Charles McCombie and Thomas Isaacs
The recent two-volume special issue of Daedalus on the Global Nuclear Future
highlights the challenges associated with the global expansion of nuclear power.1 The topics covered include environmental impacts, nuclear safety, and the
economics of nuclear power production, but the major emphasis is on nonproliferation
and security aspects. To develop an understanding of possible problems and their
potential solutions in all of these areas, it is necessary to understand the nuclear
fuel cycle. Controlling the flow of nuclear materials “from cradle to grave”
creates and sustains a safe and secure global nuclear power regime that can help
satisfy the world’s energy needs and can reduce CO2 emissions and
their associated impacts on climate.
The nuclear fuel cycle consists of multiple technical activities that take place
in locations around the world. These activities form a chain, with each having direct
impacts on the characteristics of those farther down the line. Accordingly, one
objective of this article is to emphasize the holistic and global nature of the
fuel cycle. A key challenge to consider is whether there can be opportunities now
or in the future to improve the safety, security, economics, environmental impacts,
or public acceptance of nuclear power by vertical integration of the chain or by
geographical consolidation of the activities.
Each stage of the fuel cycle should be assessed to judge where improvements could
increase technical and societal acceptance of a substantial expansion of nuclear
power. We concentrate, however, on the back-end stages— namely, storage, reprocessing,
To examine the back-end stages of the fuel cycle, it is useful to begin with a brief
summary of their current status.
Used fuel storage. All water-cooled reactors store spent nuclear fuel,
once it has been unloaded from the reactor, at the reactor site in an underwater
pool. Originally it was planned that spent fuel would be shipped off site after
some years of cooling; the fuel would then go for reprocessing or direct disposal.
In practice, reprocessing is currently carried out in only a few programs, and disposal
of spent fuel has not yet taken place. The need for storage has thus increased.
The cooling time before the heat generation of spent fuel has declined to a level
suitable for disposal in a geological repository is between thirty and fifty years.
There are also other arguments for delaying disposal. For small nuclear programs,
many years of operation would be required to accumulate an inventory of spent fuel
that justified embarking on an expensive deep repository project. Furthermore, by
extending surface storage times for decades, the large expenditures required for
implementing such a solution can be postponed.
Today, as pools at reactor sites fill up, spent fuel is increasingly placed in dry
storage facilities, which have lower operational costs and which can be implemented
in a modular fashion. The casks can be purchased as needed; they do not require
a strengthened or strongly shielded building; and they can even be placed on pads
in the open air. Most storage facilities are built above ground, although there
are exceptions, such as the Swedish CLAB spent-fuel pool, situated in a rock cavern
some tens of meters below the surface.
Reprocessing. In current reprocessing facilities, used fuel is separated
into its three components: uranium and plutonium, which both can be recycled into
fresh fuel, and waste containing fission products. The waste is then treated to
produce vitrified blocks incorporating most of the highly radioactive materials
and other low- and intermediate-level radioactive technological wastes. After conversion
and enrichment, the uranium from reprocessing can be reused as fuel, if necessary.
The plutonium can either be stored or made directly into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel,
in which uranium and plutonium oxides are combined. The vitrified waste is a high-quality
standardized product well suited for geological disposal. The technological waste
is of much lower activity, and much of it can go to near-surface disposal sites.
However, there are problems associated with each output stream.
Plutonium and MOX are unstable in storage because of the buildup of Am241. MOX fuel
is more expensive than fresh UO2 fuel; its specific decay heat is around
twice that of UO2 fuel; and the neutron dose from MOX is about eighty
times that from UO2 fuel. Reprocessed uranium is a “free”
by-product, but with modern high burn-up levels, there is less residual U235 and
more U236. Moreover, reenrichment increases U232 levels and presents a greater radiation
hazard. The vitrified waste has a smaller volume than packaged spent fuel, but it
still requires disposal in a deep geological repository, whose costs do not increase
in proportion to the volume of the inventory. The parts of technological waste that
contain long-lived radionuclides and must therefore go to geological disposal can
present problems since the waste forms (cement, bitumen, compacted pieces) are less
durable than vitrified waste or spent fuel.
The strongest argument in favor of reprocessing is that it saves resources, although
the real benefits will be realized only when fast reactors are in use. A further
positive aspect is that the highly active vitrified waste, in contrast to spent
fuel, does not fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and
presents no proliferation risk. However, the fact that current reprocessing technology
involves separation of weapons-usable plutonium has led to concerns about the spread
of the technology to many countries.
