Tag Archives: uranium enrichment technology

Builiding a Nuclear War Chest: the US Uranium Reserve

The US electricity production from nuclear plants hit at an all-time high in 2019… generating more than 809 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough to power more than 66 million homes.  Yet, despite operating the largest fleet of reactors in the world at the highest level in the industry, US ability to produce domestic nuclear fuel is on the verge of a collapse.  

Uranium miners are eager for work, the United States’s only uranium conversion plant is idle due to poor market conditions, and its inability to compete with foreign state-owned enterprises (most notably from China and Russia) is not only threatening US energy security but weakening the ability to influence the peaceful uses of nuclear around the world. Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage was recently released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to preserve and grow the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise…. The first immediate step in this plan calls for DOE to establish a uranium reserve.   Under the Uranium Reserve program, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) would buy uranium directly from domestic mines and contract for uranium conversion services. The new stockpile is expected to support the operation of at least two US uranium mines, reestablish active conversion capabilities, and ensure a backup supply of uranium for nuclear power operators in the event of a market disruption [such as that caused the COVID-19 pandemic]. 

NE will initiate a competitive procurement process for establishing the Uranium Reserve program within 2021.  Uranium production in the United States has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s as U.S. nuclear power plant operators replaced domestic uranium production with less expensive imports. State-owned foreign competitors, operating in different economic and regulatory environments, have also undercut prices, making it virtually impossible for U.S. producers to compete on a level-playing field.  As a result, 90% of the uranium fuel used today in U.S. reactors is produced by foreign countries.

Establishing the Uranium Reserve program is exactly what United States needs at this crucial time to de-risk its nuclear fuel supply. It will create jobs that support the U.S. economy and strengthen domestic mining and conversion services….The next 5-7 years will be a whirlwind of nuclear innovation as new fuels and reactors will be deployed across the United States.

Excerpts  from USA plans revival of uranium sector, World Nuclear News, May 12, 2020.  See also Building a Uranium Reserve: The First Step in Preserving the U.S. Nuclear Fuel Cycle, US Office of Nuclear Energy, May 11, 2020.

Why Russia Loves Germany’s Toxic Waste

Environmental groups have voiced concern in November 2019 that Russia is again accepting shipments of uranium tails, a byproduct formed when uranium is enriched, from a German nuclear fuel firm, reigniting a debate over whether the substance meets the definition of nuclear waste.  The shipments of the toxic compound – also called uranium hexafluoride – were halted in 2009 over revelations that Russia was accepting it from foreign customers and storing it in the open. At that time, Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, bowed to environmental pressure and promised to no longer import the radioactive substance.

But German government documents revealed in November 2019 by Greenpeace and the Russian environmental group Ecodefense show that the German-based enrichment company Urenco resumed the uranium tail shipments as long ago as May 2019.  According to Urenco’s contract with the Russian nuclear-fuel giant Teksnabeksport (Tenex), a subsidiary of Rosatom, some 12,000 tons of uranium tails are set to be delivered to Novouralsk, near Yekaterinburg by 2022. Four thousands tons have been sent so far….

Urenco, Germany

Uranium hexafluoride, also called depleted uranium, is a colorless radioactive powder that is produced as a byproduct of enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. Urenco, which is a partnership involving German, British and Dutch energy firms, has operated an enrichment facility in Gronau, Germany since 1985.  This facility stores depleted uranium in the open air. In the early 1990s, Russian opened its doors to reprocessing depleted uranium from foreign customers. A previous contract between Tenex and Urenco envisioned the import of 100,000 tons of uranium tails between 1996 and 2009.

The issue of whether uranium tails in fact constitute nuclear waste depends on whom you ask. Both Rosatom and Germany’s nuclear industry classify uranium hexafluoride as a recyclable material. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, has long held that uranium tails should be classified as nuclear waste – a view that Bellona, Ecodefense and Greenpeace share.  But while Rosatom asserts that uranium tails are valuable raw material, the motive for importing them is unclear. By most estimates, Russia already holds nearly 1 million tons of uranium tails from its own fuel production – making the need for another 12,000 tons from abroad questionable.

Charles Digges, Russia resumes importing depleted uranium from Germany, breaching old promises, Bellona, Nov. 1, 2019

Lasers for Nuclear Weapons

 Using spinning gas centrifuges to enrich fuel for nuclear bombs requires a structure the size of a department store, and enough electricity for some 10,000 homes. An alternative method being developed would make the search far more difficult...The alternative is to zap the uranium vapour with a powerful infra-red beam from a laser…At least 27 countries, by one tally, have worked on laser enrichment since the 1970s. Most gave up, largely because production batches were tiny. Now, however, two firms say that they have learned how to scale up the process.

Jeffrey Eerkens of Neutrek, a Californian research firm, says its laser process requires around half the space and electricity that centrifuges need. A competing laser method is offered by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a consortium of General Electric, Hitachi and Cameco, a Canadian uranium producer. It, too, requires less space. In 2012 GLE was awarded a licence to build a facility in North Carolina for the commercial production of reactor fuel.

America has classified the technology, but that may not stop it spreading. The most important bit of laser-enrichment know-how has already leaked, says Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists—namely, that companies now consider it to be practical. This will reinvigorate efforts by other countries to develop the technology for themselves….

