Nuclear Fuel News for 4/2/16

U.S. official changes stance on Japan’s nuclear reprocessing policy

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman said in a press conference this week that Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle project, which reuses spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants to extract plutonium, does not raise concerns about nuclear nonproliferation, effectively changing his earlier position on the matter.

The plutonium is expected to be used to manufacture mixed oxide fuel (MOX) which is a fuel type used in almost three dozen reactors worldwide. MOX is also a fuel type that can be used with fast reactors such as the Russian BN600.

At a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on March 17, just two weeks ago, the assistant secretary, who is in charge of international security and nuclear nonproliferation, had voiced his concerns about Japan’s nuclear policy saying that it would be desirable for Japan to halt its nuclear fuel reprocessing project.

The Associated Press reported that Countryman told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel “has little if any economic justification” and raises concerns about nuclear security and nonproliferation.

At the same time in Beijing, China, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz voiced concern  about China’s plans for its first commercial-scale reprocessing plant. Moniz told The Wall Street Journal that China’s recent announcements that it would press ahead with the facility “certainly isn’t a positive in terms of nonproliferation.”

This kind of set up of simultaneous remarks at a Senate hearing by Countryman and similar criticism about China’s plans by Energy Secretary Moniz, seems to continue make sense in terms of consistency.

Here’s where the wheels came off this carefully orchestrated effort. In the new press conference, Countryman revised his remarks telling the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, that Japan was a pioneer in the civilian use of nuclear energy and that no other country was closer or more important as a partner to the United States than Japan.

He reportedly said further that Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle project, which reuses spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants to extract plutonium, does not raise concerns about nuclear nonproliferation, effectively changing his earlier position on the matter.

Japan’s stockpiling of plutonium has been criticized by China at U.N. meetings and on other occasions. To this, Countryman said that Japan has been proceeding in a transparent manner.

The whole episode took place in the shadow of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) this week. With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heading his country’s delegation to the meeting, Countryman’s comments and their subsequent reversal, seem entirely too orchestrated to be chalked up as a diplomatic gaffe.

So let’s speculate for the moment on what the White House might have been thinking.

On one hand, the first round of comments by Countryman appear to address China’s concerns about Japan’s stockpile. China’s delegation to the NSS was led by Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China.

On the other, the state department official’s reversal appears to also appease the Japanese delegation which undoubtedly did not take kindly to having such a direct set of remarks expressed ahead of their visit to Washington.

As a practical matter, Japan is shipping 331 Kg of surplus plutonium from its reprocessing operations to the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The U.S. is consolidating surplus fissile material there.

A partially constructed MOX fuel plant at SRS has become an object of political controversy over differences about the cost to complete it and whether alternative means are available to safely dispose of the plutonium from all sources. The  plant, if completed, is scheduled to reduce 34 tonnes of surplus plutonium to the equivalent of 1700 PWR type commercial fuel bundles.

Meanwhile, the NSS is over and both China and Japan will go back to doing whatever it was they were committed to before the meeting took place.

Several decades ago then President Jimmy Carter slammed the lid on reprocessing of spent fuel and that’s where the U.S. has remained in terms of its international views ever since. Meanwhile, South Korea is pressing the U.S. to revise its opposition to reprocessing the spent fuel for its commercial reactors but that’s a story for another time.

China still committed to nuclear reprocessing

China remains committed to its plans for nuclear reprocessing, says its top nuclear industry official according to Reuters.

“China is dedicated to the establishment of a complete nuclear fuel-cycle system,” Xu Dakhe, chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority, told reporters on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week.

Significantly, chairman Xu’s remarks came at the same time a senior U.S. diplomat was revising his remarks about Japan’s reprocessing program. Daxhe elaborated on China’s plans for spent fuel reprocessing.

Speaking at a news conference earlier, Xu reiterated concerns about the size of the plutonium stockpile possessed by Japan, which plans to open its own reprocessing plant in 2018. That said, Xu saw no conflict between criticizing Japan for its reprocessing plans and touting China’s similar plans for the same type of facilities.

“When we are constructing a number of nuclear power plants in China we are also taking into consideration the development of a reprocessing capability,” Xu added.

His Japanese counterparts undoubtedly were not impressed with the cognitive dissonance caused by these two set of remarks.

