Tag Archives: reprocessing spent fuel

One-of-a-Kind Nuclear Complex: Sellafield

The Windscale Piles in 1985 Image from wikipedia

There is no other site like Sellafield in the world. It is where many major developments in the 20th century nuclear industry were pioneered.

It is home to:

–the Windscale Piles, which were used to create material for weapons

–the world’s first commercial-scale nuclear power station – Calder Hall, opened in 1956

–the world’s first large-scale advanced gas-cooled reactor, opened in 1963

–nuclear fuel storage ponds and waste silos, built in the 1940s and 50s

–nuclear fuel fabrication plants

–nuclear fuel reprocessing plants

–a fleet of nuclear waste storage facilities

Sellafield is a densely packed site of just 6sq km housing thousands of buildings. Many of them store highly hazardous waste. Its oldest facilities were built in great haste during the early years of the Cold War with no plans for how they would be decommissioned.  Record-keeping in the early days was poor by modern standards, meaning much work has had to be carried out to confirm the nature and state of the material kept in these facilities. There is no blueprint for decommissioning Sellafield’s oldest facilities. Staff and contractors had to come up with ground-breaking engineering projects in order to decommission these one-of-a-kind facilities.  And these highly complex projects have to be done on small parcels of land, often just feet away from buildings containing highly hazardous material, with all of the safety constraints this presents.

When an uncertain challenge is combined with highly constrained working conditions and a series of never-done-before projects, the result is a long, complex and costly decommissioning programme.  Huge strides have already been made at Sellafield, but it is fair to say the site will continue to test ingenuity in construction, engineering, nuclear science and project management for decades to come.

-Commissioned for use in 1952, the Pile Fuel Cladding Silo received and safely stored radioactive cladding―pieces of metal tubes—used for uranium fuel rods in some of the UK’s earliest nuclear reactors―first from military projects and later power plants. Other debris was added, and by 1964 the silo was full.  The Pile Fuel Cladding Silo is 69 feet (21 meters) tall and houses six compartments that hold some 4,200 cubic yards (more than 3,200 cubic meters) of intermediate-level waste. The job at hand is safely retrieving the waste and storing it in highly secure concrete containers.

The first of six holes on the silo were cut (August 2017). To remove the waste, a crane will extend through the cut holes, and a grabber will drop down to scoop the waste up.It will be lifted out of the container and into a specially-designed metal box.

Excerpts from  Nuclear Provision: the cost of cleaning up Britain’s historic nuclear sites updated 19 July 2017 

Sellafield decommissioning: Nuclear waste silo opened, BBC, Sept. 5, 2017

SELLAFIELD PILE FUEL CLADDING SILO RETRIEVAL, Bechtel

Frenemies with Nuclear Benefits: 2015 US-China Nuclear Deal

Coolant pump  Nuclear Reactor AP 1000

President Obama intends to renew a nuclear cooperation agreement with China. The deal would allow Beijing to buy more U.S.-designed reactors and pursue a facility or the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel. China would also be able to buy reactor coolant technology that experts say could be adapted to make its submarines quieter and harder to detect.,,

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, argues that the new agreement will clear the way for U.S. companies to sell dozens of nuclear reactors to China, the biggest nuclear power market in the world.  Yet the new version of the nuclear accord — known as a 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 — would give China leeway to buy U.S. nuclear energy technology at a sensitive moment: The Obama administration has been trying to rally support among lawmakers and the public for a deal that would restrict Iran’s nuclear program — a deal negotiated with China’s support.,,,

If Congress rejects the deal, “that would allow another country with lower levels of proliferation controls to step in and fill that void,” said a senior administration official…

{T}he current nuclear agreement with China does not expire until the end of the year (2015),…
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has been urging lawmakers to insist on requiring advance consent for the reprocessing of spent fuel from U.S.-designed reactors into plutonium suitable for weapons. He also is concerned about the sale of certain nuclear energy technologies, especially coolant pumps with possible naval use.
Charlotte-based Curtiss-Wright developed advanced coolant pumps for the U.S. Navy’s submarines. The same plant produces a scaled-up version for the Westinghouse AP1000 series reactors, each of which uses four big pumps. These pumps reduce noises that would make a submarine easier to detect…..An Obama administration official said the reactor coolant pumps are much too big to fit into a submarine. However, a 2008 paper by two former nuclear submarine officers working on threat reduction said that “the reverse engineering would likely be difficult” but added that “certainly, the Chinese have already reversed engineered very complex imported technology in the aerospace and nuclear fields.”..

The United States has bilateral 123 agreements with 22 countries, plus Taiwan, for the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some countries that do not have such agreements, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Malaysia, have expressed interest in clearing obstacles to building nuclear reactors.

China and the United States reached a nuclear cooperation pact in 1985, before China agreed to safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA safeguards went into force in 1989, but Congress imposed new restrictions after the Chinese government’s June 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. The 123 agreement finally went into effect in March 1998; President Bill Clinton waived the 1989 sanctions after China pledged to end assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear cooperation with Iran.

In December 2006, Westinghouse Electric — majority-owned by Toshiba — signed an agreement to sell its AP1000 reactors to China. Four are under construction, six more are planned, and the company hopes to sell 30 others, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS)….“Missile proliferation from Chinese entities is a continuing concern.” The United States wants China to refrain from selling missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, a payload of 1,100 pounds, as far as 190 miles

China has a pilot plant engaged in reprocessing in Jiu Quan, a remote desert town in Gansu province. Satellite photos show that it is next to a former military reprocessing plant, according to Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physics professor who specializes in nuclear arms control.

