Archive for the ‘uranium enrichment’ Category

The danger, the unwisdom, of highly enriched uranium in space

February 13, 2020

Do we need highly enriched uranium in space (again)?  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists By Christopher Fichtlscherer, September 12, 2019 “……. Weapon-grade fuel for the Mars mission. In this rush to realize the old dream of space colonization, a central question is how to provide a planetary base with electrical power. Currently it seems as though NASA is in favor of nuclear energy. Most recently, on August 20, 2019, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum authorizing the possible launch into space of nuclear reactors fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU) for “orbital and planetary surface activities.” But sending HEU reactors into space is risky and unnecessary because there are viable options for using low-enriched uranium (LEU), or for avoiding nuclear power altogether by harnessing solar energy.

Since 2015, NASA has funded a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory to build what is called the Kilopower reactor, a nuclear fission reactor for space applications. The Kilopower reactor is a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor with a block core that produces electrical energy with Stirling engine heat converters. NASA plans to build four or five Kilopower reactors, each with a lifetime of 12 to 15 years and a continuous energy output of 10 kilowatts, which could meet the energy needs of a possible Mars base. This Kilopower fast reactor could be fueled with either LEU or HEU. While the LEU fuel for the Kilopower reactor would contain 19.75 percent uranium 235, the HEU fuel would contain 93 percent of this isotope, a degree of enrichment that is called “weapon-grade.” In the newest prototype, these two versions of the fast reactor have essentially the same design but differ by size and weight. Los Alamos published a white paper about the Kilopower reactor in August 2017 supporting the LEU designs, but half a year later the lab successfully tested the HEU design. In October 2018, Los Alamos published a second white paper that favored HEU on the grounds that it would have a lighter weight.

Indeed, the HEU version of the Kilopower reactor is lighter, but it comes with alarming risks: the block fuel element contains around 43 kilograms of HEU, enough material for a terrorist group to build a nuclear weapon. There is also a proliferation risk. Kilopower would establish a precedent that other states could use to justify their own production of weapon-grade uranium. That is why, over the last four decades, the United States has led an international effort to persuade research reactor operators to switch from using HEU to using LEU. Building an HEU-fueled space reactor would undermine those attempts and the nonproliferation policies that inform them.

There are other downsides beyond the security risks. For example, the use of HEU would exclude private industry from taking part in space-reactor research and development. Such a reactor would also be more expensive than the LEU version because of the high costs required to secure significant quantities of HEU during the development and the launch. Finally, an HEU reactor would be sure to stir controversy for the reasons mentioned above and would be subject to cancellation by Congress.

Beyond that, the main advantage of the HEU reactor may not actually be much of an advantage. In 2015 scientists from the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, and in 2018 scientists from the Colorado School of Mines, each published designs for different, lighter LEU reactor models with a similar power output to the Kilopower LEU version. Moreover, it seems realistic that we can expect further weight and launching cost reductions well before a Mars colonization mission could start.

Accident risks. Sending nuclear reactors into space is not a new idea. The Soviet Union launched over 30 into orbit during the Cold War to power radars that tracked the US Navy. The United States launched only one reactor, in 1965. Dubbed the SNAP-10A, it had to be shut down after only 43 days due to an electrical component failure.

Most of these reactors are still orbiting above us—but not all of them. For example, the Soviet Kosmos 954 reactor crashed to earth in 1978, spreading radioactive material over a large area of northern Canada. In total there is about one ton of nuclear material in orbit, and all of it is at risk of colliding with other space debris and coming back to earth.

Major accidents have occurred in over 20 percent of space reactor missions. That is probably one of the reasons why no country has launched a reactor into space since the Cold War. Given these issues, why not avoid radioactive material for space missions altogether? Perhaps solar energy should be the first choice for electrical energy in space. Most satellites launched into space get their energy from solar panels, as does the international space station, which has successfully operated for over 10 years with solar arrays that produce up to 120 kilowatts of electricity. The NASA Mars rover Opportunity ran for over 14 years powered by solar panels. In short, the difficulties of running a solar power system on Mars seem manageable.

If we really want to build a Mars base in the not-so-distant future, why should we go with weapon-grade uranium, with all its security and proliferation risks, when we have both the option of affordable alternative LEU designs and solar options that eliminate these risks?