Disposal. Today, it is widely accepted in the technical community that
the only presently feasible method to ensure very long term (many millennia) safety
for high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel is isolation in a stable, deep geological
repository. Nevertheless, at present there are no disposal facilities (as opposed
to storage facilities) in operation in which used fuel or the waste from reprocessing
can be placed.
For at least twenty-five years after the original 1950s publication on the concept
of geological disposal, the validity of this approach was not questioned. It was
formally adopted as a final goal, through policy or legal decisions, in many countries,
including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, France,
Spain, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Japan. However, virtually every geological
waste disposal program in the world encountered difficulties in keeping to originally
Despite the slow progress of geological repositories in many countries, advances
have been made in some parts of the world. In the United States, the Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant (WIPP) deep repository for transuranic wastes has been operating successfully
for ten years. In Finland, Sweden, and France, deep repository programs are very
advanced, proving that sites can be selected with the consent of local populations;
that all necessary technologies are mature enough for implementation; and that definitive
dates for repository operation can be set. In most other countries of the world,
the combined technical and societal approaches employed in Sweden and Finland are
looked upon as role models. In 2008, when the U.S. Department of Energy submitted
a license application for a geological repository at Yucca Mountain, the U.S. program
was also perceived as being one of the most advanced. However, with the mid2009
declaration by the new administration that Yucca Mountain is “not an option,”
the timescales to implementation may have been set back by decades.
The various stages in the fuel cycle have often been developed by focusing on how
to optimize a specific process and not by taking into account influences on later
stages. In the following sections, we present some back-end examples that illustrate
this point and that highlight how more holistic thinking might drive future developments.
Storage. There are no major technical issues affecting the safety and security
of spent-fuel storage. Both wet and dry storage systems have been proven over decades.
However, a specific disadvantage of pool storage is that a large facility must be
constructed at the outset to allow for future accumulation of spent fuel. Another
disadvantage is that maintenance can become expensive if final disposal lies far
into the future. Pool storage has also been criticized as being particularly susceptible
to terrorist attacks, although such vulnerability has also been refuted by technical
The security and terrorist concerns mentioned above have heightened interest in
the potential advantages of building storage facilities underground.
This approach has recently been considered in the work of the Committee on Radioactive
Waste Management (CoRWM) in the United Kingdom, where such stores are referred to
as “hardened” facilities. An alternative would be to have spent-fuel
storage facilities at repository depths (hundreds of meters) with the possibility
of later converting these stores into final disposal facilities. Others have suggested,
however, that this appears more like an effort to place waste in a geological facility
without first having to demonstrate the suitability of the site for long-term isolation.
Globally, the spent fuel in storage will continue to grow over the coming decades.
Even the first repositories in Sweden, Finland, or France will not begin operation
for more than a decade, for technical and engineering reasons. Repositories in other
countries will be established much later because of institutional delays, because
sufficient inventories must first accumulate, or because funding is not yet available.
Revived interest in reprocessing (but not at the present time or with the current
technology) will lead some countries to extend surface storage in order to keep
the option open. Therefore, global efforts are needed to ensure that safety and
security are guaranteed at all storage facilities for spent fuel.
Reprocessing. Reprocessing was first developed on a large scale in military
facilities in order to separate fissile materials for nuclear weapons. The environmental
impacts, the security aspects, and the treatment of waste residues had lower priorities.
The technologies commercially applied today are basically the same as they were
when the technology was first developed, although much improvement has been made
in reducing emissions and developing conditioning methods for non-high-level waste.
Today, there is increased interest in recycling, but based on new developments that
provide enhanced security by avoiding separated fissile materials.
The advantage of the current PUREX process is that it has been demonstrated to work
in a highly reliable fashion. Key disadvantages are that it produces separated plutonium,
which is a security risk, and that the plants required are large and expensive.
Alternatives are being worked on. The UREX process, developed in the United States,
is modified to separate only the uranium, which can be recycled, leaving the plutonium
with the fission products and other actinides in “proliferation resistant”
form. The COEX (co-extraction of actinides) process, developed in France, leaves
a small amount of recovered uranium with the plutonium so that the plutonium is
never separated. Approaches using pyrometallurgical and electrolytic processes to
separate the fission products from the actinides have been developed and even operated
at the pilot plant stage, but not under the current regulatory regimes, which may
present significant challenges to their widespread use.
