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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION After the introduction of full-scale nuclear power plants in the 1960s, many nuclear-generating stations were built and complemented by the construction of some fuel cycle facilities to support those stations. Growth of nuclear power slowed in most countries in the 1980s and 1990s. There is now substantial worldwide interest in building new nuclear power plants. This interest is evident not only in countries that led the world in the development of nuclear power—Canada, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—but also in developing countries with large economies, such as China and India, and small economies, such as Belarus and Egypt. The current increased interest has been called a nuclear renaissance, because after years of relatively slow worldwide growth, many countries that do not have a nuclear power plant are considering building one; and many nations that already have one or more nuclear power plants are considering adding more nuclear power plants and expanding their nuclear enterprises with fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, and (in at least one case) spent fuel reprocessing facilities to serve an expanded fleet of nuclear power plants. According to the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in 2007, the IAEA was assisting with energy planning studies for 29 nations that are exploring nuclear energy as a potential option (ElBaradei, 2007). Countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Egypt, Indonesia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jordan, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Nigeria, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen are among those considering or moving forward with the infrastructure needed to introduce nuclear power programmes. And many others, such as Argentina, Bulgaria, China, Finland, France, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, the Russian Federation and the United States of America are working to add new reactors to their existing programmes. This potential large expansion of nuclear power carries with it a growing concern about proliferation of nuclear materials and the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons to other countries. The same technologies that are needed to enrich uranium to make reactor fuel and to separate plutonium from spent fuel to be used in fresh reactor fuel can be used to produce the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons. So if countries pursuing a nuclear energy strategy develop domestic enrichment or reprocessing technologies, or both, to ensure a supply of civilian
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges nuclear fuel or manage their spent fuel, they will also acquire the means to create material that is directly usable in nuclear weapons.1 The director general of the IAEA, former President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President George W. Bush of the United States, and at least six other world leaders and organizations have proposed approaches to multinational or international fuel cycle facilities or fuel supply assurances. The goal is to reduce the likelihood of, or inhibit, the spread of enrichment and reprocessing to other countries by eliminating one motive for acquiring enrichment and reprocessing technologies.2 With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) assembled two committees of experts to carry out this joint consensus study on how to evaluate schemes for structured internationalization of parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including both institutional arrangements and technical options. The statement of task can be found in Appendix A, and brief biographical sketches of the joint committee members are in Appendix F. Five key motivations have spurred proposals for multinational or international fuel cycle approaches: Assured fuel supply or spent fuel management. Countries may feel more assured that they will always have reliable fuel supply for their reactors (and therefore have less incentive to build their own enrichment plants) if, for example, they are participants and part owners of a multinational enrichment plant, or if there are international mechanisms in place to provide backup supplies if a supply interruption occurs. International arrangements that would allow countries to send their spent fuel away after it was used could substantially reduce countries’ incentives to invest in reprocessing plants—and fuel-leasing arrangements, in which fuel would be supplied with a promise to remove the spent fuel later,3 could create particularly strong incentives for states to rely on an international fuel supply rather than having to invest in both their own fresh fuel facilities and spent fuel management facilities. A variant on the fuel-leasing idea is reactor leasing, where a sealed reactor with a core of long-life fuel is leased and then returned to the vendor unopened. (These arrangements are discussed further later in the report.) Opportunities to participate in fuel cycle profits and management. If countries can have a share in the profits from enrichment or reprocessing, and take part in the management of an enrichment or reprocessing enterprise, by taking part in a multinational facility in another state, this may reduce their incentive to invest in an enrichment and reprocessing plant of their own. Kazakhstan, for example, after joining Russia’s International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk, indicated that it was no longer interested in building its own enrichment plant. 1 The IAEA defines “unirradiated direct use material” as nuclear material that can be used for the manufacture of nuclear explosive devices without transmutation or further enrichment, including unirradiated plutonium containing less than 80 percent Pu-238, uranium enriched to 20 percent or higher in the isotope U-235, and U-233. 2 See IAEA, 2005b, for a description of the context and options as laid out by IAEA. 3 The United States will have difficulty in convincing nations to accept its word. Examples such as the supercollider, the international space station, and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project indicate that the United States can be an unreliable partner. The United States must overcome this attitude for it to become a trusted participant in a fuel assurance program.