President Barack Obama’s administration is working on many fronts to solve
some of our toughest problems, including health care, the economy, climate change,
and terrorism.1 As you know, the demand for clean energy is growing.
This means that nuclear power is likely to be an important part of our low-carbon
energy future, at least until my former constituents at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory finally deliver on the promise of fusion.
We must address two challenges as nuclear energy expands worldwide:
- First, we must ensure that the expansion of nuclear energy does not lead to
the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies that can be used to make
nuclear materials for nuclear weapons.
- Second, we must develop a practical plan for the management of spent fuel.
These two goals are interrelated in various ways. The connection I want to emphasize
is that cooperation on spent-fuel management can reduce global demand for indigenous
enrichment and reprocessing.
President Obama addressed precisely these issues last spring in Prague when he set
forth the ambitious goal of building “a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation
. . . so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of
As we at the State Department work to ensure that civil enrichment and reprocessing
technologies do not contribute to weapons proliferation, the most direct approach,
as is often the case in life, is not the most productive.
The previous administration proposed to ban these technologies for states that do
not already possess them. The problem was that all other countries opposed this
approach because they viewed it as an infringement on their sovereignty and on their
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights to peaceful nuclear technology. Moreover,
the very insistence that others not obtain such capabilities increased demand for
them by creating the impression that we are seeking to establish a suppliers’
cartel. Instead of reassurance, this had the opposite effect.
As President Obama said in Prague, “No approach will succeed if it’s
based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules.” So the administration
is focusing on creating incentives for states considering nuclear energy to choose
not to pursue sensitive fuel-cycle technologies.
The primary incentive not to pursue an indigenous enrichment capability is the existence
of a strong, competitive commercial market. Any state or reactor operator in good
standing with its nonproliferation obligations seeking uranium-enrichment services
may receive four bids—from URENCO, USEC, AREVA, and TENEX. Many contract with
all four to diversify their supply. The enrichment industry is investing heavily
to upgrade technology and expand to meet projected demand. In addition, a fifth
potential competitor is developing innovative laser technology. These suppliers,
which are international in character, with production facilities in six countries,
have a proven track record for producing enriched uranium reliably and economically.
This international enrichment enterprise is fully integrated into a global fuel
supply chain, including international providers of uranium, conversion services,
and fuel fabrication, with a track record of reliable performance on long-term contracts.
This competitive commercial market is the bedrock incentive to forgo costly and
complex indigenous enrichment programs.
For those who seek additional confidence beyond what the market provides, however,
the United States is leading the international community to develop assurances of
reliable fuel supply, beginning with fuel banks. As you have noticed, after forty
years of discussion, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors
approved in November 2009 the first enriched uranium reserve, at Angarsk, in large
measure due to a cooperative diplomatic effort of the United States and Russia.
If a country in good standing with its nonproliferation obligations encounters a
supply problem and is unable to find a commercial solution, it could turn to the
IAEA, which in turn could request enriched uranium from the Angarsk reserve. In
a manner consistent with its national laws, Russia could transfer the material to
the IAEA, which would arrange for fabrication into fuel and delivery to the country
This all sounds straightforward, but there are underlying challenges that need to
be reconciled, including:
- The IAEA’s perceived need to determine eligibility only on the basis of
the record of compliance with safeguards;
- The laws of supplier countries placing much more stringent conditions on transfers
of enriched uranium, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines; and
- A feeling on the part of many developing countries that fuel assurances are
intended ultimately to preserve a choke hold over nuclear fuel supplies and to deny
them their NPT rights to nuclear technology.
The Obama administration worked with Russia and the IAEA to reconcile these divergent
considerations in a manner that won the approval of a large majority of the IAEA
We are now using the precedents established by Angarsk to shape the international
nuclear fuel bank put forward by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with the objective
of bringing this second and complementary fuel-bank proposal to the IAEA Board in
In addition, the United States is creating a national enriched-uranium reserve to
support fuel-supply assurances by downblending highly enriched uranium no longer
needed for national security purposes.