Geological Disposal. Geological disposal of high-level radioactive wastes
and spent fuel is the key part of the nuclear fuel cycle that has not been demonstrated
in practice. Technologies have been developed and extensively tested in a number
of countries. These technologies are based on different conceptual designs for deep
repositories; there are multiple feasible options for the choice of engineered barrier
to enclose the used nuclear fuel and also for the geological medium in which the
repository will be sited. In all of the programs, the safety of the deep geological
system—as assessed by the range of scientific methodologies developed for
this purpose—is invariably shown to be high. In the scientific community there
is general acceptance of the feasibility of safe disposal, if the site and engineered
system are well chosen. Unfortunately, political and societal acceptance remains
a challenge in most countries.
The technical concepts developed to date in many countries are, however, generally
recognized to be advanced enough for implementation. This does not imply that further
technical optimization is unnecessary. In fact, even the most advanced programs
are still amending engineering details in order to make the operations in a deep
repository safer and more efficient.
The largely technical information about the nuclear fuel cycle discussed so far
makes clear that the necessary technologies for open or closed cycles have been
developed to a level that allows their industrial application. Furthermore, it is
clear that the nuclear fuel cycle is a global enterprise. This is in part because
of the widespread and heterogeneous distribution of uranium ore bodies and partly
because of the technological development history. The global distribution of fuel-cycle
technologies today is determined by various factors, including:
- The military origins and continued attractions of nuclear technology; this led
to the present situation of seven countries with fuel-cycle capabilities that include
- The distribution of natural resources; this has led to countries like Australia,
with no nuclear power ambitions of its own as of yet, being directly involved in
the fuel cycle as a producer of uranium ore;
The desire for some degree of self-sufficiency in energy supply; this is a key driver
in countries like Japan and a claimed driver in others like Brazil and Iran;
- The real or perceived opportunity to provide commercial services to other
countries; this is a driver for enrichment and reprocessing facilities in Europe,
the United States, and Russia; and
- The recent hunger for clean base-load electrical energy; this is today leading
to declarations of interest in expanding or introducing nuclear power in a long
list of countries.
This global situation is in a state of flux. The economics and politics of energy
supply are changing, and this will have repercussions on many aspects of supply
and demand in nuclear fuel-cycle services. More importantly, however, the issues
of global safety and security are becoming of increasing concern. Intensive debate
on these issues has taken place over the past years. Most emphasis has been placed
on restricting the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies since these
can directly produce weapons-usable materials. A more comprehensive approach, however,
seeks to control the distribution of all nuclear materials that can be misused by
states or by terrorist groups. In this section, we look at actual or potential geopolitical
developments in the global fuel cycle that could lead to increased security risks
and at measures that could mitigate these risks.
Nuclear programs expand and seek more independence. The spread of nuclear
power reactors alone can obviously increase security risks at the back-end as well
as the front-end of the fuel cycle. Since new nuclear programs have insufficient
spent-fuel inventories to justify repository projects and since there are currently
few fuel providers that accept the return of spent fuel, expansion of reactor operations
will also expand storage operations. If the stores are to operate for a very long
period, then they will have to be maintained and safeguarded. These tasks become
more necessary as the radiation from the spent fuel decays to levels that allow
easier handling. Expansion of nuclear power plants thus implies that increased efforts
to ensure safe and secure storage of spent fuel are needed. International initiatives
have been suggested to meet this need.
Greater security concerns will arise if increased use of nuclear power by some states
leads them to conclude that they should implement indigenous facilities for sensitive
fuel-cycle activities: reprocessing or enrichment. Both of these activities are
economically justified only if a sufficiently large nuclear fleet is operated (or
if services are provided to foreign countries). Still, some countries may be tempted
to push for national fuel-cycle facilities even if they do not have this level of
nuclear power production. Assurance of supply and national independence are obvious
drivers. Since mastering either of the two sensitive technologies brings a nation
close to the point where nuclear weapons can be produced, there is great international
concern about the spread of these technologies.
