Category Archives: MOX

Japan’s new law on funding plutonium reprocessing

IPFM Blog | Tatsujiro Suzuki and Masa Takubo | May 26, 2016

On 11 May 2016, Japan’s parliament passed a “Law Regarding Implementation of Reprocessing, etc. of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Generation” (our translation). The new law is to go into effect within six months. Its stated primary objective is to assure continued funding for reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication even if nuclear utilities go bankrupt after Japan’s market for electric power is fully liberalized.

The new law amends the 2005 “Law regarding Deposit and Management of the Reserve Funds for Reprocessing, etc. of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Generation” and has three basic features:

  1. It establishes the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization, a government-approved entity responsible for collecting funds required for reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication (Article 10.14; although the law provides for the possibility of multiple “Organizations,” there will most probably be only one). This Organization will contract out actual reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication operations to Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL), which has built the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant and is completing the adjacent MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility.
  2. It requires Japan’s nuclear utilities to pay “contributions” to the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization every fiscal year to cover the expected cost for reprocessing of all spent fuel they generated in the previous fiscal year and for turning the resulting separated plutonium into MOX fuel (Article 3.7). The contributions will be based on the amount of the electricity generated.
  3. It requires that the Spent Fuel Reprocessing Organization’s reprocessing plan be approved by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) (Article 45), who is also responsible for approving the establishment of the Organization (Article 17).

The new law also has other several features that buttress Japan’s commitment to plutonium separation:

  1. It provides for the funding of reprocessing of all spent fuel and producing MOX fuel from all plutonium, while the previous law covered only the funding for the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The funds that the utilities have voluntarily been setting aside for reprocessing spent fuel not to be dealt with by the Rokkasho plant will now be transferred to the Organization. This means that the new system will provide for a commercial reprocessing plant beyond Rokkasho, despite the fact that there currently appears to be no prospect for building another commercial plant.
  2. The new law gives the government stronger authority over the reprocessing business. The purpose of the law is “steady implementation of reprocessing,” making it possible for the government to force utilities to reprocess all their spent fuel.
  3. Finally, the law forces Japan’s utilities to continue separating plutonium regardless of future plutonium consumption plans. There is nothing in the law to enforce Japan’s “no plutonium surplus policy.”

Concerned about the inflexibility of the law and lack of consideration of Japan’s plutonium balance, Japan’s parliament added a required review of the law in three years instead of the five years originally proposed by the government and adopted a supplementary resolution that includes the following conditions:

  1. When the situation changes, the government must review and take necessary measures, taking into account the views expressed during the parliamentary debate.
  2. Direct disposal and spent fuel storage options must be developed to secure flexibility in spent fuel management. However the law which prohibits direct disposal of spent fuel remains in force.
  3. Given Japan’s stated commitment “not to possess plutonium without purpose for use,” the Minister of METI shall not approve any reprocessing plan violating this principle.
  4. Before approving a reprocessing plan, the Minister of METI must obtain the advice of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC). JAEC is supposed to review the annual “plutonium usage plan” submitted by the utilities to check the balance of plutonium supply and demand before reprocessing takes place. However, the utilities have not submitted a new plan since 2010.
  5. A scheme must be established to assess the implications and impacts of Japan’s reprocessing program from a broad perspective, including taking into consideration its implications for international security.
  6. The government must take stronger responsibility for enhancing spent fuel storage capacity and tackling the challenges concerning final disposal of high level waste.
  7. Reprocessing should proceed with sincere dialogue with local communities to obtain understanding and cooperation. This condition is considered necessary as any change in the current reprocessing program may trigger opposition from Aomori prefecture, which hosts the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.

These conditions, however, are not legally binding and it is not clear if they will be effective in establishing a balance between plutonium separation and use in Japan.

Critics of U.S. plutonium cleanup program seize on new report

Reuters | Washington – Andrea Shalal | December 8, 2015

Critics of a multibillion-dollar program to convert excess U.S. weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors under a 2000 treaty with Russia have seized on a newly disclosed report to renew calls for an end to the project.

The fiscal 2016 defense authorization law includes $345 million in funding for a plant under construction at the DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina, which will take 34 metric tons of plutonium and mix it with uranium to form safer mix-oxide (MOX) fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

Congress must still appropriate the funding authorized in the law, but supporters say they do not expect any issues.

Critics argue the MOX project should be halted after years of delays and cost increases, even though any changes could jeopardize one of the few agreements with Russia that is still running smoothly.

Francie Israel with the National Nuclear Security Administration said the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was continuing work on the project for now, but several analyses had shown that diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at a site in New Mexico would cost less than half of the MOX approach.

Russia has its own program to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium.

