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Experts Tackle Waste & Spent Fuel Issues at Scientific Forum Session

Mr. L. Shepard

Mr. L. Shephard of the United States moderated a panel session that included experts from Canada, Brazil, France, Russia, China, and Finland. (Photo credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

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For many people, the "back end" of the nuclear fuel cycle - how to manage radioactive waste and used or "spent" nuclear fuel - poses the biggest challenges to the future of nuclear power. At the IAEA´s Scientific Forum 21 September, a panel of international experts reviewed the advancing global picture, from economic, environmental, and political perspectives. The Forum is being attended by delegates from more than 50 countries and organizations in the nuclear field.

Panelists included Ms. E. Dowdeswell of Canada, V. Ryhanen of Finland, C. Zhu of China, J. Maiorino of Brazil, as well as the session´s moderator, L. Shephard of the United States, and keynote speakers P. Bernard of France and A. Mayorshin of Russia.

One focus was the management and disposition of spent fuel from nuclear power plants. Countries follow different strategies and approaches. Some place spent fuel in interim storage, some reprocess it for conversion and recycling as new reactor fuel, and others hold it for long-term disposal in deep geological repositories planned for operation down the line. Worldwide, spent fuel inventories are growing. All told, some 180,000 tonnes of heavy metal (as spent fuel inventories are measured) are stored around the world, with about 88,000 tonnes reprocessed. The amount of new spent fuel accumulating annually from nuclear electricity generation and other activities stands at about 11,000 tonnes of heavy metal.

The world´s nuclear power countries have a "wealth of success and experience" with spent fuel management, noted Mr. Shephard. But, he added, critical issues remain. "In today´s world, spent fuel management, as one element of the nuclear fuel system, cannot be relegated to the back-end of the fuel cycle as only a disposal or storage issue," he said. In his view, "new management paradigms" are needed that take account of interrelated challenges, including technological, economic, environmental, and non-proliferation challenges.

Ms. P. Bertrad of France and Mr. A. Mayorshin of Russia, who gave keynote presentations, reviewed advances in the treatment of spent fuel, and in its reprocessing. They include partitioning and transmutation processes to recover and recycle actinides in spent fuel, and extensive research, engineering and applications of reprocessing technologies.

A topic drawing questions for the session´s panel on cost and other grounds was the question of multinational, or international repositories, particularly for countries having small nuclear programmes. While opinions vary, the emerging view was that countries first need to demonstrate the successful launch and operation of national waste repositories for spent fuel and highly radioactive waste, so as to feed and build confidence in geological solutions. Leading nuclear countries in radioactive waste and spent fuel management have "a responsibility to be engaged" in multinational approaches, Mr. Shephard said.

As IAEA Director General ElBaradei pointed out in his opening statement, progress on the waste disposal front will have an impact on the entire nuclear community. "It will be a major milestone when the first geological repository for high-level, long-lived radioactive waste is up and operating," he said.