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Managing Spent Nuclear Fuel Rises on Global Agenda

DDG Sokolov

Yuri Sokolov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy address participants on the opening day of the conference. (Credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

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Public confidence must be built and transparency increased as growing global demand for nuclear power raises the need to better manage spent fuel.

Nuclear experts voiced that emerging international view at the IAEA in Vienna recently. They met to examine spent fuel management at nuclear reactors in the context of key policy, safety and security, and technical issues. The global conference reflects the increasing importance of the issues and recognition of their fundamental place in the future development of nuclear power. 150 Participants and observers from 40 countries and international organizations shared lessons and experiences at the conference from 19-22 June 2006.

The world´s 441 nuclear power reactors in operation today generate spent fuel that is currently stored on-site or off-site in storage facilities. There was general consensus at the conference that the large amount of spent fuel already in storage will increase, if no choices are made on spent fuel management strategies. The spent fuel or high level waste from reprocessing are expected to be stored for longer periods of time, awaiting geological disposal. The conference agreed that while current arrangements for storage have been operated with no major problems, it is becoming increasingly important to have disposal arrangements available. Present-day concerns on ensuring safety, security and non-proliferation over longer time periods further strengthen the argument.

The importance of the IAEA initiative on multinational approaches for the management of spent fuel and the recent fuel cycle initiatives by USA and Russia in applying advanced technologies in processing spent fuel and recycling of materials were presented. These initiatives would reduce proliferation risks and reduce the generation of radioactive waste. They would also be important to countries with small nuclear programmes since a service for managing spent fuel would be provided.

The conference also discussed the need for an international nuclear safety regime, building on the framework of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management together with International Safety Standards. This would be important to multinational or international approaches. The conference noted the regulations on transport of radioactive material as good example of an international safety regime. This example demonstrates how countries can move towards a safety regime when all parties agree on the various safety aspects of the application.

Increasing public awareness and measures to strengthen public confidence on the safety, security and reliability of storage systems were also emphasized, particularly in the post 9/11 landscape and the implications on nuclear activities.

A series of more specialised sessions addressed topics relating to criticality safety, licensing of long term storage and the technology/experience of wet and dry storage of spent fuel storage.

For the future, the conference expects to see greater international cooperation continue on research and development related to technical aspects of spent fuel management; continuing progress towards an international safety regime, as well as future multilateral initiatives related to fuel cycle activities.