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges Reduced proliferation risks from the plants that are built. If an enrichment or reprocessing plant were owned by several countries or by an international organization, and operated by an international staff, this could provide both greater international transparency to detect any effort to use the plant for military purposes and a higher political barrier to doing so than would be present in a purely nationally owned and staffed facility. The daily interactions between the international staff and host-country experts might also make it more difficult to use those experts to establish a covert facility without detection. On the other hand, such approaches would have to be carefully structured to avoid unduly spreading knowledge of how to build and operate enrichment or reprocessing facilities: Sensitive fuel cycle facilities with staff from many countries could increase the risk of technology leakage, if effective controls on sensitive technologies were not put in place. Pooling resources. States may choose to pursue multinational approaches to bring the resources of several countries to bear on the problem. The German-Dutch-British Urenco consortium, for example, appears to have been motivated in large part to reduce the burdens that any one of these countries would have faced in developing an enrichment plant on their own. Similarly, there are a variety of proposals for international nuclear waste disposal facilities, to avoid the need for scores of countries to each have their own nuclear waste repository. Removing materials that pose proliferation risks. Finally, there have been several cases in recent years where nuclear material in a particular location was judged to pose a significant proliferation risk, and was removed. Discussions with North Korea about shipping its plutonium elsewhere are ongoing. International spent fuel or nuclear waste management facilities might provide ready-made institutions that could receive high-risk materials, making such removals of high-risk materials easier to carry out; offers to remove spent fuel for storage or processing in other countries could avoid accumulating large stocks of plutonium-bearing spent fuel in many countries as nuclear energy expands and spreads in the future. In essence, the joint committees asked, acknowledging that countries must be able to fuel their nuclear plants reliably and manage their spent fuel to take part in this renaissance, How then can the expected international expansion of the use of nuclear power proceed without spreading the capability to make nuclear weapons? This report contributes an assessment of this issue and provides some possible approaches to resolve it. Any of these approaches, however, would be only one part of a broader strategy to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. Addressing this question of how to expand nuclear power without spreading nuclear weapons capabilities requires understanding of the countries’ needs and desires for nuclear power, what factors would prevent a nation from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, as well as the factors that increase or undermine countries’ trust in systems that promote nuclear nonproliferation. Each of these issues is discussed briefly here and in more detail below. To learn about a spectrum of countries’ needs and interests, the joint committees monitored developments related to nuclear fuel cycles in their home countries, attended
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges international events focused on these topics, and surveyed the literature. In addition, the joint committees convened an international workshop with the assistance of the IAEA (more details on the workshop, including the list of participants and a summary of the discussion are in Appendix B). While the workshop was small, it was diverse. Yet despite the differences among the workshop participants’ home countries, some common messages emerged, including (a) their imperative to maintain sovereign rights to develop peaceful technology and the corresponding rejection of any idea that they would sign agreements never to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel (that is, forgo those technologies); (b) the desire to protect the functioning market for uranium, uranium enrichment, and fuel fabrication; and (c) the observation that take-back of spent nuclear fuel by the supplying country (or even another country) would be a larger incentive than assurance of nuclear fuel supply. WHY IS THERE INTEREST NOW IN NUCLEAR POWER? Several factors are driving the increased interest in nuclear power: growth in energy demand; increased costs and projected limited supplies of fossil fuels; safer, less costly,4 and more efficient nuclear power plants, and better management experience with existing plants; and concerns about global climate change. As is explained extensively later in this report, each nation has its own set of interests and needs for its energy sector. The United States, which has the largest nuclear energy enterprise in the world but has built no nuclear power plants ordered after the early 1970s, illustrates several of the changes that have led to the renewed interest. In the United States, some owners or prospective owners of nuclear power plants in the 1970s and 1980s incurred substantial financial losses. The causes were many and are still debated, but the principal reasons were a sharp drop in the growth of electricity demand following the oil embargoes in the mid-1970s, and mismanagement of construction of these capital-intensive facilities at a time when interest rates for financing were high. In the United States, once these power plants came online they often operated with relatively low capacity factors (they did not produce electricity for all the time that, in principle, they could have) and with the need to recover the large capital costs, nuclear plants were not cost competitive with other base-load power plants, such as coal, hydropower, or even natural gas. Reactor accidents in the United States and the Soviet Union (Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, respectively) led many people to conclude that nuclear power is unacceptably unsafe. Some people have viewed nuclear power as environmentally unfriendly because of concerns about radioactive waste, particularly the persistent difficulties in approving a repository location in which to bury and hence dispose of the spent fuel from reactors. All of these factors, to varying degrees, resulted in much slower growth of nuclear power than was anticipated in the 1960s and early 1970s. Several of these factors began to change in the 1990s. Shorter times to construct a nuclear power plant and bring it online have been demonstrated in France, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Capacity factors of nuclear power plants have risen, and many plants are operating near their theoretical maximum capacity factor (over 90 percent on average, compared with about 60 percent in some earlier years). Also, the 40-year operating licenses on many 4 New designs have much less cabling, fewer pumps, and a reduced number of safety systems, all related to passive rather than active shutdown systems. Coupled with modular construction, these changes should make the new plants less costly than if a current operating design were to be built today.