Civilian HEU: Germany

Overview

Germany is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). All of its nuclear material holdings are for civilian applications. The German government voluntarily declares its HEU holdings to the IAEA as part of its annual declaration of plutonium stocks (INFCIRC/549), and is the only non-nuclear weapon state to do so.

As of its 2014 declaration, Germany had 1230 kg of HEU, of which approximately 930 kg was irradiated, 270 kg was held in research reactors, and 30 kg was stored in several locations: Germany's Federal Storage Site in Hanau; Cadarache, France; Dounreay, Scotland; and at German and European research centers and universities. All German HEU is the property of the European Union. [1] The majority of Germany's HEU is weapons-grade, and if chemically processed further would be directly usable for a nuclear weapon.

Production, Use, and Commerce

Germany uses HEU fuel for its FRM-II reactor. [2] Although Germany has commercial enrichment facilities, they are all used for the production of low enriched uranium (LEU). [3] Germany therefore relies on HEU imports to fuel its FRM-II reactor. [4]

According to the IAEA's Research Reactor Database, Germany has operated over 47 reactors, a quarter of which have operated with HEU fuel. Germany has converted or shut down all but one HEU-fueled research reactor, the FRM-II reactor in Garching (near Munich), which still uses weapons-grade HEU fuel. The Berliner Experimentier-Reaktor II (Berlin Experimental Reactor II, BER-II) reactor was converted in 2000, and now uses only LEU fuel. [5] As is often the case, the conversion was gradual over 2.5 years, first employing a mixed HEU/LEU fuel core and then gradually converting to a full HEU core. [6]

The FRM-II is the only HEU-fueled reactor that has been constructed in a Western country over the past two decades. In 2001, due to the controversy over the use of 93% enriched uranium in the reactor, German lawmakers required that the FRM-II be converted to use fuel near or below 50% HEU by December 31, 2010. However, in 2010 the Minister-President of Bavaria announced the extension of the conversion deadline until at least 2018 due to the unavailability of high-density fuel. At present, it is unclear whether the fuel will even be available by 2018. [7] The operation of this reactor continues to require the import of HEU fuel. [8] The French company Areva holds a supply contract for FRM-II fuel, but the source of the HEU is unclear as France also currently imports HEU. [9] The fuel rods for the FRM-II reactor each contain 8.1 kg of HEU, and are fabricated by CERCA, in France. The reactor uses approximately 32.4 kg of HEU annually. [10] The amount of HEU stored in Germany is set to increase at 32 kg/year as long as the FRM-II is in operation. The "spent fuel is not qualified for U.S. take-back and, by German law, spent fuel can no longer be shipped to France for reprocessing." [11]

In the early 1990s there was less international attention paid to the risks associated with HEU fuel in civil applications. Indeed, proponents of the FRM-II argued that because spent HEU fuel contains less plutonium than spent LEU fuel, it would pose fewer risks (in fact, the quantity of plutonium is very small at all levels of enrichment). The claim of HEU's "reduced side effects" was repeated officially by the government: "The Federal Government has on numerous occasions explained that the use of HEU in the FRM-II project is highly recommended because of the specific scientific objectives involved, on grounds of cost, and in particular because of the comparatively limited effects on the environment and the smaller plutonium yield." [12]

The German government mandated an expert commission to consider LEU use in the FRM-II. However, construction based on the original design had already commenced in 1996, and by the time of the study in 1999 a redesign would have required cost-prohibitive reconstruction. Additionally, the commission was not provided sufficient time to investigate the contradicting claims made by Munich Technical University and U.S. Department of Energy scientists. These contradictions included conclusions regarding what redesigning the reactor for LEU would mean in terms of cost, effects on experimental capabilities, and other top user concerns. [13] Ultimately, the FRM-II was not redesigned for LEU use.

Given the facility's compact core, development of a new type of very high-density fuel would be necessary if the Munich Technical University wished to employ LEU. German scientists have been cooperating with scientists in France, the United States, and elsewhere in research and development of new fuel since before the 2001 requirement to lower the reactor fuel's enrichment level. The 2010 conversion timeframe meant, however, that Germany could not wait for the qualification of new very high-density fuels that were under development for the conversion of high flux reactors in the United States. The FRM-II was allowed to start up using HEU, and went critical in 2004.

