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Keynote Speech at IAEA International Symposium on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Reactor Strategies: Adjusting to New Realities

Vienna, Austria

The concept of the nuclear fuel cycle emerged almost as early as the concept of using controlled nuclear fission to generate electricity. It was widely believed, amongst the scientific and technical experts of that time, that a closed fuel cycle would be the most desirable option: spent fuel from power reactors would be reprocessed and recovered plutonium would be recycled as fuel for fast breeder reactors. Not only the experts but also people outside the technical elite were impressed by the promise that the closed cycle would offer.

In the late 1970s the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) was conducted. Forty countries and four international organizations were represented. By this time we were looking at a gradually maturing technology which had produced "new realities" in terms of the technical aspects of the fuel cycle, its economics and its proliferation aspects. INFCE showed that effective measures can and should be taken both at the national and international 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. The results of the INFCE, many of which are still valid today, were published in eight Working Group papers.

Some 20 years have elapsed since this study was carried out. During this period further "new realities" have emerged, which could not be foreseen, and it seems appropriate again to consider various aspects of different nuclear fuel cycle options. That is why we are here today. The intention is certainly not to repeat a comprehensive study like INFCE. Rather, in preparation of this Symposium, the IAEA Secretariat, in co-operation with Member States and international organizations, has made efforts to address some specific issues concerning the nuclear fuel cycle. The results of these efforts will be presented and reviewed during this Symposium.

What are the further "new realities"?

Let me briefly point to some significant "new realities".

  1. The nuclear power projections have been lowered

    A first "new reality" is that over the past 20 years, the projections for global nuclear electricity production in the year 2000 have been progressively revised downwards. In 1980, when the INFCE study was performed, world nuclear power capacity in the year 2000 was predicted to be between 850 and 1200 GWe. However, at the end of 1996 the world's net nuclear capacity stood at only 351 GWe and it is almost certain that it will not be greater than around 380 GWe by the turn of the century. Prospects for nuclear power development beyond the year 2000 are different for different regions. Growth of nuclear power is now envisaged mainly in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and in some developing countries. In the Western countries the nuclear industry is reorienting towards provision of services. The lower than expected demand on uranium in combination with revised estimates of cost-effective resources means that uranium supplies will last much longer than earlier calculated

  2. General development of FBR's deferred

    A second "new reality" is that a commercialization of fast breeder reactors has not occurred. Only France, Japan and Russia, strongly committed to nuclear power, continue to develop fast reactor technology and India and China are also engaged in the development of this technology for future deployment. In addition, experimental studies are in progress aimed at using this technology in the near-term for utilizing plutonium stocks and burning minor actinides, while reserving for the future the option of breeding.

     

  3. Closing the fuel cycle

    A third "new reality" is that the closed fuel cycle has not taken hold. Until the early 1970s, many envisaged the nuclear fuel cycle of the future to be an orderly sequence of processes beginning with uranium mining, milling and conversion followed by fuel enrichment, fuel fabrication, and power generation. This cycle would then be completed by reprocessing, recycling of plutonium and uranium to fast reactors. Closure of the fuel cycle would result in the effective use of plutonium, and minimization of waste. In short, there would be a long-term, competitive, if not cheap, source of energy, with the added bonus of a high degree of energy independence once all components were in place.

    The present situation at the back-end of the fuel cycle differs dramatically from that vision. Because of the delay in fast reactor deployment, the once expected closed fuel cycle for fast reactors has not become a commercial reality, even though it has been successfully demonstrated on a rather large scale in France and at an experimental level in Russia, the USA, Japan, India and the UK.

    Meanwhile, the feasibility of recycling plutonium in the form of MOX fuel in existing light water reactors has been demonstrated at the industrial level in a few industrialized countries. While the advocates of a closed cycle consider this step to be only a temporary expedient until fast reactors are available, others consider it a necessary method for consuming civil and military plutonium stockpiles

    It is now generally agreed that direct disposal is a feasible option for spent fuel management for countries choosing this path. At the same time, studies are in progress in some countries to define new closed cycle strategies which would minimize the transuranic element content for final disposal.

     

  4. Defence sector nuclear material must be taken care of

    A fourth "new reality" is that with the end of the Cold War, the USA and Russia have begun to reduce their nuclear arsenals and that other NWS may - in due course - follow this lead. Disposal or use of the fissile materials coming from the defence sector - so far expected to be more than 100 tonnes of Pu and several hundred tonnes of HEU is a new - welcome - challenge.

     

  5. Other developments

    Lastly, we must take note of the "new reality" that there are a number of States, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, which have a substantial nuclear power share, but little or no infrastructural support for the back-end of the fuel cycle. We must also note that delays in the establishment of final storage facilities and the emergence of a global market for fuel cycle services, including reprocessing, are other significant realities in fuel cycle developments during the past 20 years.

