Mixed Oxide Fuel: Revitalising the Reprocessing Industry

Publish date: January 7, 2003

Written by: Zackary Moss

The MOX approach aims to revitalise the plutonium economy and the global reprocessing industry. Bellona believes this will lead to a closed plutonium fuel cycle.

Key players in the nuclear industry are advocating the use of Mixed Oxide, or MOX, fuel in conventional nuclear reactors. The Russian Federation’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, Minatom, hopes to receive Western funding for its MOX project which will complement its plans to import and store foreign spent nuclear fuel (SNF). This position paper will investigate how the MOX approach aims to revitalise the plutonium economy and the global reprocessing industry, which will lead to a closed plutonium fuel cycle.

What is MOX fuel?
MOX fuel is a mix of uranium and plutonium in such proportions that it can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors, whereas regular nuclear fuel consists solely of uranium. The reason for introducing plutonium into nuclear fuel is to utilise the energy contained in the reprocessed plutonium. As a result of reprocessing civil reactor SNF and deactivating nuclear weapons, plutonium is available in large quantities. According to the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), 1,633 metric tonnes (MT) of plutonium existed worldwide in 2000: 1,384MT of civil plutonium and 249MT of military plutonium.1 The NCI estimates that this will increase to 2,374 MT by 2010, although the increase will result from civil rather than military plutonium. But there is much uncertainty regarding the stockpile of Russian military plutonium. Russia is believed to have 100MT-165MT of military plutonium, despite the fact that Russia has never made public the exact figure.2

In 1974, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) forecasted the operation of up to 4,450 reactors by 2000; equivalent to 1,000 Megawatt net (electrical as distinct from thermal). As such, there was an understanding in the nuclear industry that there would be a shortage of uranium in the world, and that the price and demand for uranium would increase dramatically. Plutonium was meant to rapidly replace natural uranium because the nuclear industry envisaged a very rapid expansion of nuclear programmes. For this reason, it was deemed necessary to reprocess the SNF to utilise the remaining uranium, as well the plutonium created in the fuel. The reprocessed uranium would go into the production of a new type of fuel for nuclear power plants (NPPs). The IAEA’s forecast proved wrong, however. As of 2001, there were 440 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide.3 Instead of skyrocketing, the price of natural uranium actually fell and by the mid-1990s it was about a quarter of its early 1980s value.4

One result of excess plutonium was the need to have a new reactor technology in operation. This culminated in the design of so-called ‘fast neutron reactors’ that use plutonium in fuel. There are two types of fast neutron reactor: ‘burners’ (those that consume more fissile material than they produce) and ‘breeders’ (those that produce more fissile material than they consume). During operation, breeder reactors use plutonium to produce energy and at the same time ‘breed’ plutonium. The plutonium is produced by neutron irradiation of the non-fissile uranium (U-238), which creates fissile plutonium (Pu-239). Unfortunately for the nuclear industry, the development of breeder reactors has proved problematic and their development has been seriously setback. The main problem with the breeder reactor is connected with cooling the reactor with sodium, which becomes volatile when it comes into contact with air and water.

Despite the years of trying to develop plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactors, all the government sponsored programmes–in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US–have been cancelled. While Japan remains committed to its long-term fast breeder programme, not a single commercial-sized plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactor is in operation worldwide. Britain has the facilities to produce MOX fuel, but does not–nor plan to–use MOX fuel. Japan has not used any MOX fuel, although it plans to do so in the future. Russia operates the only large fast reactor, reactor number 3 (BN-600) at Beloyarsk NPP, on the basis of using highly-enriched uranium (HEU). So far, plutonium bearing fuels have only been tested in the BN-600 fast reactor. Still, in February 2001 Minatom announced its intention to build a BN-800 fast neutron rector at Beloyarsk by 2009. The BN-800 is a modification of the BN-600 and will be able to use MOX.5

Since the development of breeder reactors fell out of favour and in all but some cases stopped, there was little use for the growing plutonium stockpiles at reprocessing plants, as well as in the countries that favoured the reprocessing option. The answer was to mix plutonium with uranium and produce a mixed oxide fuel. In fact, MOX fuel was originally developed for use in breeders.

