Category Archives: opwerking | reprocessing

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.

Plutonium exposure prompts investigation into inactive nuclear arms plant

Los Angeles Times | Ralph Vartabedian | December 18, 2015

la-na-image-plutonium-reclamation-facility-20151218

The Plutonium Reclamation Facility building at right with blue doors, on the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland, Wash., where an explosion occurred in May 1997 is shown in this undated file photo. The building is part of the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

(Associated Press / Department of Energy)

A worker at a shuttered nuclear weapons plant in Washington state was contaminated with plutonium earlier this month, triggering a federal investigation into the transportation of potentially contaminated ventilation devices through three states, the Times has learned.

The incident occurred during cleanup operations at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, a highly contaminated facility that has been inactive for 25 years at the Hanford Site in central Washington, along the Columbia River.

Department of Energy officials say they do not believe any individuals, apart from the single contaminated worker, were exposed to plutonium, though it is continuing its investigation into the incident.

“We are looking into this entire event,” said Erik Olds, chief of staff at the Hanford cleanup operation.

The worker, an employee of CH2M Hill, was exposed when he removed his hazmat suit, but a subsequent investigation found contamination on the ventilation unit’s hose.

The suspect ventilation devices had been previously transported to a fire department station, a personal residence and two factories in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, triggering state and federal response teams to inspect the plants and monitor individuals. Energy Department officials found that two of the three units transported to a salesman’s home had minor contamination, but it fell below federal safety standards, Olds said.

But Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said Energy officials were trying to minimize the seriousness of the incident.

“They are trying to quibble about the amount of plutonium, but no amount should have ever left the facility,” he said.

Meanwhile, high-risk cleanup work at the plutonium finishing plant, which is slated for demolition next year, has been suspended.

The inspections were conducted with health officials from Washington, Ohio and Pittsburgh.

“The Ohio Department of Health received notification from the U.S. Department of Energy that there was a possibility that some contaminated personal protective equipment parts had been shipped to a manufacturer in the Cincinnati area,” said Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health. “A State Health Department team was sent to the location and conducted extensive testing but all results were negative. Subsequently, a U.S. Department of Energy team arrived at the location and tested with the same results.”

Any plutonium exposure or release is considered a serious breach of safety and security rules in the Energy Department. The incident is part of a series of mishaps that include a major radiological accident at a nuclear dump in New Mexico last year that resulted in a two-year shutdown. The accident caused low-level radioactive exposure to 21 workers after the contaminated exhaust from the underground dump was blown to the surface.

The plutonium finishing plant is among the most badly contaminated buildings in the nation. It was the site of a notorious accident during the Cold War when a worker was exposed to a massive dose of radiation after an explosion and became known as the “Atomic Man.” He was so radioactive that his family could not approach him for weeks. The room where the accident had occurred remained sealed for decades until this year when workers entered it for the first time.

The ventilation units that caused the latest exposure are about the size of a shoe box and worn on a belt inside the isolation suit, so it is unclear why the exhaust hose had any contamination. They provide cooling air to the workers, while other devices filter breathing air.

The worker exposed to the plutonium had particles on his elbow, but apparently did not inhale the material. Inhalation of plutonium is among the most serious radiological exposures, because the substance can become embedded in lung tissue and deliver a long-term dose of radiation.

The Hanford site operated a series of reactors that produced plutonium, which was then chemically refined and packaged at the finishing plant, before being transported for fabrication into weapons parts in Colorado or New Mexico.

Russian BN-800 fast breeder reactor connected to grid

IPFM Blog | Shaun Burnie (with Mycle Schneider) | December 15, 2015

Thirty-one years after construction start, the BN-800 Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) at Zarechnyy, in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia, was connected to the grid on December 10, 2015 at 21:21 (19:21 MSK). In the beginning the reactor will be operating at about 35 percent of its power. According to the IAEA, the BN-800 has a nominal net capacity of 789 MWe. The reactor first reached criticality in June 2014.