     

  • There is an adequate supply of uranium for the foreseeable needs of the current types of reactors;
  • There is a growing accumulation of separated plutonium;
  • There is a growing accumulation of spent fuel;
  • There is a debate on advantages and disadvantages of different fuel cycle strategies. This debate includes consideration of the related economic, environmental and proliferation issues;
  • There is consideration of the possibility of regional and international co-operation aimed at an economically effective way of resolving plutonium and waste management issues.

Let me briefly comment on these points, one by one.

  1. Uranium demand and supply

    The uranium supply and demand situation has been monitored on a continuous basis and has been reported periodically since 1965 under the title "Uranium Resources, Production, and Demand" - commonly known as the "Red Book". It is a joint publication of the IAEA and Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD). For its reporting of reasonably assured resources (RAR), the Red Book has adopted a maximum production cost of US $130/Kg for uranium as the criterion even though the value of the dollar has decreased by 50% since the 1977 edition.

    During the INFCE evaluation in 1980, RAR at $130/kg of uranium amounted to 2.59 million tonnes. In 1995, they were estimated at 2.95 million tonnes of uranium, capable of meeting nearly 50 years of future global requirements at present level of consumption.

    In reality the price of uranium fell steadily from its level in 1980 (US $88/Kg) to its lowest spot market price of less than US $18/Kg in 1994. The price has since increased to US $30/Kg. In 1996, annual world demand for uranium was about 62 000 tonnes while only 36 000 tonnes were produced. The deficit was met by reducing stockpiles. The price increase resulting from the supply/demand gap seems likely to result in a rapid increase in supply. It is believed by experts that substantial new uranium resources can be discovered once exploration is re-activated as a result of a higher uranium price.

    Although there appears thus to be an adequate supply of uranium at least until 2050, substantial exploration activities need be conducted to identify and evaluate so far unknown resources. A reliable database on uranium resources and supply is essential when considering future nuclear fuel cycle options. The question of plutonium use will be critically influenced by how long the supply of uranium to fuel nuclear power reactors can be assured.

     

  2. Accumulation of separated plutonium

    Early in the development of nuclear power, and against the background of the projections of world nuclear power capacity and the development and deployment of fast breeder reactors, commitments were made to construct and operate reprocessing facilities. However, the lower than expected growth rate of nuclear power capacity and the delays in development of fast breeder reactors created a significant imbalance between the rate of plutonium separation and the rate of plutonium utilization. With inventories of separated plutonium accumulating, it was proposed to use the separated plutonium in MOX fuel for light water reactors. Perhaps it should be noted parenthetically that the use of plutonium for energy generation is not something new. In fact, nearly 40% of the electricity produced by each thermal reactor fuelled by uranium is due to fission of plutonium isotopes, accumulated during uranium burning.

    In 1996, 22 tonnes of plutonium were separated and 8 tonnes of plutonium were used in light water reactors and fast reactor development programmes. The imbalance over earlier years between the separation and use of plutonium had resulted in a global inventory of separated civil plutonium of about 160 tonnes at the end of 1996. The inventory may go up to 170 tonnes in the next couple of years before starting to decrease gradually to about 140 tonnes in 2015. I should add, however, that the projections of inventory after 2000 have significant uncertainty.

    In addition to civil plutonium, highly enriched uranium and plutonium coming from the defence sector are likely to influence decisions on fuel cycle options for some decades to come. Under the START I and II treaties, many thousands of American and Russian nuclear weapons are slated to be retired within the next decade. As a result, at least 50 tonnes of plutonium on each side are expected to be removed from military programmes, along with hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium. The availability of this surplus material for peaceful use constitutes another "new reality" for the nuclear fuel cycle, as well as an element to consider from the point of view of national and international security.

     

  3. Spent fuel accumulation

    It is estimated that more than 100 000 tonnes of spent fuel from power reactors will have to be stored in facilities throughout the world by the year 2000. Less than 40% of the amount generated annually will be reprocessed by then. The rest will be stored for a long period before being finally disposed of in geological repositories or before being sent for reprocessing. Because many countries have yet to decide how they will ultimately deal with spent fuel, issues relating to long-term storage of spent fuel are becoming more and more important.

    The IAEA estimates that about 50 tonnes of plutonium is contained in the spent fuel discharged from nuclear reactors world-wide in 1996 and that the annual production figure will remain more or less the same until 2010. The cumulative amount of plutonium produced in nuclear power reactors worldwide was less than 1 tonne in 1960, about 13 tonnes by 1970, about 124 tonnes by 1980, about 490 tonnes by 1990 and will be about 1010 tonnes by 2000.

     

It is clear that if we use uranium in a once-through fuel cycle, accumulation of spent fuel - and plutonium - cannot be avoided. The plutonium removed from the military sector will add further to the quantities accumulated.

