This chapter identifies key nontechnical obstacles to converting the remaining HEU-fueled research reactors and suggests steps that could be taken to overcome the identified obstacles. The chapter includes examples in which nontechnical factors dominate the decisions to convert and the actions required for conversion.
The conversion of civilian research reactors from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, or the decision to shut down HEU-fueled research reactors, depends at least as much upon financial, organizational, diplomatic, and political factors as upon technical factors. Several of the conversion steps discussed in Chapter 4 require actions and decisions that are primarily nontechnical, beginning with agreement by a host country to consider conversion of one or more of its research reactors. The priority given to HEU reduction by a host country determines the resources for and the speed of the conversion process; and different countries (and interest groups within countries) prioritize such minimization very differently. In the United States, for example, conversion is given high priority and support by Congress and presidential administrations (see Chapter 2), and yet the United States has one civilian research reactor for which the obstacle to conversion is nontechnical as noted in this chapter. In Europe, there is widespread support for conversion to LEU once a qualified fuel becomes available.1,2 In Russia, however, minimizing HEU usage in its domestic civilian research reactors is not a high priority.
1 For example, for HFR conversion, see http://www.emtr.eu/hfr.html; for BR2 conversion, see http://www.igorr.com/home/liblocal/docs/Proceeding/Meeting%2012/session%200/IGORR09-Beijing-EK-rev3.pdf.
2 Multiple presentations and discussions during site visits to European facilities; see Appendix C for a full listing.
NONTECHNICAL OBSTACLES TO REACTOR CONVERSION IN THE UNITED STATES
Eight research reactors in the United States operate with HEU fuel. Seven of these reactors are high performance research reactors (HPRRs): Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), ATR-Critical Facility (ATR-C), University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR), Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reactor (MITR-II), High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR), Neutron Beam Split-core Reactor (NBSR), and Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT3). These reactors require a new fuel to be developed and qualified before conversion can take place and, as discussed in Chapter 4, fuel development is a technical obstacle to conversion. However, one U.S. civilian research reactor—the General Electric Nuclear Test Reactor (GE-NTR) in California—continues to operate with HEU uranium-aluminum (U-Al) alloy fuel. It is technically possible to convert this reactor with existing LEU fuel (NRC, 2012). Until recently, however, and despite strong political support and available resources for conversion, the Material Management and Minimization (M3) Office of Conversion was not able to allocate money for the reactor operators to discuss conversion plans because of ongoing legal actions between GE and the Department of Energy (DOE).4 In this case, the obstacle to conversion is legal.
NONTECHNICAL OBSTACLES TO REACTOR CONVERSION IN RUSSIA
The committee gathered information on existing Russian civilian research reactors and Russia’s conversion program through its meetings in Moscow with State Atomic Energy Corporation (known as “Rosatom”) and Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) scientists and during its site visit and meeting at Joint Stock Company “State Scientific Center—Research Institute of Atomic Reactors” (JSC “SSC RIAR,” hereafter abbreviated as “RIAR”), Dimitrovgrad. The committee learned about Russian scientific priorities and how they affect its domestic research reactor conversion decisions.
The conversion of Russian research reactors is of particular importance to the nonproliferation goal of eliminating the use of HEU in civilian applications because greater than 40 percent of the civilian research reactors using HEU fuel are located within Russia (see Table 2.2 and Figure 2.3a). Russian actions and priorities for conversion of its domestic research reactors have
3 The TREAT reactor is currently shut down but will restart operations using HEU fuel. Plans for conversion include the development of an entirely new type of LEU fuel. See Appendix E for a short description.
differed dramatically from those pertaining to conversion of nondomestic, Russian-designed, civilian, research reactors.
Russia early recognized and acted on the risk associated with civilian HEU use.5 In the 1980s, the Soviet Union began a two-stage program to reduce fuel enrichment in Russian-designed research reactors outside its borders, first to 36 percent and then to less than 20 percent (Arkhangelsky, 2011). In the 1990s, Russia and the United States, in the context of the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program (Diakov, 2014), collaborated on the development of LEU fuel for Russian-supplied research reactors abroad. In 1994, Russia initiated the program “Creation of fuel rods and fuel assemblies with 20 percent uranium-235 (235U) enrichment fuel for the cores of research reactors” (Aden et al., 2006). In parallel, Russia, the United States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) developed a tripartite agreement on HEU fuel removal and repatriation to establish the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return (RRRFR) Program.6 Under this program, all Soviet-supplied reactors outside the borders of the Soviet Union were converted, and nearly all fresh and spent HEU fuel has been returned to the Russian Federation. There has also been continuing progress in the conversion of research reactors in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, with research reactors in only Belarus and Kazakhstan awaiting conversion (see Table 2.2 and Appendix E; Diakov, 2014).