The extremely long construction time is no exception. Russia has connected only four reactors to its power grid over the past ten years (including the BN-800) and the average construction time was just under 30 years.

The BN-800 is eventually to be fueled with surplus weapons grade plutonium manufactured into plutonium-uranium Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, produced at the MOX fabrication plant in Zheleznogorsk, which produced first fuel in September 2015. However, BN-800’s initial core is a combination of MOX fuel with pellets supplied by the Mayak Plant, Chelyabinsk region and vibro-packed MOX from the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR, Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region). Of the total of 576 fuel assemblies in the initial core, 102 are fuel assemblies with high-enriched uranium.

A full MOX core with reactor-grade plutonium would contain 2,710 kg, while the use of weapons-grade plutonium would limit the quantity to 2,215 kg.

The Russian FBR program has limited experience with plutonium based MOX fuel. Due to a combination of cost and safety issues, most of the fuel used in the BN-350 and BN-600 reactors has been based on uranium with enrichment from 17% to 26%. Some experience with plutonium fuel was acquired in the experimental BOR-60 reactor and in a few experimental fuel assemblies in BN-350 and BN-600.

Under the United States-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), signed in 2000, each nation agreed to dispose of at least 34 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. The original plan by Russia to fabricate MOX fuel and use it in light water reactors was amended with an additional protocol to the PMDA, signed in 2010, whereby the 34 tons of plutonium would be “burned” in fast reactors. The change reflected the long-standing commitment in Russia to a nuclear power program based on “closed nuclear fuel cycle”, including reprocessing and FBRs. However, earlier Russian plans in the 1980’s to construct five BN-800s in the Ural region failed to materialize. Its current plans to scale up FBR deployment to 14 GWe by 2030 and 34 GWe of capacity by 2050 no not seem realistic. Plans for the next stage in fast reactor development, the BN-1200, scheduled to be operational by 2025, have been postponed due to doubts over its economic viability. As part of its “Breakthrough” program, Rosatom is also working on another FBR design, Brest-300. Preparation for the construction of the pilot unit, Brest-OD-300, are underway in Seversk (formerly Tomsk-7).

As a fast neutron reactor, the BN-800 will be capable of breeding additional plutonium, which is one reason Article VI of the PMDA Agreement imposes a ban on spent fuel and breeder blanket reprocessing during the disposition process until disposition of plutonium covered by the PMDA is complete. However, before that time, Russia can reprocess up to 30 percent of the fuel discharged by the BN-800, provided that it was made with plutonium other than disposition plutonium.

French and Japanese nuclear fuel cycle may be affected by failures at Monju

enformable | Lucas W. Hixson | 8 December 2015

Monju-Fast-Breeder-Reactor-JAEA-425x308

Residents of Fukui Prefecture in Japan have announced that they will file a lawsuit with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to permanently shutdown the Monju fast breeder reactor.

A breeder reactor generates more fuel than it consumes.  The Monju reactor was not only supposed to process the nuclear waste generated at the operating nuclear reactors, but was also supposed to provide fuel for future reactors.  The facility has never lived up to its lofty expectations.  Japan has spent nearly 10 trillion Yen on the facility, and in return the Monju reactor has been kept offline for most of the past 19 years due to a massive leak, repeated failures, safety problems and organizational issues.

The resident lawsuit claims that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), operator of the Monju facility, is not qualified to handle operating the facility.

In November, the NRA asked the minister of Science to replace the JAEA within the next 6 months.  The regulating agency found that the JAEA should be replaced after it was discovered that the industry organization had been failing to properly address safety issues and was rubber-stamping safety inspections.

The Science Ministry is working to establish the requirements for hiring a new operator for the Monju facility, but the future of the fast breeder reactor program in Japan is very unstable if it is unable to find a new operator before the residents’ lawsuit gains traction.

