Tariq Rauf 1
For the past five decades, the role of nuclear power has been shaped by many factors,
such as growing energy needs, economic performance, the availability of other energy
sources, the quest for energy independence, environmental factors, nuclear safety
and proliferation concerns, and advances in nuclear technology. For a variety of
reasons, including climate change, enhanced safety, and improved technology, a revival
of nuclear energy as a clean fuel seems in the offing—and a nuclear renaissance
is widely expected with the attendant issues of security of the supply of technology
and fuel, as well as verification of the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The long-term prospects for nuclear power, however, will depend on the industry’s
success in addressing concerns associated with spent-fuel management, including
waste disposal, proliferation, safety, and security, while improving economic competitiveness
of future reactors. Interest in starting new nuclear power programs remains high,
with more than sixty member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
having expressed such interest. Nearly twenty IAEA member states are currently involved
in projects to develop reactor and fuel-cycle designs that would address some of
the concerns noted above.
In recent years, front-end issues have been driven by considerations of increased
demand for nuclear fuel, as existing users of nuclear energy build new facilities
and new countries develop nuclear power programs. It has also been driven, concomitantly,
by fears of other countries of the spread of uranium enrichment and the rise of
clandestine nuclear supply networks. With regard to increased reliance on nuclear
power, the question is: From where would the new fuel supply come? Would it remain
in the hands of the existing suppliers, who would then perhaps expand the capacity?2 Would new countries develop their own national indigenous enrichment capabilities beyond market requirements,
or would international nuclear fuel-cycle facilities emerge to meet the demand for
nuclear fuel services?
Back-end concerns (disposal of spent or irradiated nuclear fuel) remain essentially
the same as those that prevailed in the past (that is, the management of spent nuclear
fuel and the disposal of radioactive waste). More than fifty countries currently
have spent fuel from power or research reactors stored in temporary locations awaiting
reprocessing or disposal. Not all countries have the appropriate geological conditions
or geographical location for such disposal —and, for many countries with small
nuclear programs for electricity generation, the financial and human resource investments
required for the construction and operation of a geological disposal facility remain
The current spectrum of policy and technology issues underlies the current impetus
for greater innovation in the search for possible solutions that could lead to new
international or multinational approaches (MNAs) to the nuclear fuel cycle for both
the front-end and the back-end.
Attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to set up multinational approaches to the nuclear
fuel cycle did not yield tangible results for a variety of political, technical,
and economic reasons, but principally because countries could not agree on the conditions
and nonproliferation commitments for participation in the multilateral activities.
National sovereignty considerations also played a role, alongside expectations about
the technological and economic spin-offs to be derived from nuclear fuel-cycle activities.
Thirty years later, the same concerns still prevail as new approaches are suggested.
So far, efforts have not been successful to promote a new binding international
norm stipulating that sensitive fuel-cycle activities are to be conducted exclusively
in the context of MNAs and no longer as a national undertaking, because this is
regarded as changing the scope of Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT). Discussions both with supplier states but, more important, with consumer
states have shown that different states would choose different policies and solutions
for their nuclear energy policy options. This in turn would depend on their historic
situation, as well as on their geographical location, technical abilities, resources,
and individual choices. Thus, in this context, it is of the utmost importance that
flexibility is exercised and that there are no attempts to suggest solutions that
are perceived to be imposed, particularly on the consumer states. Establishing MNAs
with voluntary participation is the way to proceed.
In the current discussions on MNAs, IAEA member states have been interested in promoting
front-end initiatives, specifically the assurance of supply of low-enriched uranium
(LEU) and the possibility of setting up international uranium enrichment centers.
Back-end issues have not featured in such MNA discussions.
FRONT-END: ASSURANCE OF SUPPLY
Recent proposals for assuring supplies of LEU for power reactor fuel, in the author’s
view, could be seen as one stage in a broader longer-term development of a multilateral
framework for nuclear energy. Such a framework could encompass assurance-of-supply
mechanisms for both natural and low-enriched uranium, as well as for nuclear fuel.
Once a multilateral framework for the front-end is established, it could be possible
to establish a similar framework for spent-fuel management at the back-end of the
nuclear fuel cycle. This separation of effort is driven by the technical complexity
of the nuclear fuel cycle and the political sensitivity of its numerous aspects.
