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The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Issues and Challenges

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria
7th Scientific Forum during the 48th Session of the IAEA General Conference

Introductory Statement to the Scientific Forum by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

I am pleased to welcome all of you to our 7th Scientific Forum, a venue that has become one of the highlights of our annual General Conference. In planning this year’s Forum, we considered three emerging trends: first, the increasing recognition of the role of energy in sustainable development, and the rise in global electricity demand; second, the steadily growing awareness of the contribution that nuclear power is making to greenhouse gas mitigation strategies in some countries; and third, the increasing reliance placed on peaceful nuclear applications in the medical, agricultural and industrial sectors — in which research reactors play a vital role.

The resulting Forum agenda is focused on a number of particular aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle: advanced fuel cycle and reactor concepts; waste and spent fuel management issues; and topics related to the research reactor fuel cycle.

Advanced Fuel Cycle and Reactor Concepts

Civilian nuclear power now has more than half a century of experience — more than 11 000 reactor-years. For a large segment of the first generation of power reactors, we are reaching the stage where choices must be made between retiring these facilities or extending their licensed lifetimes. At the same time, new advanced and innovative fuel cycles and reactor designs are being explored — not only to replace the plants being retired, but also to support the expansion of nuclear power in response to growing global energy needs.

Advanced fuel cycles, both "once-through" and "closed", are being developed with a number of technical objectives, including: more efficient utilization of fissile and fertile materials; enhanced proliferation resistance through, inter alia, passive control of nuclear materials using new fuel types and configurations; greater reliance on passive safety features; and technology advances to mitigate the volume and radio-toxicity of high level and long lived wastes. These technical innovations will need to be complemented by new approaches to relevant policy and institutional issues — for example, through increased harmonization of regulatory requirements and industrial codes and standards.

One part of our effort is the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO), which is developing a methodology for Member State assessment of innovative nuclear energy systems. INPRO has now completed 14 case studies in seven countries to test the methodology.

I would urge you to keep in mind, during your discussion of both technological and institutional innovations, how both might lend themselves to multilateral approaches that could serve to reduce the need for resource intensive national R&D infrastructures, and thereby provide the benefits of nuclear technology to a wider segment of the international community.

Waste and Spent Fuel Management Issues

The cumulative inventory of stored spent fuel is estimated at 183 000 tonnes of heavy metal. The amount of reprocessed spent fuel is about 88 000 tonnes of heavy metal, which means that about one third of the spent fuel that has ever been discharged has been reprocessed. The annual discharge — the amount of new spent fuel to deal with each year is currently 10 500–11 000 tonnes of heavy metal.

A variety of options exist concerning spent fuel disposition. For the once-through fuel cycle approach, spent fuel is cooled and then put in corrosion resistant containers for further storage and ultimate disposal in a geological repository — although a growing number of countries are considering retrievability to be increasingly important. In the spent fuel reprocessing option, the separated fissile material is converted into new fuels, for instance mixed uranium–plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel, for use in light water reactors.

A few countries have begun moving forward towards geological disposal site selection, construction and regulatory review. Their progress — in terms of both technology and engaging the public and other stakeholders — 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.

The Research Reactor Fuel Cycle

For more than 50 years, research reactors have played a crucial role in nuclear science and technology, contributing to important progress on nuclear power, radioisotope production, nuclear medicine, neutron beam techniques, nuclear education and research, materials development and component testing. As the industry moves forward with technological innovation, research reactors — particularly high flux reactors — will play a key role in reactor physics experiments, irradiation-testing and the development of advanced fuels and structural materials for innovative power reactors.

Of particular importance with respect to the fuel cycle is the effort to convert from high enriched to low enriched uranium fuel, with the goal of eventually eliminating commerce in high enriched uranium (HEU) for research reactors. Many of these reactors, however, still operate on HEU, and over a third of all stored research reactor fuel assemblies are HEU. Consequently, most of the work is yet to be done — including the development and qualification of new, high density, LEU research reactor fuel that would permit additional conversions.


For nuclear power to be sustainable as a global source of emission-free energy, the reactor fuel cycle must also remain sustainable. To achieve this goal will require continued technological and institutional innovation. I look forward to your conclusions and recommendations, which will be conveyed later this week to the plenary of the General Conference.

We are pleased to have as our chairperson of this Scientific Forum, Professor Bernard Bigot, High Commissioner at the Commissariat à l´Energie Atomique of France. For many years, Professor Bigot has been a leading figure in education and research in France, both in the academic and government spheres, including as a high level manager in the Ministry of Research and New Technologies. Given this background, he is well qualified to chair the Forum and to report its deliberations to the General Conference.

We are also pleased to have with us here at the podium Professor Carlo Rubbia, President of ENEA, former Director-General of CERN, and the winner of the 1984 Nobel prize in physics, who will give a talk on the role of research in the sustainable development of nuclear energy — as well as Mr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, and former Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, who also has a rich background in nuclear energy research and development, and who will be moderating the first session.

With these remarks I hereby open the 7th Scientific Forum, and turn the podium over to Professor Bigot.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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