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges existing nuclear power plants are being extended by 20 years. The ability to reap 20 more years of electricity generation from power plants, especially existing plants that have already defrayed their capital costs, makes them more attractive financially. Costs of natural gas, the main competitor in the United States for new plants, have risen. Recognition that the Three Mile Island accident was not the nuclear disaster some feared, and the ongoing good safety record of nuclear power over the last 20 years, have mitigated some of the worries about safety of nuclear power plants. Growing concern about emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change has improved the environmental credentials of nuclear power plants, which over their life cycle can have very small greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere5 in contrast to the large amounts of carbon dioxide from coal plants, the largest source of U.S. electricity generation. Nuclear power is increasingly seen as an environmentally responsible alternative for meeting expanding demand for base-load power.6 That demand is increasing without showing signs of stopping. Experience in Russia, another large nuclear enterprise, is also instructive. Before its dissolution, the former Soviet Union prepared extensive plans for developing the nuclear power industry. Those plans included light-water-moderated reactors generating electrical power of 1,000 or 1,500 MW, as well as up to 20 units containing fast breeders of BN-600 type. However, the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident and the Soviet Union’s collapse followed by the financial crisis in the 1990s put an end to such plans. The Chernobyl accident and low prices for hydrocarbons (oil and gas) were unquestionably the main cause of a drastic change in the Russian public’s attitude toward nuclear power in the 1990s. Only three nuclear power plants (VVER-1000 type) were commissioned, and the construction of another plant (the BN-800 fast-breeder reactor) saw little progress between 1990 and 2005 because of insufficient funding. The picture for the future is completely different in Russia today. The Russian government and parliament have adopted a decision in the form of the Federal Special-purpose Program providing for (a) construction of about 20 VVER-1000-type nuclear power plants to replace the legacy nuclear plants, and (b) completion of construction of the BN-800 fast-breeder reactor as a transition to nuclear plants with a new generation of fast-breeder reactors to be used in a closed fuel cycle. Most people in Russia now do not object to further development of nuclear power (Nuclear Power Today, 2005). At present, 31 power-generating units with an aggregate capacity of 23.2 gigawatts-electric (GWe) are operating in Russia. Nuclear power stations produce approximately 17 percent of the total electrical energy yield. In 2006, the Russian government adopted a new targeted program, “Russian Nuclear Power Industry Sector Development in 2007-2010 and Until 2015,” which would receive 5 Estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power vary dramatically, ranging from 3.5 to 100 g (carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour-electric: CO2-eq./kWh electric). Enrichment of uranium for fuel is currently the biggest contributor to the emissions within the nuclear fuel cycle and varies depending on the technology employed (gaseous diffusion consumes 24 to 60 times as much energy as gas centrifuge enrichment) and the source of electricity used for enrichment (the country’s fuel mix). Fthenakis and Kim, 2007, found a range of 17 to 39 g CO2-eq./kWh for solar electric in the southwestern United States (the region of that country that is most amenable to solar power), and 16 to 55 g CO2-eq./kWh for nuclear energy in the United States. High-efficiency coal-fired power plants emit about 1.05 kg CO2-eq./kWh electric. 6 Hydropower, the other major base-load power source with low carbon emissions, is inherently limited by the availability of suitable sites and is increasingly viewed as destructive to river ecosystems and a potential safety hazard.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges 1,471.4 billion rubles7 in appropriations, including 674.8 billion rubles from the federal budget (see Appendix C). The program is to be implemented in two phases over a period of nine years. The main objectives of the program include an increased pace of development of the Russian nuclear power industry by means of putting new standard power-generating units into operation at the nuclear power stations with a total nominal electrical capacity of 2 GW per year or more with a 5-year construction cycle. By the end of the program’s term, 10 new power-generating units with a total nominal electrical capacity of 9.8 GW or more will be put into operation, and another 10 power-generating units will be in various stages of construction. A fast-reactor power-generating unit with a capacity of 800 MW will be put into operation, which is planned to be used as a testing facility for the closed nuclear fuel cycle technology including the recycling of uranium-235 (U-235) and plutonium-239 (Pu-239) separated in the processing of spent nuclear fuel. Further, Russia plans to increase the share of nuclear power stations in Russia’s total electricity output to approximately 25 percent from 15.9 percent in 2006 (IAEA, 2007b). According to IAEA analysis (IAEA, 2007b), the contribution of nuclear energy to electricity generation worldwide is expected to grow at an annual rate of between 0.9 and 2.8 percent. This would bring the per capita electricity demand from the 2006 level of 2.7 MWe-h/yr to a world average of 2.9 to 3.6 MWe-h/yr by 2020 and 3.2 to 4.8 MWe-h/yr by 2030. The same analysis projects that the population will grow from 6.5 billion people to 7.5 billion by 2020 and to 8.1 billion people by 2030, meaning that total electricity demands might more than double in approximately the next 20 years (IAEA, 2007b), rising from 17,550 TWe-h/yr to at least 22,000 TWe-h/yr and as much as 27,000 TWe-h/yr by 2020, and at least 26,000 TWe-h/yr and as much as 39,000 TWe-h/yr by 2030. One large but typical single-reactor nuclear power plant (1.25 GWe operating at just over 90 percent capacity factor) can produce about 10 TWe-h/yr. The IAEA estimates that nuclear power-generating capacity will increase from 369.7 GWe in 2006 to 447-691 GWe in 2030 (IAEA, 2007b).8 Analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD 2006; IAEA 2006b), demonstrates that such rapid growth of nuclear energy will be accompanied by a substantial increase in the demand for natural uranium. The recent edition of the OECD/IAEA uranium resource summary (the Red Book) states that the currently identified resources are adequate to meet the forecasted expansion from 372 GWe in 2007 to up to 663 GWe in 2030 (OECD/IAEA, 2008; Schneider and Sailor, 2008).9 To satisfy the demand for uranium through 2020, it is necessary to significantly intensify geological efforts, and by 2030 to bring into operation tens of new mines, which can exceed the current excavation levels two to three times. Solving this problem is entirely possible. Moreover, natural uranium is not directly related to the problem of the proliferation of weapons-grade nuclear material. However, a substantial increase in demand for fresh nuclear fuel, growth in uranium enrichment and the generation of still greater amounts of spent nuclear fuel and possible reprocessing (a change of approximately 1,300 to 3,400 metric tons of fuel per year by 2020,10 if 7 At the time this report was issued, 1 U.S. dollar was worth approximately 20 rubles. 