Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Chapter 5: Spent-Fuel Management: The Cases of Japan, South Korea, and Russia

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

Frank von Hippel

In their article on “The Key Role of the Back-End in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Charles McCombie and Thomas Isaacs are correct in asserting that the nonproliferation regime would be strengthened and nuclear energy costs could be reduced if a few multinational spent-fuel repositories could be built instead of every nation having to build its own. The concern is that, if spent fuel is left in national control indefinitely, some nations might mine it for plutonium to make weapons.

Below, I discuss the cases of Japan and South Korea, whose nuclear utilities have been unable to site even interim storage facilities. They are therefore, respectively, reprocessing and considering reprocessing. Then I discuss the case of Russia, which, in the early 2000s, was seen as the country most likely to be willing to dispose of other countries’ spent fuel. I end with a short note on the politics of siting geological radioactive waste repositories.


Japan, the only non-weapons state that reprocesses its spent fuel, provides a perfect example of how a country, not being able to solve its spent-fuel storage problem, might turn to spent-fuel reprocessing as a way to buy time—even though reprocessing is enormously expensive, complicates ultimate radioactive waste disposal, and creates security concerns.1

Japan’s nuclear utilities have not been able to persuade the prefectures (Japan’s equivalent of states) that host their nuclear power plants to allow them to do what almost all U.S. nuclear utilities have done when their spent-fuel pools are dense-racked and almost full: build on-site dry-cask storage for spent fuel that has cooled down for twenty years or so. Japan’s nuclear utilities have therefore been forced to ship their spent fuel off-site. Here, again, they encountered a problem: no prefecture wanted to host a central interim spent-fuel storage site for fear that it would become permanent. In any case, Japan’s nuclear establishment initially favored reprocessing because it expected to move relatively quickly to plutonium-breeder reactors that would require a large amount of separated plutonium for start-up cores. In the late 1970s, therefore, Japan’s nuclear utilities entered into reprocessing contracts with France and the United Kingdom and, in the 1980s, began to ship spent fuel to those two countries for reprocessing.

This solution provided only temporary relief, however, because the contracts with France and the United Kingdom required Japan to take back the high-level radioactive waste (HLW) produced by the reprocessing. After a decade or so, Japan was faced with having to find a national interim storage site for HLW coming back from Europe. This proved to be no easier than finding a central interim storage site for spent fuel.

This time, Japan’s utilities solved their problem by building a domestic reprocessing plant, including a storage facility for the HLW coming back from Europe. In 2003, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan estimated that building, operating, and decommissioning the plant, fabricating the plutonium into MOX fuel, and disposing of the associated transuranic waste would cost about ¥13 trillion (about $130 billion at an exchange rate of ¥100 per dollar).2 In addition, they committed another ¥1 trillion to the host prefecture to be paid over the forty-year lifetime of the reprocessing plant. These are huge costs—more than $3 billion per GWe (gigawatt-electric) for the approximately 40 GWe of nuclear capacity that the reprocessing plant will service if it operates at full capacity.3 The utilities argue, however, that the alternative of shutting down all of their nuclear power plants would be even more costly.4


South Korea, whose nuclear program is about twenty-five years behind that of Japan and is encountering similar opposition to expanded on-site storage from the local governments hosting its nuclear power plants, is also proposing to reprocess. 5 Some South Koreans also advocate reprocessing because they believe that it would be useful to have the nuclear-weapons option that reprocessing would provide. Indeed, the calls for “nuclear sovereignty”—that is, obtaining U.S. consent to South Korean reprocessing—reached a crescendo after North Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test.6


The George W. Bush administration must have been thinking of Russia when it proposed a “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership,” in which a few “fuel-cycle” countries that were already reprocessing spent fuel on a large scale would dispose of the spent fuel of “reactor” states, such as South Korea. The fuel-cycle states would reprocess the reactor-state spent fuel, recycle the recovered transuranic elements in fast-neutron reactors until they were fissioned (except for process losses), and dispose of the foreign reprocessing waste along with their own waste. Indeed, the Soviet Union had provided spent-fuel take-back services for the Eastern European countries to which it had exported reactors and had reprocessed some of the repatriated spent fuel. Furthermore, in 2001, the year that the Bush administration took office, Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) succeeded in getting a law through the Duma that would allow it to import spent fuel into Russia “for temporary technological storage and (or) reprocessing.” The law is ambiguous on what is to happen to the reprocessed waste, however, because it requires that MinAtom reserve the “right to return radioactive wastes resulting from reprocessing to the country of origin of the spent fuel.”7

