The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Establishing a Viable Roadmap for a Multilateral Interim Storage Facility


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Robert Rosner, Lenka Kollar, and James P. Malone
Global Nuclear Future

Robert Rosner

Dealing with used fuel produced by civilian nuclear power plants has proven to be a politically charged issue for virtually all nations that have embraced nuclear power. Debates about the ultimate disposal of this material range from concerns surrounding safety and security to disagreements about the value of the used fuel: is it to be regarded as waste, to be disposed of permanently, or should it be viewed as a valuable commodity, capable of being reused as nuclear fuel after appropriate processing?

The few extant examples of successful siting of civilian nuclear waste repositories—such as by the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company in Sweden—clearly point to the critical importance of clarity and transparency in the processes leading to site selection and construction, as well as to the central role of willing local participation in these processes. These characteristics are key to repository siting that is perceived as fair and that speaks directly to the safety and security fears that inevitably surround any discussion of nuclear technology. There is, however, another key element common to all extant successful siting exercises: a prior agreement between all concerned parties about the nature of the repository. Is the site intended for retrievable disposition or for permanent storage?

In the cases of many of the countries that are “newcomers” to nuclear power, a further constraint is the feasibility of repositories: both the technical suitability of in-country sites (for example, is the local geology sufficiently well characterized and sufficiently stable to allow for safe disposal?) and the financial burden of building and maintaining the type of repository the nation desires. Newcomers may resolve these problems by partnering with likeminded countries pursuing nuclear power; such partnerships can potentially ease the search for suitable geological repositories (by enlarging the search area) and ease the cost burdens (by distributing the fixed costs over a larger user base). But critical to these partnerships is a shared vision of the nature of the repository: is the spent fuel retrievable or not? This requirement has proven problematic in practice. In our discussions with stakeholders in a number of newcomer states, it has become evident that there is no universal agreement on this point. But without agreement, it is difficult to imagine a pathway toward multilateral nuclear repository storage.

With this conundrum in mind—and acknowledging the increasing urgency of dealing with used-fuel storage, especially in certain “legacy” nations where little progress has been made in dealing with the nuclear waste currently accumulating at reactor sites—Stephen Goldberg, James Malone, and I developed a concept for internationally supervised consolidated interim storage.1 The fundamental idea was to get past the obstacle of making a choice about the nature of the repository by moving used fuel from the cooling pools located in the vicinity of the reactors to a consolidated dry-cask storage facility as soon as practicable. This facility would be operated under international supervision, would be located in a willing partner state according to the multilateral interim storage agreement, and ownership of the used fuel would remain with the states that produced it. Thus, the used fuel could be stored safely and securely for tens of decades and could be, in principal, retrievable. Moreover, there would not be a need for the partner states to agree on the economic value of the used fuel; and by actively seeking partners that include both newcomers and legacy states, it might be possible to devise an economically feasible implementation plan.

This publication serves the purpose of fleshing out this concept. The first chapter, by Lenka Kollar, describes in substantial depth the various issues of governance and liability that arise when implementing a multilateral consolidated interim storage facility. The second chapter, by James Malone, provides a detailed discussion of the economics of such a facility; that is, it builds a business plan for multilateral consolidated interim storage. In both contributions, the authors focus not only on the final state—that is, the operation of such a facility—but also on the processes that will lead to it (as well as the challenges that stand in their way). This is an important point: many ideas in the nuclear domain capably describe a future nirvana but come to grief when faced with the task of outlining their implementation—the transition from the “here and now” to the desired state. It is our hope that—with the addition of these two discussions—conversations regarding multilateral consolidated interim storage can move forward to the next stage: namely, concrete discussion of potential legal frameworks that will allow implementation of the storage concept.


1 Stephen M. Goldberg, Robert Rosner, and James P. Malone, The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Innovative Storage Concept (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2012).