By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021
Among the Biden administration’s nuclear challenges are ongoing civilian plutonium programs in China and Japan. Also, South Korea’s nuclear-energy research and development establishment has been asserting that it should have the same “right” to have a plutonium program as Japan. These challenges have been compounded by a renewed push by the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory to revive a plutonium program that was shut down in the 1980s. These foreign and domestic plutonium programs are all challenges because plutonium is a nuclear-weapon material.
Henry Kissinger’s State Department quickly discovered that the governments of Brazil, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan—all under military control at the time—had contracted for French or German spent-fuel “reprocessing” plants. The United States intervened forcefully and none of these contracts were fully consummated.
The “invisible hand” of the market helped too. In the words of Admiral Rickover, the “father” of the US nuclear navy, after trying a sodium-cooled reactor in a submarine, he found them to be:
“expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”
For these reasons, breeder reactors proved to be unable to compete economically with simpler water-cooled reactors fueled “once-through” by low-enriched uranium with the plutonium left unseparated in the spent fuel.
Furthermore, as more low-cost uranium was found and global nuclear power capacity plateaued after the Chernobyl accident, the problem that breeder reactors were supposed to solve—scarcity of the chain-reacting uranium-235 that makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium—retreated beyond any realistic planning horizon.
The United States abandoned its Clinch River Breeder Reactor project in 1983; because of safety concerns, Germany abandoned its completed-but-never-operated SNR-300 in 1991; the United Kingdom shut down its Prototype Fast Reactor in 1994; France shut down its Superphénix in 1998; and Japan shut down its Monju in 2017.
Today, after the industrialized world spent about $100 billion trying to commercialize them, only two sodium-cooled power reactor prototypes are operating, both in Russia. However, Russia’s nuclear conglomerate, Rosatom, recently decided to postpone construction of another because it was not expected to be economically competitive with a water-cooled reactor.
A half century after the first nuclear explosion that its breeder reactor program facilitated, India labors on with the completion of its long-delayed, over-budget Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Also, China has launched construction of two prototype breeder reactors. All three of these reactors may be dual purpose, however. In addition to producing electric power, they could produce weapon-grade plutonium for the national weapon programs.
Despite the commercial failure of breeder reactors, France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom persisted with the separation of civilian plutonium. The United Kingdom will shut down its program this year but China is building a “demonstration” reprocessing plant. Also, South Korea’s nuclear establishment has been lobbying the United States for the same right to reprocess as Japan. The reprocessing programs in China, India, and Russia are in support of their breeder programs, but France is using the plutonium it separates in mixed-oxide fuel for its water-cooled reactors, and Japan is following France’s example. This reduces their requirements for low-enriched uranium fuel by about 10 percent, but the mixed-oxide fuel costs about ten times more than the low-enriched uranium fuel it replaces. The motivations for plutonium “recycle” in France and Japan are therefore not economic. Their nuclear establishments argue that reprocessing reduces the radioactive waste problem, but these arguments have been rejected by their waste-management experts.
The separation of plutonium by civilian reprocessing has far exceeded plutonium use in breeder and light-water reactor fuel with the result being a global stockpile of over 300 tons of civilian but weapon-usable plutonium (Figure 1). By the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) metric, this is enough for almost 40,000 Nagasaki bombs.
This separated plutonium is currently stored relatively securely, but the half-life of its main isotope, Pu-239, is 24,000 years—much longer than the half-lives of governments. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 stimulated a major US effort to help Russia secure its plutonium so that it would not end up on the black market.
Before discussing US policy toward the civilian plutonium programs creating mutual pananoia in East Asia, it is important to understand the complications created for US nonproliferation policy by the renewed interest in plutonium fuel within the US Energy Department.
The US Energy Department’s renewed promotion of plutonium-fueled reactors. The US plutonium breeder reactor development program was ended by Congress in 1983. A decade later, the Clinton Administration shut down the Idaho National Laboratory’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II for lack of mission. At the time, I was working in the White House and supported that decision.
The nuclear-energy divisions at the Energy Department’s Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories refused to give up, however. They continued to produce articles promoting sodium-cooled reactors and laboratory studies on “pyroprocessing,” a small-scale technology used to separate plutonium from the fuel of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (Figure 2).
During the Trump administration, this low-level effort broke out. With the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy headed by a former Idaho National Lab staffer and help from Idaho’s two Senators, the Energy Department and Congress were persuaded to approve the first steps toward construction at the Idaho National Laboratory of a larger version of the decommissioned Experimental Breeder Reactor II. The new reactor, misleadingly labeled the “Versatile Test Reactor,” would be built by Bechtel with design support by GE-Hitachi and Bill Gates’ Terrapower. The Energy Department awarded contracts to the Battelle Energy Alliance and to university nuclear-engineering departments in Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Oregon to develop proposals for how to use the Versatile Test Reactor.
The current estimated cost of the Versatile Test Reactor is $2.6-5.8 billion, and it is to be fueled with plutonium. The Idaho National Laboratory’s hope is to convince Congress to commit to funding its construction in 2021.
The Energy Department also committed $80 million to co-fund the construction of a 345-megawatt-electric (MWe) “Natrium” (Latin for sodium) demonstration liquid-sodium-cooled power reactor proposed by GE-Hitachi and Terrapower which it hopes Congress would increase to $1.6 billion. It also committed $25 million each to Advanced Reactor Concepts and General Atomics to design small sodium-cooled reactors. And it has subsidized Oklo, a $25-million startup company, to construct a 1.5 MWe “microreactor” on the Idaho National Laboratory’s site to demonstrate an extravagantly costly power source for remote regions.
In all these reactors, the chain reaction would be sustained by fast neutrons unlike the slow neutrons that sustain the chain reactions in water-cooled reactors. The Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy has justified the need for the Versatile Test Reactor by the fast-neutron reactors whose construction it is supporting. In this way, it has “bootstraping” the Versatile Test Reactor by creating a need for it that would not otherwise exist.
This program also is undermining US nonproliferation policy.
The United States collaborates on pyroprocessing with South Korea. The Idaho and Argonne National Laboratories also continue to promote the pyroprocessing of spent fuel. After the Clinton Administration shut down the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in 1994, the laboratory persuaded the Energy Department to continue to fund pyroprocessing as a way to process Experimental Breeder Reactor II spent fuel and blanket assemblies into stable waste forms for disposal in a deep underground repository. The proposal was to complete this effort in 2007. According to a review by Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, however, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2016, only about 18 percent of the roughly 26 metric tons of assemblies had been processed at a cost of over $200 million into waste forms that are not stable. (Since then, an additional three percent has been processed.)
During the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Cheney accepted Argonne’s argument that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” and the two US national laboratories were allowed to share the technology with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.
At the beginning of the Obama administration, however, a group of safeguards experts from six Energy Department national laboratories, including Argonne and Idaho, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more resistant to proliferation than PUREX, the standard reprocessing technology originally developed by the United States to extract plutonium for its weapons.
In 2014, the US-Republic of Korea Agreement for Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy was due to expire, but the negotiations on a successor agreement bogged down over Korea’s insistence that the new agreement include the same right to reprocess spent fuel as the 1988 US-Japan Agreement for Cooperation.
The compromise reached the following year was that the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Idaho National Laboratory would complete their Joint Fuel Cycle Study on “the technical, economic, and nonproliferation (including safeguards) aspects of spent fuel management and disposition technologies.” If the United States could be convinced that the proliferation risks of pyroprocessing were manageable, the secretary of energy would give consent for South Korea to use the technology on its territory. The final report from the joint study is due this year.
Meanwhile, in 2017, Moon Jae-in was elected president of the Republic of Korea on a platform that included not building any more nuclear power plants in South Korea. Fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing obviously do not fit with that policy. This gives the Biden administration an opportunity to end a cooperative nuclear-energy research and development program that is contrary to both US nuclear nonproliferation policy and South Korea’s energy policy. The United States could propose instead a joint collaborative program on safe spent fuel storage and deep underground disposal.
Japan’s hugely costly reprocessing program. The United States has been trying to persuade Japan to abandon reprocessing ever since 1977. At the time, then prime minister Takeo Fukuda described plutonium breeder reactors as a matter of “life and death” for Japan’s energy future and steamrolled the Carter administration into accepting the startup of Japan’s pilot reprocessing plant. Today, Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. Despite the absence of any economic or environmental justification, the policy grinds ahead due to a combination of bureaucratic commitments and the dependence of a rural region on the jobs and tax income associated with the hugely costly program. The dynamics are similar to those that have kept the three huge US nuclear-weapon laboratories flourishing despite the end of the Cold War.