Before MOX fuel can be used in standard nuclear reactors, however, some technical modifications must be made. Some nuclear experts have argued that the use of MOX in standard reactors increases safety problems. Nevertheless, the global nuclear industry believes that MOX fuel will decrease the global stockpile of surplus plutonium while at the same time generating revenue.

Who wants MOX fuel?
–> Government and industry in the West and Russia have been lobbied by commercial interests in Western Europe and Japan who support MOX over immobilisation. Immobilisation is a process where plutonium is combined with a strong radiation source such as high-level radioactive waste and transformed into a quality similar to SNF, which is highly radioactive and difficult to handle. While immobilisation meets the “spent fuel standard” defined by the National Academy of Sciences6, opponents of immobilisation believe it to be a waste of plutonium as its energy content is not utilised. In fact, Minatom views plutonium as a valuable energy resource, which should be used productively rather than immobilised.

Proponents of MOX irradiation suggest that it will provide a use for both weapons-grade plutonium and separated civil plutonium. In their opinion, it will provide fuel for the nuclear industries of Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Switzerland as well as benefiting MOX produces in the UK (British Nuclear Fuels Limited, BNFL), Belgium (Belgonucleaire) and France (Cogema).

Revitalising the reprocessing industry
The origins of reprocessing lay with the nuclear weapons programmes in states committed to developing them. SNF reprocessing began in order to recover the plutonium produced in dedicated military reactors. The fissile plutonium (Pu-239) was then used to fabricate nuclear weapons. And reprocessing was to provide the necessary plutonium for use in fast reactors that the IAEA believed would be built in the future.7 But the IAEA’s forecast turned out to vastly overestimate the number of reactors that would operate in the future. Not only that, the development of fast reactors has been set back due to technical difficulties.

After the end of the Cold War, the five declared nuclear weapons states (excluding China) announced that they had ended their production of fissile material. According to the NCI, the global stockpile of separated military and civil plutonium was 543MT at the end of 2000, of which 294MT (54%) was civil material.8 In 1998, Russia held about 30MT (15%) of the world’s total separated civil plutonium, estimated to at 195MT.9 Besides, the largest quantity of plutonium (67.5%) is contained in SNF, which is due to civil SNF reprocessing.

Minatom considers the loading of MOX fuel into modified conventional nuclear reactors is a viable option for the stockpiled plutonium. The use of MOX fuel would lead to a closed plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle whereby the plutonium contained in fuel would be irradiated, reprocessed and re-used. This would lead to an expansion of global plutonium-based nuclear energy programmes, which would in turn lead produce more SNF and radioactive waste. But the reprocessing industry depends on a steady supply of SNF to keep it in business.

Leasing Russian MOX
Doubts over the availability of money to fund plutonium programmes in Russia have led Minatom to propose the leasing of MOX fuel to reactors outside of Russia. Minatom has made proposals to lease to Western Europe and East Asia MOX fuel produced in Russia from warhead plutonium.10 The MOX fuel would remain the property of Russia. Once used, the SNF would be shipped back to Russia for reprocessing or disposal. Apparently, nuclear power generators in Belgium, France and Switzerland were reported to be interested in this scheme.11

One reason Western reactor operators might be interested in leasing Russian MOX fuel is because it would delay the shut down of their reactors. Moreover, they would receive subsidised fuel and export their SNF back to Russia, which would reduce their domestic SNF storage needs. At first glance this would appear to be an environmentally sound proposition. In reality, though, such a move would increase the quantity of SNF and separated civil plutonium stored in Russia, adding to a stockpile that is already stored in inadequate facilities.

Yet Minatom has no experience of manufacturing and burning MOX fuel on a commercial scale, although it has persuaded the Russian government that large-scale fuel production would revitalise the country’s nuclear complex, even if in monetary terms it is not the most economical method of plutonium disposition. Nevertheless, proponents of MOX irradiation believe this option will find a use for military and civil separated plutonium while helping to provide fuel for the nuclear industries of Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Switzerland.

