Japan’s MOX Fuel Plan Gets a Green Light, but Reprocessing Start Delayed for Two Years

  • Japan Struggles to Make Progress with MOX Fuel Program Despite Ambitious Goals
  • DOE ARDP Program Awards $20 million for Advanced Reactor Concepts
  • BWXT to Start $106.6 Million Microreactor Design Project
  • Battelle Energy Alliance and NASA Seek Private Industry Partners to Build Nuclear Power Solutions for Moon Bases
  • Russia’s Roscosmos Starts Development of Nuclear-Powered Space Tug for Flights to Moon, Jupiter, Venus

Japanese Power Companies Line Up for Use of MOX Fuel

mox-fuel-word-cloud(NucNet) The Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC) of Japan, which includes 11 operators comprising nine utilities along with Japan Atomic Power Company, and Electric Power Development Co (J-Power), said it was continuing to promote the use of mixed uranium-plutonium (MOX) fuel in nuclear power plants, in line with the Pluthermal Program formulated in June 2009.

A statement said that as circumstances changed in the wake of the Fukushima accident, FEPC continued “to work diligently” to promote MOX fuel “as a critical task.”

Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata 3, Kyushu Electric Power’s Genkai 3, and Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama 3&4 all began to use MOX when they restarted in the post Fukushima era.

This year Japan saw progress towards the completion of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP) and the MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant (J-MOX), which received approvals by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. FEPC noted this progress somewhat prematurely as within days of the announcement the start date for reprocessing operations was pushed back by two years.  (More on this below)

Based on the Japan Atomic Energy Commission “Basic Principles on Japan’s Utilization of Plutonium” (2018)(PDF file) and respecting the principle of not possessing plutonium without specific purposes, “we will continue to do our utmost to manage the plutonium stockpile appropriately”, the statement said.

Given recent circumstances, and considering each utility’s MOX requirement, FEPC decided on a new Pluthermal Program (PDF file) “in order to manage plutonium stockpiles appropriately on the premise that each utility is responsible for using its own plutonium.”  Note that only a fraction of Japan’s surplus plutonium is located in the country. Most of it has been shipped to the UK and France for reprocessing there.

The program statrement added that,, “we will aim to have at least 12 reactors running on pluthermal use by FY2030.”  This assumes that Japanese utilities can restart the required reactors and qualify all of them to burn MOX fuel which includes approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.  Adding the MOX fuel to the core is a change in fuel type which requires a modification of the reactor license.

Further Two-year Delay for the Japanese MOX plant

(WNN) Operation of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant under construction in Rokkasho, in Aomori Prefecture, is now expected about two years later than previously planned. Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) had aimed to complete its construction in the first half of 202, but now expects this in the first half of 2024.

Construction of the MOX fuel fabrication plant began in late 2010. Construction of the plant had previously been delayed by three years from the planned 2007 start by the revision of seismic criteria following  the powerful Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake.

Construction of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant began in 1993 and was originally expected to be completed by 1997. So far since then Japan has spent close to $30 billion on the combined project of a reprocessing plant and MOX fuel factory.

The facility is based on the same technology as Orano’s La Hague plant in France. Once operational, the maximum reprocessing capacity of the Rokkasho plant will be 800 tonnes per year, according to JNFL. The fuel fabrication plant is expected to be able to produce about 160 tonnes of MOX fuel per year at startup. It is assumed that initially the MOX fuel assemblies will be for PWR reactors.

The Nuclear Reprocessing Organization of Japan (NuRO) requested JNFL to prepare a five-year provisional operation plan for the reprocessing plant and MOX fuel fabrication plant to account for the newest round of delays.

The NuRO is composed of the utilities that own the reactors which are planning to burn MOX fuel. As the fuel will come from spent fuel assemblies created by these utilities, they have a vested interest in seeing the spent fuel turned into MOX fuel rather than having to spend money on dry cask storage perhaps for decades while Japan tries to develop a final disposition plan for it which could include a deep geologic repository.  Given Japan’s history with catastrophic earthquakes, it isn’t clear whether a suitable location will be found.

What’s New in the Plan?

According to several trade press reports, company president Masuda Naohiro said that the five-year provisional plan will document that more time is needed to add additional fireproofing measures. It isn’t clear why these requirements weren’t part of the original design or what happened this late in the construction effort to force the addition of what are likely major new additions for safety throughout the plant.

Japan pluthermal program

Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited process description and flow diagram for production of mixed oxide fuel (web page and large graphic).

Under the latest schedule, completion of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant has been put back to the first-half of 2022 to allow for implementation of safety measures (fire detection and control) at the plant and construction of a new cooling tower. Critics of the project are asking why this infrastructure wasn’t in the original design and why now, so late in the day, it is being added for the first time?

Earlier this month, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved the plan for modification of safety measures at the Rokkasho MOX fuel fabrication plant.

Can JNFL Deliver?