8 This does not account for replacing reactors that might retire during that period. 9 There are good reasons to believe that IAEA estimates may prove to be conservative as high prices motivate more exploration; in the case of most other minerals, real prices have fallen with time and quantity extracted, as technological improvements outpaced the depletion of the lowest-cost ores. 10 These numbers assume burn-up in the range of 50 to 60 GW-days/MTHM. One MTHM is a metric ton of heavy metal (for example, uranium or plutonium) initially in the reactor fuel.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges these were all light-water reactors), significantly intensifies the possible unauthorized proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies and weapons-grade materials. Current consumption and anticipated growth in demand are not distributed equally across nations. Africa is expected to continue to consume less electricity per capita than any other continent (0.7 to 1.1 MWe-h/yr) and North America is expected to consume more than others (14.8 to18 MWe-h/yr) (IAEA, 2007b), but overall consumption on these continents is not changing quickly. By contrast, East Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia saw 5 percent annual increases in electricity consumption between 1996 and 2006. To continue that growth, nations are looking to develop electrical-generating capacity from nearly every resource available, including nuclear power. A recent U.S. review listed the following countries as giving serious consideration to nuclear power in the next 10 years: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Estonia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Turkey, and Vietnam. The same review listed the following countries with longer term plans under way: Algeria, Australia, Bahrain, Chile, Georgia, Ghana, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Yemen (ISAB, 2008). The reasons for anticipated growth of nuclear power in a small number of other countries are described in Appendix B, the summary of the NAS-RAS international workshop held in Vienna in 2007. Finding 1a By 2020, many countries that currently do not have a nuclear power plant are likely to initiate national programs for the construction of nuclear power stations.11 These countries do not now have facilities for uranium enrichment for nuclear fuel production or spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. THE PROLIFERATION PROBLEM IN MORE DETAIL A nation seeking to acquire nuclear weapons needs direct-use nuclear material and the knowledge and means to make that material into a weapon. It is generally assumed that the knowledge required to make at least a rudimentary nuclear weapon is available or fairly readily acquired. The difficulty of acquiring the direct-use nuclear material is the greatest technical barrier for a nation seeking to develop its own nuclear weapon, though political, diplomatic, and military pressure, either external or internal, may also lead countries to slow or reverse their nuclear programs. Uranium enrichment facilities and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities used for peaceful nuclear energy objectives (serving civilian nuclear power plants) can also be used to create direct-use nuclear material for weapons. Uranium-235 (U-235) is the easiest material from which to fabricate a crude nuclear explosive device, although substantially more material is needed to construct an efficient nuclear explosive device using uranium-235 compared to plutonium-239. Uranium-235 occurs naturally in very low concentration (0.7 percent) in natural uranium mined from the earth. Another isotope, uranium-238 (U-238), constitutes nearly all of the rest of the natural uranium. Natural uranium can be used to fuel a nuclear power reactor (CANDU [Canadian deuterium-uranium] 11 Until and unless construction begins, estimates of nuclear growth are based upon expressions of interest and should be considered as having substantial uncertainty.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges reactors have done so), but higher concentrations of uranium-235 in nuclear fuel enable the fuel to sustain a fission chain reaction more readily in a relatively compact core using ordinary water (light water, which absorbs some neutrons) as the moderator. The process that raises the concentration of a particular constituent of a feed material in the product stream is called enrichment. Most nuclear power reactors in the world (called light-water reactors) require fuel enriched in uranium-235 to about 3-5 percent. Nuclear power stations with so-called fast reactors require higher enrichment—approximately 15 percent or higher, and more typically using around 20 percent. Uranium enriched below 20 percent is called low-enriched uranium (LEU), and uranium enriched to 20 percent and higher is called highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU can be used to construct nuclear weapons. Although a weapon with 20 percent enrichment is theoretically possible, the mass of uranium required makes such a weapon impractical (see Figure 1-1); higher concentrations of uranium-235 are more effective for use in weapons. But even possession of LEU is of some concern, particularly when it is coupled with further LEU enrichment capabilities, as explained below. Figure 1-1 Critical mass of a metal uranium sphere with a 10-cm beryllium reflector as a function of the uranium-235 enrichment (weight percent, wt%). SOURCE: Glaser (2006). There is no fundamental technological difference between a uranium enrichment facility used for civilian nuclear fuel and one used to produce HEU for weapons. Enrichment facilities are expensive and technologically challenging to develop and operate. Some enrichment facilities are also difficult to detect via satellite imagery, emissions, or any other observations, and this is only getting more difficult as enrichment technology improves.12 LEU is not inherently a proliferation concern, but the work in terms of time and energy usage required to enrich a given amount of natural uranium to 3 percent uranium-235 is more (depending on 12 The 1991 discovery of the Iraqi electromagnetic isotope separation (calutron) program came from information provided by a defector. Centrifuge facilities are the main concern now. Laser isotope separation, too, would be difficult to detect.