In this context, establishing a fully developed multilateral framework that is equitable
and accessible to all users of nuclear energy is a key element for IAEA member states
and NPT states.
An assurance-of-supply mechanism for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle could
potentially address two challenges. The first is to deal with the possible consequences
of interruptions in the supply of nuclear fuel resulting from political considerations
that are unrelated to nonproliferation or commercial, technical, or other aspects
in terms of fulfillment of contractual obligations. Such interruptions might dissuade
countries from initiating or expanding nuclear power programs. The second challenge
is to reduce simultaneously the vulnerabilities that might create incentives for
countries to build new national enrichment and reprocessing capabilities beyond
Hence, an assurance-of-supply mechanism would be envisaged solely as a backup mechanism
to the operation of the current normally functioning market in nuclear materials,
fuels, technologies, and so on. This would not be a substitute for the existing
market, and it would not deal with disruption of supply stemming from commercial,
technical, or other failures.
A summary of existing proposals is available on the IAEA’s website (http://
www.iaea.org). Presently, there are twelve mutually complementary proposals. These
proposals range from providing backup assurance of the supply by governments, to
establishing an IAEA-controlled LEU reserve, to setting up international uranium
enrichment centers where the IAEA would have some role in the decision-making. All
of these proposals are currently under consideration among the IAEA member states.
By June 2009, three front-runner concepts had emerged on assurances of supply: the
establishment of an IAEA LEU bank, the Russian Federation initiative to establish
a reserve of LEU for supply to the IAEA for its member states, and the German Multilateral
Enrichment Sanctuary Project. In addition, the United Kingdom is developing its
nuclear fuel assurances. These proposals aim to add to states’ nuclear fuel
options by backing up the commercial market with an assurance-of-supply scheme for
eligible states, which would increase confidence in continuing reliance on nuclear
The first two front-runner concepts noted above call for the establishment of LEU
reserves under IAEA auspices. An IAEA LEU bank is envisaged to hold 60 tonnes of
LEU that would be sufficient to meet the electricity needs of two million average
Austrian households for three years. In addition, in November 2009, the IAEA Board
of Governors decided by a vote to accept the Russian Federation proposal to set
up a reserve with 120 tonnes of LEU, for use by IAEA member states; the legal instruments
to put this into effect are expected to be signed soon.
Once nuclear fuel has been used in a nuclear power plant to produce electricity,
the fuel has been “spent” and it awaits further treatment in a reprocessing
facility to recover the uranium and plutonium contained in the waste, or in an intermediate
storage facility, or in a “final repository” as a terminal solution.
Among the more visible efforts to promote MNAs for the back-end were the IAEA study
on Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centers (1975–1977), the International Nuclear
Fuel Cycle Evaluation program (1977–1980), the Expert Group on International
Plutonium Storage (1978–1982), the IAEA Committee on Assurances of Supply
(1980–1987), and the Conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation
on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. In a general sense, these efforts concluded
that most of the proposed arrangements were technically feasible and that, based
on the projections of energy demand, economies of scale rendered them economically
attractive. Nonetheless, all of these initiatives failed for a variety of political,
technical, and economic reasons, as noted above.
In general, thus far, MNAs may have been more successful in uranium enrichment3 (front-end) than in the field of spent-fuel reprocessing. In part, in the
author’s view, this may be because for now reprocessing technology requires
greater financial investment and involves more technical complexity.
Growth in reprocessing capacity has been somewhat limited and currently is about
5,000 tHM (tonnes of heavy metal) per year. All reprocessing facilities are owned
directly by governments or by companies controlled by governments.
The total amount of spent fuel that has been discharged globally from nuclear reactors
is about 320,000 tHM. About one-third of the spent fuel that has been discharged
from power reactors has been reprocessed. The rest is in interim storage. A significant
fraction of the separated plutonium is used for MOX fuel for light-water power reactors.
