The problem of accumulating nuclear waste is prompting demonstrations and social mobilization in countries where governments have failed to develop a credible and effective strategy for the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. In South Korea, for example, protests erupted in 2013 against a government proposal that recommended four sites as candidates to host a nuclear waste storage facility. No decision has yet been made on the actual site. In addition, because the ongoing 123 Agreement negotiations between South Korea and the United States have been challenging (with the United States and the Republic of Korea [ROK] fundamentally disagreeing about ROK fuel enrichment and used-fuel reprocessing), South Korea’s ability to build domestic uranium enrichment facilities and to reprocess its accumulating inventory of used nuclear fuel have been put on hold.
Similarly, the Japanese government has developed plans to store domestically highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants deep underground. It is also pursuing the reprocessing of spent fuel from light water reactors in order to recycle it (by producing MOX fuel) as an interim strategy, buying time before the permanent repositories are in place (much as has been done in France). Since 2013, it has asked the local governments and prefectures to come up with candidate repository sites under a law that went into effect in 2000. But no municipalities have come forward, and the government still has not secured any candidate permanent repository sites. As an increasing number of nuclear power plants come back online after halting their operations following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant, the quantity of nuclear waste will increase, demanding storage solutions.
More recently, the problems with accumulating nuclear waste without a strategy for the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle were discussed in an article published in the Taipei Times, on March 13, 2014:
In Taiwan, those behind the development of nuclear energy in the nation failed to consider whether there is enough space in which to store three or four decades’ worth of spent fuel. With six reactors in continuous operation, the country is beginning to run out of places to put spent fuel and the initial single layer of radioactive waste has doubled. . . . Given this, it seems inevitable that sooner or later, a high-concentration radioactive leak will occur that will turn this beautiful country into a ghost island that will be impossible to bring back to life.
Origins of the Global Nuclear Future Initiative
Since 2008, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Flora Family Foundation, and the Kavli Foundation, the American Academy’s Global Nuclear Future (GNF) Initiative has been addressing the safety, security, and nonproliferation concerns that arise as civil nuclear energy expands. The GNF Initiative focuses on a number of key policy areas, including the international nonproliferation regime, the physical protection of nuclear facilities and materials, the interaction of the nuclear industry with the nonproliferation community, and the entirety of the fuel cycle, including viable strategies for the management of nuclear used fuel. Following a series of consultations in the Asia Pacific region and in the Middle East, GNF Cochair Robert Rosner (William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago) has advanced the idea that the most realistic and cost-effective way to manage nuclear spent fuel today is to encourage the development of multilateral interim consolidated storage based on the use of dry-cask technology. He discusses this concept in a recent Academy Occasional Paper, The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Innovative Storage Concept, written with Stephen Goldberg and James P. Malone.
The reasoning behind the concept of interim consolidated storage is simple. The nuclear fleets that are being built by nuclear newcomers today, including Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, will be significantly smaller than the ones built in the 1960s in the United States, Russia, China, India, and France, to name a few. This means that although the nuclear waste produced by these new nuclear programs will pose the usual problems in terms of management and governance, the quantity of waste generated will not necessarily justify the construction of national permanent repositories. Multilateral solutions would therefore be an ideal way to manage the problem since they would allow countries with small nuclear energy programs to combine resources. In addition, if executed correctly, a multilateral interim storage proposal would have many benefits for the international community. For example, by collecting all nuclear waste in one facility, the international community could better control the management of the nuclear waste and protect it from diversion, sabotage, or theft. Ideally, such multilateral arrangements would involve a permanent repository. Because the nature of a permanent repository depends on how it will be used, the multilateral partners must agree on the following: the repository will need either to have retrieval capability (if there is any intention of eventually reprocessing the used fuel) or have no retrieval capacity (if there is no intention of ever reprocessing). Unfortunately, such agreement has proved to be difficult to obtain in practice, and therefore multilateral arrangements for a permanent repository have not moved forward. Nevertheless, getting the used fuel away from the reactor sites and consolidating it under international supervision remains hugely beneficial from the safety and security perspectives – and this motivated Rosner and collaborators to look into an interim consolidated storage scheme.
An interim consolidated storage proposal does not belittle the responsibilities that countries with nuclear energy still have vis-à-vis their respective societies to establish – either individually or collectively – permanent nuclear disposal sites. However, multilateral interim consolidated storage offers an opportunity to establish a buffer between the time when fuel is discharged from the reactor and the time when a permanent solution becomes available, and to do so without having to make an immediate commitment either to reprocess or not to reprocess.
Since the publication of The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Innovative Storage Concept, the GNF project leaders and advisors have reached out to potential customers and host countries of an interim storage facility:
- In November 2012, the concept was presented at a GNF conference held in cooperation with the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology in Hanoi, Vietnam;
- In June 2013, the idea was discussed at an academic conference hosted by Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Japan, and also at policy briefings with the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency;
- In October 2013, the proposal was presented at an academic conference hosted by the University of South Korea in Seoul, South Korea;
- In January 2014, the concept was discussed at a conference held in partnership with Paramadina University of Indonesia in Bali, Indonesia;
- In June 2014, the proposal was discussed at a series of briefings with the heads of the Turkish Nuclear Regulatory Agency in Istanbul, Turkey;
- And in September 2014, the concept was presented during policy briefings with representatives from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Energy.
These domestic and international consultations revealed widespread interest in the proposal, ranging from support for the idea to a more direct interest in becoming either the host of the multilateral facilities or one of its first users.
In order to further assess the feasibility of the interim storage concept, the GNF project has commissioned two new papers: one will develop the business case for building and operating the facility; and the second will explore the modalities for spent-fuel governance. The business strategy paper will detail the financial support that would be required to build the interim storage facility and identify the type of economic incentives that a country may have to host such storage. The governance paper will advance a series of recommendations on how the spent fuel has to be managed.* Both customer and provider states must agree to participate in the multilateral facility, which they need to be able to sell to the public on the basis of its political and technical benefits.
In 2015, the Academy is continuing to work to expand and broaden the interim consolidated storage proposal in order to make it more viable for countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, whose governments are currently locked into a decision stalemate on how to dispose of their nuclear waste. One area that the GNF project plans to investigate is the nature of model legal frameworks that could enable the creation of a multilateral consolidated interim storage facility: the point at which the various issues to be dealt with – such as economics, liability, sovereignty, security, and safety – all come together. Here, too, the GNF project considers it essential that the successful crafting of such a framework be an iterative process, with close participation by all who might be potential partners in such a multilateral scheme.
* These recommendations include: 1) the host state needs to volunteer to host the facility, with the location chosen by a consent-based approach (clear economic, technical, and political incentives should be presented to attract a host); and 2) a host state should meet the same standards of safety and security that are required for states that want to become nuclear power states under IAEA guidelines, including having the necessary human and technical capital.