The uses of enriched uranium

October 9, 2018

Times 12th May 2018 Uranium is mined and then processed as nuclear fuel for military or civilian purposes. The ore is ground up and chemically treated to yield “yellowcake”, a coarse powder of uranium oxide. Converted into purified fuel rods, it can be used in pressurised heavy water reactors.

For other uses, the uranium oxide is converted into uranium hexafluoride gas so that it can be enriched. The enrichment process increases the percentage of a particular isotope, uranium-235, which makes up 0.7 per cent of natural uranium. The rest is uranium-238. The commonest method of enrichment is isotope separation by gas centrifuge. Centrifuges rotate at high speed, separating the isotopes by weight and sending the heavier uranium-238 to the outside of the cylinder while the lighter 235 collects at the centre.

The slightly enriched stream is extracted and fed into the next centrifuge, where the process is repeated, enriching it further. Most nuclear power reactors use uranium that has been enriched to a composition of between 3 and 5 per cent uranium-235.  Anything up to 20 per cent uranium-235 is called low-enriched uranium. Uranium enriched to between 12 and 19.75 per cent is used in the production of medical isotopes in research reactors.

Uranium enriched above 20 per cent is called highly enriched uranium, while 20 per cent is the lowest theoretical threshold for weapons-grade uranium. Most weapons use uranium that is 90 per cent enriched. The first stages
require more centrifuges due to the volume of uranium. The process gets easier as purity increases, making the leap from low to high-enrichment easier than the leap from natural uranium to low-enriched. Once the 20 per cent threshold is breached, weapons grade is within reach.

The Kazakhstan low-enriched uranium bank will not make the world safer

October 30, 2017

Banking on Uranium Makes the World Less Safe  There is a curious fallacy that continues to persist among arms control groups rightly concerned with reducing the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. It is that encouraging the use of nuclear energy will achieve this goal.

This illogical notion is enshrined in Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which rewards signatories who do not yet have nuclear weapons with the “inalienable right” to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Now comes the international low-enriched uranium bank, which opened on August 29 in Kazakhstan, to expedite this right. It further reinforces the Article IV doctrine— that the spread of nuclear power will diminish the capability and the desire to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The uranium bank will purchase and store low-enriched uranium, fuel for civilian reactors, ostensibly guaranteeing a ready supply in case of market disruptions. But it is also positioned as a response to the Iran conundrum, a country whose uranium enrichment program cast suspicion over whether its real agenda was to continue enriching its uranium supply to weapons-grade level.

The bank will be run by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose remit is “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy.” Evidently the IAEA has been quite successful in this promotional endeavor since the agency boasts that “dozens of countries today are interested in pursuing nuclear energy.”

A caveat here, borne out by the evidence of nuclear energy’s declining global share of the electricity market, is that far more countries are “interested” than are actually pursuing nuclear energy. The IAEA numbers are more aspiration than reality.

Superficially at least, the bank idea sounds sensible enough. There will be no need to worry that countries considering a nuclear power program might secretly shift to nuclear weapons production. In addition to a proliferation barrier, the bank will serve as a huge cost savings, sparing countries the expense of investing in their own uranium enrichment facilities.

The problem with this premise is that, rather than make the planet safer, it actually adds to the risks we already face. News reports pointed to the bank’s advantages for developing countries. But developing nations would be much better off implementing cheaper, safer renewable energy, far more suited to countries that lack major infrastructure and widespread electrical grid penetration.

Instead, the IAEA will use its uranium bank to provide a financial incentive to poorer countries in good standing with the agency to choose nuclear energy over renewables. For developing countries already struggling with poverty and the effects of climate change, this creates the added risk of a catastrophic nuclear accident, the financial burden of building nuclear power plants in the first place, and of course an unsolved radioactive waste problem.

No country needs nuclear energy. Renewable energy is soaring worldwide, is far cheaper than nuclear, and obviously a whole lot safer. No country has to worry about another’s potential misuse of the sun or wind as a deadly weapon. There is no solar non-proliferation treaty. We should be talking countries out of developing dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, not paving the way for them.

There is zero logic for a country like Saudi Arabia, also mentioned during the uranium bank’s unveiling, to choose nuclear over solar or wind energy. As Senator Markey (D-MA) once unforgettably pointed out: “Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Arabia of solar.” But the uranium bank could be just the carrot that sunny country needs to abandon renewables in favor of uranium.

