Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Chapter 6: Addressing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Internationalizing Enrichment Services and Solving the Problem of Spent-Fuel Storage

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

Ellen Tauscher

President Barack Obama’s administration is working on many fronts to solve some of our toughest problems, including health care, the economy, climate change, and terrorism.1 As you know, the demand for clean energy is growing. This means that nuclear power is likely to be an important part of our low-carbon energy future, at least until my former constituents at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory finally deliver on the promise of fusion.

We must address two challenges as nuclear energy expands worldwide:

  • First, we must ensure that the expansion of nuclear energy does not lead to the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies that can be used to make nuclear materials for nuclear weapons.
  • Second, we must develop a practical plan for the management of spent fuel.

These two goals are interrelated in various ways. The connection I want to emphasize is that cooperation on spent-fuel management can reduce global demand for indigenous enrichment and reprocessing.

President Obama addressed precisely these issues last spring in Prague when he set forth the ambitious goal of building “a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation . . . so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation.”

As we at the State Department work to ensure that civil enrichment and reprocessing technologies do not contribute to weapons proliferation, the most direct approach, as is often the case in life, is not the most productive.

The previous administration proposed to ban these technologies for states that do not already possess them. The problem was that all other countries opposed this approach because they viewed it as an infringement on their sovereignty and on their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rights to peaceful nuclear technology. Moreover, the very insistence that others not obtain such capabilities increased demand for them by creating the impression that we are seeking to establish a suppliers’ cartel. Instead of reassurance, this had the opposite effect.

As President Obama said in Prague, “No approach will succeed if it’s based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules.” So the administration is focusing on creating incentives for states considering nuclear energy to choose not to pursue sensitive fuel-cycle technologies.

The primary incentive not to pursue an indigenous enrichment capability is the existence of a strong, competitive commercial market. Any state or reactor operator in good standing with its nonproliferation obligations seeking uranium-enrichment services may receive four bids—from URENCO, USEC, AREVA, and TENEX. Many contract with all four to diversify their supply. The enrichment industry is investing heavily to upgrade technology and expand to meet projected demand. In addition, a fifth potential competitor is developing innovative laser technology. These suppliers, which are international in character, with production facilities in six countries, have a proven track record for producing enriched uranium reliably and economically.

This international enrichment enterprise is fully integrated into a global fuel supply chain, including international providers of uranium, conversion services, and fuel fabrication, with a track record of reliable performance on long-term contracts. This competitive commercial market is the bedrock incentive to forgo costly and complex indigenous enrichment programs.

For those who seek additional confidence beyond what the market provides, however, the United States is leading the international community to develop assurances of reliable fuel supply, beginning with fuel banks. As you have noticed, after forty years of discussion, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors approved in November 2009 the first enriched uranium reserve, at Angarsk, in large measure due to a cooperative diplomatic effort of the United States and Russia.

If a country in good standing with its nonproliferation obligations encounters a supply problem and is unable to find a commercial solution, it could turn to the IAEA, which in turn could request enriched uranium from the Angarsk reserve. In a manner consistent with its national laws, Russia could transfer the material to the IAEA, which would arrange for fabrication into fuel and delivery to the country in question.

This all sounds straightforward, but there are underlying challenges that need to be reconciled, including:

  • The IAEA’s perceived need to determine eligibility only on the basis of the record of compliance with safeguards;
  • The laws of supplier countries placing much more stringent conditions on transfers of enriched uranium, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines; and
  • A feeling on the part of many developing countries that fuel assurances are intended ultimately to preserve a choke hold over nuclear fuel supplies and to deny them their NPT rights to nuclear technology.

The Obama administration worked with Russia and the IAEA to reconcile these divergent considerations in a manner that won the approval of a large majority of the IAEA Board.

We are now using the precedents established by Angarsk to shape the international nuclear fuel bank put forward by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with the objective of bringing this second and complementary fuel-bank proposal to the IAEA Board in Spring 2010.