The lawsuit by the citizens could also impact France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) fast-breeder reactor project.  Japan and France have agreed to work together to research, develop, and promote fast breeder reactors.  France was supposed to use the Monju reactor to test fuel for the ASTRID project, which uses the same concepts – but since the facility is banned from operations and testing with no established date for coming back online and the volatility around whether or not the facility should operate at all and who should operate it continues unabated – France may be forced to scrap its plans to incorporate the Monju facility.

Monju Fast Breeder Reactor Timeline

1986

Construction starts on Monju fast breeder reactor

1994

Monju achieves criticality for the first time

December, 1995

On December 8th, 1995, sodium coolant leaked from the reactor piping at the Monju facility, causing a severe accident.  The operator of the facility released video footage of the leak, that video was later found to have been doctored.

November 24th, 2000

JAEA announces intentions to work towards restarting operations at Monju.

February, 2009

Holes discovered in Monju reactor’s auxiliary building (link)

May 6th, 2010

Monju reactor restarted after being shutdown for 14 years and 5 months following 1995 severe accident

August 26th, 2010

Monju critically damaged after three-ton in-vessel transfer machine, fell on the 60-foot high reactor vessel and got stuck, hindering access to the fuel and requiring nearly a year to extract.

October 13th, 2010

Operators unsuccessfully try to retrieve in-vessel transfer machine from atop reactor vessel.

June 23rd, 2011

In-vessel transfer machine lifted off of reactor vessel.

August, 2011

Shiraki-Nyu active fault discovered under Monju facility. (link)

November, 2012

In 2012, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the JAEA was found to have failed to inspect over 10,000 pieces of equipment at the plant since July 2010 and falsified their inspection records. JAEA President Atsuyuki Suzuki resigns on May 17th, 2013 after criticism from NRA over falsification of records. (link)

May, 2013

NRA orders JAEA to cease restart operations at Monju and to keep fast breeder reactor shutdown.  NRA Chairman Tanaka says JAEA lacks “basic understanding of safety.”   Many safety issues continued to be discovered at the plant after the shutdown. (link)

June, 2013

It is discovered JAEA skipped inspections of another 2,300 pieces of equipment at Monju. (link)

September, 2013

JAEA report admits to failing to inspect equipment in 14,000 cases. (link)

November, 2013

NRA blames JAEA for unprecedented levels of neglect at Monju, including failing to document ids of visitors to sensitive areas, failing to conduct background checks on visitors, failing to regularly inspect security equipment, and constructing fences around restricted areas that did not meet regulatory standards. (link)

January, 2014

Hackers access computers at Monju facility and steal private data, internal e-mails, training records, and more. (link)

April, 2014

NRA inspectors suspect JAEA of falsifying inspection reports. (link)

March, 2015

NRA discovers JAEA failed to inspect degradation assessments of sodium circulation cooling pipes between November 2007 and March 2015. (link)

Sellafield’s ageing THORP plant flunks major foreign fuel reprocessing target

IPFM Blog | Martin Forwood | November 6, 2015

Stumbling along at half speed to its scheduled end-date of 2018, Sellafield’s ‘flagship’ Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) continues to notch up missed targets – this time the completion of all overseas reprocessing contracts by the end of 2016. Overseas customers must now wait (at least) until 2018 (the closure date for the plant itself) to see the end of what has been, for them, a less than rewarding reprocessing experience.

In early 2014, a Sellafield stakeholder meeting was told that the shearing of all remaining overseas LWR fuel – scheduled to be dealt with in roughly equal tranches over financial years 2014/15 – 2016/17 – would be completed by November 2016. Featuring high on Sellafield’s ‘to do’ list, the 2016 projection was highlighted as a ‘key activity’ by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in its Business Plan 2014-17, an annotation that reflected the pressure exerted by successive UK Governments – concerned by the loss of face from any failure of inter-government contract agreements – for the earliest completion of overseas reprocessing work.

