Cablegate: Report On Doe/State Visit to Vaec and Dalat

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. SUMMARY: A DOE/State delegation participated in meetings in
Hanoi and Dalat, Vietnam on February 10 and 12 to discuss with
Vietnamese officials and reactor operators a U.S. proposal to ship
fresh fuel assemblies containing HEU to Russia and to convert the
Dalat Research Reactor to LEU fuel. The Dalat reactor has 36
fresh fuel assemblies containing several kilograms of 36 percent
enriched HEU. The reactor operators and officials of the Ministry
of Science and Technology and the Atomic Energy Commission were
receptive to the U.S. proposal and agreed to work with the
Department of Energy (DOE) to ship the fresh fuel to Russia and to
carry out the analytical studies necessary to convert the reactor.
The Dalat Institute will begin immediately to work with Argonne
National Laboratory (Argonne) on calculations for reshuffling the
existing core and will send two scientists to Argonne later this
spring. They agreed to permit the fresh fuel shipment as soon as
they are assured that the removal of the fresh fuel will cause no
interruption in the operation of the reactor. The Vietnam Atomic
Energy Commission and the Nuclear Research Institute in Dalat see
the fuel shipments and reactor conversion as a way to increase the
level of peaceful nuclear cooperation between Vietnam and the U.S.
Successful implementation of this effort should provide a solid
basis for such cooperation in the future. END SUMMARY.

2. A DOE/State delegation visited Hanoi and Dalat February 10-12
to present a proposal to remove unused fresh high enriched uranium
(HEU) fuel from the Dalat reactor and convert the reactor to low
enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The U.S. also proposed to assist
Vietnam in shipping the spent HEU fuel to Russia after the reactor
is converted. The delegation was led by Trisha Dedik, Director of
DOE's Office of Nonproliferation Policy (NA-241) and included Igor
Bolshinsky of Argonne National Laboratory, Diana Clark of DOE/GC
and Allan Krass of State/NP/NE. The delegation visited the
Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission (VAEC) in Hanoi on February 10
and met with a delegation led by VAEC Chairman Dr. Vuong Huu Tan.
After the meeting U.S. delegation paid a courtesy call on Vice
Minister of Science and Technology Hoang Van Huay. MOST has
responsibility for VAEC, which in turn supervises the Nuclear
Research Institute (NRI) in Dalat, at which the reactor is
located. On February 12, the U.S. delegation visited NRI and met
with Director Dr. Nguyen Nhi Dien. The delegation was given a
thorough tour of the reactor and hot cell facilities and discussed
in detail the U.S proposal, and questions and suggestions raised
by the Vietnamese side.

3. At the VAEC meeting the U.S. side presented its proposal and
the Vietnamese side responded with an agreement in principle, but
also voiced some concerns and raised some questions. They first
provided a detailed inventory of the fresh and irradiated fuel
elements: 142 elements total, with 104 in the core (irradiated),
36 fresh elements, and 2 instrumented elements used only for
temperature measurements in the core. A shipment of fresh fuel
would, therefore, comprise the 36 fresh elements currently in
storage at the site. The 36 fresh fuel assemblies contain a total
of 4 kilograms of HEU enriched to 36 percent in U-235. The
primary concern raised by VAEC was that the fuel shipments should
cause no interruption in the operation of the reactor, which is
used for medical isotope production, neutron activation analysis,
fundamental research and teaching/training. They also expressed
concern that conversion to LEU would not significantly degrade the
performance of the reactor. Finally, they inquired whether any
new agreements would be required between Vietnam and the United
States or between Vietnam and Russian to implement the fuel

4. The U.S. delegation responded by assuring VAEC that there
would be no interruption in the reactor's operation and that the
Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program,
based at Argonne, would be able to demonstrate that conversion to
LEU would have only a marginal effect on critical reactor
parameters such as neutron flux and fuel lifetime. The U.S.
delegation made clear that VAEC would be provided with all the
analytical studies necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness and
safety of the conversion, and that Vietnamese scientists would be
invited to Argonne to participate alongside U.S. scientists in the
performance of these studies.

5. Diana Clark of DOE/GC addressed the issue of necessary
agreements. She noted that no agreement would be necessary for
the fresh fuel shipment, since this can be handled through the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a manner similar to
that already used in Romania and Bulgaria. A bilateral government-
to-government agreement would be required for the spent fuel
shipment, since U.S. support for such a shipment will be
contingent on obtaining appropriate liability protection, tax and
customs exemptions, and privileges and immunities for any U.S.

6. A separate implementing agreement between DOE and NRI also
will be required under the umbrella of the government-to-
government agreement. However, the spent fuel shipment will not
take place until after the reactor conversion is complete and the
fuel has had time to cool down, which gives the parties time to
negotiate these agreements. The capacity of the spent fuel pool
at Dalat is 300 elements, and there are currently no spent fuel
elements stored in the pool. This means there is no pressure for
a spent fuel shipment and scheduling of such a shipment can be
coordinated with spent fuel shipments from other countries. The
U.S. delegation also urged the VAEC to begin bilateral discussions
with the Russian Government on agreements that will be necessary
if Russia is to accept the spent fuel.