This is precisely the problem with the NPT Article IV. Why “reward” non-nuclear weapons countries with dangerous nuclear energy? If they really need electricity, and the UN wants to be helpful, why not support a major investment in renewables? It all goes back to the Bomb, of course, and the Gordian knot of nuclear power and nuclear weapons that the uranium bank just pulled even tighter.

Will the uranium bank be too big to fail? Or will it even be big at all? With nuclear energy in steep decline worldwide, unable to compete with renewables and natural gas; and with major nuclear corporations, including Areva and Westinghouse, going bankrupt, will there even be enough customers?

Clothed in wooly non-proliferation rhetoric, the uranium bank is nothing more than a lupine marketing enterprise to support a struggling nuclear industry desperate to remain relevant as more and more plants close and new construction plans are canceled. The IAEA and its uranium bank just made its prospects a whole lot brighter and a safer future for our planet a whole lot dimmer.

Iran and the issue of uranium enrichment

February 2, 2015
7 reasons not to worry about Iran’s enrichment capacity, ALMONITOR  5 Nov 14 Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are aiming to end the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program by Nov. 24. Iranian and US officials have confirmed that progress was made in the extremely complicated nuclear talks in mid-October in Vienna. …………The following are seven reasons not to be too overly concerned about Iran’s breakout capability:
  1. Under the current International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rules and regulations, the maximum level of transparency for nuclear activities would be secured by the implementation of its three arrangements: the Safeguard Agreement, Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1 and the Additional Protocol. The world powers negotiating with Iran have a clear understanding that Iran is ready to commit to all three arrangements in a final comprehensive agreement.
  2. Iran would be cooperative in capping its level of enrichment at 5% for the duration of the final agreement to assure non-diversion toward weaponization. The fissile uranium in nuclear weapons contains enrichment to 85% or more.
  3. To ensure that Iran’s enrichment activities do not lead to a bomb, Tehran would be willing to synchronize the number of centrifuges or their productivity to its practical needs and convert the product to oxide for a number of years. Iran’s major practical need is to provide fuel for the Bushehr plant in 2021, when its fuel-supply contract with Russia terminates. Practically, out of the current 22,000 centrifuges, Iran would need around 9,000 to 10,000 to provide enough fuel annually for the four fuel elements (out of a total 54 fuel elements) for Bushehr that Russia is contractually required to supply.
  4. Regarding the heavy water facility at Arak, Iran would be cooperative in placing greater monitoring measures and modifying the reactor to reduce the annual enriched plutonium production capacity of 8-10 kilograms (18-22 pounds) to less than 0.8 kilograms (1.7 pounds). Furthermore, the 0.8kg of material will be 78% fissile, which is too low for the production of nuclear weapons, and the timeline for redesigning and building the reactor will require another five to six years.
  5. Secularizing the supreme leader’s fatwa banning the production and stockpiling of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction would be a strong objective guarantee. Once the fatwa is secularized and operationalized, violation would be a criminal matter for the courts to pursue and punishable by law. Iran’s history makes it hard to dismiss the fatwa. After all, despite an estimated 100,000 deaths from Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran, it was a fatwa issued by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that kept Tehran from retaliating during the Iran-Iraq war.
  6. Iran has paid a high price for its nuclear program, having endured a barrage of draconian multilateral and unilateral sanctions to date. The sanctions imposed against Iran are far beyond those imposed on North Korea, which does possess nuclear weapons. The fact is that Iran has already paid the price for making a bomb, but neither wants nor has one, a clear indicator of its steadfastness on nonproliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
  7. If anyone were going to have made the decision to build nuclear weapons, it would have been former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet, during his eight years in the presidency, the IAEA found no evidence of an Iranian nuclear program geared toward weaponization, and his administration sought to normalize bilateral relations with the United States more than all his predecessors.

I am confident that Iran, the United States and the world powers genuinely seek to reach a deal and that there is no reason to extend the deadline beyond late November. The best strategy is to pursue a broad engagement with Iran to ensure that the decision to pursue a nuclear breakout will never come about. Iran and the United States are already tacitly and indirectly cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). A nuclear agreement would be a great boost to mutual trust and provide greater options for dealing not only with IS and the Syrian regime but also Afghanistan and Iraq — where both Washington and Tehran support the new governments in Kabul and Baghdad. Rather than focusing onenrichment capacity, Washington should weigh its capacity for relations with Iran.