Topics in the nuclear arena that have high priority in Russia include developing the fast reactor technology and addressing the nation’s nuclear waste legacy (see Box 5.1). Conversion to LEU is not a priority. Although conversion progress has been halting, there has been notable progress in recent years. The technical arguments against conversion for most of the Russian research reactors to LEU fuel have dissipated since 2010, as discussed below, but there remains little political support to convert domestic Russian research reactors. The preferred approach is to retain fissile material at the reactors and to physically protect it (Khlopkov, 2015).
There are many HEU-fueled, civilian, research reactors in Russia, although the list of operating civilian reactors has decreased to 32, almost entirely through the shutdown of facilities (see Tables 2.2 and 6.1; Arkhangelsky, 2015). About one-half of the remaining operating civilian research reactors are zero-power reactors (critical and subcritical assemblies). These reactors pose a particular risk (see Chapter 2), because the
5 Setting aside the risk of theft by a non-state actor, conversion is more effective at reducing nuclear threats in a non-nuclear-weapon state than in a nuclear-weapon state so that the nonnuclear-weapon state does not have ready access to weapon-usable material.
6 Other fuel return programs managed by DOE include the U.S.-origin fuel return and gap materials return programs. These are discussed in Chapter 6.
The Changing Landscape of Russian Science
Several recent decisions and events are changing the face of Russian science and technology and are affecting U.S.-Russian collaborations. Rosatom has control over a larger proportion of funding for reactor-relevant science following the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences.a
Rosatom has deemphasized its basic research program and is now heavily focused on funding commercially viable science projects. Rosatom is highly motivated to seek commercial markets for its products, including fuel and radioisotopes. The redirection of Russian funding away from basic research toward projects with potential for commercial success, particularly for export, is dramatic. This redirection has moved reactor conversions down the priority list even farther than they already were. That said, if there is a non-Russian market for products coming from research reactors (e.g., radioisotopes), consumer requirements for products produced using only LEU fuel could be a means of incentivizing continued Russian progress in reactor conversions. Alternatively, there is potential to focus efforts to shut down research reactors that are underutilized, for example, critical assemblies.
fuel is often lightly irradiated, hardly consumed, and may be part of a large inventory (hundreds to thousands of kilograms). The number of critical assemblies has decreased in recent years, and it is likely that more will shut down in coming years because of more powerful computer codes, which make some of these reactors unnecessary. In addition, significantly less civilian HEU is used in Russia compared to 10 years ago (Khlopkov, 2015). No civilian facilities are currently under construction or in the planning stages in Russia that will use HEU fuel.
Early in the nonproliferation effort, the Soviet Union rejected the idea of converting its domestic research reactors because civilian HEU use was not seen as a proliferation risk in light of the fact that the former Soviet Union was a nuclear weapon state. Beginning in 2012, a U.S.-Russia collaboration supported a study on the feasibility of converting six Russian research reactors to LEU fuel.7 The study led to the conversion of one reactor (Argus reactor at the Kurchatov Institute) and the conclusion that it was feasible to convert some of the remaining five research reactors. These studies support a more general conclusion that most of the other Russian research reactors could be converted to LEU without loss of performance,
given sufficient political priority and funding for conversion and new LEU fuel (which is expected to be more expensive than existing fuel, as discussed in Chapter 4). As a result of these U.S.-Russian feasibility studies and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS)/National Academy of Sciences (NAS) workshop (NRC, 2012), the technical feasibility and challenges of conversion are better understood by both countries than they were 5 years ago.
Although most of the Russian HEU-fueled HPRRs can be converted to LEU using current or likely soon-to-be-available fuel, six reactors and critical assemblies, SM-3, SM-3 CA, RBT-6, RBT-10/2, PIK, and PIK-FM, cannot. The conversion decisions for the two RBT reactors and SM-3 at RIAR are coupled. The RBT reactors are important to Rosatom’s plan to significantly increase molybdemum-99 (99Mo) production for sale, mostly outside of Russia. It is technically feasible for the RBT reactors to operate with LEU fuel. However, the RBT reactors use partially burned HEU fuel from the SM-3 reactor as their fuel source.8 Because Russia has no plans to change the current fuel utilization scheme between the two reactors and the SM-3 reactor cannot convert to LEU fuel without impacting its performance, the RBT reactors will not convert either.
The conversion of Russia’s domestic civilian research reactors is largely a matter of priorities and economic challenges, coupled with resistance on the part of reactor operators and users (a problem not confined to Russia). The confidence of Russian authorities in the effectiveness of physical security measures to secure HEU fuel at civilian sites serves to further decrease the level of priority given to reactor conversions.
Russia is pursuing the development of new LEU dispersion fuel based on a UMo-Al matrix clad in Al using traditional extrusion technology as discussed in Chapter 4 (Izhutov et al., 2013). This fuel is primarily aimed at the international market, however, and there are no near-term plans to use the fuel to convert Russian domestic civilian research reactors. Countries that are potentially interested in purchasing the fuel include the Netherlands, Poland, and Kazakhstan.