A previously undisclosed report completed by privately-held Aerospace Corp for DOE in August concluded that diluting and disposing of the plutonium – or downblending – was the least technically complex of several alternatives and had the lowest cost risk since no new facilities were required.

“This report confirms that … the downblending option is clearly less complex, less risky and cheaper,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging Congress to end its parochial support for the MOX program.

Lyman said DOE would likely seek to end funding for the project as part of its fiscal 2017 budget proposal. Aerospace concluded in an April report that it could cost $30 billion to complete the MOX facility, nearly 10 times the estimate of the company, CBI-Areva MOX Services.

CBI-Areva MOX Services, a joint venture of U.S.-based Chicago Bridge & Iron NV and Areva SA, a French state-owned nuclear group, argues that the U.S. project is already 68 percent complete and it will be done in 5 to 9 years. The company says it will cost $3.3 billion to complete the work, on top of the $4.5 billion already spent.

A Nov. 16 review completed by High Bridge Associates, a project management firm, for CBI said the downblending option was risky because cramming too much nuclear material into the New Mexico facility could result in a fission reaction.

It said that adding material to the site would require a new environmental impact statement, which could delay work on the site if it sparked calls for the facility’s design life to be extended to 1 million years from 10,000 years, just as has occurred for the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

The High Bridge report also raised concerns that a change in the U.S. approach could prompt Russia to withdraw from the 2000 treaty, as it has done with others, reversing nuclear non-proliferation efforts at a time of growing tensions with Moscow.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alan Crosby)


MOX funding to stay in new version of U.S. House defense bill

Aiken Standaard | Derrek Asberry | Nov 6, 2015

bilde55A new, slightly different version of the federal defense bill includes the same $345 million authorization for construction of the Savannah River Site MOX facility and will head to the U.S. Senate next week for possible approval.

Funding levels in the defense bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, were adjusted to reflect the Bipartisan Budget Act that was passed on Oct. 28.

The bill passed through the House on Thursday with an overwhelming 370 votes, with the only significant change being a $5 billion reduction in spending. President Barack Obama vetoed the original bill, largely because it sought an additional $38.3 billion to fight wars.

The bill calls for Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to “carry out construction and project support activities” relating to the SRS Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. The facility is reportedly more than 70 percent complete, according to CB&I MOX Services.

It’s mission is to make good on an agreement with Russia for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The MOX method seeks to accomplish the mission by converting the plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

The MOX program has been at the heart of a longstanding controversy between MOX naysayers who believe the program is too costly and supporters who believe the cost is exploding due to years of inadequate funding, but can be reigned in with proper planning.

Reports headed by DOE this summer concluded that MOX would cost $800 million a year to make timely progress and that the overall life cycle cost of the program would be $51 billion, which includes the nearly $5 billion already spent.

The figures have many, including DOE officials, pointing to alternative methods of plutonium disposition that are believed to be cheaper. But language in the defense bill states that searches for alternatives must come with stipulations when using the $345 million.

“Not more than $5 million of the funds described may be obligated or expended to conduct an analysis of alternative options for carrying out the plutonium disposition program,” the defense bill states.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R–S.C. lauded the passage of the bill, stating the bill provides needed funds for SRS and Fort Gordon operations.

A White House official reported Thursday that it is unclear if Obama will seek another veto if the Senate passes the bill next week.

photo: The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (Aiken Standard file photo)

Russia launches commercial MOX fuel fabrication facility

IPFM Blog | September 28, 2015

On 28 September 2015 Russia formally launched a commercial MOX fuel fabrication facility at the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC) in Zheleznogorsk. The production line will fabricate MOX fuel for the BN-800 reactor at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station. The reactor reached criticality in June 2014. It is expected to be reaching full power and connecting to the grid in the summer of 2016. According to Rosatom, the construction of the MOX plant, which reportedly took 2.5 years (it began in 2011), cost about “little over $200 million, or 9.6 billion rubles.”

The plant produced its first MOX fuel assemblies in 2014 – reportedly in two batches, 10 kg and 20 kg. It plans to manufacture 24 assemblies by the end of 2015 and expects to reach the capacity of 200 assemblies in 2016 and 400 – in 2017. This should provide enough fuel for the first reloads of the BN-800 reactor.

At the startup, BN-800 reactor operates with an active zone that contains three types of fuel assemblies. Of the total of 576, a third (about 180) are HEU-based assemblies, about 100 vibro-packed MOX and the rest – pellet-based MOX. The MOX assemblies for the first load were produced at NIIAR in Dimitrovgrad. The plant at Zheleznogorsk will be producing pellet-based fuel.