Excerpts from Steven Mufson, Obama’s quiet nuclear deal with China raises proliferation concerns,   Washington Post  May 10, 2015

The Benefits of Being a Threshold Nuclear Power: Japan v. China

japan nucler fuel limited logo

China has urged Japan to return over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to the Unites States and to explain how it intends to resolve its surplus plutonium problem. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on 17 February 2014, and in response to a question on Japan’s plutonium stocks, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated:

“China attaches great importance to nuclear proliferation risks and potential threats posed by nuclear materials to regional security. China has grave concerns over Japan’s possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials… Japan’s failure to hand back its stored weapons-grade nuclear materials to the relevant country has ignited concerns of the international community including China.”

As reported in January 2014, agreement has been reached between the United States and Japan for the return of plutonium used in the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment, Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The formal agreement is expected to be concluded at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in its 2012 plutonium management report Japan stated that the FCA facility has the total of 331 kg of plutonium, of which 293 kg is fissile plutonium. The largest share of this plutonium was supplied by the United Kingdom in addition to that supplied by the United States.

Commenting further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:

“China believes that Japan, as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, should strictly observe its international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. The IAEA requires all parties to maintain a best possible balance of supply and demand of nuclear materials as contained in the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. Japan’s large stockpile of nuclear materials including weapons-grade materials on its territory is an issue concerning nuclear material security, proliferation risks and big supply-demand imbalance.”

In addition to the call for the return of the weapon’s grade plutonium, the Chinese statement also raises a question over Japanese fuel cycle policy and its inability to use its existing plutonium stocks. With all 48 nuclear power reactors shutdown there is currently no demand for its separated plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. However, Japanese policy continues to plan the commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant as early as October 2014, following a safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). In its latest declaration to the IAEA, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of 31 December 2012, Japan held 44,241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kg was stored in Japan and 34,946 kg was stored abroad. Japan’s plutonium program, its challenges and alternatives was recently addressed at a Tokyo symposium and in detailed analysis by IPFM.

As yet, there has been no official response from the Japanese government to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, which has been extensively reported through Chinese media outlets

By Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider, China calls on Japan to return weapons grade plutonium to the United States, International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 18, 2014

Some Breakthrough in Nuclear Waste Management in Russia

Checkpoint in closed city Zheleznogorsk, 2011. Image from wikipedia

Russia could be moving closer to shutting down its infamous and highly contaminated Mayak Chemical Combine – Russia’s only spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility – as the government builds a new pilot spent fuel storage and reprocessing facility in the closed city of Zheleznogorsk, near Krasnoyarsk, called RT-2. The Zheleznogorsk facility was once home to one of Russia’s 13 weapons grade plutonium production reactors…The pilot facilities at Zheleznogorsk – known as Krasnoyarsk-26 during the Soviet era – fall under the purview of an industry division called the National Operator, as established by Russia’s 2011 law “On handling spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.  The law further stipulates that all spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste produced prior to 2011 is the government’s financial responsibility, where beyond 2011, the bills go to individual nuclear power plants.

Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Right’s Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg, who has visited the Zheleznogorsk site twice this year, said after the AtomEco conference held late last month in Moscow that the facility is designed to hold and reprocess two of Russia’s thorniest types of spent nuclear fuel: that produced by VVER-1000 reactors and the spent fuel that comes from RBMKs [Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalniy, “High Power Channel-type Reactor” is a class of graphite-moderated nuclear power reactor designed and built by the Soviet Union.]  Russia has neither been able to store or reprocess fuel from the Chernobyl-type RBMK – one of the oldest, and most fatally flawed reactor lines in Russia’s civilian line up.

The Zheleznogorsk facility will also be capable of storing spent fuel from VVER-1000 reactors in wet storage. The spent RMBK fuel will be held at RT-2 in dry storage.  Spent VVER-1000 fuel is already arriving at Zheleznogorsk from reactors at the Balakovo, Kalinin, Novovoronezh and Rostov nuclear power plants. RBMK fuel will come from the Leningrad, Kursk, and Smolensk plants.

In all, RT-2 is designed to hold some 50,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Russia currently hosts some 23,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, the majority of it stored on site at the reactors that produced it.

The reclamation of fuel from Soviet built reactors in former Soviet satellite states, which Russia is obligated to take back and either reprocess or store, is also slowing down… In the case of Hungary, for example, the local government has found it more economical to store the fuel itself than to repatriate it to Russia, easing up somewhat the amount of foreign spent fuel flowing to the country.

But Russia’ state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has finally – and publically – reached the conclusion that Mayak and its legacy of overwhelming radiological pollution is no longer viable…

Nikitin, was told during his visits to RT-2 that the pilot facilities are slated to push through their first batches of reprocessed VVER 1000 and RBMK fuel – while producing no residual radioactive waste – by 2018.  If the test runs prove successful, RT-2 could move on to industrial scale storage and reprocessing   But Nikitin and Rosatom have their doubts about the rosy predictions of the National Operator. For one, Nikitin is skeptical of the value of reprocessing RMBK fuel..

Charles Digges,New spent nuclear fuel storage and reprocessing site in Siberia could end contamination from Mayak,  Bellona,  Nov. 14, 2013

Plutonium Production after Fukushima; the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.  Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing a half-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”  Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.  The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.  Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.  “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”

In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.  Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.  “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.  Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.

But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.  Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of which is stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’s promise to international regulators not to produce a plutonium surplus.  Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in 1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that hasn’t happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”  “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable. And it sends the wrong signal all around the world.”

Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed to live up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used.  From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.  In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised its plans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s von Hippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panel on Fissile Materials. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

By ERIC TALMADGE and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile, Associated Press, June 2, 2012

See also http://www.jnfl.co.jp/english/