By October 2015 however, Sellafied Ltd admitted to the same stakeholders that technical difficulties within THORP had prevented the reprocessing of any overseas fuel in 2015/16 and that the outstanding tonnage was now scheduled for completion by THORP’s closure in 2018. As shown in the Table below, published by the UK Government’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) in January 2015, the outstanding contracts amount to some 150 tonnes with German utilities dominating the list at 146 tonnes. The remnant overseas contracts are likely to be dealt with via ‘virtual reprocessing’, where equivalent amounts of fissile materials and waste would be allocated to each client.

Customer country Fuel delivered, tU Fuel reprocessed, tU Fuel in stock, tU
Germany 865 718.66 146.11
Switzerland 353.9 353.59 0.31
Italy 1592.06 1591.43 0.63
Netherlands 57 56.67 0.33
Sweden 144.6 144.57 0.03
Spain 153.63 153.43 0.2
Canada 6.36 4.16 2.2
Japan 4185.15 4183.46 1.69
Totals 7357.47 7205.97 151.5
Table contains data at 9 January 2015 for Sellafield THORP and Magnox fuels. Note: all overseas Magnox fuel has been reprocessed.

Providing only limited detail of the technical difficulties within THORP that has forced the new delay in completing the German contracts, Sellafield Ltd has pointed the finger at the problems associated with insoluble fuel debris (including the cladding of the fuel) which results from the initial stage of reprocessing when the spent fuel is sheared and dissolved in nitric acid. Whilst some debris is sieved out at the dissolver stage, other insoluble debris is transported within the dissolved liquor through further stages of the plant where, in the form of ‘coarse fines’, it causes internal scouring, pipework erosion and system blockages.

Whilst such events have caused a number of extended THORP stoppages over the years, in this case the problem lies apparently with the development of a pinhole in a decanter, which is designed to remove any remaining fuel debris from the dissolved fuel liquor prior to its further chemical separation. Given the historic experience of the zirconium alloy fuel cladding of overseas LWR fuel proving more problematic than UK AGR fuel in terms of blockage and erosion, the former has been re-scheduled in order to protect the remnant life of 21-year old THORP by providing an easier run-in to its 2018 closure date.

The fallout from the enforced re-scheduling of overseas fuel falls squarely on the unfortunate German utilities that own the 146 tonnes of LWR fuel that remain to be reprocessed, some of which was contracted for THORP’s first ten year Baseload period and projected for completion by 2004. The prospect of that completion now slipping to 2018 – an overall delay of 14 years – will doubtless further infuriate the very same Baseload Customers (BLC) who, in a leaked document relating to a meeting with British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) in September 2000, warned of a loss of confidence in Sellafield’s technical ability that was enhanced by “BNFL’s apparent inability to reprocess our fuel within the agreed baseload period”. The German power stations from whom Baseload contracts had been secured for THORP included Krummel, Brokdorf, Unterweser, Grohnde, Biblis, Neckarwestheim, Gundremmingen and Lingen.

The planned closedown of THORP in November 2018 – described as a political decision unlikely to be reversed – will lead to a 4-year period of Post Operative Clean Out (POCO) of the plant. As a pre-cursor, THORP’s Receipt and Storage Pond water will be caustically ‘dosed’ to enable the long-term storage of the estimated 5400 tonnes of AGR spent fuel that will remain un-reprocessed and pond-stored prior to disposal. Such a status has enraged Sellafield’s trades unions and some local authority members who are threatening to withhold any further support for the UK’s ongoing search for an underground waste dump that will contain spent fuel they consider best reprocessed.

Bringing in much needed revenue to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to help towards Sellafield’s ever rising clean-up and decommissioning costs, completing this overseas work has long been a priority for the UK Government and Sellafield Ltd. Put in context, THORP’s original order book included some xxx tonnes of LWR fuel from overseas utilities. All such contracts, plus those secured from the UK’s fleet of AGR power stations, were originally scheduled for completion in 2010, a date that had to be abandoned in 2005 when THORP suffered a major leak accident (INES 3) which closed the plant for almost 2 years and reduced its future ‘throughput’ by around 50%.