Uranium producers move into other stages of the fuel cycle. At present,
the high-tech stages of the nuclear fuel cycle are carried out by countries with
nuclear weapons programs and/or with advanced civilian nuclear power programs. Some
of the biggest uranium producers—Australia, Kazakhstan, and Namibia—fall
into neither of these categories. It is not unreasonable for such countries to evaluate
periodically the potential economic benefits of moving farther up the supply chain
rather than simply exporting ores. Enrichment and fuel fabrication are obvious next
steps. However, uranium producers could also conceivably offer back-end fuel-cycle
services. Reprocessing is unlikely to be introduced where it has not yet been done
since very large scale technology is involved, and the economics are not favorable.
An undeniably attractive offer would, however, be a disposal service. In fact, in
both Australia and Canada, the two largest uranium producers, the possibility of
taking back as spent fuel the uranium that each country has supplied has been debated
at different times. It has even been argued that such countries may have a “moral
obligation” to accept spent fuel. However, the real driver for a uranium-producing
country to accept returned spent fuel for disposal would be economic. Huge benefits
could result for the host state, but despite this advantage, the political and public
support for such an initiative has nowhere been evident.
Disposal becomes multinational. For some countries, national repositories
may be difficult or infeasible because of the lack of favorable geological formations,
shortage of technical resources, or prohibitively high costs. Multinational or regional
repositories are a potential solution for these countries, and in recent years there
has been a rapid increase in interest in this possibility, especially in small countries.
The prime drivers were originally the economic and political problems that might
be lessened by being shared between countries facing the same challenges. The potential
safety and safeguards benefits were also recognized at this early stage. Increasingly—in
particular after the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and in connection
with nuclear proliferation concerns—attention has focused on the security
advantages that could result. The IAEA has been careful to point out that risks
must also be minimized at the “back-end of the back-end” of the nuclear
fuel cycle—that is, not only in enrichment and reprocessing, but also in storage
and disposal (of spent fuel in particular). In its publications in this area, the
IAEA has described two potential routes to achieve international disposal: the “add-on
approach” and the “partnering scenario.”
Both of these potential approaches to multinational disposal have seen significant
progress. The add-on option calls for a single country, or a network of countries
with appropriate facilities working together, to provide extended fuel-cycle services
to countries adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and wishing
to use nuclear power. This option could limit the spread of those sensitive technologies
allowed under the Treaty—namely, enrichment, reprocessing, and accumulation
of stocks of spent fuel. Crucial prerequisites would be securing supply of services
to all cooperating users and close international monitoring by the IAEA.
Within this international fuel cycle scheme, the fuel leasing component is perhaps
the most promising. The U.S. government has indicated its support for such a scheme
in Russia through the Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure (GNPI) proposal or in
the United States through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative.
The proposals are primarily aimed at making the nuclear fuel cycle more secure,
but they ultimately require the fuel suppliers to take back the spent fuel or for
a third-party, trustworthy country to offer storage and disposal services. Unfortunately,
neither initiative appears to be making much progress.
In both Russian and U.S. proposals, the service providers concentrate on offering
enrichment, fuel supply, and reprocessing to client countries. Although both proposals
mention the take-back of spent fuel, this is a sensitive political issue in both
countries. Even if in the future it becomes acceptable to return to U.S. or Russian
manufacturers fuel that they had provided to client nations, this take-back will
solve only part of the problem. Spent fuel from other suppliers in the market must
also be accepted; there are existing inventories of hazardous radioactive wastes
that must also go to a deep disposal facility. A more comprehensive offer of disposal
services is necessary. In fact, an offer of this type may be the only sufficiently
attractive inducement for small countries to accept the restrictions on their nuclear
activities that are currently being proposed by the large powers and the IAEA. The
emphasis on ensuring security of supply of other services, such as reactor construction,
fresh fuel, enrichment, and reprocessing, is misplaced. All of these services are
supplied commercially at present, and a customer country currently has a choice
of suppliers that may well be wider than would result from implementation of initiatives
that create a two-tier system of nuclear supplier and user countries. The key inducement
for small countries to give up some of the “inalienable” rights afforded
them in Article IV of the NPT may well be the offer of a safe, secure, and affordable
route for disposal based on a multinational repository in another country.
The second option for implementing multinational repositories—partnering by
smaller countries—has been particularly supported by the European Union through
its promotion of the potential benefits of shared facilities in a regional solution.