The rest is in interim storage. By the end of 2009, about 95,000 tonnes of spent
fuel had been reprocessed, and
about 225,000 tHM are stored in spent-fuel storage pools at reactors or at other
World capacity to reprocess light-water reactor fuel is expected to exceed demand
until plutonium recycling becomes more economical with the introduction of fast
reactors or with a substantially increased uranium price. In the meantime, with
the availability of several capable suppliers, the market stands ready to provide
adequate assurance of reprocessing services. A state that agrees to rely on international
(rather than domestic) reprocessing facilities to have its spent fuel reprocessed,
and to use the separated plutonium and/or uranium in MOX fuel, would want some assurance
that the reprocessing services would be available as needed. Otherwise, the state
would want an assurance that a package of reprocessing and MOX fabrication would
be available as necessary. There are also other options, such as fuel leasing and
take-back, which would become more feasible when supplier states have in place a
closed fuel cycle and reprocess spent nuclear fuel from thermal reactors, both domestic
and foreign, to fabricate fuel for fast reactors.
With regard to interim and final storage and disposal, the fact is that most of
the spent fuel around the world is now kept at the nuclear plants themselves, where
it has been used. Depending on the option selected, a final repository may receive
unprocessed fuel assemblies (spent or irradiated fuel), or plain wastes, or both.
Whether such special facilities would be candidates for multilateral approaches
is an open question. Besides the expected economic benefits of multinational repositories,
there may be a reason to view them in terms of nonproliferation in the case of spent
fuel, because of the potential risk associated with the contained plutonium, whose
accessibility increases with time given the radiological decay of the associated
No shared multinational repository exists currently, and at present, there would
be strong public opposition to such repositories. It is difficult enough to have
a national repository. This situation may change, however, when several national
repositories have been built and put into operation.
At the national level, Sweden has selected Östhammar as the site for a final
spent-fuel geological repository, following a nearly twenty-year process, with operation
targeted for 2023. Site investigations for repositories at Olkiluoto in Finland
and in the Bure region in France have continued on schedule, with operation targeted
for 2020 and 2025, respectively.
In the United States, the government decided to terminate its development of a permanent
repository for high-level waste at Yucca Mountain, and has signaled that it intends
to withdraw the license application that was submitted to the NRC in 2008. In the
meantime, the NRC has been asked to put the application on hold and DOE has not
requested any funding for FY 2011. A Blue Ribbon Committee has been established
to study alternative routes for spent-fuel management and to report within twenty-four
months. In the United Kingdom, a voluntary siting process has been initiated.
Multinational repositories, in the author’s view, could offer numerous economic
benefits for both the host and partner countries with small nuclear programs. Sharing
a facility with a few partners could significantly reduce a host country’s
expenditures. Because the host country would bear the burden of permanently housing
the repository (and because some partners may be saving the costs of establishing
their own centralized facilities), the host country likely would negotiate an equitable
contribution from its partners toward the total development costs of the project.
Partner countries could agree to pay the host country some of the costs of development,
but also a fee on the operation of the site. Therefore, a multinational agreement
would spread the full burden of development costs among several partners, thereby
significantly reducing these costs for individual members. In most countries, a
fee is levied on each nuclear kilowatt-hour (kWh) produced, prior to construction
of disposal facilities.
The final disposal of spent fuel also could be a candidate for multilateral approaches,
because this could offer major economic benefits and substantial nonproliferation
benefits. There would be legal, political, and public acceptance challenges in many
To be successful, the final disposal of spent fuel (and radioactive waste) in shared
repositories could be considered as one element of a broader strategy of parallel
options. National solutions will remain a first priority in many countries. This
is the only approach for states with major nuclear programs in operation or in past
operation. For others with smaller nuclear programs, a dual-track approach could
be considered in which both national and international solutions may be pursued.
The concept of “fuel-cycle centers” also deserves consideration. Such
centers would combine, in one location, several segments of the fuel cycle (for
example, uranium processing and enrichment, fuel fabrication [including MOX], spent-fuel
storage and reprocessing). Regional fuel-cycle centers could offer most of the benefits
of other MNAs, in particular, material security and transportation. A further step—the
additional co-location of nuclear power plants— would create a genuine “nuclear
power park,” an interesting, more long-term concept that deserves further
study. For new models of cooperation, there could be options for companies serving
different parts of the fuel cycle to cooperate in a way that could supply customer
states with various (or all) required services for using nuclear energy.
In the present context of Atoms for Peace, over the medium to long term, new frameworks
could be considered for the use of nuclear energy to achieve the following objectives:
- Robust technological development and innovation in nuclear power and nuclear
- New multilateral approaches for the nuclear fuel cycle, for both the front-end
and the back-end, to assure supply and build confidence in continuing reliance on
nuclear energy while strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime.