Australian news, and some related international items

Dangers of USA plan for nuclear fuel factory to combine military and civilian use

Nuclear watchdogs warn against blurring energy, military uses at Ohio fuel plantNuclear watchdogs warn against blurring energy, military uses at Ohio fuel plant,  Energy News,  BY Kathiann M. Kowalski, 13 Feb 19, 

Combining the capability to make fuel for nuclear reactors and material for weapons undercuts nonproliferation efforts, critics say.

A planned nuclear fuel plant in Ohio could help enable the nation’s next wave of carbon-free electricity, a fleet of small reactors providing continuous power to the grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy fuel facility would be unique in part because it could also produce material for use in nuclear weapons. That crosses a potentially dangerous line, nuclear watchdog groups say — one that could undercut efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Department of Energy announced plans last month to contract with Centrus Energy Corp.’s American Centrifuge Operating subsidiary to reopen a nuclear fuel plant in Piketon, Ohio, about 70 miles south of Columbus where Appalachia’s foothills start rising from sprawling farmland.

The new project would likely resemble an earlier pilot program there that ended in 2015, but with various updates and technical fixes. It would also require U.S.-only sources, in lieu of some foreign components and technology.

Dual uses envisioned

DOE is proposing the company as the sole source for the work, and the agency’s notice suggests the demonstration project’s fuel could be used for both civilian and military purposes.

On the civilian side, the project’s fuel would be used for research and development of next-generation nuclear reactors. Designs for those smaller reactors call for fuel known as HALEU, which stands for high assay low-enriched uranium.

HALEU can have between 5 and 20 percent of uranium’s U-235 isotope. That’s the form that undergoes fission readily. In contrast, most U.S. commercial reactors use fuel with 3 to 5 percent U-235. Natural uranium is about 99 percent U-238.

On the defense side, HALEU could be used for small mobile reactorsto power on-the-go military operations. Beyond that, DOE’s requirement for U.S.-only technology could also let the plant’s fuel be used to make tritium. That radioactive isotope of hydrogen is used innuclear weapons.

Foreign policy fears

The possible crossover uses for the Piketon plant’s fuel could conflict with the country’s positions on nuclear nonproliferation.

The United States signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in1968 in hopes of curbing the risk of global nuclear war. The treaty recognizes the rights of countries to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes but forbids countries that didn’t already have nuclear weapons from building or obtaining them. Supplemental treaties apply to transfers of goods and technology and other matters.

Those treaties account for the “U.S.-only” requirement for any facility or technology that would produce nuclear fuel that could be used for the country’s nuclear weapons program. But critics see a problem in blurring the lines of civilian and military uses of Piketon’s fuel.

“Our entire nonproliferation endeavor where our reactors are concerned has been to prevent our civilian programs from being used in support of military bomb-making programs,” said Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who later taught at Vermont Law School. “One of the pillars of that undertaking has been to keep them separate in the U.S.”

An exception has been the irradiation of rods in a light-water reactorat the Tennessee Valley Authority, using “U.S.-only” fuel. Tritium is then extracted from those rods at DOE’s Savannah River Site.

A dual use for the Piketon plant would expand the fuel supply for those or similar operations. But it would also add another site blending civilian and military uses of nuclear technology…………

Conceptually, I think that is a very bad image for the U.S. to project at this point when the U.S. is trying to dissuade other countries from building their own facilities,” said Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project. ……

“The proposed demonstration is very good news for the entire U.S. nuclear industry,” said Centrus Energy spokesperson Jeremy Derryberry. “If America wants to be competitive in supplying the next generation of nuclear reactors around the world, we need an assured, American source of high-assay low-enriched uranium to power those reactors. We stand ready to work with the department to get the proposed project underway as  quickly as possible.” The Nuclear Energy Institute likewise hailed the news. …….

However, Piketon isn’t the only option for supplying smaller, new nuclear reactors. “There is actually an enrichment facility in the United States in New Mexico that would be capable of supplying any civilian nuclear power plant,” said Lyman at the Union of Concerned Scientists……..

That “midnight-hour resurrection” of production at Piketon raises “a lot of questions about not only the viability of the project, but the need for it, and the consequences of getting it restarted at this point after this has been shut down for three years,” Lyman said.

“The plan and the intent have been to clean the Piketon plant up and to deal with all the radioactive contamination there,” Judson said. “This is a step in the wrong direction.”



February 14, 2019 - Posted by | General News

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