For the partnering scenario, in which a group of smaller countries cooperates in
moving toward shared disposal facilities, exploratory studies have been performed
most recently by the Arius Association, which also co-managed the European Commission’s
SAPIERR (Strategic Action Plan for Implementation of European Regional Repositories)
project on regional repositories. The project, funded by the European Commission,
has carried out a range of studies that lays the groundwork for serious multinational
negotiations on the establishment of one or more shared repositories in Europe.
The studies have looked at legal and liability issues, organizational forms, economic
aspects, safety and security issues, and public involvement challenges. The proposal
that resulted from SAPIERR was a staged, adaptive implementation strategy for a
European Repository Development Organisation (ERDO).
At the pilot meeting of potential participants in an ERDO working group, thirty-two
representatives from fourteen European countries were present, all of whom had been
nominated through their national governments, as well as observers from the IAEA,
the European Commission, and American foundations. ERDO, if sufficient numbers of
partner nations agree to the final proposals, will operate as a sister organization
to those waste agencies from European countries such as France, Sweden, Finland,
and Germany that have opted for a purely national repository program.
If nuclear power is to expand in a safe, secure, and environmentally friendly manner,
improvements in the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle must occur in the coming
years. This section outlines some recommendations, both technical and institutional,
Centralized storage—maybe even underground. Concentrating national
inventories of spent fuel at a few centralized locations rather than having distributed
stores (some at decommissioned reactor sites) can obviously help reduce security
risks, from malevolent acts in particular. Some countries already have underground
storage facilities and others are considering this option. Given the increasing
recognition that spent fuel is a valuable resource— but that reprocessing
is currently very expensive—the probability that used fuel will be stored
for many decades is rising. If this happens, then the arguments in favor of underground
stores with enhanced safety and security will grow stronger.
Research on advanced reprocessing. The recent support for nuclear expansion
in some countries has also led to proposals for expansion of reprocessing using
the current technological approaches originally developed for extraction of plutonium
for weapons. The GNEP initiative proposed implementing reprocessing facilities that
were copies of current commercial plants. The scientific community, however, led
by the National Academies in the United States, was quick to point out that this
is unnecessary and uneconomic at the present time, and that it could lead to increased
rather than decreased proliferation risks. Nevertheless, the ultimate need to recycle
fissile materials was accepted, and the conclusion was drawn that research into
advanced reprocessing technologies is the most appropriate strategy today. Future
technologies may improve the economics, environmental impacts, and security aspects.
Optimization of engineering aspects of repositories. A variety of repository
designs and operational concepts have been developed over the last thirty years.
Most of these, however, have tended to be highly conservative, with the explicit
aim of demonstrating that deep geological facilities can provide the necessary isolation
of long-lived radioactive wastes over unprecedented timescales up to one million
years. Relatively soon, the first facilities will be licensed and constructed, and
therefore practical engineering issues will rise in importance. Mining and nuclear
working methods must be coordinated in a manner that ensures operational safety
and efficient operation. Quality assurance is a key challenge. In addition, the
potential for cost savings must be addressed. The work in the advanced Swedish and
Finnish spent-fuel disposal programs illustrates this well. In both of these cases,
the original massive copper container has been redesigned to use less copper and
more steel. Other disposal programs with differing safety concepts will likely face
Technical and financial assistance to new nuclear states. Leading nuclear
nations must commit to work closely with young or new nuclear power nations to help
them meet their energy needs and aspirations in a manner that preserves and improves
security, nonproliferation objectives, transparency, and stability. The leading
nuclear nations will have much better chances for success in assuring continued
nuclear safety, security, nonproliferation, and environmental preservation if they
work proactively with emerging nations to understand and help them improve their
Providing technical and, in some cases, financial assistance to help emerging nations
realize a secure and healthy energy future will be an excellent investment if it
results in relationships that promote a high-quality nuclear safety and security
culture. In the context of this essay, it is important to note that the assistance
offered should extend to the back-end of the fuel cycle. An improved approach would
be for providers of front-end services and of nuclear power plants to bundle support
for repository design and construction activities with back-end services.
Multinational reprocessing facilities. Reprocessing plants that separate
uranium, plutonium, and wastes from spent nuclear fuel can divert the plutonium
to weapons use as well. As a result, there have been several attempts to pursue
multinational solutions, though with little success to date.
With the spread of nuclear power, the advent of new technologies, and a greater
focus on assuring decades-long supply of fresh fuel for nuclear plants, more countries
may begin to consider the value of developing indigenous reprocessing facilities.
