World Nuclear Association was invited to present this week at the opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Conference on the Management of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors, Learning from the Past, Enabling the Future. Mikhail Baryshnikov (TENEX) and Cecile Evans (Orano), chair and deputy chair of the Sustainable Used Fuel Management Working Group, share the industry’s message.

The dry used fuel storage facility at the San Onofre plant in California (Image: Southern California Edison)

World Nuclear Association’s working group on Sustainable Used Fuel Management promotes sound, safe, sustainable and proliferation-proof used fuel management. Its mission is to shape industry positions with a view to engaging in the international debate on sustainable management strategies for the back end of the fuel cycle. Addressing the theme of the conference, learning from the past, enabling the future, one can say that this aligns with the working group’s activities of collecting, analysing and distributing leading practice from the past and present, and using it to generate recommendations for the future.

Perhaps the main message from the past is that nuclear energy is an environmentally responsible power generating source that is aligned to the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This ensures that nuclear operators make adequate financial provisions to responsibly manage and dispose of radioactive waste and used fuel.
Used fuel management should be conducted in accordance with five defined areas that conform with international requirements:

It must be demonstrated to a practical extent that chosen options for used fuel management are technically feasible;

A used fuel management strategy must be applicable to present needs while also providing adequate protection to human health and the environment;

All areas of used fuel management, from generation up to and including ultimate fuel disposal, should be performed in accordance with a well-defined plan;

Realistic financing models should be established to cover all potential foreseen and unforeseen costs through the entire used fuel management programme;

The used fuel management programme considered today must not inflict a greater impact on the health of future generations than current accepted standards and practices allow.

Accompanying this is a need for political and regulatory stability.

Upon removal from the reactor core, used fuel embarks on the final stage of its life cycle, with the nuclear industry implementing various strategies based on government policy to ensure a safe and cost-effective overall management, which is divided into two tracks:  the open cycle and the closed cycle.

There is presently a broad consensus among technical experts that the preferred method of ensuring long-term safety for high-level waste and used fuel is isolation in a deep geological repository, a solution used for other forms of toxic waste. Geological disposal facilities for long-lived waste, if properly sited and constructed, will provide passive multi-barrier isolation of radioactive materials.

Unlike other sources of power generation, such as coal and natural gas, used fuel may be recycled (reprocessed) to provide added value as an additional energy resource. Currently, the countries which operate reprocessing facilities are France, India, and the Russian Federation. The UK previously operated reprocessing facilities for light water reactor fuel until recently (closed in 2018) and will still operate the Magnox reprocessing plant until around 2020. China is operating a pilot plant and is looking to deploy an industrial facility. Japan is planning to commission in 2021 its Rokkasho-Mura plant. India, too, has and is developing reprocessing facilities for both thermal and fast reactor used fuel. Russia is developing new reprocessing technologies and is increasing its reprocessing capacity.

Used nuclear fuel has been, and is still, successfully transported by truck, rail and ship using specially designed casks. To date this transport has been to reprocessing plants and to centralised interim storage facilities. The transporting of used nuclear fuel is a well-proven activity based on meticulous planning. To date it has enjoyed an excellent safety record, something the industry attaches immense importance to maintaining.

Until a deep geological repository is operational, used nuclear fuel, if not reprocessed, will have to be placed in interim storage at the reactor site or in a centralised facility. While interim storage is technically feasible, it does raise a concern that this storage of the fuel is not the final solution for it. This is why IAEA Member States should proceed with siting, constructing and operating a deep geological repository without unnecessary delay. Or they should consider used fuel reprocessing.

And if we look at the data in the IAEA’s Status and Trends Report, and indeed this is backed up by the Sustainable Used Fuel Management working group’s own survey in 2017, the start of final disposal is not imminent. Projects in France, Sweden and Finland are the most advanced: countries where engaging and communicating across a wide range of audiences and platforms to engage citizens in developing deep geological repository projects. Again, referring to the theme of the conference, there are lessons from the past that can enable the future.

Keeping on the communications theme, it should be mentioned that the accumulation of used fuel is seen by many as a significant reason to oppose nuclear energy - notwithstanding the proven solutions that exist. In this context, the IAEA, OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency and European Commission should be commended for their collaborative publication: Status and Trends in Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management, which dispassionately explains the status quo with regard to used fuel, and in an accessible way. World Nuclear Association was proud to have been invited to be part of the steering committee for this publication.

Showing the ability to successfully manage used nuclear fuel will help ensure nuclear energy is able to continue to play an important function to decarbonise our electricity generation to protect people and the planet from the dangers of air pollution and climate change. To meet the growing demand for sustainable energy, we will need nuclear to provide at least 25% of electricity by 2050 as part of a clean and reliable low-carbon mix.  Achieving this means nuclear generation must triple globally by 2050. The Harmony programme is a global initiative of the nuclear industry that provides a framework for action, working with key stakeholders so that barriers to growth can be removed.

While we can claim to have solutions today to manage used fuel, we can never stand still. Striving for continuous improvement is the only guarantee of sustainability. The global nuclear industry is continually innovating to promote enhanced fuel performance, along with better management of radioactive waste while augmenting the nuclear safety culture. These advancements achieved today will provide the impetus for tomorrow’s improvements in nuclear energy and radioactive waste management.

There is a natural progression of innovation solutions in the nuclear industry and for used fuel management. These solutions may include the development of multi-national repositories, development of enhanced fuels and reactors designs, additional or advanced recycling capabilities and services, enhanced interim storage and transportation systems, etc.

In conclusion, it must be recognised that the infrastructures and technologies are available to provide for the efficient and safe management of radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel.

While the timeline varies from country to country when a deep geological repository will be sited, constructed and operational, there are adequate interim storage methods available to store used nuclear fuel until such time these facilities become operational. However, one must caution that unnecessary prolonged delays will erode public confidence that used fuel can be satisfactorily managed and potentially undermine nuclear power’s role in combating climate change.

The industrial infrastructures and technologies are readily available (or planned) to assist in the efficient and safe management of all stages of used fuel cycle.

Proposed timelines for the operation of deep geological repositories varies from country to country, but interim methods are available or being enhanced to safely store used nuclear fuel until such time these foreseen facilities are operational. However, continued delay in siting, constructing and operating a deep geological repository has the potential to erode public confidence.

The global nuclear industry has full capacity to mitigate both foreseen and unforeseen risks and uncertainties, all while it continues to develop implementable innovative used fuel management programmes to constantly increase efficiency and safety.

The speech was delivered at the IAEA conference by Serge Gorlin, head of Industry Cooperation at World Nuclear Association.

Date: Wednesday, 26 June 2019
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