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges specifications of the enrichment, substantially more) than the work required to raise that 3 percent-enriched uranium to 90 percent uranium-235, which is not just weapons usable, but weapons grade (that is, what nuclear weapons states use in their weapons). The time and energy required to enrich uranium from 5 percent to 90 percent is lower still.13 Thus, if a campaign to create direct-use material were to start with 5 percent enriched uranium as its feed, the lead time for acquiring significant quantities of HEU would be about one-fourth the time required if using natural uranium in the same enrichment facility. Such scenarios are called breakout scenarios. It is more challenging to design a nuclear weapon with plutonium-239, but there are advantages to such weapons, such as the ability to mount them more easily on missiles because they can be more compact. Plutonium-239 (along with other plutonium isotopes) is produced in nuclear reactors containing uranium-238. Uranium fuel containing uranium-238 irradiated in a reactor for very short times creates only small amounts of plutonium, but the plutonium-239 abundance is high compared with the other isotopes of plutonium. Such plutonium, containing at least 90 percent plutonium-239, is called weapons-grade plutonium. Longer irradiation, such as in a nuclear power reactor, generates more plutonium, but also causes undesirable plutonium isotopes to build up, so that the plutonium generates more heat, neutrons, and other radiation, complicating weapon design. Declassified documents have, however, disclosed that even reactor-grade plutonium can be used to build a nuclear weapon.14 Nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities can separate the portions of irradiated nuclear fuel that can be recycled (including plutonium) into new reactor fuel from waste products that are unwanted in new fuel. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to separate and recycle the plutonium (and, in some schemes, other constituents) into reactors as fuel is sometimes referred to as closing the fuel cycle. A plant that reprocesses irradiated nuclear fuel or targets to separate plutonium may serve either a civilian nuclear energy program or a nuclear weapons program, or both. Some separations processes do not have material streams of direct-use nuclear material. Any separations process can be adapted to separate one or more of its constituents. The central questions in evaluating the proliferation aspects of a reprocessing facility are, (a) How much would that facility, when operational, reduce a country’s time or cost for making a nuclear weapon illicitly, and (b) How easily could such illicit behavior be detected by the concerned outside world? These points are discussed in more detail later in this report. It is easier to detect reprocessing activities than enrichment activities, but clandestine programs for reprocessing irradiated nuclear fuels or special targets are also possible. Today a relatively small number of countries enrich uranium (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have operating facilities, and Iran is trying to bring a new facility online). Some of these primarily serve weapons programs, and some others only serve national nuclear fuel needs.15 Only two nations—Russia and the United States—and two international consortia—Eurodif (in France) and Urenco (in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and soon the United 13 If the enrichment tailings (the depleted uranium by-product of enrichment) contain 0.3 percent U-235, then it takes 114 separative work units (SWU) to enrich about 220 kg of natural uranium to produce 33 kg uranium at 3 percent enrichment. Enriching that same 33 kg from 3 percent up to 90 percent produces 1 kg of HEU using 79 more SWU. Producing 19 kg of 5 percent enriched LEU from natural uranium requires 137 SWU, and enriching that same 19 kg to produce 1 kg of HEU at 90 percent enrichment requires only 55 SWU. But the SWU requirements for producing HEU drop significantly further if the enricher is willing to waste U-235 by leaving more of it in the tailings. 14 A nuclear bomb can be made with reactor plutonium (NAS, 1994; DOE, 1997). 15 For a discussion of Brazil’s enrichment program, see Cabrera-Palmer, B. and G. Rothwell, 2008.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges States and a joint venture in France)—provide commercial uranium enrichment services for other countries. A smaller set of countries reprocesses irradiated nuclear fuel: China, France, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom.16 Only France, Russia, and the United Kingdom offer commercial reprocessing services to other countries, and only Russia provides options in which the radioactive wastes generated in spent fuel reprocessing may not be returned if that is stipulated in international agreements. FUEL FABRICATION It is important to note that reactor operators use manufactured fuel assemblies in reactors, not raw enriched uranium. Fuel manufacturing (or fuel fabrication) is a process separate from enrichment. Fuel fabrication facilities must create the equipment for making fuel needed for each specific reactor design, and even within a reactor design there are differences among individual reactors. Reactors that operate at high efficiency require fuel with variations specified for each fuel assembly. This manufacture is highly specialized, but clients of a uranium enrichment center, or the fuel center itself, could contract out for these services. Fuel fabrication services, like enrichment services, are in a competitive market, but with important differences. While low-enriched uranium is an interchangeable commodity (product from different enrichers can be essentially interchangeable), fuel fabrication is specific to the reactor that will use the fuel, and the fuel design is the intellectual property of the designer. Essentially all fuel fabricators compete to produce and sell fuel reloads for all reactors, whether the reactor is of their company’s design or not, or even of the same reactor type (companies that sell pressurized water reactors also compete to sell fuel for boiling water reactors). Most fuel fabrication facilities today are located in the countries that have reactor vendors, which also mostly are the countries that enrich uranium. The fuel fabrication companies may be private corporations or state-owned (or quasi state-owned) corporations operating in the mark et, but all are subject to the laws, regulations, and policies of their governments. As with other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, governments are able to block supply of fuel fabrication services. If a fuel fabrication facility is located in the United States, the U.S. government can approve or prevent that company’s provision of nuclear fuel to a company in another country. Manufacture of LEU fuel is not a proliferation problem, so a country worried about fuel manufacture for its own reactors as a link in the chain of assurance of supply could develop its own fuel fabrication facility (as South Korea has). For an international fuel center, whether fuel fabrication is offered is a question of economics, the marketplace, and the attractiveness of bundled services. For reactor types that have more than one fuel supplier, if assurance is desired without a domestic fuel fabrication capability, then agreements could be put in place where one fuel fabricator supplier can back up the other (IAEA, 2007d). If there are reactors with only one supplier, that has to be dealt with separately. In summary, the spread of uranium enrichment technologies is a concern because of the following: (a) It is possible to design very simple bombs based on HEU (see, e.g., NRC, 2002). (b) Clandestine production of HEU using covert enrichment facilities is harder to detect than clandestine production of plutonium from covert reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. (c) Uranium enrichment services are needed to make nuclear fuel for almost any reactor, so a nation can more 16 The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has a reprocessing plant that is now disabled.