The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Innovative Storage Concept

Appendix I: Findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission Applicable to the International Aspects of the Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

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Stephen M. Goldberg, Robert Rosner, and James P. Malone
Global Nuclear Future

Part A—Overall Strategy and Our Response to Selected Elements Applicable to the Regional Storage Proposal Outlined in This Paper

The Commission identified the following elements of a new waste management strategy45:

  1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities. The Commission identified lessons learned from successes at several facilities, including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the Swedish repository near Forsmark, and the Finnish repository at Olkiluto. Our regional storage proposal adopts many of the steps identified by the Commission. The Commission’s report identifies benefits to the host community/state from a back-end facility. Our proposal models its approach on a concept also identified by the Commission, namely, the one used in Spain. Spain’s efforts to find a volunteer host for a storage facility for spent fuel and a small amount of high-level radioactive waste (HLW) included a technological research laboratory that would deal with waste processing, waste forms, and disposal of HLW and spent fuel as an integral part of the facility.
  2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed. The Commission recommends a federally chartered government corporation; our proposal makes no specific recommendation on the organization responsible for the regional storage proposal, noting that several existing international and national entities would need to be involved. We strongly endorse the Commission’s recommendations on a hybrid, business-oriented, government-responsible approach.
  3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for nuclear waste management. In the Commission’s strategy, access to these funds would be provided over an extended period; it would employ a phased approach to access the needed amount of financing available to construct and operate the back-end facilities. Our regional storage approach builds on the Commission’s strategy and accelerates the needed capitalization for back-end facilities.
  4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities. Our proposal is consistent with this element of the Commission’s strategy.
  5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated [interim] storage facilities. The Commission highlights the need to deploy these facilities as rapidly as possible to enhance the overall safety and security of back-end operations in the United States. Our approach has identical goals, with the expectation of a more expedited deployment schedule.
  6. Early preparation for the eventual largescale transport of used nuclear fuel and HLW to consolidated storage and disposal facilities. Our approach is consistent with this element of the Commission’s strategy.
  7. Support innovation in nuclear energy technology and in workforce development. Our approach enhances this element of the Commission’s strategy (details below).
  8. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation, and security. We commend the Commission’s findings in this area. Our proposal assumes that the highest standards in safety, nonproliferation, and security are adopted.

Part B—Selected Commission Findings and Our Response

On closing the fuel cycle:

As stated in the final report: “We concluded that while new reactor and fuel cycle technologies may hold promise in achieving substantial benefits in terms of broadly held safety, economic, environmental, and energy-security goals, and therefore merit continued public and private R&D investment, no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer. Put another way, we do not believe that today’s recycle technologies or new technology developments in the next three to four decades will change the underlying need for an integrated strategy that combines safe storage of SNF [spent nuclear fuel] with expeditious progress toward siting and licensing a disposal facility or facilities.”46

In the short and intermediate terms, our proposal encompasses an aggressive R&D program on advanced chemical partitioning approaches. It includes significant R&D cooperation with India and China. In the longer term, many scientific researchers and their organizations are promoting more advanced technologies that the claimants suggest could have a momentous impact on solving the nuclear waste problem. Examples include the Atomics International Reduction Oxidation (AIROX) concept (being marketed today by General Atomics as a way to cap the generation of nuclear waste) and the Myrrha (Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) project (being developed and marketed by the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique as an accelerator/reactor concept to transmute nuclear waste). These technologies and many others await a favorable “proof of principle” verdict from the scientific and engineering communities. It is unclear if there will ever be investments sufficient enough to move such concepts to commercially deployable technologies. For the purposes of achieving near-term consensus on the pressing safety and security issues pertaining to the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, we strongly believe that it would be counterproductive to promote these more advanced technologies as “game changers.”

On international nuclear safety:

“In sum, the United States should work with the IAEA and other interested nations to launch a major international effort, encompassing international organizations, regulators, vendors, operators, and technical support organizations to enable the safe application of nuclear energy systems and the safe management of nuclear wastes in all countries that pursue this technology.”47

Our proposal endorses this important Commission finding. Successful implementation of our proposal will require multilateral assistance to the host state in the areas of safe management practices and regulatory oversight of these practices. Our proposal includes the adoption of an independent safety nuclear regulator to provide assurance not only to the citizens of the host state but also to the international nuclear community. This safety regulator would be charged to protect public health and safety by licensing the facility and the storage and transportation of used fuel within the host state.

On international safeguards, particularly those applicable to new enrichment and reprocessing technologies:

“The Commission endorses R&D efforts on modern safeguards technologies and urges continued U.S. government support for the IAEA’s work in this area.”48

We commend the Commission’s findings in this area. Our proposal for an enhanced R&D program would include expanded work on international safeguards that would improve the transparency of practices for advanced chemical partitioning technologies such as UREX and pyroprocessing technologies.

On multinational fuel cycle facilities:

“Longer term, the United States should support the use of multinational fuel-cycle facilities, under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, as a way to give more states reliable access to the benefits of nuclear power while simultaneously reducing proliferation risks. U.S. sponsorship of the recently created IAEA global nuclear fuel bank is an important step toward establishing such access while reducing a driver for some states to engage in uranium enrichment. But more is needed. The U.S. government should propose that the IAEA lead a new initiative, with active U.S. participation, to explore the creation of one or more multinational spent fuel storage or disposal facilities.”49

This Commission finding is fully consistent with our proposal to establish initially a multinational storage facility in the East and South Asia regions; this proposed regional storage facility, in our opinion, would serve as a blueprint for the establishment of similar facilities in other regions.

On takeaway arrangements:

“The United States should support the evolution of spent fuel ‘takeaway’ arrangements as a way to allow some states, particularly those with relatively small national programs, to avoid the costly and politically difficult step of providing for spent fuel disposal on their soil and to reduce associated safety and security risks.”50

Our proposal is consistent with this Commission finding. In addition, our proposal stipulates that (1) multinational fuel cycle arrangements not be discriminatory to countries without large nuclear programs; and (2) an informal minimum threshold of 10 GW be adopted before a state pursues front-end or back-end nuclear technologies.

On domestic programs and policies:

“The United States will increasingly have to lead by engagement and by example. . . . [T]he United States cannot exercise effective leadership on issues related to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle so long as its own program is in disarray; effective domestic policies are needed to support America’s international agenda.”51

As nuclear aspirants make decisions about ordering new nuclear capacity in this decade, we believe that they will likely not await U.S. actions in response to the Commission’s recommendations. As we in the United States debate and discuss the path forward, it is imperative that the nuclear aspirants, together with the international nuclear fuel supplier community, coalesce around a pragmatic approach—such as our innovative regional fuel storage concept.


45. Find the full Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission at Italicized language in this appendix is lifted either in whole or in part from the report.

46. Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission, 100.

47. Ibid., 111.

48.  Ibid., 112.

49.  Ibid., xiv–xv.

50. Ibid., xv.

51. Ibid., xiv.