Finding 10: Nearly all civilian research reactors located outside of Russia that use Russian fuel have been converted to low enriched uranium (LEU), with most of the Russian-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) returned to Russia. A high fraction of the remaining civilian research reactors worldwide that use HEU are within Russia. Converting most of these to LEU is possible with existing or soon-to-be-qualified LEU fuel. However, conversion of its domestic research reactors is not a high national priority for Russia.
8 This utilization of partially burned fuel results in a higher level of burnup and fuel utilization than would be achieved by using the fuel in SM-3 only.
Finding 11: Russia is financially motivated to provide low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel to other countries that are interested in using higher-density LEU fuels to improve reactor performance.
Nontechnical obstacles to reactor conversion in Russia have been compounded by the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. One consequence is that Rosatom and the U.S. DOE have severed nearly all ties. Rosatom is no longer willing to accept U.S. funds to pay for activities that are not aligned with Russia’s highest nuclear priorities. DOE and the U.S. Congress have ceased funding for the Russian conversion programs that have made significant progress in recent years. Therefore, it is currently not possible for the United States to fund reactor conversions in Russia, which might have overcome Russian political inertia on the matter. Russia effectively ended cooperative threat reduction efforts in 2014. At nearly the same time, DOE suspended interactions between scientists at the DOE National Laboratories with Russian counterparts.
Finding 12: The Russian-U.S. collaboration on research reactor conversion that had been stable for several decades has all but ceased during the past year. Russia is no longer willing to accept funding from the United States for conversions of its domestic civilian research reactors (a previous approach that led to feasibility studies and the only conversion of a domestic Russian research reactor). The Department of Energy has ceased funding Russian conversion programs and curtailed interactions between scientists at its National Laboratories and Russian counterparts. One particularly valuable aspect of the collaboration was development of long-term relationships between U.S. and Russian scientists.
Finding 13: Given current international relations in general, and the current state of U.S.-Russian relations in particular, the United States and the international community have little influence on Russian prioritization of its domestic research reactor conversions.
The fruitful U.S.-Russian collaborations that have been established in past years are currently on hold. Given the importance of personal relationships and maintaining and building on the levels of trust that have been established between scientists, it is important to find ways to continue dialogue and interactions to the maximum extent possible. Ideas for such interactions include the following:
- Utilizing the memorandum of understanding9 between the Academies and RAS, which allows for discussions among U.S. and Russian scientists. RAS President Fortov reported that at a recent meeting President Putin emphasized the importance of maintaining scientific relationships and avoiding damage to existing relationships.10
- Recognizing the differences of each country’s scientific priorities so that joint collaborations can be developed that mutually address these priorities.
- Continuing interaction and dialogue in international venues such as Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) annual meetings and the IAEA meetings and activities.
Recommendation 5: The United States should encourage and facilitate periodic workshops and meetings that especially engage U.S. and Russian scientists and engineers to continue scientific exchanges and interactions that formed the basis for previous progress in highly enriched uranium (HEU) minimization. These interactions should also seek areas of mutual interest that would result in HEU minimization, jointly study the risks and benefits of low enriched uranium conversion, and identify possible collaborations.
NONTECHNICAL CHALLENGES IN OTHER COUNTRIES
Nontechnical obstacles affecting conversion or shutdown decisions are present in countries other than the United States and Russia. The U.S. conversion program has attempted to address technical and nontechnical obstacles to conversion through a variety of means. In many cases, engagement with international bodies or multiple countries is a key to successful navigation of the path to HEU minimization. For example, the Nuclear Security Summits provide incentives to individual research reactor sites to encourage conversion, such as paying for fuel loads or facility upgrades.
Nontechnical Challenges Associated with New Fuel Development Efforts
Significant and technically credible efforts to develop high-density LEU fuels are under way at several sites in Europe, as discussed in Chapter 4. The U.S. program cooperates with and provides about $4 million/year in funding (a portion of which goes to U.S. researchers supporting the Euro-
10 Information gathered during committee discussions held during July 15, 2015, meeting with Russian Aademy of Sciences’ President Vladimir Fortov.
pean effort).11 This research and development effort is complementary to the U.S high-density fuel development effort. This committee recommended in Chapter 4 (Recommendation 3) that the progress of the European high-density fuel development be closely monitored by the United States and the fuel being developed by the Europeans (and South Koreans) be considered as a backup option to the high-density fuel being developed in the United States.
