Plutonium Recovery from Spent Fuel Reprocessing by Nuclear Fuel Services at West Valley, New York from 1966 to 1972

Plutonium Recovery from Spent Fuel Reprocessing by Nuclear Fuel Services at West Valley, New York from 1966 to 1972

Prepared by U.S. Department of Energy, February 1996


Table of Contents

Executive Summary
Purpose
Background
NFS West Valley Reprocessing Campaigns
NFS West Valley Plutonium Shipments to the AEC
NFS West Valley Plutonium Shipments to Others
Note

Executive Summary

This report provides a detailed accounting of the separatedplutonium received by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), apredecessor to the Department of Energy (DOE), from Nuclear FuelServices (NFS), which operated a commercial spent fuel reprocessingfacility located near West Valley, New York, 35 miles south of Buffalo.The NFS facility was the first and only private plant in the U.S. toreprocess spent nuclear fuel. NFS began receiving spent nuclear fuel atWest Valley in 1965, and operated the facility from 1966 to 1972 tochemically separate and recover plutonium and uranium from the fuel.

In total, the plant recovered 1926 kilograms (kg) of plutonium andshipped almost 80% of the material (1530 kg) to the AEC. The remainingplutonium, 396 kg, either was retained by the utility companies, sold toindustry by the utilities, or purchased by NFS and later re-sold toindustry for use in plutonium recycle operations.

Of the 1530 kg of separated plutonium received by the AEC from theNFS West Valley facility, 635 kg originated from fuel or reactors thatwere AEC-owned and 895 kg came from commercial power- reactor fuel. TheAEC purchased the 895 kg of commercial power-reactor plutonium from theutility companies under a program named the Plutonium Credit Activitywhich was established by the U.S. Congress in the Atomic Energy Act of1954.

  • Of the 635 kg of AEC-origin plutonium, most came from N-Reactor, aplutonium production reactor at the Hanford site near Richland,Washington. Specifically, 534 kg of plutonium came from N-Reactor, 95kg from the Nuclear Fuels Services facility in Erwin, Tennessee, and 6kg from the Bonus Reactor, an AEC-owned demonstration reactor in PuertoRico.
  • Of the 895 kg of separated plutonium purchased by the AEC from theutility companies, 436 kg was from Yankee Atomic Electric Company(Yankee Rowe), 285 kg from Commonwealth Edison Company (Dresden-1), 63kg from Consumers Power Company (Big Rock Point), 7 kg from NorthernStates Power Company (Pathfinder), and 104 kg from Consolidated EdisonCompany (Indian Point-1).

All of the AEC-owned and -purchased plutonium was shipped asplutonium nitrate solution from NFS to the Hanford site. Theseshipments were made by commercial truck in accordance with applicabletransportation regulations. Most of the plutonium received by the AECfrom NFS was used in breeder reactor and zero-power reactor programs.To meet the isotopic and physical requirements for these programs, theNFS plutonium was blended with other plutonium and converted to eithermetal or oxide. The isotopic composition of the power reactor plutoniumgenerally precluded its use in weapons production, even after blending,and there is no indication that blending occurred for that purpose.

Purpose

The purpose of this report is to provide a detailed account of theseparated plutonium received by the AEC from NFS, a commercial spentfuel reprocessing facility located near West Valley, New York, 35 milessouth of Buffalo. This document is part of a larger effort to respondto the Secretary of Energy's June 27, 1994, announced goal to declassifyand release detailed plutonium information (See the DOE report,Plutonium: the First 50 Years, February 1996). This report isthe first comprehensive look at NFS West Valley reprocessing operationsand is the result of an exhaustive search of open literature, historicalmemoranda, and nuclear material accountability records.

Background

In 1953, the U.S. announced the Atoms for Peace Program. Thisprogram signaled a shift in U.S. policy from closely guarding allinformation about nuclear science to encouraging peaceful uses ofnuclear energy at home and abroad. The agreements implementing thisprogram allowed a sharing of information about industrial applicationsof nuclear energy, including nuclear fuel reprocessing techniques, whilediscouraging nuclear weapons proliferation. This change in U.S. policyset the stage for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and theNonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

  • The IAEA was established in the late 1950s to encourage the use ofnuclear energy for peaceful purposes and to provide safeguards againstproliferation; the safeguards were designed to detect, rather than toprevent, the diversion of nuclear materials.
  • The NPT was ratified in 1968 and became effective in 1970, and in1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely. Currently, more than 170nations are adherents to this treaty. The NPT provides for the right ofeach participant to engage in peaceful nuclear activities, includingspent fuel reprocessing. Nations not already in possession of nuclearweapons agreed not to develop themand to accept IAEA-directed safeguardsfor all peaceful nuclear activities under their control.