More waste in Russia
–> MOX fuel would compliment Minatom plans to import foreign SNF for reprocessing and/or storage. In summer 2001, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, approved three bills favouring the import of foreign SNF and radioactive waste. Previously, Russia’s Atomic Law did not allow for the import of foreign SNF. But in June 2001, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, amended the Atomic Law to overturn the ban on SNF imports.

The global SNF stockpile grows by some 10,000 tonnes each year, which is expected to rise to over 300,000 tonnes by 2010 from 220,000 tonnes in 2000.12 Minatom, which lobbied the Russian State Duma to pass the new Atomic Laws, has set itself the objective of importing 10% of global SNF by 2020 in exchange for approximately $20bn, of which $7bn will be spent on environmental and social programmes. Minatom plans to import radioactive waste not only for intermediate storage, but also for final disposal and reprocessing. The Mayak Chemical Combine in Chelbyabinsk county is the front-runner to host the imported SNF.

The Russian Federation has approximately 15,000 tonnes of SNF on its territory. Some of this SNF comes from Soviet-era designed nuclear reactors in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, but most of it is from Russia’s ten NPPs, which operate a total of thirty reactors. Lobbying by the reprocessing industry has aimed to persuade various governments that reprocessing is economically viable and profitable; and Minatom is convinced that its plans to import SNF, reprocess it and fabricate MOX fuel will be economic. Moreover, Minatom has been highly successful in persuading the Russian government that this is will be the case.

The Mayak reprocessing plant, RT-1, located in the southern Ural Mountains, has a 400MT per year SNF reprocessing capacity. In reality, though, it can only reprocess 10%-20% of its 400MT capacity. Moreover, the area surrounding RT-1 has the exalted title of being the most radioactively-polluted place on the planet. RT-1 reprocesses SNF from domestic reactors and Soviet-built reactors abroad. Minatom plans to develop a large-scale commercial reprocessing operation; it will then undertake to reprocess SNF from numerous countries, and will take on a commitment to deal with separated plutonium and high-level radioactive waste.

Still, Minatom does not handle its own SNF and radioactive waste particularly well. Its ambitious plan to import SNF will not only add to the already dangerous burden of radioactive waste in the southern Urals but the transportation of the SNF will increase security risks. If Russia decides to reprocess the plutonium contained in the SNF, this will increase its stockpile of separated civilian plutonium, which is inadequately stored and represents a proliferation threat.

The proposal that Russia imports foreign SNF appeals to both clients including Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan — who no longer have to deal with high-level waste — and Minatom, whom would like to import SNF and aims to revive Russia’s plutonium economy. Given Minatom’s inability to handle its own SNF, Russia’s nuclear regulator, Gosatomnazor, GAN, should be conducting a rigorous environmental analysis on the logistic feasibility and economic viability of the SNF import and storage plans.

The bogus economics of MOX: a case study of BNFL
British Nuclear Fuels Limited, or BNFL, is a government-owned entity grown from the UK Atomic Energy Authority, or UKAEA, in 1971 to take charge of all aspects of nuclear fuel manufacture, reprocessing and waste management.13 At that time, there was little money to be made from manufacturing nuclear fuel, and obtaining payment for waste management lay a long time in the future. Reprocessing seemed the only profitable activity available to BNFL. In fact, in 1992 the chairman of BNFL, John Guinness, said that one of BNFL’s aims was to: “encourage the strenuous efforts already being made in BNFL to establish new markets overseas where developing nuclear programmes are opening up new opportunities”.

BNFL operates two reprocessing plants at Sellafield: Magnox B205 and the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP). The latter was originally conceived to separate plutonium for use in the UK’s fast breeder reactors but is now tasked with the production of plutonium for MOX fuel for foreign customers. The THORP enterprise cost £2.8bn to build, which exceeded the original construction budget by a factor of three. BNFL expected the THORP plant to yield profits of £50m a year, or £500m during the first 10 years. BNFL did not find much difficulty in finding foreign customers for the THORP plant: utilities from eight countries, including Germany, Italy, Japan and Switzerland. One implicit condition for the awarding of these foreign contracts was that British utilities would fall inline and have their SNF reprocessed. This burden on the nuclear industry has come under fire from the near-insolvent British Energy, which has to pay £300m annually for it SNF to be reprocessed at Sellafield.