Uranium enrichment produces huge amounts of depleted uranium

September 14, 2013

Uranium Enrichment Creates Massive Amounts Of Depleted Uranium (DU) – Used In Weapons Of Mass Destruction

How and where is depleted uranium manufactured? Most of the byproducts (garbage) “from uranium enrichment (96%) is depleted uranium (DU)… There are vast quantities of depleted uranium in storage. The United States Department of Energy alone has 470,000 tons.[1] About 95% of depleted uranium is stored as uranium hexafluoride (UF6).”

Kentucky’s nasty radioactive mess at USEC’s Paducah uranium enrichment plant

June 10, 2013

The Paducah plant cannot legally stay open, and it can’t safely be shut down—a lovely metaphor for the end of the Atomic Age and a perfect nightmare for the people of Kentucky.

Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah  EcoWatch May 22, 2013 by Geoffrey Sea Disaster is about to strike in western Kentucky, a full-blown nuclear catastrophe involving hundreds of tons of enriched uranium tainted with plutonium, technetium, arsenic, beryllium and a toxic chemical brew. But this nuke calamity will be no fluke. It’s been foreseen, planned, even programmed, the result of an atomic extortion game played out between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the most failed American experiment in privatization, the company that has run the Paducah plant into the poisoned ground, USEC Inc.

As now scheduled, main power to the gargantuan gaseous diffusion uranium plant at Paducah, Kentucky, will be cut at midnight on May 31, just nine days from now—cut because USEC has terminated its power contract with TVA as of that time [“USEC Ceases Buying Power,” Paducah Sun, April 19, page 1] and because DOE can’t pick up the bill.

DOE is five months away from the start of 2014 spending authority, needed to fund clean power-down at Paducah. Meanwhile, USEC’s total market capitalization has declined to about $45 million, not enough to meet minimum listing requirements for the New York Stock Exchange, pay off the company’s staggering debts or retain its operating licenses under financial capacity requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Paducah plant cannot legally stay open, and it can’t safely be shut down—a lovely metaphor for the end of the Atomic Age and a perfect nightmare for the people of Kentucky.

Dirty Power-Down

If the main power to the diffusion cascade is cut as now may be unavoidable, the uranium hexafluoride gas inside thousands of miles of piping and process equipment will crystallize, creating a very costly gigantic hunk of junk as a bequest to future generations, delaying site cleanup for many decades and risking nuclear criticality problems that remain unstudied. Unlike gaseous uranium that can be flushed from pipes with relative ease, crystallized uranium may need to be chiseled out manually, adding greatly to occupational hazards.

The gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, TN, was powered-down dirty in 1985, in a safer situation because the Oak Ridge plant did not have near the level of transuranic contaminants found at Paducah. The Oak Ridge catastrophe left a poisonous site that still awaits cleanup a quarter-century later, and an echo chamber of political promises that such a stupid move would never be made again. But that was before the privatization of USEC.

Could a dirty power-down at Paducah—where recycled and reprocessed uranium contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic elements was added in massive quantities—result in “slow-cooker” critical mass formations inside the process equipment?

No one really knows.

Everybody does know that the Paducah plant is about to close. Its technology is Jurassic, requiring about ten times the energy of competing uranium enrichment methods around the world. The Paducah plant has been the largest single-meter consumer of electric power on the planet, requiring two TVA coal plants just to keep it operating, and it’s the largest single-source emitter of the very worst atmospheric gasses—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)…….

Meanwhile, the Kentucky DOE field office in charge, managed by William A. Murphie, has advertised a host of companies “expressing interest” in future use of the Paducah site, with no explanation of how the existing edifice of egregiousness will be made to disappear. “Off the record,” the Kentucky field office has floated dates like 2060 for the completion of Paducah cleanup.