There is no official information as to whether the plant will use weapon-grade plutonium, which Russia committed to eliminate under the PMDA agreement with the United States, but Rosatom officials indicated that the facility was built to process weapon-grade material and that the use of reactor-grade plutonium is unlikely, at least in the short term. At the same time, speaking at the opening ceremony, the head of Rosatom, Sergey Kiriyenko, said that the plant can work with “any isotopic composition, any plutonium.”

Contractor’s attempt to justify high cost of U.S. MOX program falls short

IPFM Blog | Frank von Hippel | September 24, 2015

On 21 September 2015, the High Bridge consulting group issued a report that presented the contractor’s view of the cost of the MOX plutonium disposition route. The work was funded by MOX Services, the CB&I-AREVA joint subsidiary that has the DOE contract to build and operate the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) on the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. High Bridge critiques the conclusions of the DoE “Red Team” report, which was made public in August 2015. The Red Team concluded that disposing of U.S. excess plutonium in DOE’s deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico would be much less costly and risky than continuing with the current program of manufacturing mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for U.S. light water reactors.

The MFFF contract was signed in 1999 to support one of the two plutonium disposition paths selected by the Clinton Administration–MOX and direct disposal. In 2002, when the Bush Administration decided to drop the direct disposal part of the program, it estimated that the net cost to extracting 34 tons of excess U.S. weapons plutonium from weapons pits and manufacturing it into MOX fuel would be $3.8 billion ($4.9 billion in 2014 dollars; see Table ES-3).

As of 2015, about $5 billion has been spent on construction of the MFFF and the latest estimate done for DOE was that an additional $27.2 billion (2014 dollars) would be required to complete the job (Red Team Report, Table 3, assuming a budget cap of $0.5 billion/year). The High Bridge report estimated a somewhat lower additional cost of $19.4 billion for a total cost of about $25 billion. This would still be a five-fold increase over the 2002 cost estimate.

Despite the enormous increase in the cost of the program, High Bridge argues that the benefits of the MOX program would exceed the cost because the 875 tons of MOX fuel (measuring it by its weight of contained plutonium plus depleted uranium) could be used to generate $35 billion in electricity (at the electricity’s retail price). However, this argument is nothing less than creative accounting, since this electricity could be much more cheaply generated with $1.4 billion of standard LEU fuel.

The cost of 1 kg of LEU fuel can be estimated as follows: 8 kg of natural uranium at $100/kg; 5.8 SWU at $70/SWU (assuming enrichment to 4% U-235 with 0.25% left in the depleted uranium); conversion of 8 kg of natural uranium from uranium oxide to UF6 for enrichment and 1 kg of enriched uranium back at $8/kgU, and fuel fabrication at $300/kgU. This means that 875 tonnes of LEU fuel that would produce $35 billion worth of electricity would cost about $1.4 billion, which is less than 6% of even High Bridge’s estimate of the cost of the MOX fuel.

Congressmen denounce MOX studies, request documents

Aiken Standard | Derrek Asberry | August 30, 2015

Congressional leaders have requested documents and communication exchanges between the Department of Energy and Aerospace Corp., the group hired earlier this year to conduct an independent cost study of the Savannah River Site’s MOX project.

The request is based on beliefs that the study was improperly influenced by the Energy Department, and showed favoritism to one of the MOX alternatives of plutonium disposition, wrote Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

Wilson and others also took issue with a more recent study, the Red Team report, which states MOX, the nation’s current pathway for disposing of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, would need up to $800 million a year to be viable.

Meanwhile, a federal piece of legislation that funds the project is being debated in a Congressional Conference Committee as the Oct. 1 deadline to appropriate funding draws closer.

The letter

Wilson sent a letter dated Aug. 21 to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz. It was also signed by fellow South Carolina Republicans, Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, and Reps. Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney and Tom Rice.

In the letter, Wilson requested “unredacted versions of DOE’s communications, guidelines, memoranda, directives and constraints, both in writing and email form, as well as a summary of those conveyed orally,” in reference to the Aerospace study.

Aerospace, a California-based nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center, released the study in April. The study concludes that the lifecycle cost of MOX, which includes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction at SRS, is $51 billion with a projected completion date of 2044.

A downblending alternative, which would use inhibitor materials to slow down the chemical process, and then package the plutonium solution into canisters and ship them to a repository for permanent disposal, would only cost $17 billion, according to Aerospace.

Wilson’s letter states the study was not independent and that Aerospace’s work was conducted with “considerable influence and direction from the Department of Energy.”

“We are concerned that this interference limited the ability to complete an objective assessment,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson requested a response by Aug. 28 but has yet to receive one. Friday, his office reported it still expects a reply in a timely manner. The Aiken Standard also attempted to contact the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, on the matter. However, the agency responded that it “doesn’t comment on correspondence between a Member of Congress and the Secretary.”

