by Noboru Oi and Lothar Wedekind

Overview: The International Symposium on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Reactor Strategies
World Nuclear Capacity Scenarios, graph
Projected Cumulative Natural Uranium Required Up to the Year 2050, graph
Projected Nuclear Capacity Required Under IIASA/WEC Medium Variant, graph
Occupational Collective Doses of the Three Fuel Cycle Options, table

At a time when more countries are facing rising energy demands and environmental challenges, the role that nuclear power can play in the safe and clean production of electricity is receiving closer attention. At the same time, changing conditions are affecting the plans of the world's nuclear power industries and redefining the technology's future development.

Over the past twenty years, the question of how nuclear power should be technically and commercially developed has changed significantly. It was once widely believed among scientific and technical experts that a closed fuel cycle would be the most desirable option - in other words, the fuel from power reactors would be reprocessed after its initial use, and plutonium would be recovered from the spent fuel for recycling as fuel in "fast-breeder" reactors. In turn, these reactors would produce more plutonium that could be used for fuel in other reactors. So closed, the nuclear fuel cycle offered the promise of a long-term and competitive energy technology.

But conditions changed, and the past two decades have brought a set of "new realities" to the table. They include the fact that the generation of electricity from nuclear power has grown at a far slower rate than expected. Second, there currently is limited interest in fast-breeder reactors and delay in their commercialization where they are being developed. Third, the adoption of a closed nuclear fuel cycle has not taken hold as once envisaged, and where it is the chosen option, it has been only partially achieved. These new realities have contributed to the accumulation of plutonium in civilian programmes, and a rising inventory of spent fuel in storage. In addition, as the result of the end of Cold War, there may soon be a large amount of plutonium from dismantled warheads transferred into the civilian sector, thus adding to these inventories.

At the global level, countries are working together to address specific policy and technical issues that these changing conditions have raised, and to more clearly define common areas for global cooperation. One major forum was the International Symposium on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Reactor Strategies: Adjusting to New Realities, convened in June 1997. More that 300 experts from 40 countries and five international organizations took part. It was organized by the IAEA in cooperation with the European Commission (EC), the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD/NEA), and the Uranium Institute (UI). (See box.)

This article highlights selected aspects of the major topics examined at the symposium. The topics were considered in depth by six symposium working groups, each of which presented conclusions reflecting the international common understanding of the status and trends affecting the development of the nuclear fuel cycle well into the next century.


This working group, under the chairmanship of Mr. H. F. Wagner of Germany, examined nuclear energy over the long term. Their key conclusions included:


The second working group, chaired by Mr. A Gloaguen of France, considered the present status and immediate prospects of plutonium management.

The production, storage and use of plutonium have been the subject of international concerns but there is no common international understanding on what policies should be adopted. In the late 1970s, the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) was conducted with the participation of 40 countries and four international organizations to examine non-proliferation aspects of different fuel cycles. The review showed that effective measures can and should be taken both at the national and global levels and agreements worked out to minimize the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons - without jeopardizing energy supplies or the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Key conclusions of the symposium working group include:


Occupational Collective Doses of the
Three Fuel Cycle Options
(per 400 terawatt-hours, excluding radioactive waste disposal)

Occupational Exposure Main Contributors
Once-Trough Fuel Cycle 153 man-Sv Reactors 69%; mining/milling 29%
Mixed Oxide (MOX) (Recycling in thermal reactors) 147 man-Sv Reactors 72%; mining/milling 26%
MOX-FR (Recycling in thermal and fast reactors) 139 man-Sv Reactors 76%; mining/milling 22%

Chaired by Mr. D. Meneley of Canada, this working group examined the timeframe up to the year 2050 for fuel cycle and reactor strategies. Key conclusions include:


A fourth working group, chaired by Mr. J. Lochard of France and Mr. B. Loewendahl of Sweden, examined the health and environmental implications of the different fuel cycle options. Key conclusions include:


Under the chairmanship of Mr. H. Kurihara of Japan, this working group considered non-proliferation and safeguards aspects related to the nuclear fuel cycle. Its key conclusions included:


Chaired by Mr. M. Kratzer of the United States and Mr. I. Kouleshov of Russia, the sixth working group considered aspects of international cooperation. Its key conclusions included:


In summary, the symposium served as a valuable forum for examining the new realities and choices facing countries utilizing nuclear energy. The six key issue papers presented at the symposium summarized the common international understanding of the various fuel cycle issues, including those related to technology, safety, safeguards, environmental and institutional developments.

The symposium also served to heighten interest in continuing the dialogue at the global level, in light of the importance of issues being faced and nuclear power's established and potential role in contributing to world electricity supplies. Toward this end, the IAEA in early 1998 set up the International Working Group on Nuclear Fuel Cycle Options. Among topics that the Group will cover are the advantages and disadvantages of different fuel-cycle strategies of plutonium and waste management, which will play a key role in the future development of nuclear energy.

In the final analysis, the ongoing evolution of Agency programmes related to the nuclear fuel cycle must reflect the realities confronting the international community today, including the security and commercial impacts of ex-weapons material. Moreover, the activities will have to be geared to promoting further the reliability, safety, and economic viability of nuclear power to help interested countries meet electricity demands well into the next century.

Mr. Oi is a senior staff member in the IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy. He and Mr. Peter Jelinik-Fink of the Department served as Scientific Secretaries of the International Symposium on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Reactor Strategies. Mr. Wedekind is Chief Editor of IAEA Periodicals and Electronic Information Services, Division of Public Information.

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