It has also been argued that implementing this technology can ease the problems
of waste disposal. However, the waste disposal advantages associated with reprocessing
are not enough to justify the technology on their own. Thus, there are ample incentives
to pursue the creation of multinational enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.
Providing a framework that makes emerging nuclear nations meaningful participants
in such initiatives holds great promise for better meeting both the energy and security
needs of all involved.
Multinational interim storage facilities and repositories. As already emphasized,
new nuclear nations will need assistance, particularly at the “back-end of
the back-end” of the fuel cycle. Leading nuclear nations have the opportunity
to craft “win/win” relationships by recognizing that many small nuclear
programs, or countries starting out in nuclear energy, do not have the technical
or financial resources to implement a national repository in a timely fashion. They
will have to keep their spent fuel in interim storage facilities; this could result
in numerous sites worldwide where hazardous materials could be stored for anywhere
from decades to hundreds of years. Multinational cooperation in storage and disposal
offers a better alternative.
One safer and more secure option would be for nuclear fuel suppliers to take back
the spent fuel under fuel “leasing” arrangements, as described earlier.
However, although there is fierce competition among nuclear suppliers to provide
reactors, fuels, and reprocessing services, as yet few are willing to pursue this
leasing approach. Moreover, some would-be supplier nations, such as France, even
have national laws prohibiting spent fuel take-back unless the high-level wastes
are returned to the user after reprocessing. The user country would therefore still
require a geological disposal facility for these wastes. Cost savings, if any, in
implementing a high-level waste repository rather than a spent-fuel repository would
be far outweighed by the prices charged for the reprocessing service.
The most promising option that remains open for small and new nuclear power programs
is to collaborate with similarly positioned countries in efforts to implement shared,
multinational repositories. The possibility that some country may decide to offer
international repository services on a commercial basis cannot be excluded and could
be a game-changer.
The big challenge, of course, is achieving public and political acceptance in the
repository host countries. Is it conceivable that a country and a local community
within that country would willingly accept being a host for imported wastes? Recent
national siting experience gives hope. Siting initiatives in several countries for
either high- or low-level wastes have shown that success can be achieved through
a modern strategy based on open communication, transparent documentation of potential
benefits to host communities, steady accumulation of trust by the organization developing
the repository, and recognition of the necessity of local acceptance. In a few countries
(for example, Finland, Sweden, and South Korea), this has even led to competition
between communities wishing to host a repository. At the multinational level, it
is possible that the same strategy may also succeed, but as in the successful national
programs, this may take several years.
The ERDO initiative mentioned above could act as a role model for regional groupings
elsewhere. A number of Arab states have recently made clear that they intend to
introduce nuclear power, and have expressed a willingness to do so collaboratively.
For example, in the Gulf Region, the United Arab Emirates is developing a complete
roadmap, planning all of the activities involved in introducing nuclear power. Close
linkages being formed today between nuclear programs in Brazil and Argentina might
usefully expand into a Central and South American grouping. In Asia, countries like
Taiwan and South Korea have already experienced problems trying to implement disposal
programs, and various other Asian states, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam,
have nuclear ambitions. An African regional grouping could also emerge, as various
nations there have expressed interest in nuclear energy.
Joining forces in developing regional repositories could still have substantial
advantages for small nuclear countries, even if the major nuclear powers at some
stage reverse their policies and, for strategic or commercial reasons, finally do
offer to accept foreign spent fuel or radioactive wastes. With a united front, and
with the open alternative of a multinational regional repository, the partner countries
would be much better placed in negotiations with potential large service providers
over the economic and other conditions attached to any offer to take their spent
If the spread of nuclear energy production is to occur without increasing global
risks of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, there must be close international
scrutiny of all nuclear activities. This oversight will be easier if sensitive materials
in the nuclear fuel cycle are handled, stored, and disposed of at fewer locations.
Shared disposal facilities for the spent fuel and highly radioactive wastes at the
back-end of the fuel cycle should be one key component in a secure global system.
It would benefit all nuclear programs if initiatives for regional cooperation were
started in relevant parts of the world by small or new nuclear countries, and if
these initiatives received technical and moral support from the advanced national
Today, developed and emerging countries are striving to maintain or improve their
standards of living by assuring a sufficient supply of energy; at the same time,
they are striving to deal responsibly with global warming. Accordingly, prospects
for a substantial growth and spread of nuclear power and associated facilities are
increasing. For this growth to be successful, however, there are a number of concerns
that need to be addressed, some technical and some economic. The potential for a
systems approach to technical and economic optimization should certainly be examined,
explicitly taking into consideration the holistic nature of the fuel cycle. The
technical and economic challenges associated with expansion of nuclear power are,
however, outweighed by the institutional concerns that need to be addressed.