Although there is clearly an exchange of information between scientists and engineers engaged in both development efforts, through international meetings as well as periodic exchanges between programs, the committee judges that there is room for improvement in the interactions. Specific opportunities include increasing the level of detail in the information exchanged and more actively pursuing common areas of interest through increased cooperation and even collaboration. Increasing the quality of communications, cooperation, and cross-fertilization of scientific discoveries and approaches could accelerate fuel development in both programs and also allow better-informed fuel development and qualification choices.
ENCOURAGING EXAMPLES OF OVERCOMING INTERNATIONAL CHALLENGES IN REACTOR CONVERSIONS
Although the nontechnical obstacles confronting civilian research reactor conversions may seem daunting, there has been significant success in dealing with them, particularly through the engagement of international agencies and multiple countries. Examples of research reactor conversions that were technically “straightforward” but impeded by a variety of nontechnical obstacles are illustrated in this concluding section. These reactor conversions were technically straightforward insofar as LEU fuel was readily available to convert the reactor with little impact to its mission. However, these conversions have frequently required a great deal of diplomatic work, international cooperation, political tact, ingenuity, and common sense. The key to success in these projects is that all international partners worked together to address specific challenges unique to each conversion effort.
Development of a Domestic Source of LEU
The government of Chile was willing to convert its research reactor to LEU fuel, but only if the silicide replacement fuel was fabricated in-country. International cooperation was required to establish a Chilean fabrication
11 Chris Landers, written communication, August 4, 2015: information on the GTRI and M3 conversion programs’ budget details over the past 5 years. See also Box 4.2.
facility, including construction, personnel training, and fuel qualification. Conversion to LEU was successfully accomplished in 10 years (Thijssen et al., 2006).
Desire for an International, Rather than Bilateral, Framework
The Mexican government wished to convert its research reactor to LEU and arrange for spent fuel take-back under an international framework rather than under a bilateral country-to-country agreement. In this case, the IAEA facilitated the necessary policy agreements, carried out fuel inspections in France and Mexico, and served as the intermediary for fuel transfer between the United States and Mexico (Adelfang et al., 2012).
Conversions Involving Multiple Countries with No Previous Engagement in HEU Minimization Efforts
China, which had no prior involvement in U.S. or international HEU minimization or reactor conversion activities, built and installed several small HEU-fueled reactors in China (two operating), Ghana, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. None of these countries had any prior commitment to HEU minimization objectives.12 The Chinese-built Miniature Neutron Source Reactors (MNSRs) are low power (approximately 30 kW) with cores of approximately 1 kg of HEU (greater than 90 percent enriched). The MNSRs are used for education, training, and neutron activation analysis among other applications.
The U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) Convert Program established a project through the IAEA in 2005 to determine the feasibility of converting these MNSRs to LEU fuel. All countries operating MNSRs participated in the project. An IAEA feasibility study concluded that the MNSRs were convertible with LEU fuel of about 12.5 percent enrichment. A generic safety analysis report that could be used in reactor-specific safety analysis reports was also developed under the IAEA project. The China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE) was involved in the fabrication and preparation of the LEU cores for conversion of these reactors. As a result, a Zero Power Test Facility (ZPTF) was built at CIAE in cooperation with GTRI. The ZPTF performs the measurements for each specific LEU reactor core and makes adjustments before shipping the core to the reactors for installation (Roglans-Ribas and Landers, 2011).
An MNSR Conversion Working Group, coordinated by the IAEA, was created in 2011. Its main objective is to coordinate activities and decision-making processes related to the conversion of MNSRs to LEU and shipping
International Engagement to Address a Technical Concern
Sometimes international engagement is also helpful in addressing technical concerns associated with reactor conversion. For example, the Libyan government decided to convert its research reactor to LEU fuel, but it had safety concerns because the new LEU fuel had not been previously used to operate a research reactor. Addressing these concerns required engagement of an international fuel expert who worked with a Libyan counterpart to assess the quality control at the Russian facility responsible for fabricating the LEU fuel. At the reactor site, an international team helped install an underwater inspection system, a sipping test facility,13 and a custom endoscope to visually inspect the fuel surface in the Libyan reactor and then trained local staff to operate these tools (Bradley et al., 2006).
Keys to Success
The vignettes above illustrate that each country has its own set of concerns about converting a research reactor to LEU fuel. In many cases, these issues stem from political sensitivities, such as a desire for a country to have control over its fuel supply chain, the prestige of having an HEU-fueled research reactor, or concerns about how its international interactions are seen by others. In addition, countries that have not previously been involved in HEU minimization do not automatically see the benefit of reactor conversion. Each conversion is unique and unpredictable, so being flexible in approaching conversion and having a “toolbox” of incentives and options based on past experiences may help guide future conversions. The common thread in these examples is the engagement of international agencies, especially the IAEA, as well as the constructive involvement of other countries.
13 A sipping test facility samples the cooling water locally along an irradiated fuel element, measuring for contamination to establish the fuel element’s integrity without having to wait for cooling and post-irradiation examination (PIE).