In 2009, the Munich Technical University, in cooperation with the Belgian Institut National des Radioéléments (IRE), completed a feasibility study dealing with the possible use of the FRM-II reactor for the irradiation of IRE's uranium targets for the production of medical isotopes, including Mo-99. According to a report by the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, production is set to start in 2016 and the reactor will utilize LEU targets. [14]

Until the late 1980s, Germany had a large quantity of HEU fuel dedicated to high temperature reactor projects at Jülich. The THTR-300 Thorium-Hochtemperaturreaktor operated between 1983 and 1989, while its predecessor, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Versuchs-Reaktor (AVR), was an experimental pebble bed research reactor (PBRR) that operated between 1967 and 1988. Germany no longer pursues these projects, and has designated space at the Ahaus storage facility for fuel related to the project. [15]

Efforts to Reduce or Eliminate Civilian HEU

Germany has actively cooperated with the U.S. Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors RERTR program, and has shut down all but two HEU-fueled research reactors. [16] German diplomats supported a Norwegian initiative to reduce the use of HEU in the civilian nuclear sector at the 2005 NPT Review Conference. [17] Germany also signed the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué that encourages states "to take measures to minimize the use of HEU, including through the conversion of reactors from highly enriched to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, where technically and economically feasible […] and encourage States in a position to do so, by the end of 2013, to announce voluntary specific actions intended to minimize the use of HEU." [18] Germany is likely to support further efforts to consolidate and minimize civilian HEU, as long as these measures do not preclude the operation of the FRM-II. At the 2016 NSS Germany signed a Joint Statement with Belgium, France, The Republic of Korea, and the United States reaffirming its commitment to HEU minimization by pledging to cooperate on the further development and testing of high-density LEU fuel to aid in the conversion of reactors that continue to rely on HEU, including the FRM-II. [19] During the Summit, the White House praised Germany for being a leader in global nuclear security, and announced the successful removal of excess plutonium and HEU from Germany. Although the amount of the latest shipment was not disclosed, a White House Fact Sheet notes that Germany has returned more than 135 kg of HEU to the U.S. since 1996. [20]

German policy requires that nuclear fuel be sent back to its country of origin whenever possible. In December 2006, 268 kg of Russian-origin HEU fresh fuel at the former East German nuclear facility at Rossendorf, near Dresden, was repatriated under the GTRI program. [21] Approval for storing Soviet-origin irradiated HEU from the Rossendorf research reactor at the Ahaus Intermediate Fuel Storage Facility was granted in 2004. [22] However, the last shipment of this fuel to Russia's Mayak facility was indefinitely delayed in 2010 when Germany's Minister for Environment, Nature Protection and Reactor Safety refused to grant an export license for the material. [23] As such, the "ultimate fate of the German HEU is currently unknown." [24]

In October 2015, the German High-Level Waste Commission passed a resolution to ban the export of spent fuel in response to the possibility the government could ship 900,000 radioactive graphite "pebbles" from the THTR, and spent fuel from the AVR, to the U.S. Savannah River Site (SVS). While not legally binding, the resolution is likely to influence German parliamentary decisions, placing the future storage and disposition of the HEU waste in question. [25]

The construction and continued operation of the HEU-fueled FRM-II reactor has undermined HEU minimization in other countries and has prevented Germany from promoting minimization effectively. By continuing to import HEU to fuel this reactor, Germany continues to send a message to supplier states that HEU is commercially valuable, undermining efforts to halt its production worldwide. [26] However, Germany's signature on the 2016 NSS Joint Statement reaffirming its will to convert the FRM-II indicates Germany's desire to continue working with global norms of minimizing and ultimately eliminating HEU in civil applications.

