Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Chapter 4: Not Second but First Place for the United States

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

Atsuyuki Suzuki

Concerns associated with the management of spent nuclear fuel are widespread and are compounded by the lack of transparency in North Korea’s spent fuel program. One way to minimize these concerns is to establish an international spent-fuel facility with high standards and rigorous requirements that can be achieved with maximum transparency.

The question, then, is how do we pursue a multilateral effort to select a site on which to build and operate an international spent-fuel facility for either interim storage or final repository? There are two perspectives that need to be considered. The first belongs to countries that might be willing to host such a facility, the second to client countries seeking to place their spent fuel at the facility. Given the highly controversial nature of this issue, both perspectives deserve serious consideration, and key to such a strategy will be to create economic, political, and social incentives that are acceptable to all parties involved.

For a potential host country, the benefits of receiving other countries’ spent nuclear fuel must far outweigh the costs associated with constructing and operating the facility. In addition, the host country would need assurances that the facility did not pose significant risks to public health or to the environment. In most cases, host countries would have to change their current laws before a facility could be built, and no such action would occur without first establishing these assurances. Countries willing to take these steps would, in effect, demonstrate their long-term commitment to hosting a facility on their soil.

Moreover, both the host country and the global public must share the belief that all states have a right to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. A state hosting an internationally managed facility should therefore have to commit to accepting spent fuel produced not only as a result of civilian activities but also as a result of nuclear disarmament, thus enhancing overall transparency, because a facility with this guarantee would be more likely to attract global public support and dilute deep-seated mistrust from a legacy of past defense programs. Weapons-states must signal to the global public that they are taking concrete steps toward dismantlement and that they are decommissioning their nuclear plants according to internationally recognized transparency standards.

Client countries, of course, would also want certain economic benefits. The direct costs for domestic interim storage are relatively small, and international storage may not produce any savings. Taking into account the indirect costs associated with long-term storage, however, and all of the obligatory security and nonproliferation measures this entails, international storage might begin to appear more economically appealing.

The question, then, is to what extent are such indirect costs incurred internationally? Naturally, small states would prefer to minimize these costs, which is one reason for their hesitancy in engaging in long-term, domestic, interim storage of spent fuel. To stimulate participation in an international venture, it may be necessary to provide these states with budgetary assistance. This would also help to ensure their safe and secure use of nuclear energy.

Another overriding issue involves nonproliferation. Given the sensitivities of states over the nature of spent nuclear fuel, they must possess a high level of confidence in the political and institutional stability of a potential host country. Otherwise, discussion of establishing a spent-nuclear-fuel facility should not move forward. Overall, the nonproliferation views of the host country, clients, and original suppliers of the nuclear fuel, which, in some cases, may have prior consent rights over the nuclear materials involved, should be compatible. For example, in the event the material in question is of U.S. origin, a decision to transfer it to a storage or disposal facility in another country would be subject to the prior approval of the United States. No such approval should be forthcoming unless the United States is fully satisfied with the nonproliferation policies of the host country, as well as with the safeguards and physical arrangements associated with any nuclear waste transfer.

President Barack Obama has clearly signaled to the global community his desire to take a leadership role in nuclear disarmament. In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared that he would not accept second place for the United States, while emphasizing that the country’s greatest source of strength has always been its ideals. To demonstrate international leadership and his commitment to those ideals of safety, security, and nonproliferation, President Obama should propose that the United States host a spent-nuclear-fuel facility on its soil.

The Obama administration has already decided that Yucca Mountain is no longer an option as a disposal site for defense- and civilian-related spent nuclear fuel. The United States, however, has another facility—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)—that currently disposes of long-lived (as opposed to high-level) radioactive waste produced in the making of nuclear weapons. Given that the geological environment at the WIPP site appears scientifically suitable for highly radioactive waste as well, it would make sense to look into the possibility of using the WIPP facility for the disposal of waste produced from both civilian and defense programs. The United States would thus signal to the world community that high-level radioactive waste can be disposed of safely.

One conceivable approach would involve the United States establishing an international interim storage facility to receive spent nuclear fuel from other countries, using the WIPP as a pilot repository. Countries participating in this endeavor could receive subsidies through an international funding mechanism, to encourage participation and mitigate security and nonproliferation concerns.

U.S. willingness to host an international spent-nuclear-fuel facility would have several positive effects. First, it would send a message to people around the world that a future in which nuclear energy plays a significant role can be achieved. Second, it would lend tremendous encouragement to the development of similar projects. For example, given prior U.S. consent, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan might explore the possibility of a joint endeavor to share their fuel-cycle activities at the regional level. Third, once the U.S. initiative proves successful, increasing numbers of countries would seek to participate, eventually reducing the overall number of countries maintaining their own domestic spent-fuel management programs. Finally, the increased transparency produced by this initiative would help greatly to reduce security and nonproliferation concerns worldwide.