The nuclear verification technology that could change the game

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | Kelly Wadsworth | 13 October 2015

The historic agreement between Iran and six world powers to curb the former’s nuclear development, concluded over the summer and expected to be adopted this month, relies heavily on verification. The foreign powers are keen to make sure that Tehran doesn’t acquire enough plutonium or uranium to build a nuclear weapon, and Tehran wants to demonstrate good behavior in order to get sanctions relief. That raises questions about the imperfect verification methods used by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the organization charged with the task under the Iranian nuclear deal, and the International Monitoring System (IMS), a global network that detects nuclear explosions worldwide. Are they reliable enough? Some would argue no.

There may be, though, a new option for verification on the not-too-distant horizon. Antineutrino detection is an existing technology that, if political and diplomatic hurdles are overcome, could be put in place before the 10-year ban on Iranian enrichment R&D is lifted. And fully developed over the long-term, it holds great promise for monitoring similar deals in the future, and for reinforcing nuclear non-proliferation worldwide. Difficult to evade, antineutrino detection technology could allow the international community to reliably monitor a country’s nuclear activities in real-time, potentially without setting foot in the country. Similar in cost and technological scale to the space-borne reconnaissance methods governments use for detection today, antineutrino detection could not only help identify undeclared nuclear reactors, but could monitor nuclear facilities and detonations throughout the Middle East and beyond. More research and development could make this technology a viable nonproliferation verification option.

The problem with verification today. Current far-field verification methods have been evaded in the past. Even with technology and policy improvements since the Iraq war, in the absence of immediate onsite inspections, the IAEA cannot reliably detect facilities outside its jurisdiction that may be producing weapon-grade uranium or plutonium. To monitor for suspicious activity outside its jurisdiction, the IAEA relies on environmental sampling and US electro-optical and radar satellites, such as the one that discovered Iran’s secret nuclear facility in 2009. Environmental samples are likely to be highly diluted if collected far from the expected site, and reactors can be hidden from satellite reconnaissance via underground facilities and cooling mechanisms to divert their thermal signature. In short, the current IAEA far-field verification system isn’t foolproof.

The IMS, developed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty‘s Provisional Technical Secretariat, uses seismic, hydro-acoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide monitoring technologies to detect nuclear explosions around the globe. Not only are these methods inaccurate in pinpointing the exact detonation location due to signal interference, but there is also evidence that countries can decouple and disguise their nuclear test yields to make them difficult for the IMS technologies to detect. For example, a determined proliferator could decouple (or muffle) a nuclear explosion in a large underground cavity, which might appear to a seismic monitor as an earthquake or mining explosion. Radionuclide monitoring is highly susceptible to weather, and releases could even be captured to obscure detection. Antineutrino detectors do not have any of these problems. Because it is impossible to hide or fake the antineutrino signal that a reactor sends out, as long as the detector itself has not been interfered with, it cannot be evaded.

The pioneering technology of antineutrino detection could change the game, providing real-time, accurate, remote monitoring of nuclear endeavors, giving international agencies unprecedented access to knowledge about a particular state’s nuclear activity. And the technology’s effects could go further, for example, by motivating Tehran to be a responsible player in the nonproliferation sphere, and perhaps one day helping to develop a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone and with it greater regional stability.

How it works. Antineutrinos are emitted during all fission nuclear processes. Since they are not electrically charged, they pass right through nearly all forms of matter in a straight line. They cannot be blocked or shielded. In fact, an antineutrino could pass through a piece of lead more than a light-year thick (6 trillion miles) before showing any sign of interaction. The concept of using antineutrinos to detect nuclear activities is not new; antineutrinos from a reactor were first detected in 1956. However, technology has only recently caught up to the science, and we now have the ability to build antineutrino detectors at various sizes and costs that could potentially aid in nonproliferation efforts.