The objective of the Atoms for Peace Program was to promote thedomestic and international exploration, development, and advancement ofthe technology necessary to build and operate reliable, economic nuclearpower plants; to provide cooperative assistance in establishing aself-sufficient nuclear power industry; and to ensure the developmentand use of nuclear energy in electric power production and salt waterdesalination.

To insure a self-sufficient, domestic commercial nuclear powerindustry, the AEC encouraged the transfer of nuclear fuel reprocessingfrom the federal government to private industry. As a result of thispolicy, three commercial reprocessing facilities were built in the U.S.:General Electric s Midwest Fuel Recovery Plant at Morris, Illinois;Allied General Nuclear Services (AGNS) plant at Barnwell, SouthCarolina; Nuclear Fuel Service's facility located near West Valley, NewYork.

Optimism about the future growth of the nuclear industry led theState of New York to set aside 3345 acres near West Valley, New York,and to encourage nuclear industries to locate there. Although fuelreprocessing had been practiced in the U.S. since 1944, large-scalefuel reprocessing in the U.S. had been conducted only at DOE facilitiesin Idaho, South Carolina, and Washington State, until NFS beganoperations at West Valley, NY.

The NFS West Valley facility was the first and only private plant inthe U.S. to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The NFS facility was a PUREX(Plutonium Uranium Extraction) process plant with a design capacity of300 tons of fuel per year. The PUREX process included storing spentfuel assemblies; chopping the assembly rods; dissolving the uranium,plutonium, and radioactive products in acid; separating and storing theradioactive wastes, and separating uranium nitrate from plutoniumnitrate. Two other commercial reprocessing facilities were built in theUnited States, but never operated.

  • The General Electric's Midwest Fuel Recovery Plant (also 300 tonsper year) at Morris, Illinois, adjacent to the site of the CommonwealthEdison Company Dresden reactors, was completed at a cost of $64 millionbut was declared inoperable in 1974.
  • In 1970, Allied General Nuclear Services (AGNS) began constructionof a 1500 tons per year reprocessing plant at Barnwell, South Carolina,adjacent to the DOE Savannah River site. The Barnwell facility was dueto begin operation in 1974, but following delays in construction andlicensing, it still had not been completed or licensed when in 1977President Carter decided to defer indefinitely all reprocessing ofcommercial irradiated fuel.

In the spring of 1963, the AEC issued the necessary permits to NFS,a subsidiary of the W.R. Grace Company (NFS was acquired by the GettyOil Company in 1969), to begin construction of a fuel reprocessingfacility. NFS was granted a license on May 27, 1965 to receive andstore fuel at its reprocessing facility in West Valley. The firstshipment of fuel, from the Yankee Rowe reactor in Massachusetts, wasplaced in the fuel storage pool at West Valley on June 5, 1965.Government and commercially-generated fuel continued to be received atNFS until 1973. There were a total of 756 truck and rail shipments.

The AEC encouraged NFS to focus on commercial fuel reprocessing;however, the AEC guaranteed a minimum quantity of government fuel to NFSin the absence of sufficient commercial supplies. Sufficient commercialsupplies were not available because there were not many operatingcommercial reactors during the NFS reprocessing period of 1966 to 1972.As a result, approximately 60% of the facility's supply of fuel and 33%of the plutonium came from AEC reactors. Specifically, a majority ofthis came from N-Reactor.

In 1972, NFS (now owned by the Getty Oil Company) halted allreprocessing operations in order to increase reprocessing capacity, andto alter the facility to meet new regulatory requirements. However,subsequent difficulties were encountered in retrofitting the facility tomeet these requirements and, after four years of fruitless negotiationswith federal and state regulatory authorities, NFS announced itsintention to cease reprocessing operations and transfer the managementand long-term storage of approximately 600,000 gallons of high-levelradioactive liquids and sludges at the West Valley Site to the site'slandlord, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.This transfer was in accordance with contractual obligations.

By 1980, the West Valley Demonstration Project Act (WVDPA) (PublicLaw 96-368) directed the DOE to solidify the high-level radioactivewaste at West Valley to borosilicate glass, suitable for permanentstorage in an approved federal repository. The WVDPA also directed theDepartment to decontaminate and decommission the tanks and facilitiesused at West Valley, and dispose of the low-level and transuranicwastes.

The West Valley Nuclear Services Company, a wholly-owned subsidiaryof Westinghouse Electric Corporation, was selected in 1981 as the primecontractor for the WVDPA. West Valley Nuclear Services Company hasoperated the West Valley site for the U.S. Department of Energy since1982.

