Norway’s Minister of Trade and Industry Iselin Nybø and US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm have signed a letter of intent to develop a method that will ensure that Norwegian highly enriched uranium (HEU) can no longer be used for nuclear weapons, and which makes it suitable for storage and disposal.
The Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) and Norwegian Nuclear Decommissioning (NND) are involved in the project on the Norwegian side.
“This is an important agreement for Norway. Highly enriched uranium poses a security risk and Norway is one of the few countries in the world that still possesses this type of material. With this agreement, we are an important step forward on the road to a safe clean-up of Norway's nuclear activities,” said Nils Morten Huseby, CEO of IFE’s Department of Energy Technology.
IFE and NND have been commissioned by the Department of Commerce and Fisheries to work with the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) to design and develop methods and equipment for testing the material.
The aim of the treatment is to: dilute the highly enriched uranium with depleted uranium to a lower percentage so that it is no longer suitable for making nuclear weapons; and to stabilise it so that it becomes a waste form that is suitable for storage and disposal.
“That we get rid of highly enriched uranium will also be an important milestone in the clean-up of Norwegian nuclear waste that the government has initiated, and which is expected to last for more than 50 years and cost more than NOK24 ($2.7bn) in investment costs, says Trade and Industry Minister Nybø. A pilot project has been underway since 2019.
“For NND, it is important to reduce the amount of risk material that we have to take care of in Norway. This is because the storage of such material becomes more expensive and more demanding, both in the short and long term. This project will therefore be a correct step in reducing our future clean-up costs,” said technical director Nils Bøhmer in NND.
Project manager Peter Bennett noted: “With a formalised collaboration, we now continue with both technical and administrative meetings with a focus on the design of equipment for testing the material and how the practical work will be carried out. We are also planning a first visit by the Americans to the nuclear plant so that they get more knowledge about the plant and can have conversations with the operators.” He added: "After the visit, we will complete the design of the equipment and prepare the application to the Directorate for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, which will give us the necessary approvals, as well as begin with the acquisition of the equipment."
Norway is one of 22 countries that have HEU in the civilian sector. A special challenge for Norwegian uranium is that it contains thorium. which makes treatment more complex. The uranium will be mixed in a new American-developed facility. If everything goes according to plan, the work will be able to start during 2022/2023. After mixing, the uranium will no longer be able to be used for nuclear weapons. In order for the agreement to be implemented, further technical investigations must be carried out and permits must be granted by regulatory authorities in Norway and the USA.
“Now we are following up at home what Norway and the USA have worked globally on for several years. This agreement lays an important foundation for Norway to get rid of nuclear weapons usable material. Norway will be a pilot country and I hope that other countries can also use this technology,” said Nybø.
This project is currently the latest example of the outstanding work of the Ministry of Energy's engineers, researchers and technical experts, said US Energy Minister Granholm. “Together with our Norwegian friends and partners, we have taken on a major challenge and come up with a creative, innovative solution that will make the world a safer place.”
The HEU is owned by the IFE Department of Energy Technology and originates from research projects in the Halden project where IFE used it in a small part of the projects. The Norwegian nuclear programme has now been completed and NND has been given responsibility for the clean-up and management of all man-made radioactive waste in Norway. NND will eventually take over IFE's licence and ownership for the nuclear facilities, with the transfer scheduled for 1 January 2024.
Photo: US and Noway have signed a letter of intent on HEU (Photo: DOE)