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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 3: New Approaches to the Nucelar Fuel Cycle
Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Chapter 3: New Approaches to the Nucelar Fuel Cycle

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 daunting.

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 market-driven requirements.

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 power.

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.

BACK-END INITIATIVES

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 storage facilities.

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 fission products.

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 countries, however.

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.

FUEL-CYCLE CENTERS

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.

CONCLUSION

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 applications; and
  • 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.

ENDNOTES

1. The views expressed in this essay are the author’s alone.

2. Currently there are thirteen enrichment facilities in nine countries. IAEA-TECDOC-1613 (Nuclear Fuel Cycle Information System, A Directory of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities, 2009 Edition), Table 14, p. 55; Tables 17–22, pp. 55–56);http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/te_1613_web.pdf.

3. The two uranium enrichment consortia, Urenco and EURODIF, are institutional expressions of the movement toward a European indigenous enrichment capability. In spite of initial difficulties, they came to represent two different economic and industrial models of multinational ownership and operation, neither of which was established for explicitly nonproliferation purposes, but both of which contributed to that end.