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Petten reactor to "convert" to HEU?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(February 1, 2002) Officials from the European Commission signed in December 2001 a framework agreement with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov for the potential supply of 600 kilograms of High Enriched Uranium (HEU) for the High Flux Reactor (HFR) in Petten, Netherlands. Although the HFR reactor is now being converted to the use of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) as owner of the reactor wants to keep the option open of restarting the use of HEU fuel in the future.

(562.5366) WISE Amsterdam - The use of HEU (90% enriched) has always been controversial as the material can be used in nuclear weapons. The U.S., supplier of HEU fuel for research reactors worldwide, adopted in 1992 the so-called Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act. That law prohibited the export of HEU fuel except on an interim basis prior to conversion to LEU (20% enriched) use. All pending export licenses, including one for HFR fuel, were halted for a maximum period of nine years. Under the Reduced Enrichment in Research and Test Reactor (RERTR) program developed in 1978, countries were encouraged to start the use of LEU. If reactor owners were willing to convert they would be helped by the U.S. with a small additional amount of HEU to bridge the gap1.

HFR conversion
The European Commission for a long time refused to convert the 50 MWth HFR to the use of LEU. JRC management and Petten management argued that conversion would be too costly, take too much time and be a potential threat to the performance of the reactor because of a lower neutron flux with LEU fuel. But in the second half of the 1990s, the HFR started to face a lack of fuel by the end of 1999. Negotiations started in 1998 with Russia for the supply of 600 kg of HEU2.

In the meantime, new high-density LEU fuel was developed and its performance evaluated at Petten. Due to higher concentrations of uranium in this fuel a higher neutron flux could be realized compared to conventional LEU fuel. This supported the feasibility of converting the HFR to LEU fuel. Besides, the spent fuel pool of the HFR started to become full. The U.S. said it would be willing to take back spent fuel from the past if Petten signed a conversion agreement.

In June 1999, the European Commission decided finally to convert the HFR to LEU fuel3. That did not solve the problem of the spent fuel pool capacity as an agreement with the U.S. still had to be worked out. In 2000, four containers with spent fuel were transported to the interim storage facility for low and medium-level waste in Borssele. Those transports were met with protests from anti-nuclear activists as the storage facility was not (yet) designed for the storage of high-level waste4.

On 24 August 2000 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a license for the supply of HEU fuel during the conversion program under the condition that Petten would cease the use of HEU no later than 2006. Instead of one single delivery of 134 kg, NRC restricted the supply to four annual shipments of each less than 38 kg. Each smaller shipment should be exhausted before any new fuel would be delivered to prevent the use of excess HEU in another European reactor (see also WISE News Communique 552.5301: "BR-2 already has enough bomb-grade fuel, but still wants more"). According to the U.S.-based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), an independent research and advocacy center specialized in the problems of nuclear proliferation, no more than the 134 kg in the license can be exported from the U.S. and under no circumstances will Petten use HEU fuel from any source after 20065.

The first shipment of HEU took place in 2000 and was sent in 5-kg batches by civilian transport to fuel fabricator Cerca in France. In 2001, Cerca was able to organize a military transport and a larger amount (sufficient for one nuclear weapon) was shipped in one flight. Security tightening in the wake of the 11 September attacks could affect further transports from Cerca to Petten. The Dutch government had opted to bring the fuel in batches of under 5 kg but that strategy would need more numerous shipments. Further fuel shipments are prepared in single batches via military aircraft6. At least three containers with old spent fuel have already been sent from the HFR to the U.S7.

Russian framework agreement
The recently signed framework agreement with Russia would be no danger for the conversion program, said JRC officials. The agreement is the result of the negotiations which started in 1998. Sources familiar with the deal said to NuclearFuel that the agreement had been "dormant within the Russian bureaucracy" and was "finally approved" with a visit of European Commission officials to Moscow in December 20018. The agreement still needs to be ratified by the European Commission within the coming weeks. According to an official of Euratom Supply Agency, responsible for fuel purchase for European research reactors, the agreement can only be used for HEU for the HFR, not for any other reactors in Europe. Questions from WISE Amsterdam whether negotiations were held with Russia on HEU supply for the German FRM-2 reactor were answered with "no comments possible"9. The FRM-2 reactor at Munich plans to use HEU until 2010 after which it will convert to "Medium" Enriched Uranium (50% enriched). It is still unclear where the HEU and "MEU" fuel will come from10.

With the Russian agreement for the HFR, the reactor owner wants to preserve the potential for Russian HEU in case the conversion program is delayed. HFR manager Joel Guidez told NuclearFuel that the HFR conversion is "irrevocable" but that he likened the desire "to a car owner's prudent decision to keep an old-model spare tire in the trunk after changing to a new tire type". According to an official of the Euratom Supply Agency, there was no reason to reject the agreement. Until now, six prototype LEU elements had been tested without problems and orders have been placed for new LEU elements. A full LEU core could be reached in 2005/200611.