In 1996, BNFL opened the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP), a new facility with an annual production capacity of 300 tonnes of MOX fuel. This facility cost £460m to build. In October 2001, BNFL received a license from the British government to use plutonium oxide in MOX fuel. And because fresh uranium and reprocessed plutonium from THORP will be used in the production of MOX fuel, the SMP is crucial to Sellafield’s future operations. However, the SMP is struggling to secure contracts for MOX fuel, especially as BNFL’s customers in Germany and Japan have come under political pressure not to use MOX fuel produced at the SMP.

For instance, in July 1999 the first MOX shipment left Sellafield for Japan. But in January 2000, BNFL’s largest customer, Tokyo Electric Power Company, refused to accept 40 tonnes of unused MOX fuel and demanded that it be returned to the UK. Allegedly, MOX fuel pellet quality assurance documents had been falsified. The return cost BNFL £113m and was highly embarrassing for the company and the British government, which attempted to intervene on behalf of BNFL. As such, the experience of BNFL in trying to sell MOX fuel and securing foreign contracts has shown MOX fabrication to be dogged by technical setbacks.

Moreover, in 2001 BNFL developed a £1.7bn “net asset deficit” in its accounts.14 To avoid prosecution under the 1985 Companies Act, BNFL managers called an extraordinary general meeting on 28 November. The cost of dismantling the UK’s entire nuclear infrastructure was estimated to be £85bn–most of it incurred at Sellafield.15 The Guardian reported this to be the equivalent to £4,000 each for every UK taxpayer. The British government has set up a Liabilities Management Authority to take responsibility for and control the UK’s nuclear waste including everything owned and run by the UKAEA and BNFL.

As at March 31st 2002, BNFL’s “net asset deficit” was £1.8bn.16 Besides this deficit, older nuclear power stations are approaching the end of their service lives and must be decommissioned and their waste cleaned-up. According to the Guardian, BNFL has failed to set aside sufficient money to pay for the future decommissioning and clean-up costs of the UK’s nuclear installations. BNFL’s total civil liabilities–including all civil nuclear waste–are £48bn, a rise of £5bn over 2001. This figure is expected to rise further.17 In fact, BNFL grossly underestimated the money it needed to clean up Britain’s nuclear waste and has developed a £44bn deficit, which will have to be financed through taxation. This is equivalent to a 1pence rise in income tax for every UK taxpayer for 20 years.

Proponents of nuclear energy have always maintained that nuclear energy is clean, economic and safe. The build-up of radioactive waste at nuclear plants and reprocessing facilities challenge these propositions. The financial woes of BNFL show that in order to be economically viable, nuclear power must be subsidised by the state. Nuclear power incurs future costs that are not taken into account in the present cost (and price) of nuclear-generated electricity. Nor have the future decommissioning and clean-up costs been factored into the long-term costs of nuclear energy. For instance, BNFL’s failure to set aside adequate funding for future decommissioning costs has left taxpayers with a huge burden that extends for at least 20 years. Not only that, government support of nuclear generators create energy market distortions that do not provide market incentives for firms to develop clean, alternative renewable energy sources.

Russia’s nuclear complex is in an even more precarious state than in other nations operating NPPs and reprocessing facilities. Russian facilities lack the same degree of safety governing their operation and the Russian nuclear regulator, GAN, which has been stripped of its power over the last few years, lacks real control over Minatom’s operations. Besides, Minatom cannot adequately maintain its nuclear complex without substantial upgrades to security and storage. Upgrades will be expensive and Minatom lacks the resources needed to carry out essential work. Yet Minatom is pushing hard to import and reprocess SNF and manufacture MOX fuel. One reason for this is Minatom’s belief that SNF imports will be an earner for the nuclear industry, despite public opinion polls showing 90% of the population is firmly opposed to SNF imports.18

Minatom is well aware that the MOX approach requires a market for MOX fuel, a customer base and safe transport of the fresh and spent MOX fuel, although it lacks the financial means to pay for the MOX programme. It also lacks the proper infrastructure to meet normative safety requirements. However, Minatom has convinced the Russian government that its plans are feasible and economically sound. More than that, Minatom believes it can become a key player in the global reprocessing market. This would lead to the entrenchment of the Russian nuclear lobby and consolidate Minatom’s position in the economic and political spheres.