That’s two generations from now……

Silex laser uranium enrichment could cause major weapons proliferation danger

August 16, 2012

a SILEX facility could make it much easier for a rogue state to clandestinely enrich weapons grade uranium to create nuclear bombs

SILEX could become America’s proliferation Fukushima,

Controversial nuclear technology alarms watchdogs  By David Worthington | July 30, 2012 A controversial nuclear technology is raising alarms bells among critics who claim it may be better suited for making nuclear weapons than lowering the cost of nuclear power and could lead to a nonproliferation “Fukushima” for the United States.

SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation) is a method for enriching uranium with lasers. It was developed by Australian scientists during the mid 1990’s as a way to reduce the cost of nuclear fuel, because uranium must be processed before it can be used to generate power.

The scientists formed Silex Systems to license the technology for commercialization, and that process is still ongoing. In 2000, the governments of Australia and the United States signed a treaty, giving the U.S. authority to review whether SILEX should be deployed. That’s because there could be a major proliferation problem. SILEX reduces the steps necessary to transform fuel grade uranium into to weapons-grade uranium, and the process doesn’t create telltale chemical or thermal emissions, according to an article published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, has the byline. (more…)

Laser uranium enrichment technology – sacrificing safety for efficiency

July 21, 2012

a tension between the United States’ goal of safely commercializing nuclear-power technology and its efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear materials. ”When there’s a conflict, generally speaking, the policy to spread nuclear technology overrides the non-proliferation policy.”

Laser-based uranium enrichment plant sparks controversy 07/05/2012 Laser Focus World  by Gail Overton  Senior Editor  Washington, DC–A July 4 Nature news story from Sharon Weinberger says that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to open a plant that uses laser-based uranium enrichment will be considered in private. Although the controversial laser uranium-enrichment technology is on the cusp of making it cheaper to create fuel for nuclear power plants, some non-proliferation experts are concerned that the efficiency of the laser-based technology will also smooth the path for bomb makers.  (more…)

Security and Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

January 5, 2012

The Seoul Nuclear Summit, The National Interest,  Miles A. PomperMichelle E. Dover ,  January 4, 2012  “……. [In 2010] The White House announced that fifty-four national commitments were made by twenty-nine countries. These included pledges to donate money to the IAEA, remove or secure nuclear material, prevent nuclear smuggling, ratify or support existing conventions and treaties, and convert reactors from running on nuclear-weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) to safer low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The last promise was particularly important. Unlike its cousin, plutonium, HEU is suitable for use in the simplest kind of nuclear weapon, a so-called “gun-type” bomb. In gun-type devices, one subcritical piece of fissile material is fired at another subcritical target. Together they form a critical mass and spark a chain reaction. The process is so simple and well understood that such a device does not need to be explosively tested; even the first such bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, was not tested prior to its use. Terrorists who acquired a sufficient quantity of HEU would not need to be backed by the scientific and financial resources of a state to construct such a nuclear device. (more…)

A nuclear weapons proliferation danger: Silex Laser Uranium Enrichment

January 2, 2012

many of the good things GE is using to make a case about Silex—less use of resources and electricity and increased efficiency—are actually negatives that make it easier for rogue states to hide clandestine plants…..methods for the production and use of nuclear materials that would be more difficult to detect,” the report states

New Uranium Enrichment Technology Alarms Aviation Week, By Kristin Majcher Washington 23 Nov 11 General Electric says it has successfully tested a faster, cheaper way to produce nuclear reactor fuel, and is planning to commercialize the technology by building a facility in Wilmington, N.C. While the prospect of saving resources to generate energy at a lower price sounds like a breakthrough, scientists are concerned that the top-secret method of enrichment that GE is using will indirectly elevate proliferation risks around the world, thus inspiring rogue states to develop their own laser enrichment facilities for nuclear weapons.
The enrichment technology is the Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation (Silex). It was developed by Silex of Australia in 1992. The technology company USEC funded early research on Silex, but abandoned it in favor of focusing on centrifuge enrichment. In 2006, GE signed an exclusive agreement to commercialize and license the technology and spearhead further research and development.
Although Silex is the only known method of laser enrichment that works and could be commercially viable, scientists are concerned because many countries have funded laser-enrichment projects. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, more than 20 countries have researched laser isotope separation techniques, including China, India, Iraq, Russia, Japan and Pakistan. Although they were unsuccessful, scientists say that putting Silex back into the public eye, regardless of the safeguards GE promises, poses a problem. Showing that it works could renew efforts by countries to develop the process. (more…)