Managing Spent Nuclear Fuel: Global Overview

Issue Brief

The world's nuclear power plants generate spent fuel from the production of electricity in some 30 countries. All of the spent fuel is stored on-site or off-site in engineered storage facilities, pending final decisions on its disposition. Spent fuel is differently regarded by countries - as a resource by some and as a waste by others - and the strategies for its management vary.

No country has a geological repository for spent fuel storage or disposal. Neither have most countries decided on a final destination for spent fuel.

As a result, long-term storage is becoming a growing reality. In many countries, a major issue is the need to expand existing storage capacities for spent fuel at reactor sites or to provide additional storage space to accommodate upcoming spent fuel arisings.

Some countries have referred to storage periods of 100 years and even beyond. As storage periods extend, new challenges arise in the institutional as well as technical area. From the institutional point of view, there are challenges in the management of liabilities and knowledge, experience and information over longer time spans. Technical challenges include the longevity of spent fuel packages and behaviour of fuel and structural materials in storage facilities.

Given conditions today, experts expect 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 that arises from reprocessing spent fuel, are expected to be stored for longer periods of time, awaiting geological disposal. While storage facilities have been operated with no major problems so far, many experts argue that it is becoming increasingly important, on technical, safety, and security grounds, to have disposal arrangements available.

It is generally agreed that disposal deep in geological formations is the most appropriate solution, and that storage is an interim approach. Progress toward such a repository is reported in several countries. However, the first operational targets are beyond the year 2020.

The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, together with the IAEA international Safety Standards may be seen as providing a framework for safety at the international level in the area of spent fuel management. The Joint Convention is legally binding on its Contracting Parties and requires that spent fuel and radioactive waste management are conducted with regard to accepted norms of safety. The safety norms are derived from the recommendations of the international Safety Standards which establish best safety practices based on worldwide experience in the field.

An important safety issue is how to establish the safety of the facilities for long-term storage of spent fuel. There must be confidence in the continued integrity of the fuel, its container, and the structure of the waste store, for example. The IAEA is supporting international research of monitoring, inspection and other components of safe management practices. Safety Standards on spent fuel management also are being reviewed and elaborated to cover a wider scope of activities.


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