Apart from the use of HEU in fuel, Petten also uses HEU for the production of a medical isotope. HEU "targets" are irradiated in the reactor core after which the fission product molybdenum-99 is produced. The targets are reprocessed in a special facility where the molybdenum is extracted. Molybdenum-99 decays into technetium-99m which is used in medical diagnostics. Petten is one of the main producers of technetium-99m in the world. After a once-through cycle the targets are reprocessed to recover the HEU that is still present. In the past, this HEU was supplied by the UK and spent targets were reprocessed in Dounreay, UK. In 1998, 5 kg of HEU from a Georgian research reactor was brought under an anti-proliferation operation to Dounreay. It was said that it would be safer at Dounreay than in the unstable former Soviet republic. The HEU would be used for the production of targets for Petten and would be sufficient for a number of years (the necessary amount of HEU for targets is much less than the amount needed for fuel).
Although Petten will convert its fuel to LEU, they are not giving up the use of HEU for targets. Whether the recently-signed Russian framework agreement could be used for the supply of HEU for targets is yet unclear. JRC is considering the use of a new reprocessing technology, which allows the targets to be used more than the current once-through cycle. After extracting the molybdenum, the targets can be reused instead of having to be transported to a foreign reprocessor. That would reduce the amount of transports with spent HEU targets. NCI however has urged JRC to use LEU for the targets.
New Scientist, 2 May 1998; email from NCI, 25 January 2002

Director of the Institute for Energy of JRC, K. Törrönen, also confirmed to WISE that "JRC is completely committed to the conversion of the HFR to LEU, and the decision is irrevocable". But on the other hand he still keeps the Russian option open. The framework agreement might not be a contract "with obligation to purchase", but "it provides for an alternative source of HEU and improves the security of supply"12. According to Törrönen, the U.S. government was informed of the signed agreement with Russia. JRC confirmed the conversion commitment and claimed the U.S. "understood" the signing of the Russian agreement13.

Although officials state that the conversion program is not in danger, the framework agreement with Russia could eventually lead to a cancellation of that program and the "re-conversion" of the reactor to bomb-grade uranium from Russia. A Dutch MP of the opposition Socialist Party (SP) has asked questions in the Dutch parliament on the Russian agreement and demands a real commitment to the conversion and cancellation of the Russian option14.

Safety doubts and management troubles
Since October 2001, the HFR operator, the Nuclear Research & Consultancy Group (NRG), has been accused of mismanagement and one of its directors resigned for unknown reasons but later returned. There has been an ongoing conflict between reactor personnel and the NRG management on working conditions. An increasing amount of commercial orders would have resulted in high pressure on the reactor operators and violations of safety rules. A whistleblower voiced his concerns to a regional newspaper. The NRG management however accused the whistleblower of "misusing the HFR" for his demands on terms of employment15.

According to the operators, the reactor had been in operation for some weeks with a non-functioning primary emergency cooling pump. Commercial production of isotopes prevailed over safety of the reactor in that case. Besides, an incident occurred with a HEU target, which could potentially have led to the release of radioactivity. The operators handed over a list of complaints to the Dutch safety authorities, though that had been forbidden by the NRG management16. After an MP (Socialist Party) asked the Minister of Environment Jan Pronk, it was concluded that internal safety specifications had been violated in full knowledge of NRG management. The Dutch Nuclear Energy Law however was not violated, said the minister. The Dutch Nuclear Physics Authority (KFD) started an investigation and inspections at the HFR. The whistleblower had been laid off and other workers had been forced to sign (in the middle of the night!) a pledge of loyalty. Pronk praised the whistleblower for having informed the KFD and called the demanded pledge of loyalty ill-chosen17.

Next to the conflict between the workers of NRG and its own management, there is a conflict between NRG itself and its parent company the Netherlands Energy Research Foundation (ECN). NRG was established in 1998 by merging the nuclear activities of ECN and another research institute, KEMA in Arnhem. NRG workers and management have the feeling that ECN hived off its nuclear activities and now would prefer that NRG die by inches as ECN wants to present itself as alternative energy research group. It was even suggested in NRG circles that the ECN management conspired with Greenpeace Netherlands to get rid of nuclear research at Petten18. On 9 October, NRG chairman André Versteegh resigned unexpectedly due to unknown reasons. It was speculated that ECN could no longer tolerate his continuing pro-nuclear statements in the media, but the conflict between NRG management and reactor operators was also mentioned as a reason. ECN director Wouter Schatborn took over the chairmanship, which NRG staff considered as a kind of putsch19. As unexpectedly as he left, Versteegh returned on 8 January as NRG chairman, which was considered as a victory for the NRG "tribe" 20.


  1. NCI press release, 5 September 2000
  2. WISE News Communique 502.4956: "Petten HFR starts talks for Russian HEU"
  3. WISE News Communique 513: "In Brief"
  4. Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant (NL), 21 September 2000
  5. NCI press release, 5 September 2000
  6. NuclearFuel, 21 January 2002
  7. NVS Stralings-bulletin (NL), no.3 2001
  8. NuclearFuel, 21 January 2002
  9. Telephone conversation with Euratom Supply Agency, 25 January 2002
  10. WISE News Communique 557.5334: "Germany: FRM-2 reactor to be converted to "medium" enriched uranium"
  11. NuclearFuel, 21 January 2002
  12. Fax European Commission, JRC to WISE, 25 January 2002
  13. Telephone conversation with K. Törrönen, 25 January 2002
  14. (draft) questions Socialist Party to secretary of state for European Affairs, 29 January 2002
  15. Noordhollands Dagblad (NL), 25 October 2001
  16. Noordhollands Dagblad (NL), 27 October 2001
  17. Answers minister of Environment, 3 January 2002
  18. Noordhollands Dagblad (NL), 27 October 2001
  19. Noordhollands Dagblad (NL), 10 December 2001
  20. Noordhollands Dagblad (NL), 9 January 2002

Contact: WISE Amsterdam