South Korea and Taiwan were the potential customers mentioned most frequently by MinAtom. The United States, however, has “consent rights” on transfer of most South Korean and all Taiwanese spent fuel to any third country, and it requires assurance that the spent fuel will not be reprocessed with out its permission. The United States might eventually give its consent to the reprocessing of South Korean and Taiwanese spent fuel in Russia if Russia promised that it would not return the separated plutonium to Taiwan and South Korea. These negotiations, however, could take years.

In the meantime, Rosatom, MinAtom’s successor agency, is less desperate for money than MinAtom was in the 1990s. The idea of importing foreign spent fuel excited opposition from a large spectrum of Russia’s social and local constituencies. MinAtom was able to persuade the Russian government to override this opposition, but Rosatom’s current management is more reluctant to initiate nuclear projects against public opinion. On July 11, 2006, Rosatom’s head, Sergei Kirienko, announced: “Russia has not imported foreign spent fuel, is not importing and will not import it in the future.”8 With little political resistance, Rosatom is building a huge, interim spent-fuel storage facility at an uncompleted reprocessing facility near Krasnoyarsk. It plans eventually to reprocess much of this spent fuel for start-up cores for plutonium breeder reactors and may return to the idea of reprocessing other countries’ spent fuel as well.


Objectively, the politics of radioactive waste repositories are perplexing. Intuitively, it seems obvious that relatively cool spent fuel buried 500 meters underground should represent a much smaller risk than the hot spent fuel in power reactor cores or recently discharged spent fuel in dense-packed spent-fuel pools.

Perhaps this comparative perspective is the reason why communities in Finland and Sweden that already host nuclear power plants have volunteered to host underground repositories.

The United States, which currently operates more than a quarter of the world’s nuclear generating capacity, should be willing to take the spent fuel of other countries with smaller programs as a way to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Increasing by 10 to 50 percent the amount of spent fuel to be disposed of would not qualitatively change the U.S. spent-fuel disposal challenge. To show leadership in advancing multinational spent-fuel management arrangements, however, the United States would need to put its own spent-fuel politics in order. Unfortunately, by proposing to cancel the Yucca Mountain repository and making no attempt to establish a fairer site selection process for a future repository, Barack Obama’s administration has set the United States up for a renewed debate over the reprocessing of its own spent fuel.


1. The discussion in this section is based in large part on Tadahiro Katsuta and Tatsujiro Suzuki, Japan’s Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges (Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2006), and Masafumi Takubo, “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming: Reassessing Japan’s Reprocessing Program,” Nonproliferation Review (March 2008): 71.

2. This estimate by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan of the total cost of reprocessing at Rokkasho is reported in Nuke Info Tokyo (98) (November 2003–February 2004),

3. In August 2009, the start-up of full operations of Japan’s new Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, originally scheduled for 2002, was postponed for the seventeenth time by technical problems, until at least the end of 2010; “Reprocessing plant startup delayed,” Asahi Shimbun, August 31, 2009.

4.Japan Atomic Energy Commission, New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council, Interim Report Concerning Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy, November 12, 2004. English translations of the key conclusions can be found on the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, The utilities calculated that the extra cost of reprocessing plutonium relative to spent-fuel interim storage would be ¥0.6/kWh (kilowatt hour). For 40 GWe of nuclear capacity operating for forty years, this would cumulate to ¥7.5 trillion.

5. Frank von Hippel, “South Korean Reprocessing: An Unnecessary Threat to the Nonproliferation Regime,” Arms Control Today, March 2010, 22–29.

6. Lee Jong-Heon, “South Koreans call for nuclear sovereignty,” UPI, June 15, 2009; and Jungmin Kang, “The North Korean nuclear test: Seoul goes on the defensive,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 12, 2009.

7. This section is largely based on “Russia’s Nuclear-Energy Complex and its Roles as an International Fuel-Cycle-Services Provider,” Global Fissile Materials Report 2007 (Princeton: International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2007), chap. 8.

8. Ibid.