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Surprise: French research reactor converts to LEU

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#504
18/12/1998
Article

(December 18, 1998) Through a combination of pressure from the US and failure of Russia to deliver High Enriched Uranium (HEU), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, has agreed to convert its 57-MW High- Flux Research Reactor to the use of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU).

(504.4967) WISE Amsterdam - On November 12 a memorandum of understanding was signed between France and the US that conversion of the reactor from HEU to LEU would start "when it becomes technically and economically possible". As a reward for the conversion, the US would supply HEU until conversion is completed, and will also take back the spent fuel.
Since 1978, the US program for Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) has required promotion of development and use of LEU fuel for research reactors. The goal of the program was to reduce the international commerce of the bomb-grade HEU. In 1992, the Schumer Amendment banned the supply of US HEU to reactors refusing to cooperate with the program.
Due to this US policy, most research reactors did convert to LEU fuel or agreed to cooperate with the US to develop LEU fuel without loss of performance or extra costs for their reactors. The ILL reactor had its HEU supply from the US blocked when it restarted in 1995 after a four-year repair. It tried to buy HEU from Russia. Russia became an associate member of ILL in November 1996, in exchange for a contract for the sale of HEU by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, Minatom. But due to problems between the Russian Ministry of Science and Minatom, the fuel was not delivered.

Who's next?
Only very few European research reactors are still using HEU:

  • the High-Flux Reactor in Petten, the Netherlands,
  • the BR2 reactor at Mol, Belgium, and
  • the FRM II reactor currently being built in Munich, Germany.

Recently, the new red-green German government stated that the use of bomb-grade uranium fuel in research reactors was "problematic and dubious in terms of foreign policy". The government is to check again if FRM II could be converted to LEU fuel. The university of Munich, owner of the FRM II, formerly cited the refusal of the French to convert their ILL reactor to LEU to support their reluctance. Now they cannot do that any more.
Operators of the Petten and the BR2 reactors have long been interested in conversion but have not yet agreed to do so. In the meantime, they have also discussed the sale of HEU with Russia. For Petten it was a problem that they had to apply for a new license, which could be delayed by opponents.
What is their reaction to this sudden French change-of-heart and the Russian failure to supply HEU?
Press spokesman Cundy of the HFR at Petten said: "Early next year a study at costs and other aspects of conversion will be completed. A decision will be made after that." A license to build a storage site for the Petten spent fuel was destroyed by the Council of State of the Netherlands in 1998. So there is no solution yet for their nuclear waste problem. The storage pool on site would run out of capacity within two years. The storage problem will be solved (that is, for the HFR) if it is decided to convert, because the US would then take back the HFR spent fuel.

Source: Nature, 19 November 1998, p. 203 / Telephone conversation with Mr. Cundy (HFR Petten) on 1 December 1998
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