For three decades, Japan has been building, fixing mistakes, and making safety upgrades on a large plutonium recycle complex in Rokkasho Village in the poor prefecture of Aomori on the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. The capital cost of the complex has climbed to $30 billion. Operation of the reprocessing plant is currently planned for 2023.
A facility for fabricating the recovered plutonium into mixed-oxide plutonium-uranium fuel for water-cooled power reactors is under construction on the same site (Figure 3). The cost of operating the complex is projected to average about $3 billion per year. Over the 40-year design life of the plant, it is expected to process about 300 tons of plutonium—enough to make 40,000 Nagasaki bombs. What could possibly go wrong?
Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reports that, because of the failures and delays of its plutonium useage programs, as of the end of 2019, Japan owned a stock of 45.5 tons of separated plutonium: 9.9 tons in Japan with the remainder in France and the United Kingdom where Japan sent thousands of tons of spent fuel during the 1990s to be reprocessed.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations pressed Tokyo to revise its reprocessing policy, especially after Japan’s decision to decommission its failed prototype breeder reactor in 2016.
Perhaps in response to this pressure, in 2018, Japan’s cabinet declared:
“The Japanese government remains committed to the policy of not possessing plutonium without specific purposes on the premise of peaceful use of plutonium and work[s] to reduce of the size of [its] plutonium stockpile.”
A step toward reductions that is being discussed would be for Japan to pay the United Kingdom to take title to and dispose of the 22 tons of Japanese plutonium stranded there after the UK mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant was found to be inoperable. Japan’s separated plutonium in France is slowly being returned to Japan in mixed-oxide fuel for use in reactors licensed to use such fuel.
If, as currently planned, Japan operates the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant at its design capacity of more than seven tons of plutonium separated per year, however, its rate of plutonium separation will greatly exceed Japan’s rate of plutonium use. Four of Japan’s currently operating reactors are licensed to use mixed-oxide fuel but loaded only 40 percent as much mixed-oxide fuel as planned in 2018-19 and none in 2020. Two more reactors that can use mixed-oxide are expected to receive permission to restart in the next few years. In 2010, Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies projected that the six reactors would use 2.6 tons of plutonium per year. If the much-delayed Ohma reactor, which is under construction and designed to be able to use a full core of mixed-oxide fuel, comes into operation in 2028 as currently planned, and all these reactors use as much mixed-oxide fuel as possible, Japan’s plutonium usage rate would still ramp up to only 4.3 tons per year in 2033. (At the end of 2020 the Federation of Electric Power Companies announced its hope to increase the number of mixed-oxide-using reactors to 12 by 2030 but did not list the five additional reactors, saying only, “we will release it as soon as it is ready.”)
As of June 2020, construction at Rokkasho on the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility that will process the plutonium separated by the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was only 12 percent complete. It was still just a hole in the ground containing some concrete work with its likely completion years behind the currently planned 2023 operation date of the reprocessing plant.
Thus, as happened in Russia and the United Kingdom, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant could operate indefinitely separating plutonium without the mixed-oxide plant operating. The reprocessing plant includes storage for “working stocks” containing up to 30 tons of unirradiated plutonium. If and when it begins operating, the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant will itself have additional working stocks of at least several tons of plutonium. Therefore, even if Japan transfers title to the plutonium it has stranded in the United Kingdom and manages to work down its stock in France, the growth of its stock in Japan could offset those reductions.
The Biden administration should urge Japan’s government to “bite the bullet” and begin the painful but necessary process of unwinding its costly and dangerous plutonium program. A first step would be to change Japan’s radioactive waste law to allow its nuclear utilities to use the planned national deep repository for direct disposal of their spent fuel.
In the meantime, most of Japan’s spent fuel will have to be stored on site in dry casks, as has become standard practice in the United States and most other countries with nuclear power reactors. Because of its safety advantages relative to storage in dense-packed pools, the communities that host Japan’s nuclear power plant are moving toward acceptance of dry-cask storage. During the 2011 Fukushima accident, the water in a dense-packed pool became dangerously low. Had the spent fuel been uncovered and caught on fire, the population requiring relocation could have been ten to hundreds of times larger.