As fuel banks have made the transition from discussion to reality, we are exploring
other concepts to assure a reliable fuel supply, in particular, backup arrangements
between suppliers and consumers such as the “enrichment bond.” Under
a concept put forward by our British friends, supplier governments would commit,
under certain conditions, not to prevent their companies from supplying enriched
These various forms of assurance of a reliable supply of nuclear fuel are designed
to serve as safety nets, to enhance confidence for countries that rely on the commercial
market for nuclear fuel and to reduce pressure to pursue indigenous sensitive fuel-cycle
facilities. The Obama administration strongly supports the creation of these safety
Looking to the future, a more ambitious and controversial approach would be to create
internationally controlled enrichment centers. Proponents envision international
control as a way to provide reliable fuel-supply services without putting sensitive
enrichment technology in the hands of more countries.
This idea, however, has its own set of problems, including questions concerning
how an international organization would manage safety regulation, make export control
decisions, raise the immense funding required, gain access to competitive technology,
and maintain security of enrichment technology. The disastrous loss of URENCO centrifuge
technology, and proliferation of that know-how, illustrates the potential problem
of maintaining technology security in multinational organizations.
There are also questions of how to integrate international enrichment centers with
the existing commercial market. New international suppliers could add diversity,
but we do not want to disrupt the commercial market, which is working well today
and provides a strong incentive not to pursue indigenous enrichment.
The interrelationship between commercial enrichment enterprises and international
centers could become complex if, as seems likely, commercial enterprises provide
the technology and operating facilities for international centers on a black-box
basis. Whether internationally controlled enrichment centers represent a creative
idea somewhat ahead of its time remains to be seen.
In parallel with these multilateral efforts, the United States is using bilateral
nuclear cooperation to build mutual confidence and to welcome decisions to abstain
from indigenous enrichment and reprocessing.
We have signed bilateral memoranda of understanding with Jordan, the United Arab
Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain that express their intention to rely on international
markets rather than enrichment and reprocessing on their territories.
As a matter of policy, we will continue to encourage states to take advantage of
the international fuel market and to welcome decisions to refrain from enrichment
and reprocessing by states that do not have these capabilities.
We believe there is great value in having the U.S. government and U.S. industry
deeply involved in the nuclear programs of developing countries, to help create
high standards for safety and security and nonproliferation. For exports of U.S.
nuclear technology, this requires conclusion of Agreements for Nuclear Cooperation
(so-called 123 agreements).
As an example of the importance we attach to these issues, I recently traveled to
Amman to work with the government of Jordan to develop a path forward on a 123 agreement.
By law, 123 agreements are sent to Congress for review. It is therefore a joint
responsibility of the administration and the Congress to take account of the particular
situation of each country and region in developing agreements that enable the deep
involvement of U.S. industry and not leave the field entirely to others who may
not share our nonproliferation standards.
Let me now turn to the disposition of spent reactor fuel. In contrast to the front-end
of the nuclear fuel cycle, where there is a strong, competitive commercial market,
disposition of spent fuel is an unresolved problem for nearly all countries. This
is a challenge and a potential opportunity for us to advance our nonproliferation
No nation, with the possible exception of Sweden and Finland, has satisfactorily
resolved the question of the disposition of spent fuel once it is discharged from
a power reactor. The United States is putting its best and brightest to work on
Today’s technology provides two unattractive choices:
- One is isolation in a geological repository for tens of thousands of years.
This is politically and technically difficult, and throws away the majority of the
potential energy value, which might be needed in the future, depending on the scale
of expansion of nuclear energy, the availability of uranium resources, and the availability
of improved technologies to extract additional energy without increasing proliferation
risks, none of which are known today.
- The other is reprocessing to recover uranium and plutonium, followed by the
use of the plutonium to produce MOX fuel for light-water reactors. Reprocessing
with current technology is uneconomical, as MOX fuel is more expensive than LEU.
