and render it safe under U.S. nuclear non-proliferation treaties.  A technique for the three-year process of extracting the uranium, which is contained in graphite balls, is being developed at the site in South Carolina, according to the Energy Department.

[The radioactive waste to be imported to the United States from Germany consists of 152 30-tonne CASTOR casks containing 290,000 graphite balls from the  AVR gas-cooled prototype reactor, stored at the Juelich research center [Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ)], and 305 CASTOR casks containing 605,000 graphite balls from the THTR-300 reactor, stored at the Ahaus waste site. While the waste contains some US-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU), the amount is unclear as the material was irradiated and has been in storage for over 20 years since the reactors closed.]

Some critics question whether the department has fully developed a clear plan to dispose of the radioactive waste.”They’re proposing to extract the uranium and reuse it as fuel by a process that has never been done before,” said Tom Clements, president of SRS Watch, a nuclear watchdog group in South Carolina….

Sources told Reuters in May that German utilities were in talks with the government about setting up a “bad bank” for nuclear plants, in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to close them all by 2022 after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Excerpt from  Harriet McLeod, German nuclear waste may be headed to South Carolina site, Reuters, June 4, 2014

A Love Affair with Iran: Glencore and Trafigura

logo of atomic energy organization of iran

Glencore, a commodity trading house run by the billionaire Ivan Glasenberg, traded $659m (£430m) of goods, including aluminium oxide, to Iran last year, the Guardian has established.  The company…has admitted that some of its aluminium oxide ended up in the hands of Iranian Aluminium Company (Iralco).  Trafigura, another commodity trading house, has also admitted to trading an unspecified aluminium oxide (also known as alumina) with Iralco in the past.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has named Iralco as supplying aluminium to Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (Tesa), which is part of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI). Aluminium oxide is an important material in gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium.  At the time of the Glencore and Trafigura trades with Iralco, it was not illegal or a breach of sanctions to supply Iran with alumina. It is unknown whether Glencore or Trafigura’s alumina passed from Iralco to Tesa, or whether it was used in centrifuge construction.

Since 2006, AEOI has been subject to UN sanctions designed to prevent Iran’s nuclear armament ambitions. Trading with Tesa has been specifically banned under US, EU and UK sanctions since July 2010. Iralco was added to the EU sanctions list in December 2012.  Glencore said it “ceased transactions” with Iralco immediately when it learned of its links with Tesa, and the last trade was in October 2012. “Prior to EU sanctions in December 2012, we were not aware of a link/contract between Iralco and Tesa,” the company said in a statement.  Glencore said it is “reliant on the relevant regulatory bodies/governments to advise us on developments in who we can/can’t do business with”.

Tehran, which some experts say already has enough enriched uranium to make several nuclear weapons, is in the middle of upgrading its stock of more than 10,000 centrifuges. The IAEA said Iran is replacing outdated centrifuges with thousands of more powerful IR-2m models.  Experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (Isis) in London said: “Iran is trying to replace maraging [super-strong] steel end-caps with high strength aluminium end-caps.”  Mark Fitzpatrick, director of Isis’s nonproliferation and disarmament programme, said the new centrifuges could enrich uranium four to five times faster than the existing ones. Iran insists its enriched material is for peaceful use, not for nuclear weapons, but it has refused to allow IAEA inspectors into several of its atomic facilities.

The Guardian has learned that Glencore traded $659m worth of metals, wheat and coal with Iranian entities during 2012. Buried deep in its annual report, one of Glencore’s US affiliates, Century Aluminium, 46% owned by Glencore, states: “During 2012 non-US affiliates of the largest stockholder of the company [Glencore] entered into sales contracts for wheat and coal as well as sale and purchase contracts for metal oxides and metals with Iranian entities, which are either fully or majority owned by the GOI [government of Iran].”…..

Trafigura, which came to global political attention when it was revealed that a licensed independent contractor of a ship it had chartered dumped tonnes of toxic oil slops in Ivory Coast, said: “We can confirm that Trafigura has traded with Iralco in the past. In October 2011, a physical swap agreement was reached whereby Trafigura provided alumina to Iralco in return for aluminium for Trafigura to export worldwide. No deliveries have been made or exports received since new EU sanctions were published in December 2012.

Excerpts, Rupert Neate, Glencore traded with Iranian supplier to nuclear weapon’s programme, Guardian,  Apr. 21, 2013