Antineutrino detectors are categorized into three different monitoring classes: Near-field (hundreds of meters), mid-field (tens of kilometers), and far-field (hundreds of kilometers). The first category is the most fully developed, and could even be deployed today for verification purposes with a host country’s permission. Near-field antineutrino detection could supplement current IAEA safeguard methods and provide an independently-verified, real-time picture of what’s happening to the nuclear material in a reactor core. The detectors—metal boxes about the size of refrigerators—could catch frequent reactor shutdowns, alerting the IAEA to dubious behavior, and tell inspectors exactly what’s in the fuel mix, showing whether a facility is trying to over-enrich plutonium. Unfortunately, near-field detectors have struggled to gain acceptance in the safeguards community. (Some experts attribute this to a fear that the technology is so good, states won’t allow it on their soil.) Incorporation of such a technology into the IAEA inspections regime would likely be interpreted as an act of “western aggression” against Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states. It is unlikely that Iran, or any other NAM state, would allow monitoring measures beyond what they have already agreed to without being offered sufficient additional incentives. Still, it is possible that Iran could be persuaded to adopt the technology. The opportunity to host a large-scale project with major economic, scientific, and geopolitical impact could serve as an enticement.

Mid-field antineutrino detectors, meanwhile, have been proven able to monitor the presence or absence of 10 megawatt reactors from up to 10 kilometers away, and with further research and development, could be useful for detecting covert activities outside of the IAEA’s agreed-upon jurisdiction. A country might be amenable to allowing the technology on its soil because of the prestige inherent in hosting a world-class antineutrino observatory, a center that might employ hundreds of scientists with a commensurate physical and economic footprint. Certainly, if Iran were to host one, it would ease international proliferation fears while indemnifying Tehran for any loss in international status caused by curtailing its nuclear program, and could motivate the government to become a responsible player in the nonproliferation sphere.

Though it is farther away, the greatest potential for nuclear verification lies with far-field antineutrino detectors. A far-field observatory could monitor the presence or absence of reactors from up to hundreds of kilometers away, and thus, like the methods employed by the CTBTO, would not have to be based in-country. A decade ago, a team led by John Learned, a University of Hawaii physics professor and pioneer in the antineutrino detection field, developed a plan for a far-field, deep-ocean, 9,000-ton antineutrino observatory that could be used for deterrence monitoring. A far-field detector is estimated to cost in the range of $500 million to $1 billion—which is comparable to the price of the flagship technology, space-borne reconnaissance, currently used by non-proliferation monitors. With sufficient funding, a far-field, deep-ocean observatory could be built now, and could provide nuclear verification from outside a country’s borders that would be very difficult to evade.

Far-field detectors would be the ideal means of verifying compliance with nuclear agreements, as they don’t require the monitored state’s approval; however, their development lacks funding. On the other hand, a mid-field observatory placed within Iran’s borders would promise a consistent and reliable method of verification.

Getting Iran on Board. Near- and mid-field detectors face the disadvantage of having to be installed within the borders of the state being monitored, thereby requiring its approval. This poses a problem when a country like Iran holds a historically hostile attitude toward the United States and international control regimes. Antineutrino observatories, though, could eventually transform 21st century counter-proliferation efforts as dramatically as radar transformed modern warfare in the early 20th century. A single one could have incredible implications for the future of covert proliferation as well as nuclear weapons test monitoring.

While a far-field detector is still a ways away, can Iran be convinced to host a mid-field antineutrino detector? Iranian leadership may well entertain the idea of a world-class antineutrino observatory within the country’s borders, as it would significantly repair the international isolation caused by its non-compliance, bringing with it increased economic activity and international prestige. The presence of an observatory could bring the Iranian nuclear program into full transparency and compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is already a signatory. The prospect of highly effective verification would decrease liability for countries interested in investing in Tehran’s growing power industry. And, a major scientific center may give Iran the opportunity to reverse some of the brain drain that has plagued it in recent years.