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges readily argue that a uranium enrichment facility is part of its civilian nuclear energy program. Spent nuclear fuel reprocessing is a concern because a range of plutonium isotopic compositions (and even plutonium compositions containing minor actinides17) either is or can readily be made into direct-use material for a nuclear explosive device.18 More compact, higher yield nuclear weapons can be made with plutonium. And experience working with plutonium (chemistry and metallurgy) is directly relevant to the manufacture of nuclear explosives. Thus, both technologies, uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, are of concern. A broad range of institutional and technical measures to help stem the spread of nuclear weapons has been built up over several decades. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the foundation of this global regime, with IAEA safeguards providing the treaty’s verification. All NPT parties that do not have nuclear weapons commit never to acquire them and to accept IAEA safeguards on all their civilian nuclear activities, while the NPT nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) commit to negotiate in good faith toward nuclear disarmament, and all parties maintain their “inalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The NPT is complemented by national systems of exports control in the countries which possess relevant nuclear weapon technologies. The financial costs for a nation to develop its own uranium enrichment and/or spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies or acquire them from elsewhere may be an economic constraint for a country pursuing the development of a national nuclear power industry. Moreover, there are technical barriers, including the acquisition of both required special knowledge and experience, and respective equipment and material relevant to the creation of nuclear explosive devices. The U.S. and Russian governments have both supported the growth and spread of nuclear energy, but also have undertaken extensive efforts to limit the proliferation risks that might result if that growth and spread were not appropriately managed. In his speech to the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, then-Russian President Vladimir V. Putin called for steps to “reliably block the ways for spreading of nuclear weapons,” including new approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle that would exclude “usage of enriched uranium and pure plutonium in world atomic energy production” (Putin, 2000). More recently, as discussed in this report, Russia has proposed the creation of a series of international centers for implementing key aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, giving all countries the right to acquire the services of these centers and to participate in managing them and profiting from them, without spreading technology that could contribute to nuclear weapons programs. Russia has established the International Enrichment Center at Angarsk as one element of the network of centers it envisions. Russia has also focused on developing technologies for spent fuel regeneration and recycling in fast reactors that Russia believes pose reduced proliferation risks, as well as factory-built, sealed reactors, with long-life cores that could be provided to a country and then be removed, with their fuel, when their useful lives were done, so that the host country would not need to establish an extensive nuclear infrastructure of its own. (These are discussed in the second half of this report.) The United States, similarly, has undertaken a broad range of efforts, in some cases working with Russia and with other governments, to limit the proliferation risks of nuclear 17 The actinides are a group of heavy elements that includes thorium, uranium, and plutonium, as well as most of the products of neutron activation of those elements. Those products, such as americium and cesium, are called minor actinides. 18 In August 1977, a memorandum from the Oak Ridge Laboratory described a “simple and quick” reprocessing facility. For an analysis of that suggestion, see GAO, 1978.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges energy. Many of these steps were outlined in President George W. Bush’s 2004 address on limiting nuclear proliferation risks (Bush, 2004). Steps the United States is currently pursuing include, among others: (a) combining new assurances of fuel cycle supply with other nuclear energy assistance into an “attractive offer” to be made jointly by the major suppliers to give countries establishing nuclear power programs incentives not to risk investing in their own enrichment and reprocessing capabilities; (b) working cooperatively with many of the states that are considering establishing nuclear power programs to ensure that they establish appropriate safety, security, and safeguards infrastructures and nonproliferation policies before their first reactors are built; (c) developing the international portion of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is intended to bring major supplier and recipient states together in a common approach to nuclear energy in which many states could enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy without needing their own enrichment or spent fuel management facilities; (d) greatly expanding efforts to strengthen the IAEA and its safeguards system, in part under the rubric of the Next-Generation Safeguards Initiative, including pushing for an increased budget for the IAEA, additional provision of information and analytical support to the IAEA, research and development on more advanced safeguards technologies, and recruitment and training of appropriate experts to replenish the pool of safeguards experts; and (e) pursuing research and development on next-generation reactor and fuel cycle systems designed to have increased proliferation-resistance. How successful these efforts will be in reducing the potential proliferation hazards from the spread of nuclear energy remains to be seen. Assurance of nuclear fuel supply for countries pursuing development of their own nuclear power industry is meant to minimize the incentive to develop their own technologies of uranium enrichment. Furthermore, in case of nuclear fuel supply in the form of nuclear fuel assemblies for such countries’ nuclear reactors with a condition of spent nuclear fuel take-back (nuclear fuel leasing), the risk that these countries will acquire plutonium from spent fuel