NFS West Valley Reprocessing Campaigns

There were a total of 27 processing campaigns performed at WestValley, however, only the first 26 campaigns reprocessed intact reactorfuel. The last campaign involved processing liquid residues receivedfrom Nuclear Fuels Services facility in Erwin, Tennessee, generatedduring the fabrication of fuel for the SEFOR reactor. Table 1 provides a summary of the NFS fuelreprocessing campaigns including the amount of plutonium recovered. Thematerial reprocessed by NFS, summarized by source in Table 2, was both government andcommercially-generated. In both tables the quantities of "PlutoniumReceived" were based on shipper's data, i.e., theoretical calculationsof plutonium produced in the reactors.

The "Recovered Plutonium" is the actual amount of plutoniumrecovered by NFS. The difference between the often imprecisetheoretical calculations of plutonium produced in reactors versus themeasurement of the amount actually recovered is called an inventorydifference. When the recovered amount is larger than the receivedamount, the shipper may have under estimated the amount of plutoniumproduced in the reactor.

Other factors that contribute to the difference between received andrecovered plutonium include the measurement uncertainty, process holdup,and normal operating losses/ measured discards. Normal operatinglosses/measured discards occur when known quantities of plutonium areintentionally removed from the inventory because they are technically oreconomically unrecoverable and are disposed of by approved methods. Twoexamples of normal operating losses are liquid discards to waste storagetanks, and solid waste packaged in drums and crates awaiting shipment towaste disposal facilities generically referred to as "burial sites."Examples of plutonium-bearing items sent to burial sites includediscarded piping, spent ion exchange equipment, and contaminated laundryand shoe covers.

The AEC-owned plutonium came from the following:

  • The Hanford N- Reactor, a production reactor formerly called the NewProduction Reactor, is located near Richland, Washington, about 150miles southeast of Seattle. This reactor is owned and was operated bythe AEC. N-Reactor was designed as a dual-purpose reactor for theproduction of plutonium and the production of by-product steam forelectricity generation. It was a graphite-moderated, pressurized lightwater- cooled reactor. N-Reactor operated from 1963 to 1987.
  • The Bonus Reactor, a demonstration boiling water reactor, waslocated at Ricon, about 75 miles west of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thisreactor featured high-temperature, superheated steam and was owned bythe AEC but operated by the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority. TheBonus reactor began operation in 1964 and was permanently shut down in1968.
  • The remainder of the material came from the Nuclear Fuels Servicesfacility in Erwin, Tennessee, and was in the form of liquid residuesgenerated during the fabrication of reactor fuel for the SouthwestExperimental Fast Oxide Reactor (SEFOR), an experimental reactor,located near Strickler, Arkansas. SEFOR was built by the SouthwestAtomic Energy Associates [Note a] for testing liquidmetal fast breeder reactor fuel. SEFOR began operations in 1969 and waspermanently shut down in 1972.

The remaining fuel came from seven commercial nuclear power reactorsthat were owned and operated by commercial utility companies.

  • The Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant. This boiling water reactor,owned and operated by Consumers Power Company, is located on LakeMichigan near Charlevoix, Michigan, about 200 miles northwest ofDetroit. Big Rock Point has operated since 1963.
  • CVTR, Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor. This pressurized heavy watertube reactor, owned and operated by Carolinas-Virginia Nuclear PowerAssociates was located in Parr, South Carolina, about 25 miles northwestof Columbia. This reactor began operation in 1964 and was permanentlyshut down in 1967.
  • Dresden Nuclear Power Station, Unit #1. This boiling water reactor,owned and operated by Commonwealth Edison Company, was located nearMorris, Illinois, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Dresden-1commenced operation in 1960 and was permanently shut down in 1978.
  • Humboldt Bay Nuclear Plant. This boiling water reactor, owned andoperated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, was located onHumboldt Bay near Eureka, California, about 200 miles north of SanFrancisco. This plant commenced operation in 1963 and was permanentlyshut down in 1976.
  • Indian Point Nuclear Power Station, Unit #1. This pressurized waterreactor, owned and operated by the Consolidated Edison Company, waslocated on the Hudson River at Buchanan, New York, about 35 miles northof New York City. Indian Point began operation in 1962 and waspermanently shut down in 1974.
  • Pathfinder Nuclear Power Plant. This experimental, boiling waterreactor, owned and operated by the Northern States Power Company, waslocated on the Big Sioux River, near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Pathfinder began operations in 1964 and was permanently shut down in1967.
  • Yankee Atomic Electric Power Station. This pressurized waterreactor, owned and operated by the Yankee Atomic Electric Company, waslocated near Rowe, Massachusetts, about 45 miles east of Albany, NewYork. This reactor began operation in 1960 and was permanently shutdown in 1992.