The planned operation dates prepared by JNFL are provisional. JNFL said there are two years between reprocessing the spent fuel and pushing fabricated MOX fuel out the door to customers. For example, the estimated production for 2025 is based on the amount of Pu recovered in FY2023.

Reliable fuel services doesn’t seem to have been noted in the company’s comments on the delays. Having the fuel delivered to the customer’s reactor at the exact time of the scheduled outages is a key success factor for MOX production.

Also, the fuel must be fabricated according to the specific requirements of each reactor and in compliance with the safety requirements for its use mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency as embedded in the operating license for each reactor. With all of the new construction taking place, JNFL must still circle back to these hard truths before it ships a single MOX fuel assembly.

Prior Coverage on this blog

DOE ARDP Program Awards $20 million for Advanced Reactor Concepts

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $20 million in awards for the third of three programs under its new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP )(Large InfoGraphic).

DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) has selected three teams to receive FY20 funding for the ARDP’s Advanced Reactor Concepts-20 (ARC-20) program. ARDP is designed to help domestic private industry demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.

DOE issued an ARDP funding opportunity announcement in May 2020 which included the ARC-20 awards, the Advanced Reactor Demonstration awards, and the Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration awards. For the ARC-20 projects, DOE expects to invest a total of approximately $56 million over four years with our industry partners providing at least 20 percent in matching funds.

Advanced Reactor Concepts-20 (ARC-20) Projects

The goal of the ARC-20 program is to assist the progression of advanced reactor designs in their earliest phases. DOE has selected three U.S.-based teams to receive ARC-20 funding:

Inherently Safe Advanced SMR for American Nuclear LeadershipAdvanced Reactor Concepts, LLC (Herndon, VA) will deliver a conceptual design of a seismically isolated advanced sodium-cooled reactor facility that builds upon the initial pre-conceptual design of a 100 MWe reactor facility. Total award value over three and a half years: $34.4 million (DOE share is $27.5 million)

Fast Modular Reactor Conceptual Design – General Atomics (San Diego, CA) will develop a fast modular reactor conceptual design with verifications of key metrics in fuel, safety, and operational performance. The design will be for a 50-megawatt electric (MWe) fast modular reactor (FMR). Total award value over three years: $31.1 million (DOE share is $24.8 million).

Horizontal Compact High Temperature Gas Reactor – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Cambridge, MA) will mature the Modular Integrated Gas-Cooled High Temperature Reactor (MIGHTR) concept from a pre-conceptual stage to a conceptual stage to support commercialization. Total award value over three years: $4.9 million (DOE cost share is $3.9 million) (See this IAEA profile of the R&D effort that preceded the current project.)

“ARDP is significant because it will enable a market for commercial reactors that are safe and affordable to both construct and operate in the near- and mid-term.” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.

“All three programs under ARDP pave the way for the United States to be highly competitive globally.”

Funding for ARDP beyond the near-term is contingent on additional future appropriations, evaluations of satisfactory progress, and DOE approval of continuation applications.

BWXT to Start $106.6 Million Microreactor Design Project

The firm, which several years ago abandoned plans for a 180MWe PWR type SMR, has rejoined the race to market with a new effort to deploy a commercial scale small modular reactor (SMR).

BWXT) announced in December that it has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to lead a $106.6 million microreactor development project. The DOE is contributing $85.3 million to the cost-share project over seven years, with BWXT funding the remaining amount.

The company’s BANR (BWXT Advanced Nuclear Reactor) program will pursue the development of a transportable microreactor with the design focused on advanced TRISO fuel particles to achieve higher uranium loading and improved fuel utilization. TRISO refers to a specific design of uranium nuclear reactor fuel that has many operational and safety benefits.

So far the firm has provided only a few details concerning the conceptual design of the reactor. An image released with the press statement shows an above ground SMR type facility (below). The system components are not labeled.

According to industry trade press reports, the reactor isn’t slated to be completed until the 2030s, The the design uses a high-temperature gas design and TRISO fuel to produce an estimated 50 MWE of thermal energy. BWX is currently working on the reactor jointly with the Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

bwxt image

BWXT said it will leverage its ability to fabricate TRISO fuel as a source of competitive advantage. As part of the program, BWXT plans to partner with two national laboratories, Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to benefit from their extensive experience and capabilities with TRISO fuel and advanced reactor development.

The selection of BWXT Advanced Technologies, LLC was announced by the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy earlier in December under its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which is designed to help domestic private industry demonstrate commercially viable advanced nuclear reactors in the U.S. The DOE expects to invest approximately $600 million over seven years in the ARDP’s risk reduction pathway.

Battelle Energy Alliance and NASA Seek Private Industry Partners to Build Nuclear Power Solutions for Moon Bases

Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA), the managing and operating contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), and NASA are seeking feedback from leaders in the nuclear and space industries to develop innovative technologies for a fission surface power (FSP) system that can be operated on the moon.

Following up on the request for information issued in July, BEA released a draft request for proposal (RFP) has been released to solicit industry feedback to inform a final RFP that will be released in February. The draft RFP can be viewed here. Responses are sought by January 22, 2021.