China is a nuclear weapons state and Japan is not, nor does it have aspirations to become one. Suggesting that its inventory of reactor grade surplus plutonium, which is a poor material to make bombs, would lead Japan down the path to become nuclear weapons capable is just so much Southeast Asian political hot air.

Xu added that China was in discussions with French firm Areva over the construction of a commercial reprocessing plant, although he added that there was still “a long way to go to complete the negotiation, both technically and commercially.”

If built the  plant is expected have the capacity to reprocess 800 tonnes of spent fuel per year into MOX and also provide for interim storage of 3000 tonnes of spent fuel.

(WNA) China starts pebble fuel production for high-temperature reactor

A new fuel production line to make the 9% enriched fuel spheres for the Shidaowan HTR-PM high temperature reactors in Shandong province has started production at Baotou, Inner Mongolia.

This is the site of China North Nuclear Fuel’s plant which produces most other kinds of nuclear fuel including that for new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, and is a major R&D base.

The new fuel plant has a capacity of 300,000 spherical fuel elements per year, each about 60mm diameter. The HTR-PM, a pebble-bed design, will use 520,000 of them cycling through the reactor units several times before they are replaced with new fuel elements.

The HTR-PM rationale is both eventually to replace conventional reactor technology for power, and also to provide for future hydrogen production.

AREVA Inc., NuScale Power Sets Branding Strategy for Fuel for Small Modular Reactors

(wire services) In a new twist, two nuclear firms are now promoting the branding of their new fuel design the same way that consumer packaged goods firms in the U.S. promote washing machine detergent. Most detergents are more or less the same chemical formula and do their job which is to clean your clothes.

Similarly, except for differences in the cladding and associated hardware to hold the fuel, most commercial nuclear fuel enriched to 3-5% U235 does the same thing, which is to boil water to make steam. So where does branding come in?

Well, if you want an angle to impress an advisory board composed of luminaries from the U.S. nuclear industry, especially if you have all of them in the same room at your site, a press release which pushes the brand, is a reasonable tactic for an PR professional worth their salt.

AREVA Inc. and NuScale Power announced that the modified AREVA HTP-2 fuel design for NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) technology will be named NuFuel HTP2™. The announcement was made this week during NuScale’s tri-annual Advisory Board meeting (NuAB) in Corvallis, OR, and follows an agreement signed by the companies in December 2015 for AREVA to design and manufacture the fuel assemblies.

“The development of NuScale’s HTP2 fuel design applies our fuel expertise to power NuScale’s new technology,” said Ron Land, senior vice president, U.S. Fuel. “This announcement puts a name on our cooperative effort and represents our commitment to this project.”

“As we prepare documentation for our Design Certification Application, we needed a name for our fuel product that we could use consistently with the NRC while also building name recognition with our customers,” said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer. “NuFuel HTP2™ captures our spirit of innovation while representing the bond with AREVA’s fuel expertise.”

The innovative fuel design is an adaptation of AREVA’s proven HTP™ pressurized water reactor (PWR) designs. The mechanical and thermal hydraulic testing of these new fuel assemblies are underway as part of NuScale’s 50MWe SMR design certification application, which is planned for submission to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year.

Since winning the second round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s competitively-bid, cost-sharing program in December 2013, interest in participating in NuScale’s advisory board (NuAB) has grown and is now comprised of 25 member companies including the owners and operators of nearly two-thirds of the US operating fleet of commercial nuclear power plants. NuAB attendees were provided with technical and regulatory briefings in order to provide guidance to NuScale on the company’s path to commercialization.

(NucEngIntl) Jordan sets schedule for twin VVERs to be built by 2025

The head of Jordan Nuclear Power Company, Ahmad Hisayat, said Jordan’s first NPP is expected to be operational during 2024-2025. Hisayat said in a press statement that two reactors are expected to be built in the Qusayr Amra region east of Amman.

Russia’s Atomstroyexport is to build the ($10bn) two-unit 2,000 MWe plant. Jordan will cover 50.1% of the Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) contract, and Rosatom will cover 49.9% as investor and operator of the plants. Rosatom will supply all of the fuel for the reactors for their operational lifetime and also take back the spent fue for reprocessing.

Since the Russians have moved to lead the Jordanian nuclear new build, there have not been any further reports of efforts to exploit Jordan’s spotty uranium deposits. Both Rio Tinto and Areva investigated the geology and determined there was not a business case to be made to recover enough uranium to make a profit.

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