James ActonWhat should we do with NORK Pu?

This is a question that was discussed at a couple of meetings I attended last year. In the short-term, the objective is of course to get plutonium out of the reactor and into wet storage ASAP. Presumably, however, the US (and South Korea and Japan and probably China and Russia) would at some point like to remove the material from the DPRK altogether. And, if North Korea is serious about the Six Party process, I imagine it would be happy to sell. The problem is this: What should be done with the spent fuel if North Korea does sell?

Mangnox fuel, that classic of British design, was never designed to be stored long term; it was designed to be reprocessed. It corrodes in wet storage and while getting the water chemistry right slows corrosion down it won’t stop it entirely. So that leaves two options: dry storage or reprocessing.

Currently, just one Magnox reactor, Wylfa, uses dry storage. But, again, I don’t know is whether this is a long-term solution. The dry store at Wylfa is only an interim store before reprocessing so I’m not sure about the viability of storing NORK spent fuel in that mode for the indefinite future.

If dry-storage isn’t an option, that leaves reprocessing. The problem here is that no plant apart from Sellafield (in the UK) has a head-end designed for Magnox fuel—and Sellafield is currently in a prolonged shut-down following an accident in 2005. Even if Sellafield does come back on-line (and if it doesn’t we in the UK are going to have a massive problem about to do with all of the spent fuel that’s currently accumulating here) there might be substantial domestic opposition to importing North Korean spent fuel (I’d be very interested to find out what the relevant British civil society groups think about this one). Anyway, if the UK isn’t an option (for whatever reason) I can’t imagine that Japan, Russia or France is going to build a whole new head-end for just one reactor load of fuel. So, if it turns out that neither dry storage nor reprocessing are viable ways of dealing with North Korean spent fuel, it looks like we might have a real problem.

Any bright ideas from wonk readers?


  1. Mike (History)

    I am not directly familiar with various equipment and orifice dimensions at the head-end facility or the turntable in the shear cave at Sellafield or of the facilities at Rokkasho, La Hague or Mayak, so, with that caveat, would it be possible to “pre-cut” the fuel assemblies before delivery to a reprocessing facility?

    Perhaps use could be made of whatever hot cell facilities the NORKs have in place already to do the work? The 6-Party Group could have experts go in to cut the fuel, do some basic assay work, “repackage” the fuel in DU sleeves appropriate for, say, Mayak, Sellafield or Rokkasho, and ship out the stuff in “bite-size” pieces for handling. It would allow for small-scale testing of the process to make sure it would work.

    Another option might be to use the above approach but ship it to Idaho and run it through the Fuel Conditioning Facility at the defunct EBR-II site for pyroprocessing. Now that is pure speculation, as I do not know the current condition of the site or what kind of bureaucratic demons that would awaken, but it is a thought.

  2. Rwendland (History)

    My proposal would be akin to what some people call “virtual reprocessing”. We calculate how much Pu is in the current spent fuel, buy that amount of Pu from North Korean’s current stock, then let them reprocess the fuel in a final reprocessing run. This is safer by not having to transport the spent fuel around the world; the North Koreans get a bit of money and have to cope with the reprocessing effluent; we save lots of money transporting and reprocessing. Any chance U.S. politicians could bite this cherry? Contractors might be the only real losers, if any of them want the job.

    Just thinking about transport, does anyone have strong transportation casks for NK sized fuel? NK won’t, as the reprocessing plant is next door to the reactor. It troubles me that we don’t have answers to these kind of basic questions out in the public yet.

    As China and Russia have rail links to NK, I’d be asking them first if they fancy the job. The UK has taken spent Magnox fuel from Japan, so has ships and procedures – as you point out the UK reprocessing plant is having problems, but the NK fuel is a tiny amount compared to UK Magnox volumes, so if the will is there it could probably be slipped in at a price. The UK has to solve its Magnox issues.

    UK transports Magnox spent fuel wet, so maybe we don’t need to dry can the fuel in NK if something is sorted out quickly. UK practice is to reprocess within 560 day if at all possible, as it becomes troublesome and expensive after that due to corrosion.