Because the nuclear fuel cycle is global and because the consequences of misuse
of nuclear materials are also global, all nations can be affected by the expansion
of nuclear power. Multinational cooperation is essential for ensuring safety, security,
and protection of the environment during this expansion. This cooperation must extend
to the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Recent policy initiatives have focused on incentives to nations in the form of fresh
fuel assurances in return for promises by recipient nations not to pursue indigenous
enrichment or reprocessing. These offers have met with less than popular acceptance.
To many in the emerging nuclear world, fresh fuel assurances by the developed nuclear
nations look like the start of a nuclear fuel cartel. The assurances appear to perpetuate
a division between nuclear haves and have-nots, and ask emerging nuclear states
to put themselves in a political situation that they believe might threaten their
access to fuel in coming decades. Many would prefer a continuation of what they
feel they already have: access to a healthy nuclear fuel marketplace.
Nonetheless, revisiting the nuclear bargain established by the NPT and related agreements
is being pushed—for different reasons—by both the nuclear-weapons states
and the emerging nuclear nations. These efforts present both a concern to many that
the NPT may be fraying at the edges, but also a possible opportunity to build a
new set of understandings and behavior that will better meet the energy, proliferation,
and environmental needs of all concerned.
We should start with a set of clear goals. These goals must be responsive to the
needs of the entire international community, not just those of the advanced nuclear
provider states. The goals must also include measures at the back-end. The complete
list of goals could include:
- Providing access to nuclear power at market prices for any country that desires
- Assuring nuclear fuel supplies through a fuel bank and healthy marketplace;
- Eliminating the rationale for enrichment and reprocessing for all but a select
few, and ensuring that when these activities do take place they are under international
- Securing all excess weapons-usable material by putting it in unattractive form
or burning it where sensible, and bringing it under international control in appropriate
countries; the ultimate goal is to draw down separated weapons-usable materials
to as close to zero in as few places as practical;
- Disposing of spent nuclear fuel domestically or shipping it to appropriate countries
for management and disposal under international oversight;
- Recognizing countries that agree to host multinational disposal facilities as
providers of a necessary nuclear fuel-cycle service;
- Entitling all countries that provide fuel-cycle services at the front-end or
back-end to reasonable commercial profits;
- Entitling countries that use foreign fuel-cycle services at the front-end or
back-end to security of supply; the unique nature and particular risks associated
with nuclear power technologies imply that the above two points must be internationally
guaranteed if the free market system fails to work effectively; and
- Ensuring that any move toward weapons development or weapons-usable material
acquisition is surely, quickly, and clearly apparent.
Effectively integrating a successful approach to spent fuel and high-level radioactive
waste management is a crucial component of pursuing such an agenda. The lack of
a credible, sustained program to provide an ultimate solution to the disposal of
these materials is a serious hindrance to a healthy nuclear power program. The growth
and spread of nuclear power may well lead to more countries accumulating spent fuel.
The subsequent buildup of this material in an increasing number of nations will
provide a reservoir of plutonium that could later be accessed through reasonably
quick and simple, and possibly covert, reprocessing techniques. Along with the spread
of expertise and necessary technical knowledge, this buildup can bring countries
closer to weapons creation and potentially set off regional instabilities as neighbors
begin to hedge their nuclear bets as well.
Creating an international initiative to explore the prospects for multinational
spent-fuel storage, with eventual multinational disposal of spent fuel or the high-level
waste resulting from reprocessing, can begin a win/win process for solving the waste
issue in a manner that addresses proliferation, energy, and waste management issues
simultaneously. Companion efforts could pursue multinational enrichment facilities
and, as needed, reprocessing facilities with opportunities for financial participation
by emerging nuclear nations.
Established nuclear nations, particularly the nuclear-weapons states, should lead
by example. As leaders, they can transform waste management and disposal from issues
of “nuclear garbage” to integral elements of an internationally accepted
system. This system not only would provide for the resurgence of nuclear power,
but in doing so would simultaneously reduce proliferation, regional instability,
and waste management concerns.