NFS West Valley Plutonium Shipments to the AEC

In the 1950's, commercial utilities began returning fuel to theAtomic Energy Commission under a program called the Plutonium CreditActivity. This program, established by the U.S. Congress in the AtomicEnergy Act of 1954, provided "credit" for plutonium produced incommercial nuclear reactors operating on fuel purchased or leased fromthe AEC. Although the uranium in the civilian power reactor industry inthe 1950's and early 1960's was owned by the AEC and leased to theutility companies, the plutonium produced during operation of thesereactors was owned by the utility companies.

The Plutonium Credit Activity program began in 1957 and ended in1970. The U.S. Government paid the utilities approximately $10.4million for approximately 900 kg of plutonium. All of the plutoniumpurchased under this program was reprocessed at the NFS facility andshipped to the Hanford site with the exception of 2.5 kg plutonium fromthe Vallecitos Boiling Water Reactor that was reprocessed at theSavannah River site.

Both the AEC-owned plutonium and the plutonium purchased by the AECunder the Plutonium Credit Activity (1530 kg total) listed in Table 3, were shipped to the Hanford site asplutonium nitrate solution. The liquid shipments were by commercialtruck in accordance with applicable transportation regulations.

Of the 1530 kg of separated plutonium received by the Hanford sitefrom the NFS facility, 635 kg came from fuel or reactors that wereAEC-owned, and the remaining 895 kg came from the commercialpower-reactor fuel.

  • Of the 635 kg of the AEC-origin plutonium, the majority came fromN-Reactor, a plutonium production reactor at the Hanford site nearRichland, Washington. Specifically, 534 kg of plutonium came fromN-Reactor, 95 kg from the Nuclear Fuels Services facility in Erwin,Tennessee, and 6 kg from the Bonus Nuclear Electrical Station, anAEC-owned demonstration reactor.
  • Of the 895 kg of separated plutonium purchased by the AEC from theutility companies, 436 kg was from Yankee Atomic Electric Company(Yankee Rowe), 285 kg from Commonwealth Edison Company (Dresden-1), 63kg from Consumers Power Company (Big Rock Point), 7 kg from NorthernStates Power Company (Pathfinder), and 104 kg from Consolidated EdisonCompany (Indian Point-1).

Most of the plutonium the AEC received from the NFS facility wasused in the breeder reactor and the zero power reactor programs. Tomeet the isotopic and physical requirements for these programs, the NFSplutonium was blended with other plutonium and then converted to eithera metal or an oxide. Even by blending, the isotopic mixture of thepower reactor plutonium generally precluded its use in weaponsproduction and there is no indication that blending for that purposeoccurred.

NFS West Valley Plutonium Shipments to Others

As shown in Table 4, not all of the NFSseparated power-reactor plutonium was sold to the AEC. A total of 396kg of separated power-reactor plutonium was either retained by theutility companies, sold by the utility company to industry, or purchasedby NFS and later sold for use in plutonium recycle operations. Of thattotal, almost 60% was shipped from the NFS West Valley facility toforeign countries for use in research or as fuel for foreignbreeder-reactor programs.

  • A total of 221 kg plutonium was shipped to West Germany for use atthe Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Center. Several reactors are located atthe Center, and it is Germany's most important applied researchinstallation engaged in breeder- reactor research. Work on fastbreeders has been carried out at Karlsruhe since 1960, with Euratomsupport of the breeder work starting in 1963.
  • A total of 10 kg plutonium was shipped to the United Kingdom'sAtomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. The two experimentalzero-power reactors at Harwell provided basic physics information onfast-reactor cores.
  • Approximately 1 kg of plutonium was sent to the Santa MariaO'Galeria, Plutonium Research and Development Center in Casaccia, Italy.
  • The remaining 164 kg of plutonium was sent from the NFS West Valleyfacility to domestic companies, i.e., Babcock & Wilcox PlutoniumLaboratory in Leechburg, Pennsylvania, the Westinghouse ElectricPlutonium Development Laboratory in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, and theNuclear Fuels Services facility in Erwin, Tennessee, for use in researchor the fabrication of reactor fuel.

Note

a. The Southwest Atomic Energy Associates consisted of seventeen U.S.investor-owned utilities, the Federal Republic of Germany, the GeneralElectric Company, and Euratom. Euratom, the European Atomic EnergyCommunity, is an organization that promotes the growth of nuclear powerproduction in Europe. Its members are Belgium, France, West Germany,Italy, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands.


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