The primary objective of the present study is to identity the most promising, viable technologies that are likely to culminate in an expedited development of the next-generation, field-deployable instrument for providing rapid, accurate, and precise enrichment assay of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). UF6 is typically involved, and is arguably the most important uranium compound, in uranium enrichment processes. As the first line of defense against proliferation, accurate analytical techniques to determine the uranium isotopic distribution in UF6 are critical for materials verification, accounting, and safeguards at enrichment plants. As nuclear fuel cycle technology becomes more prevalent around the world, international nuclear safeguards and interest in UF6 enrichment assay has been growing.
At present, laboratory-based mass spectrometry (MS), which offers the highest attainable analytical accuracy and precision, is the technique of choice for the analysis of stable and long-lived isotopes. Currently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors the production of enriched UF6 at declared facilities by collecting a small amount (between 1 to 10 g) of gaseous UF6 into a sample bottle, which is then shipped under chain of custody to a central laboratory (IAEA’s Nuclear Materials Analysis Laboratory) for high-precision isotopic assay by MS. The logistics are cumbersome and new shipping regulations are making it more difficult to transport UF6. Furthermore, the analysis is costly, and results are not available for some time after sample collection. Hence, the IAEA is challenged to develop effective safeguards approaches at enrichment plants. In-field isotopic analysis of UF6 has the potential to substantially reduce the time, logistics and expense of sample handling. However, current laboratory-based MS techniques require too much infrastructure and operator expertise for field deployment and operation. As outlined in the IAEA Department of Safeguards Long-Term R&D Plan, 2012–2023, one of the IAEA long-term R&D needs is to “develop tools and techniques to enable timely, potentially real-time, detection of HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) production in LEU (Lowly Enriched Uranium) enrichment facilities” (Milestone 5.2).
Because it is common that the next generation of analytical instruments is driven by technologies that are either currently available or just now emerging, one reasonable and practical approach to project the next generation of chemical instrumentation is to track the recent trends and to extrapolate them. This study adopted a similar approach, and an extensive literature review on existing and emerging technologies for UF6 enrichment assay was performed. The competitive advantages and current limitations of different analytical techniques for in-field UF6 enrichment assay were then compared, and the main gaps between needs and capabilities for their field use were examined. Subsequently, based on these results, technologies for the next-generation field-deployable instrument for UF6 enrichment assay were recommended.
The study was organized in a way that a suite of assessment metric was first identified. Criteria used in this evaluation are presented in Section 1 of this report, and the most important ones are described briefly in the next few paragraphs. Because one driving force for in-field UF6 enrichment assay is related to the demanding transportation regulation for gaseous UF6, Section 2 contains a review of solid sorbents that convert and immobilized gaseous UF6 to a solid state, which is regarded as more transportation friendly and is less regulated. Furthermore, candidate solid sorbents, which show promise in mating with existing and emerging assay technologies, also factor into technology recommendations. Extensive literature reviews on existing and emerging technologies for UF6 enrichment assay, covering their scientific principles, instrument options, and current limitations are detailed in Sections 3 and 4, respectively. In Section 5, the technological gaps as well as start-of-the-art and commercial off-the-shelf components that can be adopted to expedite the development of a fieldable or portable UF6 enrichment-assay instrument are identified and discussed. Finally, based on the results of the review, requirements and recommendations for developing the next-generation field-deployable instrument for UF6 enrichment assay are presented in Section 6.