  3. Rwendland (History)

    The UK dry store tried at Wylfa Magnox power station is designed for interim use for up to 100 years . However it is designed for use before the Magnox fuel ever gets wet – as is probably happening right now in NK. Once it is wet, I doubt it would work so well. Part of the dry store had some water ingress, and it created corroded fuel that was very difficult to remove and handle – ad-hoc manipulation of spent fuel seems so much easier under water.

    Apart from the water ingress, the dry store has worked well for 15 years keeping spent fuel in good condition. But the dry stored fuel is now heading for reprocessing as the UK closes down the Magnox programme. The UK view is that as both Uranium metal and Magnesium-alloy sheath react with water and can catch fire, it is unsuited for permanent deep disposal. The UK nuclear vested interests are rather reprocessing biased so you need to be critical, but this does seem a reasonable assessment.

    Also the dry store isn’t something simple. Obviously large biological shield to a seismic standard, can run using CO2 for fresh hot fuel, redundant forced cooling. In fact somewhat similar to an out-of-service small Magnox power station!

    On a non-proliferation note, the IAEA Magnox dry-store paper mentioned above states “Today [1983] the purchase of a MGR [Magnox] Power Station with dry fuel storage and without commitment to reprocess would be a rational decision for a country initiating a nuclear power programme.” (page 317) If a western country was still trying to sell Magnox reactors to small countries in 1983, it could be considered harsh to over-criticise NK for deciding to develop a Magnox power station program in the late 1970s.

  4. Mike (History)

    Rwendland – great point that the NORKs could do one final reprocessing run. That might actually solve a number of problems.

    As for shipping packages for Magnox-type fuel, there should be a variety of Spent Fuel Casks from vendors such as NAC Int’l or others that could handle the relatively short fuel assemblies from that type of plant. Surely someone like Edlow could arrange for transport.

    That said, I have no data on the size of the NORK fuel.

  5. Eli (History)

    Reports in the news and statements by Amb. Hill have pointed to the fact that disablement procedures have already been completed at the two other facilities at Yongbyon. So it seems your plan would necessitate repairing whatever we broke (2 such things were mentioned in the comments on the previous post about the water pool). Its my belief, and maybe this is just naive, that the disablers would have considered reprocessing the spent fuel unloaded from the reactor and dismissed that as a possibility before disabling the reprocessing equipment. Unless they were just in a rush to complete whatever they could as soon as possible.

  6. Harry Lime (History)


    I agree very much that the US and other interested parties will be keen to remove the already separated Pu and the Pu-bearing irradiated fuel from the DPRK. Leaving aside the thorny question of what this will “cost”, and surely this will not simply be a matter of cash, you raise the interesting question of what should be done with the irradiated fuel.

    Indefinite storage or geological disposal, at least, of metallic fuels such as we have here is not a realistic option. The choices are therefore whether to reprocess or convert the fuel to a more stable form (e.g. oxidise it) and then encapsulate it in a suitable matrix for disposal. Reprocessing options are indeed limited but not perhaps as drastically as you imply. You remark that “Sellafield is currently in a prolonged shut-down following an accident in 2005” however, this accident involved the oxide reprocessing plant, Thorp, and not the Magnox reprocessing plant. Sellafield as a whole is certainly not shutdown and whilst there has only been a few tens of tonnes of fuel processed through Thorp since 2005, the Magnox plant – the one relevant to the issue at hand – has operated in recent years with sufficiently high throughput that the 50 tonnes or so of fuel currently being discharged from the North Korean reactor is a relatively insignificant amount. Moreover, the 2012 closure date of the Magnox reprocessing plant now looks likely to be delayed until at least 2016 so there is no significant urgency in this respect. Alternatively, the Russian RT-1 plant at Mayak would most probably be able to accommodate the reprocessing of the fuel relatively easily. The other reprocessing plants mentioned in previous posts(La Hague, Rokkasho and Thorp) are all designed for reprocessing oxide fuel and could not be used to process this fuel without very substantial physical and/or operational modifications.

    Previous commenters note that provision of suitable flasks and transport arrangements should be possible and it should be recalled that it’s not too many years ago that Magnox fuel from both Italy and Japan was still being transferred to Sellafield (by sea) for reprocessing.

