Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Chapter 2: Possible International Fuel-Cycle Arrangements Attractive to States during the Nuclear Power Renaissance

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Charles McCombie, Thomas Isaacs, Noramly Bin Muslim, Tariq Rauf, Atsuyuki Suzuki, Frank von Hippel, and Ellen Tauscher
Global Nuclear Future

Noramly Bin Muslim

The nuclear fuel cycle consists of a series of steps that both produces fuel for nuclear power reactors, which in turn generate electricity, and handles the spent fuel afterward. The steps involved in preparing uranium, including enrichment, for use in power reactors make up the front-end of the fuel cycle. After its use in power reactors, the spent fuel, which contains plutonium and high radioactive waste as by-products, is removed from the reactor, cooled, stored, and possibly reprocessed to separate the fuel (for recycling) from the waste. During reprocessing, plutonium is separated from the uranium. The extracted plutonium can be reused as reactor MOX fuel for further generating of electricity, or it can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons. This series of processes represents the back-end of the fuel cycle.

The production of nuclear fuel can serve both peaceful and military purposes. Therefore, the nature of the fuel-cycle activities allows for the creation of civilian nuclear power for electricity generation, as well as the production of weapons-grade fissile material. This dual use of uranium fuel gives rise to two major problems: one related to the risks of nuclear proliferation and the other related to the management of generated radioactive wastes and spent fuel. The increase in the global demand for energy will lead to expansion in the use of nuclear energy. Experts project that global nuclear power capacity will double by 2030. Lately, more than sixty emerging and developing countries have notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of their interest in the option of utilizing nuclear power plants to generate electricity and the power needed in desalination plants. Most of these countries currently do not have established nuclear power industries, the trained personnel, or the necessary legal framework and institutions to support a nuclear power program.

As of today, some 440 power reactors operate in 31 countries. Very few of these countries possess uranium and plutonium reprocessing technologies. Although the majority of them do not pose a proliferation concern, they do possess the technical capabilities, experience, and know-how to divert fissile material for military purposes.

Access to sufficient energy supplies will continue to be the dominant factor in a state’s pursuit of prosperity. This “nuclear renaissance” scenario should lead to an increase in demand for fuel-cycle services. It could also lead to an increase in the proliferation risks created by the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, such as that used in uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing. Wide dissemination of these technologies could be the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear nonproliferation ideal. The convergence of these trends points to the need for the development of a new multilateral framework for the fuel cycle. Such a framework could best be achieved through establishing mechanisms to ensure the supply of fuel for nuclear power plants and perhaps over time of converting national enrichment and reprocessing facilities to multilateral operations. This could lead to a situation where future enrichment and reprocessing would be limited to multilateral operations. The director general of the IAEA has called for the creation of this multilateral mechanism to ensure supplies of nuclear fuel and services to countries that need them (assurance of supply and services), as well as for strengthening nonproliferation through better controls over sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle (enrichment and plutonium separation) by way of multinational approaches to the front-end and the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle (assurance of nonproliferation).


A number of proposals have been put forward by IAEA member states, groups of states, the nuclear industry, and international institutions aimed at preventing the spread of uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies. These international efforts are focused on establishing a system of guarantees and assurances to customer countries that they will have reliable nuclear fuel supply after meeting their nonproliferation criteria. Yuri Yudin, of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, cites the following twelve proposals:

  1. U.S. Proposal on a Reserve of Nuclear Fuel (United States, September 2005) >
  2. Russian Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure, or GNPI (Russian Federation, January 2006)
  3. U.S. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP (United States, February 2006)
  4. World Nuclear Association Proposal (World Nuclear Association, May 2006)
  5. Concept for a Multilateral Mechanism for Reliable Access to Nuclear Fuel (France, Germany, The Netherlands, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States, June 2006)
  6. IAEA Standby Arrangements System (Japan, September 2006)
  7. IAEA Fuel Bank (Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2006)
  8. Enrichment Bonds Proposal (United Kingdom, September 2006)
  9. International Uranium Enrichment Center (Russian Federation, January and May 2007)
  10. Multilateral Enrichment Sanctuary Project (Germany, May 2007)
  11. Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Austria, May 2007)
  12. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Non-Paper (European Union paper, June 2007).

The proposals that are being put forward on multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle vary considerably in their objectives, vision, scope, targets, and time frame required for their implementation. Many are limited in their goals, and some deal only with the front-end of the fuel cycle—relating to the supply of nuclear fuel and enrichment services. The Russian GNPI and the U.S. GNEP proposals have far-reaching visions for global supply, but they are still vague and need to be further refined. The Austrian proposal’s vision of placing all sensitive technologies and activities under multilateral control is rather bold. Some of the other proposals focus on the short term and are more specific; others are concerned with the medium or long term. None of the proposals listed above clearly addresses issues related to the removal of spent nuclear fuel, the supply of spent-fuel storage, or other back-end services.

It is noteworthy that none of the above approaches was proposed by a developing country or by a group of developing countries, which, in principle, would be the most interested parties and would benefit most from these arrangements. All of the proposals came from traditional “nuclear supplier” countries as their own initiatives or came through international organizations. Developing countries, therefore, are studying these proposals to ensure they reflect their interests and limitations.


Little serious discussion is taking place on proliferation related to “the back-end of the back-end” of the nuclear fuel cycle, namely spent-fuel disposal and spent-fuel storage. Currently the responsibility lies solely with the nation concerned, and there is no international facility providing spent-fuel disposal services or spent-fuel storage. The final disposal of spent fuel is a potential candidate for multilateral approaches, which may appeal to states with smaller civil nuclear programs.