The Red Team Report

Earlier this year, DOE commissioned the Red Team, a group led by Thom Mason, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to evaluate cost projections and possible alternatives to the MOX method of reducing plutonium stockpiles.

The study surfaced a little more than a week ago and states MOX would cost up to $800 million a year to make real progress, while downblending would only cost half of that if given the same timeline.

But Sen. Graham took exception, stating the report is “fundamentally flawed.” The repository that would accept the downblended material is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in Carlsbad New Mexico. But the WIPP is still shutdown due to incidents in February 2014.

Fire inhalations were the result of a salt haul truck fire on Feb. 5, and then workers were contaminated due to a Feb. 14 radiation event.

There is tentative projection of late 2016 for the reopening.

The Red Team acknowledged WIPP’s issues but Graham took it a step further, stating that even if WIPP were to open in 2016, the government would still need to conduct years of environmental studies in order to legally expand its capacities of WIPP to store all of the MOX material.

“The federal government would also have to figure out how to change the law governing what is legally allowed to be sent to New Mexico,” Graham said. “Also, will New Mexico residents be willing to accept plutonium given that DOE had walked away from the MOX program in South Carolina?”

Nonproliferation concerns

The MOX project is part of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. It has been noted by both Congress and DOE that if an alternative pathway is chosen, renegotiations with Russia would need to take place.

Sen. Scott, among others, said issues with Russia and Iran make renegotiations “unrealistic.”

“We have the opportunity to dispose of enough material to make 17,000 nuclear weapons,” Scott said. “To me, it is very simple and clear that we should stay the course.”

Graham agreed en route to criticizing the Iran deal reached by President Barack Obama’s administration.

“It should come as no surprise that the same Administration that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran that gives them a path to the bomb … would take another major step away from its non-proliferation goals by putting forward a study that seems to indicate that they would prefer to abandon a major non-proliferation agreement with the Russians,” he said.

Time winding down

Despite disagreements on the issue, the Red Team wrote that it is “vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible and secure consistent funding to prevent further degradation” of the plutonium program.

The bill that funds MOX, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is in Conference Committee where both House and Senate members are discussing costs for MOX and other items on the bill.

Scott said he and others have been in talks to make sure the $345 million authorized for MOX is used for construction only.

The bill will have to be signed by the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Disposal beats MOX in US comparison

WNN | 21 August 2015

America is reconsidering how it will dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium as the previous plan involving a MOX plant has been said to be twice as costly as a dilution and disposal option in a leaked Department of Energy (DOE) report.

The plutonium arises from a June 2000 nuclear weapons reduction agreement with Russia under which both countries would put 34 tonnes of plutonium beyond military use. Russia opted to use its plutonium as fuel for fast reactors generating power at Beloyarsk.

The USA, meanwhile, decided to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel plant at Savannah River, where the plutonium would be mixed with uranium and made into fuel for light-water reactors. The design is similar to Areva’s Melox facility at Marcoule, but modified to handle metal plutonium ‘pits’ from US weapons and their conversion from metal to plutonium oxide. It is this part of the process that has been problematic. Construction started in 2007 with an estimated cost of $4.9 billion but work ran into serious trouble before being ‘zeroed’ in the DOE’s 2014 budget, putting development on ice.

The Union of Concerned Scientists yesterday published what it said was an unreleased DOE report that compared the cost of completing the MOX plant to other options. Use in fast reactors was considered briefly, but with this technology not readily available in the near term, the prime comparison was against a ‘dilution and disposal’ option which would see the plutonium mixed with inert materials and disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico.

Despite being 60% built, the MOX plant still needs some 15 years of construction work, said the leaked report, and then about three years of commissioning. Once in operation the plant would work through the plutonium over about 10 years with this 28-year program to cost $700-800 million per year – a total of $19.6-22.4 billion on top of what has already been spent. Not only is the price tag very high, but the timescale is too long: the report said this would not meet the disposal timeframe agreed with Russia.

The cost of the MOX plant could not be mitigated by income from sales of the MOX fuel because the regulatory process to gain approval to use MOX would be too burdensome for a commercial utility. The report said “it may be unlikely” that even a utility in a regulated market where fuel costs are passed on to consumers would “bear the risk of MOX fuel even if it is free”.

Dilution and disposal would cost $400 million per year, said the report, “over a similar duration” as MOX, working out at close to half the cost. Other advantages for dilution and disposal are that it requires no new facilities to be created or decommissioned after use, although the increase in WIPP disposal means “it may eventually become desirable to explore expansion of WIPP’s capacity” beyond currently legislated limits. This unique geologic disposal facility was said to be of “tremendous value to both DOE and the State of New Mexico”.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News