In addition, the United States is creating a national enriched-uranium reserve to support fuel-supply assurances by downblending highly enriched uranium no longer needed for national security purposes.

As fuel banks have made the transition from discussion to reality, we are exploring other concepts to assure a reliable fuel supply, in particular, backup arrangements between suppliers and consumers such as the “enrichment bond.” Under a concept put forward by our British friends, supplier governments would commit, under certain conditions, not to prevent their companies from supplying enriched uranium.

These various forms of assurance of a reliable supply of nuclear fuel are designed to serve as safety nets, to enhance confidence for countries that rely on the commercial market for nuclear fuel and to reduce pressure to pursue indigenous sensitive fuel-cycle facilities. The Obama administration strongly supports the creation of these safety nets.

Looking to the future, a more ambitious and controversial approach would be to create internationally controlled enrichment centers. Proponents envision international control as a way to provide reliable fuel-supply services without putting sensitive enrichment technology in the hands of more countries.

This idea, however, has its own set of problems, including questions concerning how an international organization would manage safety regulation, make export control decisions, raise the immense funding required, gain access to competitive technology, and maintain security of enrichment technology. The disastrous loss of URENCO centrifuge technology, and proliferation of that know-how, illustrates the potential problem of maintaining technology security in multinational organizations.

There are also questions of how to integrate international enrichment centers with the existing commercial market. New international suppliers could add diversity, but we do not want to disrupt the commercial market, which is working well today and provides a strong incentive not to pursue indigenous enrichment.

The interrelationship between commercial enrichment enterprises and international centers could become complex if, as seems likely, commercial enterprises provide the technology and operating facilities for international centers on a black-box basis. Whether internationally controlled enrichment centers represent a creative idea somewhat ahead of its time remains to be seen.

In parallel with these multilateral efforts, the United States is using bilateral nuclear cooperation to build mutual confidence and to welcome decisions to abstain from indigenous enrichment and reprocessing.

We have signed bilateral memoranda of understanding with Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain that express their intention to rely on international markets rather than enrichment and reprocessing on their territories.

As a matter of policy, we will continue to encourage states to take advantage of the international fuel market and to welcome decisions to refrain from enrichment and reprocessing by states that do not have these capabilities.

We believe there is great value in having the U.S. government and U.S. industry deeply involved in the nuclear programs of developing countries, to help create high standards for safety and security and nonproliferation. For exports of U.S. nuclear technology, this requires conclusion of Agreements for Nuclear Cooperation (so-called 123 agreements).

As an example of the importance we attach to these issues, I recently traveled to Amman to work with the government of Jordan to develop a path forward on a 123 agreement.

By law, 123 agreements are sent to Congress for review. It is therefore a joint responsibility of the administration and the Congress to take account of the particular situation of each country and region in developing agreements that enable the deep involvement of U.S. industry and not leave the field entirely to others who may not share our nonproliferation standards.

Let me now turn to the disposition of spent reactor fuel. In contrast to the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, where there is a strong, competitive commercial market, disposition of spent fuel is an unresolved problem for nearly all countries. This is a challenge and a potential opportunity for us to advance our nonproliferation goals.

No nation, with the possible exception of Sweden and Finland, has satisfactorily resolved the question of the disposition of spent fuel once it is discharged from a power reactor. The United States is putting its best and brightest to work on this problem.

Today’s technology provides two unattractive choices:

  • One is isolation in a geological repository for tens of thousands of years. This is politically and technically difficult, and throws away the majority of the potential energy value, which might be needed in the future, depending on the scale of expansion of nuclear energy, the availability of uranium resources, and the availability of improved technologies to extract additional energy without increasing proliferation risks, none of which are known today.
  • The other is reprocessing to recover uranium and plutonium, followed by the use of the plutonium to produce MOX fuel for light-water reactors. Reprocessing with current technology is uneconomical, as MOX fuel is more expensive than LEU. Reprocessing does not significantly reduce the waste burden, but passes it on in the spent MOX. And reprocessing has resulted in large stocks of separated plutonium—about 250 tons, and growing about 10 tons per year. The growing worldwide stockpiles of separated plutonium as a by-product of reprocessing spent civil reactor fuel represent one of our greatest nonproliferation problems.