Storage facilities for spent fuel are in operation and are being built in many countries. However, there are no international services offered in this area, except for those of the Russian Federation, which is ready to accept spent Russian-supplied fuel from client countries. This operation is a good candidate for multilateral approaches primarily at the regional level. Storage of such nuclear materials in safe, secure facilities would enhance safeguards and physical protection. It would minimize the costs of maintaining such facilities in countries with small nuclear power programs. Perhaps it is an opportune moment for the IAEA to encourage the development of such facilities and services under multilateral control in emerging countries.


The combined option of fuel leasing/fuel take-back, whereby the leasing state provides the needed fuel through an arrangement with its nuclear-fuel vendor, has advantages. The leasing state issues an export license to its fuel vendor to send fresh fuel to a client reactor. The spent leased fuel, once removed from the reactor and cooled down, can then be returned to its country of origin or sent through the IAEA to a third party or to a regional or multinational center elsewhere, for storage and, ultimately, disposal. The inherent problems related to the international transport of highly radioactive materials are being considered in this option.

Spent-fuel disposal, spent-fuel storage, and the fuel-leasing/fuel take-back combined option have their own problems related to the willingness to accept these “wastes,” as it is politically difficult and sensitive for states to accept spent fuel that is not produced in their own reactors. States with suitable disposal sites that are concerned about proliferation ought to seriously consider the fuel-leasing/take-back proposal as it may also offer a considerable commercial opportunity.


As commonly indicated, multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle by no means constitute a “magic bullet” that can solve the world’s nonproliferation problems. They cannot eliminate proliferators, but at the very least they can ensure that emerging states enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy while strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime, ensuring safe and secure management of the nuclear fuel cycle, and reducing national incentives for newcomers to build their own nuclear fuel-cycle facilities, thus avoiding the high cost and related technical problems.

New multilateral nuclear fuel-cycle policies should not deprive customer states of any of their rights as stipulated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should continue to be strongly supported as one of the three fundamental pillars of the NPT, along with disarmament and nonproliferation. Increased resources should be provided, including those offered through the IAEA’s Technical Assistance Program, to assist emerging and developing countries in taking full advantage of the potential of peaceful nuclear energy to aid human development and improve quality of life. Greater multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle and government cooperation on proliferation-resistant technologies are other measures designed to reduce risks associated with the expansion of civil nuclear energy.


The days of discriminatory technology denial are over in a fast-developing world. States should move toward technology governance. Long-term success will require new initiatives whereby the developing countries gain access to critical technologies while being fully committed to nonproliferation. Keeping them engaged and involved in all discussions and in the formulation of proposals will lessen their concern of being deprived of their “inalienable right” to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy provided for under Article IV of the NPT. Offers of political and economic incentives as well as assistance to achieve a certain level of governance for sustainable implementation of measures designed to prevent proliferation could dissuade developing countries from pursuing sensitive fuel-cycle technologies. Promotion of international cooperation on nuclear energy infrastructure designed to raise awareness worldwide of the importance of the three S’s—Safeguard, Security, and Safety—should be encouraged. The IAEA and its member states should make more of an effort to focus on how to reconcile the anticipated expansion of nuclear power with the anger associated with proliferation. At the same time, the nuclear-weapons states should take steps toward meeting their disarmament obligations as stipulated under the NPT.

Nuclear power is now widely accepted as an important alternative source of energy for socio-economic development, with advantages over other energy sources, including reliability, security, zero-carbon emissions, and being global in character. States seeking to benefit from nuclear energy need a substantial legal and technical infrastructure to build and operate nuclear power plants safely and securely. They also need to ensure that the operation of these plants conforms to international nonproliferation commitments and norms. Building capability and acquiring the technological know-how are lengthy and demanding processes. Information exchange on needs and trends, concerns about civilian nuclear power and its nuclear fuel cycle, human resource development, and international cooperation are essential to assisting interested countries toward realizing the benefits of nuclear power.

Newcomers planning for nuclear power programs should study and compare the twelve multilateral proposals listed above. They should consider their goals, targets, methods, and eligibility, as well as the roles of the industry and any potential concerns. No single proposal will suit all countries.

Two major problems for developing nations include how to benefit from the back-end of the fuel cycle and how to avoid burdensome costs and delays in their nuclear programs. Based on the available information, the best solutions proposed to date appear to be the Russian GNPI and the U.S. GNEP proposals. These proposals offer the most far-reaching visions for global supply mechanisms, addressing services ranging from enrichment and fuel supply to spent-fuel take-back and reprocessing. The success of these proposals will depend on the long-term development of new technologies to establish the necessary infrastructure and overcome political, technical, and legal obstacles and challenges.

The Austrian proposal offers a bold conceptual vision of eventually placing all sensitive nuclear technologies and activities, including current civilian enrichment and reprocessing facilities and fuel supply, under multilateral control. Although the proposal is still vague, this concept has potential and merits further consideration. More refinement, further discussions, and greater scrutiny are needed to overcome the political reluctance that such a proposal might generate.


Although the nuclear programs of many emerging countries may not materialize even after the usual lead-time of ten years or more, preparations and discussions on meeting various milestones and other international and multilateral obligations must begin now. States have to be involved in all discussions and issues pertaining to the safe implementation of their civil nuclear programs.

In the past, nuclear cooperation took place under bilateral intergovernmental arrangements. Indeed, the nuclear renaissance is taking place in an increasing atmosphere of bilateral interaction, bundled with extensive technical support provided by vendors.

However, when it comes to the steps within the nuclear fuel cycle concerning enrichment and reprocessing, multilateral arrangements are needed. It is in the interest of developed nations and nuclear vendors to promote such multilateral solutions for pressing issues related to the fuel cycle and nuclear proliferation.


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