7. Discussions continued at the NRI facility in Dalat on
February 12. This time the Vietnamese side was led by NRI
Director Dien, who also provided a tour of the reactor, hot cells
and isotope production labs. The facility appears to be well run
and maintained, and there was evidence of an active isotope
production program. Dien claimed that NRI provides about 40
percent of Vietnam's requirements for medical isotopes, with the
other 60 percent being imported from France and Hungary. Dien
provided an overview of the history of the reactor, noting that it
was originally supplied by the U.S. as a Triga Mark II, with a
power of 250 kilowatts. It first went critical in February of
1963, but was shut down between 1968 and 1975. The original U.S.-
origin fuel was removed in 1975. The reactor was upgraded and
restarted under an IAEA project (VIE/4/004) in 1983 and now has
the designation IVV-9 and a rated power of 500 kilowatts. It uses
Russian-origin VVR-M2 fuel assemblies, each of which contains 40
grams of 36 percent enriched uranium. The reactor has operated
for about 26,000 full power hours since 1983 and has had its
control and instrumentation system upgraded under an IAEA
technical cooperation project (VIE/4/10) in 1992-94.

8. Since it renewed operation, the reactor has been managed by
adding new fuel assemblies (FAs) to the core as burnup reduces the
reactivity of existing assemblies. The core operated on 89 FAs
from 1984-94, 100 FAs from 1994-2002 and now contains 104 FAs.
Current plans are to add six more in 2006, but Dien suggested that
with Argonne's help they may be able to reshuffle the existing 104
FAs to permit an extra year or two of operation before adding
fresh fuel. The U.S. side agreed to ask Argonne to do the
calculations necessary to optimize the reshuffling. Diem agreed
to provide the data to ANL as soon as possible. The existing
fresh fuel inventory is expected to last until 2015, and Dien
wanted assurance that if the HEU fresh fuel were shipped to Russia
and the reactor converted to LEU, the U.S. would provide
sufficient LEU fuel to allow operation to the same date. The
Government of Vietnam is studying the possibility of building a
new 10-megawatt research reactor after 2015, but no definite plans
exist at this time.

9. Dien produced a list of "requests" related to Vietnamese
acceptance of the U.S. proposal. They included:

-- no interruption of reactor operation,
-- no change in core construction,
-- minimal change in flux and other important operational
-- enough LEU fuel to operate until 2015,
-- two instrumented LEU FAs for research purposes, and
-- help from U.S. Triga experts on evaluation of the pool tank,
reflector and horizontal channels, all of which are originally of
Triga design.

10. Discussion of these requests and their consistency with the
U.S. proposal led to general Vietnamese acceptance of the U.S.
proposal and agreement on the following sequence of steps.
Argonne will inform NRI of what data it needs to complete the
reshuffling calculations and will also begin the preliminary
neutronic and thermo-hydraulic calculations required for
conversion licensing. When it is clear that the core reshuffling
will permit sufficient operation without addition of fresh fuel,
NRI will permit the fresh fuel to be shipped to Russia. NRI will
make a preliminary application to VAEC for approval of conversion,
which will allow VAEC to begin its analysis. But VAEC approval
will depend on submission of a full safety analysis report (SAR)
and on ministerial approval of the conversion. Two NRI scientists
will visit Argonne, probably in April-May or May-June, to
participate in the studies for the SAR. VAEC stated that it will
take approximately six months from the time of receipt of the
final SAR to grant a license for the conversion. Once this
license is granted, the LEU fuel can be ordered from the Russian
manufacturer. Allowing six to eight months for fuel fabrication
and delivery, it seems feasible that conversion of the reactor
could take place sometime in 2005. Meanwhile, VAEC and the
Government of Vietnam will begin discussions with the Russian
Government and Minatom on arrangements for return of the spent
fuel. The spent fuel shipment could be scheduled for as early as
a year after the conversion is complete, but this will depend on
the outcome of Vietnam-Russia discussions and the conclusion of
appropriate bilateral agreements between Vietnam and the U.S.

11. COMMENT: The discussions in both Hanoi and Dalat were open,
friendly and productive. The concerns and questions presented by
the Vietnamese side were all serious and reasonable, and they were
presented in a positive and cooperative manner. Both VAEC and NRI
made it clear that they supported the U.S. proposal in principle,
and once their concerns were addressed, they both agreed that they
could move forward on the basis of the timetable outlined in
paragraph 10. It seems quite clear that VAEC and NRI see the fuel
shipments and reactor conversion as a way to increase the level of
peaceful nuclear cooperation between Vietnam and the U.S.
Successful implementation of this effort should provide a solid
basis for such cooperation in the future. END COMMENT

12. Finally, the delegation wants to express its heartfelt thanks
and appreciation to Gary Sigmon, Jonathan Hilton and Michael
Cavanaugh for their efficient and indispensable help in preparing
for and conducting this visit. This cable was drafted and cleared
by the delegation.

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