Anya LoukianovaInternationalizing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Privet, dear Readers of Wonk,

Greetings from Monterey! By means of an introduction, I’ll say that I’ve been a loyal ACW reader for a long time (we probably have that in common). And as Jeffrey has already mentioned, I’m lucky to share a blog home with ACW alumnus Paul Kerr. I hope you don’t mind having me around this week. Think of me as a modest warm-up act for the other awesome guest blogger(s) that Jeffrey has in store for you.

To kick things off, here is a topic that isn’t oft discussed on ACWmultilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. You’ve undoubtedly read the 2005 IAEA Expert Group report, which argued that “[s]uch approaches are needed and worth pursuing, on both security and economic grounds.” You’re also likely very familiar with the diverse proposals, which followed this report. All of them are available on the IAEA’s Revisiting the Nuclear Fuel Cycle page.

Rosatom's Children of the Nuclear Renaissance

Anyway, last month, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report on a two-year study jointly conducted with the Russian Academy of Sciences on the “Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle.” Check out the project description and definitely download (and read) the whole report.

As part of this joint study, the NASRAS committee analyzed the “proposals and options for future international nuclear fuel cycles, including the incentives that might be required for countries to accept the fuel assurance guarantees and not develop enrichment or reprocessing facilities.” Not surprisingly, the committee endorsed creation of a “global system featuring a small number of centers for the sensitive steps of the fuel cycle.” Yet, the study also noted that

“the implementation of those elements that are feasible today, for example, assurance of fuel supply, should not be delayed while other options are being refined or explored both institutionally and technically.”

This concern about timing seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme. For example, the September issue of Arms Control Today has a great article by Fiona Simpson titled Reforming the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Time Is Running Out. Simpson, who also authored this ACT piece on multilateral approaches to the fuel cycle with IAEA’s Tariq Rauf four years ago, argues that

“[t]he next six months are likely to prove critical in determining whether any of [the] proposals becomes a genuine blueprint for a new approach to this issue or whether, like similar efforts three decades ago, they simply gather dust.”

So what say you, Readers of Wonk? Are discussions of internationalizing the nuclear fuel cycle losing momentum? Where do we go from here?


  1. Josh

    Without wishing to diminish the importance of this issue, it is interesting to note that “the next six months” often seem crucial, regardless of the subject. For example, Iraq.

    Perhaps we should be content in saying that sooner is better. Or not.

    As someone around here once put it, six months seems to be a wonky equivalent of the Biblical Forty.

  2. nuc free korea (History)

    The idea of internationalizing nuclear power has been around since nuclear weapons were created. I believe Oppenheimer himself advocated this position. The practical challenges have been great and the political challenges worse. I don’t know if the world is ready yet, but the world (at least NNWS world) seems to be ready for something to happen as the NPT bargain is apparently unraveling. In any case, a recent article over at Carnegie argues that there’s not enough uranium around for it to really matter (80 year’s worth at current usage and less than two decades at the world’s usage of electricity).

  3. kme

    The core issue is the lack of trust in State-State relations. If you can come up with a way that a State can have actual and lasting trust in an assurance given by another State, you will have solved the crucial problem – all else is merely details.

  4. dave (History)

    It seems to me that the primary problem with fuel supply schemes of late has been one of demand. There is no shortage of seemingly workable plans for the provision of fuel, but it seems as though the countries of proliferation concern (e.g. Iran) aren’t biting. So as you noted, the development of incentives is the key. I think attention should be focused there for the time being… what good is even a perfect internationalization plan if none of the states of concern sign up? Iran in particular has sunk so much into its enrichment program that I imagine it would take some fairly spectacular goodies to get them on board…

  5. Carey Sublette (History)

    “In any case, a recent article over at Carnegie argues that there’s not enough uranium around for it to really matter (80 year’s worth at current usage and less than two decades at the world’s usage of electricity).”