As you know, current thinking about disposition goes in two directions. One suggests that for the foreseeable future plutonium has no economic value as an energy source. Accordingly, in this view, the most economic process is to dispose of the spent fuel in a safe way. The other line of thinking essentially advocates the closed nuclear fuel cycle concept. The difference of opinion stems in part from the different expectations of nuclear electricity growth and the availability of economical supplies of uranium. However, the difference also has significant roots in different assessments of security and environmental issues.

Among the factors of relevance for the discussion is the public perception of plutonium. Plutonium is feared on several grounds: terrorists might get Pu through trafficking, proliferation-bent regimes might obtain it to make weapons. Another fear is that plutonium could be dispersed into the environment in the event of an accident. In addition, a tendency to generally "demonize" plutonium makes rational public debate about plutonium difficult.

At junctures like this, an expedient solution may for some countries be simply to buy time. Defer decisions. One such solution is for States to store the spent fuel containing plutonium in a safe and secure way over a period of time until they are ready to decide. This preserves the option of using plutonium as an energy source at some future point of time when perhaps other energy sources, including uranium, might be scarce. Perhaps you could call this a no-regret solution: You would not now incur the cost of reprocessing and the problem of having to guard separated Pu. You would have less problems to reprocess after a number of years if you were to choose that option. And should you after a number of years wish to dispose of the fuel as waste, this would also be easier.

Ideas at the governmental level

Let me now refer to some discussions of the issue pursued between governments and in the IAEA.

In 1992, Mr. Dircks, then Deputy Director General of the IAEA, discussed the potential global political and security problems connected with the accumulation of separated plutonium from civilian programmes and from possible warhead dismantling. There were also a few meetings within the IAEA with some Member States to discuss these issues. In that connection the concept of an International Plutonium Storage, dormant since the mid 1980s, was touched upon. More recently a Group of nine States formed a Working Group independent of the IAEA and drafted international guidelines for plutonium management to enhance transparency and build confidence. I understand that Mr. Agrell, the chairman of the Working Group, will make a presentation on the results of the Group's work during this Symposium.

The NPT Review Conference held in 1995 called for greater transparency in the management of plutonium for civil purposes, including public information about quantities and about the relationship of stocks to national nuclear fuel cycles. The Conference called also for continued international examination of policy options concerning the management and use of stocks of plutonium, including the option of an arrangement for the deposit with the IAEA, and the option of Regional Fuel Cycle Centres.

The participants in the Moscow Summit on Nuclear Safety in the spring of 1996 pledged "support for efforts to ensure that all sensitive nuclear materials designated as not intended for use in meeting defence requirements are safely stored, protected and placed under IAEA safeguards as soon as it is practicable to do so". While recognizing that the primary responsibility for the safe management of weapons fissile material rests with those States which have produced and possess it, the Summit participants also stated that "other States and international organizations are welcome to assist where desired".

In the autumn of 1996, following up on the Moscow Summit, an "International Experts Meeting on safe and Effective Management of Weapons Fissionable Materials Designated as No Longer Required for Defence Purposes" was held in Paris. The IAEA was represented, together with seven countries and the European Union. It might be noted that this was the first meeting at which a basically bilateral Pu issue was discussed in an international format. The IAEA used the occasion to describe its experience and expertise in matters relevant to international plutonium management.

In January 1997 the USA announced a dual path policy in which excess weapons plutonium will either be burned as MOX in LWRs or will be vitrified.

Future developments in the nuclear fuel cycle can - and probably will - differ from country to country. Your discussions, I hope, will help us to better define the problems and possibilities better.

Role of the IAEA

What should be the role of the IAEA? The Agency's programme in the field of nuclear fuel cycle must reflect the realities facing the international community today, including the security and commercial impacts of ex-weapons material. The activities must also be geared to promoting further the reliability, safety and economic viability of nuclear power.

 

Many Member States of the Working Group preparing for this Symposium are of the view that a continued dialogue following the Symposium would be desirable. If it were generally thought useful, the IAEA could explore suitable steps to ensure the exchange, on a continuing basis, of basic information on major developments and economic and programmatic information on the nuclear fuel cycle. This could include consideration of advantages and disadvantages of different fuel cycle strategies of plutonium and waste management. The latter issue might play an important role in the future development of nuclear energy.

Using the Agency as a means for elaborating international norms should also be examined. The Agency has already published three safety guides on interim storage of spent fuel from power reactors. They cover the design of spent fuel storage facilities, preparation of safety analysis reports and the safe operation of spent fuel storage facilities. Preparation of a safety document on the safe handling of plutonium is nearing completion.

The new reality of a "plutonium pressure" might perhaps also suggest to Member States that the Agency could help co-ordinate international efforts to promote transparency. I leave that to your discussion.

Acknowledgement

I would like to conclude by thanking the Working Group members, the chairmen, the members of the Steering Group and the Scientific Secretaries for hard and invaluable work to prepare this Symposium. I welcome all the participants and wish you progress and success in discussing the difficult subjects before you.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018

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