Sponsored by NASA in collaboration with the DOE and INL, the draft RFP provides the first phase of technical requirements and work products for an FSP system that can be built, tested, and deployed on the moon and potentially used for subsequent missions.

“Idaho National Laboratory is the nation’s leader in nuclear innovation. By partnering with the private sector to develop a first-of-kind lunar nuclear reactor, the government is advancing the United States’ leadership in both space exploration and advanced nuclear technology,” said Sebastian Corbisiero, senior technical adviser leading the FSP project for INL’s Nuclear Science & Technology Directorate.

For more information on the draft RFP, please visit the FSP website at https://www.nstdirectorate.com/nasa-fsp

Also, interested parties may contact Sebastian Corbisiero at sebastian.corbisiero@inl.gov

Program Goals

According to the joint DOE/NASA website, the opportunity to return to the Moon’s surface for human and robotic missions is within reach with the assistance of the Fission Surface Power (FSP) Project—a project working towards providing a power-rich environment that can support lunar exploration.

The FSP project seeks to bring about new capabilities to support a lunar sustainable presence and crewed Mars exploration while providing a near-term opportunity for fabrication, testing, and flight of a space fission system.

Additionally, this program aims to establish inter-disciplinary industry teams to partner with NASA and DOE and bring about new concepts on fission surface power systems and gain valuable insights into barriers and challenges faced by the industry in furthering space nuclear power and propulsion technologies.

Russia’s Roscosmos Starts Development of Nuclear-Powered Space Tug for Flights to Moon, Jupiter, Venus

Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos has signed a contract to develop nuclear-powered space tug Nuklon for flights to the Moon, Jupiter and Venus. According to a report of Sputnik News, documents released on the public procurement website revealed that Roscosmos had signed a contract worth 4.2 billion rubles ($57.5 million) with Arsenal, the design bureau of St. Petersburg, on December 10.

Roscosmos announced the project to create is a unique space “tug” – a transport and energy module (TEM) (large JPP image)– based on a megawatt-class nuclear power propulsion system (YaEDU), designed to transport goods in deep space, including the creation of long-term bases on the planets. A technical complex for the preparation of satellites with a nuclear tug is planned to be built at Vostochny Cosmodrome and put into operation in 2030.

The space tug is being assembled by KB Arsenal under the project name Transport and Energy Module (TEM.)  The TEM is a nuclear electric spacecraft, designed around a gas-cooled high temperature reactor and a cluster of ion engines.

The contract has been signed for the “development of a preliminary design for the creation of a space system with a nuclear-based transport and energy module (TEM).” Tthe documents showed. Roscosmos had in past disclosed some details about developing a spacecraft fitted with a nuclear power module that would serve as a “tug” for flights to other plants such as the Moon, Jupiter and Venus.

Alexander Bloshenko, Executive Director of Roscomos said in a press statement the nuclear-powered space tug’s first flight will be a full-fledged scientific mission that will deliver a research satellite to the Moon and head for Venus. It will then perform a gravity assist maneuver to head towards Jupiter. The payload also uses solar panels for some of the electrical power needed by the scientific instruments.

The Russian announcement is the latest in a series of commercial efforts, some state sponsored, to develop space tugs.  On this page with your browser search for the term “Russia” to read an extensive technical discussion of the Roscomos design effort and development work to date.

Technical Requirements & Notes

According to the requirements for the nuclear tug, it must ensure “the implementation of a transport operation as part of an orbital complex for the delivery of a payload module weighing up to 10,000 kilograms inclusive from the initial orbit (900km above the Earth’s surface) to the orbit as an artificial satellite of the Moon for a period not exceeding 4800 hours (200 Earth days)”.

Corresponding member of Russia’s Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics, Andrei Ionin, told RIA Novosti that he did not see any special problems in such long delivery times. He said the cargo will be sent to the moon in advance, and their delivery by towing will be much cheaper than traditional space vehicles.

He added that systems for transporting people and goods should be separate as they are on Earth. “People do not travel in freight cars, and coal is not transported in passenger cars. While in space, both cargo and people, by and large, are transported by practically the same space systems. People need to be delivered safely and fast. As for cargo, here, the economic efficiency of delivery is important. And you just need to deliver it on time.”

In July, Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, revealed that the space agency’s an ambitious plan and said it was working on a nuclear propulsion system that would enable heavy cargo spacecraft to travel to the furthest reaches of our Solar system and beyond. In November, Energia, Russia’s rocket and space corporation, also announced that it was working on the development of a new homegrown multi-functional space station.

Russia’s own orbital station will consist of three to seven modules unmanned or with a crew of two to four people, Xinhua news agency had quoted Vladimir Solovyov, first deputy general designer of Energia, as saying. Roscosmos had said that it plans to discuss the operational lifespan of the ISS with NASA early next year.

YouTube video in Russian and English subtitles about the space tug

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