So the Obama administration is focusing on research to create better options:

  • If fast neutron reactors could produce electricity as reliably and economically as today’s thermal reactors, they would open the way to a new fuel cycle without separation of plutonium. Much of today’s stockpile of separated plutonium was created in anticipation of the advent of fast reactors. Unfortunately, the sixty years of experience with fast reactors have been problematic, and commercial deployment for economical production of electricity is not in sight.
  • High-temperature reactors have potential for high burn-up of uranium and plutonium, and a proliferation-friendly, once-through fuel cycle.

These and other concepts are being actively pursued with our international partners in the Generation IV International Forum, for potential deployment in future decades.

This leads to the question of what we can do today to help countries considering nuclear energy in dealing with the back-end of the fuel cycle. If we could offer a way to help relieve nuclear newcomers of the burden of disposition of spent fuel, that would be attractive and could provide an advantage as we seek to achieve our goal of strengthening nonproliferation as nuclear energy expands. A key part of the answer is interim storage.

Nuclear power is the only industry I know where the short term is fifty years. So what we are looking for is placement of spent fuel in a storage facility for fifty to a hundred years with the ability to retrieve it at any time. From a technical point of view, dry cask technology is proven and licensed and available for this purpose.

We will not know for decades the full extent of the demand for nuclear fuel due to the expansion of nuclear energy. Nor will we know the availability of the uranium resource that can be recovered at reasonable cost. Nor will we know which technologies will become available to overcome the economic and proliferation drawbacks of reprocessing as practiced today.

Retrievable interim storage would preserve options for future decisions when we have the information necessary to make informed choices on what to do with spent fuel.

The question becomes where to store spent fuel. Part of the answer is in the same country—usually at the same site—where the fuel was irradiated. The United States and others can assist a country seeking nuclear energy in implementing a safe, secure, and economical system for interim storage on the reactor site or elsewhere in that country.

The answer could also include international storage. Today, Russia is the only country taking back spent fuel, and only from Russian-supplied reactors. There is potential for the development of a broader application of interim storage in Russia of fuel irradiated in other countries. But Russia has no interest in being the only destination for spent fuel, and the corresponding leverage Russia would gain in the sale of fresh fuel would surely distort the market.

One can argue that it would be in the interest of the United States and other suppliers of reactor technology and fuel to take back spent fuel for storage. At present, bringing to the United States spent fuel irradiated in nuclear power plants abroad requires notification of Congress, which would almost certainly lead to congressional opposition to such imports. While the odds are against us, we could work with Congress to seek an ability to offer interim storage of spent fuel from abroad, for countries that do not have sensitive fuel-cycle facilities.

Establishment of regional or international interim storage facilities could make an important contribution to an attractive offer for countries considering nuclear energy. Spent fuel could be stored at the reactor site for a period of time, followed by storage at an international facility, followed by a decision on ultimate disposition.

Finding suitable locations that would welcome such a facility would not be easy. Resolving questions of cost, responsibility, and liability are serious challenges. The potential benefits would be substantial and would justify a major effort. Our goal is to cooperate with other governments to open the way for the international nuclear industry to offer the same reliable and economical services at the back-end of the fuel cycle that they now provide at the front-end.

Indeed, comprehensive fuel services, including fuel leasing and take-back options—“cradle to grave,” in the words of my friend and colleague Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman—would be attractive to governments and operators as an alternative to the costs, complexities, and burdens of sensitive fuel-cycle facilities.

Through international cooperation, we can achieve the goals President Obama set forth in Prague. Together with our international partners, we can discourage the spread of sensitive technologies, while we support expansion of peaceful nuclear energy, without calling into question the rights of countries that abide by their nonproliferation obligations.


1. This essay is based on remarks given on January 19, 2010, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.