reprocessing is also lower. However, as the weapon states continue to enrich uranium and reprocess separated plutonium, some nonnuclear-weapons states (NNWS), both those that possess uranium enrichment and plutonium separations technologies and those that do not, have challenged any restriction on their right to do the same as creating another unfair divide between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” But new structures of incentives have the potential to reduce the number of states that choose to invest in such facilities in the future (see, e.g., ISAB, 2008).19 Current proposals for fuel assurances and international incentives both seek to reduce the perceived risk that countries might cut off other countries’ fuel supply for political reasons. The joint supply assurances from the major suppliers would help reduce this risk because countries could be confident they would have supply unless all of the major suppliers jointly decided not to supply them. The proposed fuel banks, if designed appropriately, would reduce this risk further, providing supply even if none could be had from any of the major suppliers. (To achieve that objective, however, it will be important to design such reserves so that the existing suppliers are not seen by recipient states as being able to readily prevent the reserves from providing supply.) The Angarsk enrichment center, Russia argues, would reduce the risk of a political interruption compared to states simply contracting for supply from Russian enrichment enterprises, because members of the center would have a government-to-government agreement prohibiting Russia from interrupting supply for political reasons. (How much confidence states would have in these 19 The current major supplier states have talked about an “attractive offer,” in which the IAEA, with support from those states, would assist countries in acquiring reactors, nuclear fuel supplies, and services. This assistance could be both technical and financial.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges agreements remains to be seen.) Ultimately, however, in a world of sovereign states, the possibility that suppliers would decide not to supply would always remain, just as it does for other economically critical commodities and products, from oil to integrated circuits. An approach that has not been utilized beyond the Soviet Union and now Russia’s fuel contracts, but could have nonproliferation advantages, would be to offer full fuel services: uranium, enrichment, fuel fabrication, and perhaps take-back. This arrangement is described by Steve Kidd of the World Nuclear Association (Kidd, 2007) and is being explored by Russia. Meanwhile, innovative reactor technologies applying a closed fuel cycle are being investigated. Rather than separating nearly pure plutonium and uranium from spent fuel, these new processing technologies generally keep some portion of the minor actinides and, in some cases, a portion of the fission products with the plutonium as it is recycled, with the goal of making the material in the fuel cycle more radioactive and less attractive for use in weapons (though in some proposals the difference might be small enough to have only a modest nonproliferation or counterterrorism benefit). The successful development and deployment of such technologies for peaceful nuclear power programs may reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation compared with deployment of existing fuel cycles that recycle separated plutonium in mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. The U.S. committee members believe that some of the processes under investigation might still produce material streams that do not require additional complex, remotely operated separations to extract direct-use material. Other processes might make extraction of direct-use material significantly more challenging. Even then, however, a set of safeguards would be required that can detect diversion in the operation of power-generating units of a nuclear power station, which are based on these innovative technologies. Further, clear goals for this institutional and technical system will be required to evaluate how much a particular technological system is contributing to nonproliferation goals. As new countries engage in nuclear power activities, it will be important to strengthen IAEA oversight by convincing these countries to adopt the additional protocol and giving the IAEA additional resources, information, and authorities (IAEA, 2008), and to develop strong export and import control regulations to block development of a black market in nuclear materials. While signing on to the NPT entails a commitment by nonnuclear weapons states to not develop nuclear weapons, the treaty contains no explicit prohibition of developing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, and the IAEA has stated that such facilities are within the activities permitted to a nonnuclear weapon state under the NPT. A broad array of nonnuclear weapon states, including Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa, which are prominent voices within the world nuclear energy sector, ardently support the IAEA position. As noted above, the director general of the IAEA, former Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and U.S. President George W. Bush have proposed institutional arrangements that could assure the supply of needed nuclear fuel for countries having or planning to build nuclear power plants. These arrangements are intended to remove an incentive for countries to construct their own enrichment facilities, and, as noted above, to pursue several other nonproliferation goals. This is not a new concept. The idea of international ownership and management of sensitive nuclear-power-related facilities was first considered at the dawn of the nuclear age, going back to the immediate post-World War-II era and the Baruch Plan of that time (Baruch, 1946), and various options for international fuel banks or international fuel cycle centers have been discussed for decades. A few multinational fuel cycle enterprises have in fact been established,
