Frank von Hippel
In their article on “The Key Role of the Back-End in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,”
Charles McCombie and Thomas Isaacs are correct in asserting that the nonproliferation
regime would be strengthened and nuclear energy costs could be reduced if a few
multinational spent-fuel repositories could be built instead of every nation having
to build its own. The concern is that, if spent fuel is left in national control
indefinitely, some nations might mine it for plutonium to make weapons.
Below, I discuss the cases of Japan and South Korea, whose nuclear utilities have
been unable to site even interim storage facilities. They are therefore, respectively,
reprocessing and considering reprocessing. Then I discuss the case of Russia, which,
in the early 2000s, was seen as the country most likely to be willing to dispose
of other countries’ spent fuel. I end with a short note on the politics of
siting geological radioactive waste repositories.
Japan, the only non-weapons state that reprocesses its spent fuel, provides a perfect
example of how a country, not being able to solve its spent-fuel storage problem,
might turn to spent-fuel reprocessing as a way to buy time—even though reprocessing
is enormously expensive, complicates ultimate radioactive waste disposal, and creates
Japan’s nuclear utilities have not been able to persuade the prefectures (Japan’s
equivalent of states) that host their nuclear power plants to allow them to do what
almost all U.S. nuclear utilities have done when their spent-fuel pools are dense-racked
and almost full: build on-site dry-cask storage for spent fuel that has cooled down
for twenty years or so. Japan’s nuclear utilities have therefore been forced
to ship their spent fuel off-site. Here, again, they encountered a problem: no prefecture
wanted to host a central interim spent-fuel storage site for fear that it would
become permanent. In any case, Japan’s nuclear establishment initially favored
reprocessing because it expected to move relatively quickly to plutonium-breeder
reactors that would require a large amount of separated plutonium for start-up cores.
In the late 1970s, therefore, Japan’s nuclear utilities entered into reprocessing
contracts with France and the United Kingdom and, in the 1980s, began to ship spent
fuel to those two countries for reprocessing.
This solution provided only temporary relief, however, because the contracts with
France and the United Kingdom required Japan to take back the high-level radioactive
waste (HLW) produced by the reprocessing. After a decade or so, Japan was faced
with having to find a national interim storage site for HLW coming back from Europe.
This proved to be no easier than finding a central interim storage site for spent
This time, Japan’s utilities solved their problem by building a domestic reprocessing
plant, including a storage facility for the HLW coming back from Europe. In 2003,
the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan estimated that building, operating,
and decommissioning the plant, fabricating the plutonium into MOX fuel, and disposing
of the associated transuranic waste would cost about ¥13 trillion (about $130
billion at an exchange rate of ¥100 per dollar).2
In addition, they
committed another ¥1 trillion to the host prefecture to be paid over the forty-year
lifetime of the reprocessing plant. These are huge costs—more than $3 billion
per GWe (gigawatt-electric) for the approximately 40 GWe of nuclear capacity that
the reprocessing plant will service if it operates at full capacity.3
The utilities argue, however, that the alternative of shutting down all of their
nuclear power plants would be even more costly.4
South Korea, whose nuclear program is about twenty-five years behind that of Japan
and is encountering similar opposition to expanded on-site storage from the local
governments hosting its nuclear power plants, is also proposing to reprocess.
5 Some South Koreans also advocate reprocessing because they believe that
it would be useful to have the nuclear-weapons option that reprocessing would provide.
Indeed, the calls for “nuclear sovereignty”—that is, obtaining
U.S. consent to South Korean reprocessing—reached a crescendo after North
Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test.6
The George W. Bush administration must have been thinking of Russia when it proposed
a “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership,” in which a few “fuel-cycle”
countries that were already reprocessing spent fuel on a large scale would dispose
of the spent fuel of “reactor” states, such as South Korea. The fuel-cycle
states would reprocess the reactor-state spent fuel, recycle the recovered transuranic
elements in fast-neutron reactors until they were fissioned (except for process
losses), and dispose of the foreign reprocessing waste along with their own waste.
Indeed, the Soviet Union had provided spent-fuel take-back services for the Eastern
European countries to which it had exported reactors and had reprocessed some of
the repatriated spent fuel. Furthermore, in 2001, the year that the Bush administration
took office, Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) succeeded in getting
a law through the Duma that would allow it to import spent fuel into Russia “for
temporary technological storage and (or) reprocessing.” The law is ambiguous
on what is to happen to the reprocessed waste, however, because it requires that
MinAtom reserve the “right to return radioactive wastes resulting from reprocessing
to the country of origin of the spent fuel.”7
South Korea and Taiwan were the potential customers mentioned most frequently by
MinAtom. The United States, however, has “consent rights” on transfer
of most South Korean and all Taiwanese spent fuel to any third country, and it requires
assurance that the spent fuel will not be reprocessed with
out its permission. The United States might eventually give its consent to the reprocessing
of South Korean and Taiwanese spent fuel in Russia if Russia promised that it would
not return the separated plutonium to Taiwan and South Korea. These negotiations,
however, could take years.
In the meantime, Rosatom, MinAtom’s successor agency, is less desperate for
money than MinAtom was in the 1990s. The idea of importing foreign spent fuel excited
opposition from a large spectrum of Russia’s social and local constituencies.
MinAtom was able to persuade the Russian government to override this opposition,
but Rosatom’s current management is more reluctant to initiate nuclear projects
against public opinion. On July 11, 2006, Rosatom’s head, Sergei Kirienko,
announced: “Russia has not imported foreign spent fuel, is not importing and
will not import it in the future.”8 With little political resistance,
Rosatom is building a huge, interim spent-fuel storage facility at an uncompleted
reprocessing facility near Krasnoyarsk. It plans eventually to reprocess much of
this spent fuel for start-up cores for plutonium breeder reactors and may return
to the idea of reprocessing other countries’ spent fuel as well.
RISK PERCEPTIONS ABOUT GEOLOGICAL RADIOACTIVE WASTE REPOSITORIES
Objectively, the politics of radioactive waste repositories are perplexing. Intuitively,
it seems obvious that relatively cool spent fuel buried 500 meters underground should
represent a much smaller risk than the hot spent fuel in power reactor cores or
recently discharged spent fuel in dense-packed spent-fuel pools.
Perhaps this comparative perspective is the reason why communities in Finland and
Sweden that already host nuclear power plants have volunteered to host underground
The United States, which currently operates more than a quarter of the world’s
nuclear generating capacity, should be willing to take the spent fuel of other countries
with smaller programs as a way to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Increasing
by 10 to 50 percent the amount of spent fuel to be disposed of would not qualitatively
change the U.S. spent-fuel disposal challenge. To show leadership in advancing multinational
spent-fuel management arrangements, however, the United States would need to put
its own spent-fuel politics in order. Unfortunately, by proposing to cancel the
Yucca Mountain repository and making no attempt to establish a fairer site selection
process for a future repository, Barack Obama’s administration has set the
United States up for a renewed debate over the reprocessing of its own spent fuel.
http://cnic.jp/english/topics/policy/chokei/longterminterim.html. The utilities
calculated that the extra cost of reprocessing plutonium relative to spent-fuel
interim storage would be ¥0.6/kWh (kilowatt hour). For 40 GWe of nuclear capacity
operating for forty years, this would cumulate to ¥7.5 trillion.