    Assessing the potential of nuclear power to alleviate future power needs, while also limiting carbon release into the atmosphere, is far more significantly tied to the ability of the world to expand nuclear power plant capacity.

    Current industrial capacity to build nuclear power plants is atrophied, and expanding that adds considerably to the long lead time already associated with this capital-intensive power source.

    But then – the ability of wind and solar power to take up this load also faces a similar obstacle of industrial capacity expansion.

    The argument that we will run out of uranium relatively soon (40-70 years) assumes that only conventional uranium mine sources with a maximum cost of $130/kg uranium will ever be available or usable.

    In the very long term (which is what this argument is addressing) this assumption is quite suspect. For example – the quantity of uranium present in seawater is more than 1000 times larger than the estimated <$130/kg reserves, and technology is currently under development that may allow its extraction at a cost of $300/kg. This high price, compared to $50/kg uranium, would double the final cost uranium fuel, but only increase the cost nuclear power by about 10%. Looking 70 years into the future (i.e. a length of time exceeding that that has elapsed since the first nuclear reactor) one may expect significant improvement in uranium extraction technology.

  6. ataune (History)

    besides the cost effectivness issue mentioned in other comments, several big questions remain here:

    What is the historical legitimacy attached to the international insitution which will carry-out such a dutie ? Will this “new agency” be in line with the existing institutions created after WWII, which are, thanks mainly to the actions of the current US and UK administration, in a historical freefall ? Or will it be coming out of new sets of rules and legitimacy based on the real power distribution in the world today ? will it try to challenge “the unraveling of the current NPT bargain” as mentioned above or will it brush it aside and be a new tool for adding another layer to the NNWS ?

  7. Arch (History)

    The idea dates from the Acheson-Lilienthal report and the Baruch Plan, both produced in 1946. The Soviets rejected the proposal for an internationalization of the fuel supply for Cold-War reasons. The new fuel bank initiative from the US is an important contribution to the debate, but, as others have noted, needs serious consideration and approval by NNWS in order to gain any traction.

    In my view, the proposal has great merit, but has a way to go. There was a northeast Asia fuel bank proposal floating around at least as long ago as the late seventies, if I remember correctly, arising out of INFCE. As I recall, it involved reprocessing in Japan and storage of high-level waste in geologic formations in South Korea, coupled with fuel-supply assurances for Korea. And there was a big debate during the Ragan administration between Dick Kennedy’s proposal for “relaible supply” and those who argued that “responsible supply” was more important than reliability. This idea seems particularly relevant now in the context of the Six-Party Talks, although there are clearly more pressing issues. But the fact that the US and NTI have pledged $50 million, with further contributions – I think some from the UAE and some from Norway, adding up to around $65 million – should give the plan some traction. As usual, it’s just a question of capturing the attention span of governments and getting them to sign on. It seems to me tha there is really no need for a new organization (please, not another one); the IAEA can handle it just fine, given some additional resources for administration.

    That being said, the idea of “leasing” fuel for its intended purpose deserves support and a big diplomatic push.

  8. nuc free korea (History)

    The idea of internationalization was obviously formulated before a formal report was published. It’s clearly documented that those working on military uses of nuclear power were thinking of the consequences and the subsequent world they would live in. Though considerations of their own country’s security lead them to complete the project they still looked to alleviate the issues of the future. It’s clearly documented that Oppenheimer and others of his team were concerned about the control of nuclear power afterwards. In fact, his support for such a plan was part of the impetus for freezing him out of the nuclear program after the war. As far as the limiting factor for nuclear electric power being the ability plants, what good (as the article I referenced mentions) does it do to have plants that do not have fuel? Part and parcel to reviving the capacity to build plants, incorporating new safety features, proliferation resistance, ease of maintenance and more economicability must be the effort to identify all available sources of uranium (it is fairly common in the Earth’s crust after all) and develop those. In any case, the long term solution for nuclear energy is fusion and not fission power (we have oceans of fuel for fusion plants).

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