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges as discussed in the remainder of this report, demonstrating that multilateral or international fuel cycle centers are feasible. The joint committees’ statement of task explicitly focuses on international fuel supply centers, former Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s proposed approach. Questions concerning fuel cycle centers are discussed in detail below, but to identify and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, the joint committees also describe and examine the existing system of fuel supply and other proposed approaches that might be deployed in conjunction with fuel centers or serve as alternatives to them. Finding 1b Uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing are the key technologies that enable countries to produce direct-use materials for nuclear weapons. The more countries to which either technology (enrichment or reprocessing) spreads, the greater the proliferation risks. Currently it appears that more countries that have not already deployed these technologies are interested in establishing uranium enrichment programs than in pursuing spent fuel reprocessing technologies, making the spread of enrichment technology a greater near-term concern for nuclear proliferation. But the intention to acquire spent nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities was the main focus of proliferation concerns in the 1970s and could become so again. Finding 1c Requirements of the nuclear security environment, the difficulty of providing safeguards and security, and the demand for nuclear fuel cycle services change over time, and technology advances with time. Any approach for enhancing the nonproliferation features of international fuel cycles must be staged to respond to the nonproliferation needs of the time period. Today this suggests a focus on convincing countries that they do not need to establish their own enrichment facilities, which has motivated efforts by several countries and international organizations to address the enrichment issue. Similar efforts are needed to convince countries that they do not need their own reprocessing facilities. Also needed are strengthened efforts to prevent the spread of these technologies through illicit or inadequately regulated exports and black-market nuclear networks, and improved safeguards for both uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities, designed both to increase international confidence that significant diversions from declared facilities would be detected and to strengthen the ability to provide timely warning concerning covert facilities and activities. Recommendation 1a The countries that currently provide nuclear fuel services should redouble efforts, with other countries and the IAEA, to establish mechanisms for increasing reliability of supply of nuclear fuel, so that countries that do not now have enrichment technology would have reduced incentives to build their own uranium enrichment facilities. Recommendation 1b The international community should help countries provide adequate capacity for safely storing spent fuel (on their own territory or elsewhere), or reliable reprocessing services from existing providers, to reduce countries’ incentives to establish their own reprocessing
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges facilities. Separated plutonium or fabricated plutonium fuel should not be sent to countries that have not previously received such material and do not have reprocessing capabilities. The spread of separated plutonium to additional countries poses many of the same proliferation risks posed by the spread of reprocessing capabilities. Recommendation 1c For similar reasons the United States and other nations should reduce and seek to minimize commerce in and the transfer of highly enriched uranium (which poses proliferation risks) except if sealed in a reactor core. Second-level findings: To ensure a reliable supply of nuclear fuel, a country needs reliable fuel fabrication services as much as it needs reliable sources of uranium and enrichment services. To assist in the international fuel assurance programs, it would be helpful if nations with fuel fabrication facilities made those available. Fuel fabrication technology for uranium oxide fuel with low-enriched uranium is not sensitive from a proliferation perspective. Hence, if countries choose to establish their own fabrication capabilities to produce fuel assemblies for their own nuclear power stations, without establishing uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing capabilities—as South Korea has done, for example—this should not pose significant international concerns. Finding 2 Several messages are clear from the NAS-RAS Workshop and other recent discussions in Vienna about assurance of supply: Few countries have declared a willingness to forgo forever a right to develop their own uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing nuclear technology in the future. Some countries have expressed adamant opposition to requiring a country to forgo the development of its own enrichment and reprocessing technologies as a condition of assurance of supply of nuclear fuel or low-enriched uranium. To be successful, uranium enrichment, fuel assembly production for nuclear power stations, and spent fuel storage and reprocessing continue to operate in the international market. No single mechanism or strategy for assurance of nuclear fuel supply is likely to address every country’s legitimate needs and desires. Each country’s or region’s needs and requirements may be different. New mechanisms for assured nuclear fuel supply may only modestly change countries’ incentives to establish enrichment facilities, as the existing international market provides strong assurance of supply and countries have a variety of other reasons for establishing their own enrichment plants, including a desire to participate in the profits of enrichment, national pride, and a desire to establish a nuclear weapons option for the future.
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Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges Introducing management-based or technology-based mechanisms to inhibit or limit the spread of enrichment (and reprocessing) facilities must be handled carefully to avoid increasing the likelihood of new states establishing domestic enrichment. Discussion of restricting access to enrichment technology, even with international fuel supply centers, has prompted more countries (not fewer) to declare their interests in developing enrichment facilities within their borders. Recommendation 2a The governments of the United States and Russia should continue to support a broad menu of approaches to increasing assurance of nuclear fuel supply. An array of mechanisms for assurance of nuclear fuel supply has been proposed, from diversified long-term contracts through the existing market, enrichment bonds,20 and international fuel centers to creating a virtual or actual fuel bank. Some of these are already in place. The Russian and U.S. governments should support a broad menu of these approaches, ensuring that these do not undermine each other. Recommendation 2b The governments of the United States and Russia should seek to establish additional benefits and incentives for countries that choose not to establish their own uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities. Possibilities could include assistance with establishing the necessary infrastructure for safe and secure use of nuclear energy. Recommendation 2c To support nonproliferation goals, the nations that currently supply nuclear fuel should work expeditiously with other countries and the IAEA to make assured fuel supplies available before there is a major commitment to new nuclear power plants by countries that do not have them today. 20 Enrichment bonds: A guarantee by a state that supplies enrichment services that enrichment providers will not be prevented from supplying the recipient state with uranium enrichment services if the guarantee is invoked (adapted from the U.K. proposal).