    As for reprocessing the fuel in North Korea – yes, this would remove the problem of transporting the fuel- but it would also introduce what, to me at least, seems to be a much larger issue – that of adequately montioring any such reprocessing operation and ensuring that the separated plutonium product was ultimately handed over by the North Koreans. Letting the North Koreans do the processing themselves could be argued to be allowing their accumulation of separated plutonium to continue without any robust guarantee that the material would be handed over. One variant of the in-country reprocessing approach which may be slightly more acceptable would be for the North Korean’s first to hand over their exiting stocks of separated plutonium (and make a full declaration …..). Such actions might increase the level of trust between the parties that agreements will be honoured but even then a level of distrust would surely remain which might make this approach unacceptable, especially when there are other technically acceptable options. I certainly wouldn’t suggest paying for the plutonium in advance of allowing the North Koreans to reprocess the fuel as was proposed in an earlier post. In fact, I would argue that taking custody of the fuel and already separated plutonium at the earliest opportunity would be the wisest option. Having an ultimate plan of what would happen to the fuel would obviously be a good thing but should not be considered to be an absolute precondition.

  7. xxx

    It doesn’t provide a lot of help on the question James poses, but I’d like to point out a study done a few years ago that looks at the broader set of technical waste management questions that don’t have good solutions: “Dismantlement and Radioactive Waste Management of DPRK Nuclear Facilities”, (http://www.cmc.sandia.gov/cmc-papers/sand2005-1981p.pdf)

  8. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Can’t the stuff be sold to Chinese medicine vendors as an exotic ingredient that can cure impotence, ED, cancer, listlessness, or general irritability caused by rising pork prices and fuel shortages?

  9. Carey (History)

    I suggest that, in addition to reprocessing options discussed above which add the remaining fuel load to existing waste streams in the DPRK or elsewhere, that dry cask storage in-place should be a viable and economical option.

    Clearly pond storage of the fuel is not a long term option due to corrosion so the fuel must be relocated.

    So how about constructing a “dry pond” structure for storage on-site? That is to say, storing the fuel in casks in an above-ground structure that keeps them in a suitable inert gas atmosphere, like carbon dioxide?

    The notion of permanent storage seems to be automatically tied to the idea that it must be “deep” and “geological” and remain stable with zero maintenance. While these are desirable features of permanent storage, I see no necessity in them.

    A dry pond would require some level of structure maintenance (like nearly all human structures everywhere) and monitoring of its atmosphere, but the maintenance cost should not be high, and other parts of the site will likely require monitoring and maintenance any way.

  10. FOARP (History)

    @Lao Tao Ren – Sell it as a skin whitening and weightloss treatment, priced at 100 yuan a pop and you’ll have Shanghai Xiojie’s mobing Carrefour to get at it!

  11. Arch (History)

    Thoughtful comments all. I wonder if there could be some advantage to reprocessing the NK fuel and putting it through the blend-down facility that was used for excess plutonium from Russian and American weapons? I don’t know enough about technical issues, and my impression is that the blend-down project is suspended or mothballed, but it could have an important symbolic significance on top of being a practical solution. Any ideas from the experts?

    The IAEA project on excess Russian and American plutonium was a largely-unnoticed landmark for nonproliferation and arms control efforts, and it still provides a model for an element of any future agreements, assuming nuclear arms control is not dead. It is also a possible necessary component for the fuel bank ideas being promoted by the Agency at the moment. In case nobody saw it, the BUSH Administration just committed $50 million to ElBaradei’s fuel bank initiative. They deserve some commendation for jump-starting this important idea.

    The DPRK will doubtless want some compensation, which I think can be done in terms of BTU’s or KW hours or whatever, and enough heating oil could be provided through the 6PT to compensate. Again, I would look to the energy experts for ideas.

  12. Carl (History)

    I recently read Marilynne Robinson’s Waste Land in the Best of Granta Reportage, an essay about Sellafield’s turbulent history throughout the early 1980’s and an attack on its horrendous safety record. It’s a recommended read for anybody who wants to know more about the background of the facility.

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