Sources:
[1] For more information on storage of spent nuclear fuel in Germany, please see the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety's report entitled, "Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management," May 2009, www.bmu.de.
[2] Kenny Dayman, "FRM-II in Germany," University of Texas at Austin, 2011, www.heuphaseout.org. Liebert estimated that the FRM-2 would use 40 kg of HEU annually. Wolfgang Liebert, "New German Research Reactor Using Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) Raises Concern," International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation Briefing Paper No. 6, 1998, www.inesap.org.
[3] Urenco, "Urananreicherung" (Uranium enrichment), www.urenco.com; Jülich Research Centre, www.fz-juelich.de.
[4] Declaration made August 28, 2015, reported in: International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication Received from Germany Concerning Its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium," INFCIRC/549/Add.2/18, August 28, 2015, www.iaea.org.
[5] Ole Reistad and Styrkaar Hustveit, "HEU Fuel Cycle Inventories and Progress on Global Minimization," The Nonproliferation Review, July 2008, 15/2, www.nonproliferation.org.
[6] Karin Haas, Christian-Herbert Fischer, and Herbert Krohn, "HEU/LEU-Conversion of BER II successfully finished," RERTR Conference Paper, October 1-6, 2000, www.rertr.anl.gov; As cited in Cristina Chuen, "German Policy Regarding the Possible Elimination of HEU in the Civilian Nuclear Sector," unpublished manuscript, March 2006.
[7] Kenny Dayman, "FRM-II in Germany," University of Texas at Austin, 2011, www.heuphaseout.org.
[8] The current supplier is a French company, Areva, but its source for the HEU is unknown. Pavel Podvig, "Areva to Supply Fuel for FRM-II Research Reactor," International Panel on Fissile Materials, June 24, 2013, http://fissilematerials.org.
[9] Pavel Podvig, "Areva to Supply Fuel for FRM-II Research Reactor," International Panel on Fissile Materials, June 24, 2013, http://fissilematerials.org.
[10] Kenny Dayman, "FRM-II in Germany," University of Texas at Austin, 2011, www.heuphaseout.org. Liebert estimated that the FRM-2 would use 40 kg of HEU annually. Wolfgang Liebert, "New German Research Reactor Using Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) Raises Concern," International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation Briefing Paper No. 6, 1998, www.inesap.org.
[11] International Panel on Fissile Materials, Global Fissile Materials Report 2010, p. 141, www.fissilematerials.org.
[12] German Federal Parliament, "Antwort auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Probst, Altmann, Haefner, Hermenau, Kiper, Koester-Lossack, Schoenberger und der Fraktion BUNDNIS 90/Die GRUNEN" (Reply to Parliamentary Question), Document 13/600, reply to question 26, as cited in Annette Schaper, "German Policy Regarding the Possible Elimination of HEU in the Civilian Nuclear Sector," unpublished manuscript, September 2006.
[13] The work of the commission, assembled by the Ministry of Education and Research under the chairmanship of State Secretary Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, is discussed in Schaper, "German Policy," September 2006. Dr. Schaper was one of the six experts on the commission. Argonne National Laboratory scientists first presented study of a redesign at the annual RERTR meeting in 1995. See: Sai-Chi Mo, Nelson A. Hanan and James E. Matos, "Comparison of the FRM-II HEU Design with an Alternative LEU Design," RERTR, September 18-21, 1994, Paris, France, www.rertr.anl.gov.
[14] Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, "A Supply and Demand Update of the Molybdenum-99 Market," August 2012, p. 10, www.oecd-nea.org.
[15] "Center interim storage facilities," Bündesamt fur Strahlenschutz, updated March 13, 2008, www.bfs.de.
[16] Ole Reistad and Styrkaar Hustveit, "HEU Fuel Cycle Inventories and Progress on Global Minimization," The Nonproliferation Review, July 2008, 15/2, www.nonproliferation.org.
[17] Personal communication with William Potter, May 2005.
[18] Seoul Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué, March 27, 2012, www.thenuclearsecuritysummit.org. The full text is also available at: www.un.org.
[19] The reactors named in the Joint Statement are the BR-2 in Belgium, the RHF and RJH in France, FRM-2 in Germany and the MITR, MURR, NCNR, ATR, and HFIR in the United States. "Joint Statement on Multilateral Cooperation on High-Density Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel Development for High-Performance Research Reactors," Nuclear Security Summit 2016, April 1, 2016.
[20] "Fact Sheet: Nuclear Material Removal from Germany," The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, April 1, 2016.
[21] "Almost 600 Pounds of Highly Enriched Uranium Returned to Russia," NNSA Factsheet, December 18, 2006, http://nnsa.energy.gov.
[22] See the: October 6, 2005 version of the website: www.bfs.de, which says that on March, 30, 2004, the Ministry for Radiation Protection issued the third change authorization. With it, not only irradiated fuel elements from power reactors, but also fuel elements from the research reactor Rossendorf can be stored in 18 containers of type CASTOR MTR-2 (SN 01 GP bis SN 18 GP).
[23] Pavel Podvig, "German government blocks HEU spent fuel shipment to Russia," IPFM blog, December 9, 2010, fissilematerials.org.
[24] David Albright and Serena Kelleher- Vergantini, "Civilian HEU Watch: Tracking Inventories of Civil Highly Enriched Uranium," October 7, 2015, http://isis-online.org.
[25] "German Nuclear Waste Commission Approves resolution to Ban Export of Spent Fuel, Including AVR Spent Fuel from Juelich to the Savannah River Site," Savannah River Site Watch, November 3, 2015, www.srswatch.org.
[26] This mirrors analysis regarding a previous HEU shipment deal between Russia and France; see: Alan J. Kuperman, Paul L. Leventhal, "RERTR End-Game: a Win-Win Framework," a paper presented at the International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research Reactors and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, October 5-10, 1997, www.nci.org.

April 26, 2016
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The article is part of a collection examining civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It details current German HEU policies, progress reducing and eliminating the civil use of HEU in Germany, and remaining challenges.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.