In short, one of the main things Iran wants from the nuclear deal is to repair the self-inflicted damage caused by well-documented non-compliance with internationally imposed nuclear safeguards, and hosting an antineutrino observatory would help it get there. It would attract scientists from around the world, while reassuring the agreement’s other signatories that Tehran cannot develop a “breakout capability,” or ability to quickly build nuclear weapons.

Let’s get started. A mid-field antineutrino observatory holds the answer to the Iran deal’s verification woes. It has the potential to provide real-time, non-disguisable monitoring of Iran and allow Tehran to continue to develop its nuclear power sector, while offering peace-of-mind for the international verification community. And eventually—in perhaps 10 to 20 years—a far-field antineutrino observatory could hold the key to establishing a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone, providing the ability to monitor nearly all nuclear reactors and detonations in the Middle East. There should be no debate over further investment in the research.

2014 civilian plutonium (and HEU) reports submitted to IAEA

IPFM Blog | October 12, 2015

As of October 8, 2015, the IAEA had published as INFCIRC/549 documents reports by eight out of nine countries that submit annual civilian plutonium declarations. The new declarations reflect the status of civilian plutonium stock as of 31 December 2014. There is no report yet for the United States.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1/18) reported having 10.8 tonnes of plutonium in the country and 37.0 tonnes abroad (the 2013 numbers were 10.8 and 36.3 tonnes respectively). In July 2015 Japan also released a more detailed internal version of this report, “The Status of Plutonium Management in Japan”.
  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2/18) reported 2.1 tonnes of separated plutonium in the country (3.0 tonnes in 2013). Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country.
  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3/14) reported 900 kg of separated plutonium, all of it belonging to foreign bodies (1400 kg in 2013).
  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4/19) declared “less than 50 kg” of separated plutonium “held elsewhere” (no change from 2013).
  5. France (INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19) declared 78.8 tonnes of separated plutonium, of which 16.9 tonnes belong to foreign bodies (78.1 and 17.9 in 2013).
  6. The United States has not submitted its report yet.
  7. China (INFCIRC/549/Add.7/14) reported 25.4 kg of separated plutonium (an increase from 13.8 kg in 2013). It’s the first increase of the amount of separated plutonium since 2010, when China first declared 13.8 kg.
  8. The United Kingdom (INFCIRC/549/Add.8/18) declared 126.3 tonnes of civilian plutonium, of which 23.0 tonnes belong to foreign bodies (123.0 and 23.4 in 2013).
  9. Russia’s report (INFCIRC/549/Add.9/17) probably contains an error – it declares 5200 kg of separated plutonium in storage at reprocessing plants. The numberreported in this category in 2013 was 50300 kg. There is no other ready explanation for the decrease in the amount of the material in the report. The amount of material in other two categories – plutonium in unirradiated MOX and plutonium stored elsewhere – has not changed since 2013. Russia reported the total of 1600 kg in 2014 and 2013 (300 and 1300 kg in 2014 and 400 and 1200 kg in 2013). UPDATE: Yes, it was indeed an error – IPFM has learned that the amount of plutonium that was meant to be declared is on the order of 50 tonnes. Given that Russia has been annually separating from 700 to 1,100 kg, most likely the correct number is 51,200 kg, corresponding to an increase of 900 kg. The number will be updated as soon as Russia issues a correction.

I addition to reporting plutonium stocks, three countries also submit data on their civilian HEU:

Germany reported 0.3 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel, 0.93 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.03 tonnes in the category “HEU held elsewhere.” The numbers in 2013 were 0.27, 9.3, 0.03 respectively.

France declared the total of 4,653 kg of HEU, of which 3,045 kg is unirradiated (4,717 and 3,114 kg in 2013).

The United Kingdom reported 1,398 kg of HEU, of which 1,261 kg is unirradiated (1,398 and 1,256 in 2013).