But the plutonium fuel market is dominated by a few players and there is little competition. The utility policies of energy giants like EoN and RWE in Germany, NOK in Switzerland and Electrabel in Belgium have no fundamental aversion to using MOX fuel. One of the main drivers for the commercial reprocessing industry is the SNF management option. In fact, Minatom is hopping to compete with Sellafield and la Hague, which must deal with high-level waste from Western Europe. Still, Minatom is eager to tap into new, potentially lucrative reprocessing and disposal contracts, regardless of the environmental consequences.

Bellona believes the MOX approach is a bid by the reprocessing industry to stay in existence after the need to extract plutonium from SNF for nuclear weapons programmes and for breeding plutonium has vanished. In Bellona’s opinion, the MOX approach would lead to a closed nuclear fuel-cycle and entrench Minatom’s power in the energy sector, which would then receive extra government support.

Bellona calls on the international community to oppose the MOX approach on the grounds that sufficient natural uranium exists worldwide to satisfy the requirements of current nuclear reactors as well as those to be built in the future. Given the existence of sufficient uranium, there is no need to use MOX fuel, especially as this will increase separated plutonium stockpiles. Besides, Minatom’s intention to reprocess imported SNF rather than immobilise it would increase the stockpile of separated plutonium and high-level radioactive waste. This material is already inadequately secured and represents a proliferation threat, especially as terrorist groups have been seeking to acquire nuclear materials to build radiological dispersal devices, or RDDs, such as “dirty bombs”.

While the MOX approach and SNF imports have the potential to turn Russia into a nuclear dumping ground, the plans will provide business for Russia’s nuclear complex–especially the reprocessing industry–and consolidate Minatom’s power. Bellona considers the reprocessing process to be an uneconomical and environmentally degrading process. In fact, if mining the uranium ore is excluded, then more than 90% of the radioactivity released to the environment during the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle occurs during reprocessing.19 For that reason, and from the economic point of view, reprocessing should be stopped. Moreover, governments should pledge their support for a policy of “direct disposal” for SNF.

1. Nuclear Control Institute, Total Military and Civilian Plutonium, Plutonium Threat section, NCI
2. Bellona Position Paper: Weapons-grade Plutonium Disposition in Russia, November 2002, Bellona Web
3. World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Power Reactors 2001-2002 and Uranium Requirements, September 2002, world-nuclear
4. Wise: ‘Nuclear Reprocessing-Direct Disposal for Billions of French Francs’, 6 April 2001, Wise
5. Bellona Position Paper, Ibid
6. Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), National Academy of Sciences, ‘Managing and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options’, National Academy Press, 1995.
7. Jack Harris, ‘Lifting the lid on the MOX box’, Science and Public Affairs, February 2000.
8. NCI, Ibid
9. NCI, Unirradiated Separated Civilian Plutonium Holdings as at end of 1998, Ibid
10. Greenpeace Briefing, ‘The Disarmament Myth of Plutonium Fuel Production’, March 2001, Greenpeace archive
11. Greenpeace Briefing, ‘Expanding the Treat of Russian Weapon-Grade Plutonium–the Western Option’, October 2002, Greepeace
12. Greenpeace, Nuclear Campaign, waste overview, Greenpeace
13. Jack Harris, Ibid.
14. Paul Brown, ‘Nuclear fallout’, the Guardian, 14 December 2001.
15. Ibid.
16. Department of Trade & Industry, DTI
17. Paul Brown, ‘£44bn nuclear clean-up black hole revealed’, the Guardian, 5 July 2002.
18. Bellona Position Paper: Import of Spent Nuclear Fuel to Russia, December 2002, Bellona Web
19. Jack Harris, Ibid.