Non-proliferation optimists think laser-enrichment might not work as well as advertised, because GLE has still not begun commercial production. But this may be only temporary, because the company says the price of enriched uranium is too low to justify completing the project. A regime keen for a more discreet path to the bomb would not bother with such considerations.

Monitoring nuclear weapons: Lasering the fuel, Economist Technology Quarterly,  Sept. 5, 2015

Uranium Fuel Bank: IAEA-Kazakhstan Deal

The IAEA and Kazakhstan on August 27, 2015  signed an agreement to set up the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank in Oskemen, Kazakhstan.  The IAEA LEU Bank, operated by Kazakhstan, will be a physical reserve of LEU available for eligible IAEA Member States. It will host a reserve of LEU, the basic ingredient of nuclear fuel, and act as a supplier of last resort for Member States in case they cannot obtain LEU on the global commercial market or otherwise. It will not disrupt the commercial market.

“I am confident that the IAEA LEU Bank will operate safely and securely, in line with the applicable IAEA nuclear safety standards and nuclear security guidance,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano following the signature of a Host State Agreement with Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov in Astana. “As the world’s largest uranium producer, with expertise in peaceful nuclear technology, Kazakhstan is well suited to hosting the IAEA LEU Bank.”

The Host State Agreement, a related technical agreement signed by Mr Amano and Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik, and a contract between the IAEA and Kazakhstan’s Ulba Metallurgical Plant comprise the legal framework for the IAEA LEU Bank….The IAEA LEU Bank will be a physical reserve of up to 90 metric tons of LEU, sufficient to run a 1,000 MWe light-water reactor. Such a reactor can power a large city for three years. The IAEA LEU Bank will be located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen in north-eastern Kazakhstan. The plant has been handling and storing nuclear material, including LEU, safely and securely for more than 60 years.

The establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank is fully funded through US $150 million of voluntary contributions from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United States, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Norway and Kazakhstan…

The IAEA LEU Bank is part of global efforts to create an assured supply of nuclear fuel to countries in case of disruptions to the open market or other existing supply arrangements for LEU. Other assurance of supply mechanisms established with IAEA approval include a guaranteed physical reserve of LEU maintained by the Russian Federation at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, and a UK assurance of supply guarantee for supplies of LEU enrichment services. The United States also operates its own LEU reserve.

The IAEA Board of Governors authorized the establishment and operation of the IAEA LEU Bank on 3 December 2010. On 29 July 2011, Kazakhstan offered to host the IAEA LEU Bank in response to the Agency’s request for Expressions of Interest.

Since 2011, Kazakhstan and the IAEA have been working on the technical details for the establishment of the IAEA LEU Bank and have negotiated the Host State Agreement governing the establishment and hosting of the Bank.  In June 2015, the IAEA and the Russian Federation signed an agreement allowing transit of LEU and equipment through Russian territory to and from the IAEA LEU Bank.
Exceprts from Miklos Gaspar, IAEA and Kazakhstan Sign Agreement to Establish Low Enriched Uranium Bank , IAEA Office of Public Information and Communication, Aug. 27, 2015


The Nuclear Proliferation Potential of Laser Enrichment

The following is being released by Physicians for Social Responsibility:  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is putting U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy at risk if it decides not to require a formal nuclear proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process for a uranium laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C.  That’s the message from 19 nuclear non-proliferation experts in a letter sent today asking the NRC to fulfill its statutory responsibility to assess proliferation threats related to the technologies it regulates. The letter is available online at http://www.psr.org/nrcassessment.

Global Laser Enrichment, LLC, a joint venture of General Electric (USA), Hitachi (Japan) and Cameco (Canada), has applied for a license to operate a laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, based on Australian SILEX technology. The NRC licensing review schedule sets September 30, 2012 as the date of license issuance.  One of the authors of the letter, Catherine Thomasson, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility, said:“It is a widely shared view that laser enrichment could be an undetectable stepping-stone to a clandestine nuclear weapons program. To strengthen U.S. policy and protect the U.S. and the world from nuclear proliferation, the NRC should systematically and thoroughly assess the proliferation risks of any new uranium enrichment technology BEFORE issuing a license allowing their development.”  Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said: “If the U.S. is going to have moral authority in dealing with proliferation threats in other nations, such as Iran, it must do a better job of taking responsible steps in relation to proliferation threats in our own backyard. In fact, a persuasive case can be made that laser enrichment technology requires even more immediate action, since this is a known danger that can be addressed directly by the NRC under its existing regulatory authority.”

In the letter, the experts note that the NRC has no rules or requirements for a nuclear proliferation assessment as part of this licensing process. The experts are concerned that the Commission is falling short in its duties since a 2008 NRC manual on enrichment technology clearly states that laser enrichment presents “extra proliferation concerns due to the small size and high separation factors.”

Previous letters to the NRC asking for a proliferation assessment, signed by many of today’s signatories, have been rebuffed. NRC is on record stating that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require preparation of a proliferation assessment. However, a March 27, 2012 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service clearly concludes that the NRC has legal authority “to promulgate a regulation” requiring a proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process.  Both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and the Atomic Energy Act are cited by the experts as statutory basis of the NRC’s responsibility to assess proliferation risks.

Excerpt, 19 Experts: Nuclear Proliferation Risks Of Laser Enrichment Require Fuller NRC Review, PRNewswire, Sept 5, 2012