Reprocessing does not significantly reduce the waste burden, but passes it on in
the spent MOX. And reprocessing has resulted in large stocks of separated plutonium—about
250 tons, and growing about 10 tons per year. The growing worldwide stockpiles of
separated plutonium as a by-product of reprocessing spent civil reactor fuel represent
one of our greatest nonproliferation problems.
So the Obama administration is focusing on research to create better options:
- If fast neutron reactors could produce electricity as reliably and economically
as today’s thermal reactors, they would open the way to a new fuel cycle without
separation of plutonium. Much of today’s stockpile of separated plutonium
was created in anticipation of the advent of fast reactors. Unfortunately, the sixty
years of experience with fast reactors have been problematic, and commercial deployment
for economical production of electricity is not in sight.
- High-temperature reactors have potential for high burn-up of uranium and plutonium,
and a proliferation-friendly, once-through fuel cycle.
These and other concepts are being actively pursued with our international partners
in the Generation IV International Forum, for potential deployment in future decades.
This leads to the question of what we can do today to help countries considering
nuclear energy in dealing with the back-end of the fuel cycle. If we could offer
a way to help relieve nuclear newcomers of the burden of disposition of spent fuel,
that would be attractive and could provide an advantage as we seek to achieve our
goal of strengthening nonproliferation as nuclear energy expands. A key part of
the answer is interim storage.
Nuclear power is the only industry I know where the short term is fifty years. So
what we are looking for is placement of spent fuel in a storage facility for fifty
to a hundred years with the ability to retrieve it at any time. From a technical
point of view, dry cask technology is proven and licensed and available for this
We will not know for decades the full extent of the demand for nuclear fuel due
to the expansion of nuclear energy. Nor will we know the availability of the uranium
resource that can be recovered at reasonable cost. Nor will we know which technologies
will become available to overcome the economic and proliferation drawbacks of reprocessing
as practiced today.
Retrievable interim storage would preserve options for future decisions when we
have the information necessary to make informed choices on what to do with spent
The question becomes where to store spent fuel. Part of the answer is in the same
country—usually at the same site—where the fuel was irradiated. The
United States and others can assist a country seeking nuclear energy in implementing
a safe, secure, and economical system for interim storage on the reactor site or
elsewhere in that country.
The answer could also include international storage. Today, Russia is the only country
taking back spent fuel, and only from Russian-supplied reactors. There is potential
for the development of a broader application of interim storage in Russia of fuel
irradiated in other countries. But Russia has no interest in being the only destination
for spent fuel, and the corresponding leverage Russia would gain in the sale of
fresh fuel would surely distort the market.
One can argue that it would be in the interest of the United States and other suppliers
of reactor technology and fuel to take back spent fuel for storage. At present,
bringing to the United States spent fuel irradiated in nuclear power plants abroad
requires notification of Congress, which would almost certainly lead to congressional
opposition to such imports. While the odds are against us, we could work with Congress
to seek an ability to offer interim storage of spent fuel from abroad, for countries
that do not have sensitive fuel-cycle facilities.
Establishment of regional or international interim storage facilities could make
an important contribution to an attractive offer for countries considering nuclear
energy. Spent fuel could be stored at the reactor site for a period of time, followed
by storage at an international facility, followed by a decision on ultimate disposition.
Finding suitable locations that would welcome such a facility would not be easy.
Resolving questions of cost, responsibility, and liability are serious challenges.
The potential benefits would be substantial and would justify a major effort. Our
goal is to cooperate with other governments to open the way for the international
nuclear industry to offer the same reliable and economical services at the back-end
of the fuel cycle that they now provide at the front-end.
Indeed, comprehensive fuel services, including fuel leasing and take-back options—“cradle
to grave,” in the words of my friend and colleague Deputy Secretary of Energy
Dan Poneman—would be attractive to governments and operators as an alternative
to the costs, complexities, and burdens of sensitive fuel-cycle facilities.
Through international cooperation, we can achieve the goals President Obama set
forth in Prague. Together with our international partners, we can discourage the
spread of sensitive technologies, while we support expansion of peaceful nuclear
energy, without calling into question the rights of countries that abide by their