China’s ambiguous plutonium policy. China is estimated to have produced between 2.3 and 3.5 tons of weapon-grade plutonium before it halted production in 1988. China is also estimated to have doubled the number of its nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War to about 300, with a public call from one government-owned journal for a further increase to 1000.
That would require more weapon-grade plutonium.
China is, in fact, building a “demonstration” reprocessing plant and two plutonium breeder reactors. Breeder reactors produce weapon-grade plutonium in the uranium “blankets” surrounding their cores. This plutonium ordinarily would be mixed in with the non-weapon-grade plutonium recovered from the core and recycled into new fuel, but could be kept separate and used for weapons.
One troubling development that suggests that China may be reconsidering the civilian character of its plutonium program is that, since 2017, it has halted making the public annual declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency of its civilian plutonium stocks required by the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. China was one of nine countries, including France and the United States, that committed to make those declarations starting in 1997. An International Atomic Energy Agency official has informed me that that the agency “does not request those member states to submit updates and has no role in connection with the implementation of these voluntary commitments.” One of the other states that are parties to the guidelines could, however, ask China why it has stopped submitting updates.
China’s National Nuclear Corporation has been negotiating since 2007 with France’s Orano to purchase technology for a large reprocessing plant like Japan’s that could separate up to eight tons of reactor-grade but weapon-usable plutonium per year. France’s finance minister said in 2018 that the sale could “save” France’s nuclear industry.
Unless the economic competitiveness of breeder reactors proves to be better in China than elsewhere, however, the rate of plutonium separation by the French plant would be vastly in excess of the amount that China could use to start a realistic number of breeder prototypes. Other countries, including France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have been down this road before and ended up with huge stocks of reactor-grade plutonium (Figure 1). One would hope that China would learn from rather than emulate their folly.
The Biden administration should engage France on the wisdom of Orano’s continued promotion of plutonium separation worldwide through offers of both reprocessing services and technology.
If China moves ahead with its own large-scale reprocessing program, it will make it more difficult to pressure Japan to end its plutonium program, which both countries clearly understand provides Japan with a nuclear-weapon option.
The Obama administration suggested to Beijing a bilateral multidisciplinary dialogue on pros and cons of civilian reprocessing. The Biden administration could press again for such a private discussion. Perhaps, backing away from reprocessing would become more attractive in both Beijing and Tokyo if they made their decisions in parallel.
A possible path forward. During the Trump administration, the Energy Department fell back into the never-never land of plutonium-fueled reactors from which the United States extracted itself in the 1980s. Fortunately, the big-dollar commitments to the Versatile Test Reactor and the Natrium Reactor have not yet been made, and the Biden administration could use the excuse of budget stringency not to make those commitments.
In South Korea, the Biden administration will have to deal with the completion of the Idaho National Lab–Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute Joint Fuel Cycle Study. Although there will no doubt be obfuscation in the report, the conclusions of the 10-year study should have been obvious from the beginning: reprocessing is hugely costly, creates proliferation risks, and complicates spent fuel disposal. Fortunately, the anti-nuclear-energy Moon administration is unlikely to push for reprocessing. It will be much more interested in the opportunities that the Biden administration can provide to advance the Korean Peninsula denuclearization agenda. It should therefore be politically relatively easy for the Biden Administration to terminate cooperation on pyroprocessing.
China’s reprocessing and fast-neutron reactor program may be driven in part by China’s interest in obtaining more weapon-grade plutonium to build up the size of its nuclear arsenal. If that is the case, China’s incentive to build up could be reduced through nuclear arms control. Specifically, if China is building up its nuclear arsenal out of concern about the adequacy of its nuclear deterrent in the face of an unconstrained US missile-defense buildup, then the United States could examine the possibility of an agreement to limit missile defenses as an alternative to an open-ended, offense-defense arms race. That was the path of wisdom that the United States and Soviet Union chose with their 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
In Japan, the Biden administration will be faced with the continued unwillingness of the powerful Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry to wind down Japan’s dysfunctional plutonium program. But, if a linkage could be made between constraining China’s nuclear buildup and ending Japan’s hugely costly reprocessing program, that might help tip the balance in Japan’s internal debate over reprocessing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Oklo had been financed by the Koch family, which was incorrect.
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Keywords: nuclear energy, plutonium, plutonium reprocessing, plutonium separation, pyroprocessing
Topics: Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Weapons