As more nations pursue nuclear power, the United States and Russia, along with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should redouble efforts to ensure a reliable supply of nuclear fuel so that countries seeking nuclear energy have less incentive to build their own facilities to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, says a new report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Russian Academy of Sciences.
Such facilities pose proliferation risks because they can also be used to produce the key ingredients for nuclear weapons.
Driven by growing energy demands, high prices for fossil fuels, and concern about climate change, more than two dozen nations – Egypt, Vietnam, Belarus, the Gulf States, and Turkey, among others -- have announced that they are considering or planning their first nuclear power plants. The fuel for these plants is fabricated from enriched uranium, which can be purchased from outside suppliers -- currently, two international consortia, Russia, and the U.S. However, some countries may fear that relying on others could make them vulnerable to a cutoff of supplies for political reasons. The report draws upon discussions from an international workshop convened by the academies at the IAEA, involving 10 countries that might participate in a system to assure reliable supplies of fuel.
The international community, supported by the U.S. and Russia, should continue to explore a broad menu of approaches to provide assurances against political disruptions of the nuclear fuel supply, an effort led by the IAEA, the report says.
Over time, Russia, the United States, and other nations should work to create a global system of a small number of international centers to handle sensitive steps of the fuel cycle, such as enrichment and management of spent fuel, possibly including reprocessing, storage, and disposal. Russia has created one such center, the International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk. The centers could either be owned by groups of nations -- as with two existing consortia -- or overseen by an international organization. Aside from the countries that provide technology for the fuel cycle centers, participating nations should meet two major criteria: They should not have an enrichment facility or be developing one, and they should be in compliance with IAEA safeguards and nonproliferation agreements.
International institutions that manage the nuclear fuel cycle and arrangements that let many countries share in the profits of uranium enrichment provide a somewhat more equitable and sustainable long-term basis for limiting enrichment and reprocessing to a small number of countries, the report says. And nations may feel assured of a stable fuel supply if they are part-owners of the fuel centers, or if international mechanisms are in place to provide backup supplies.
The chief disadvantage of international centers is the potential for sensitive technology or knowledge to leak and contribute to a nation's efforts to build nuclear weapons, the report says. The U.S. and Russia should work diligently with other countries to create specific, stringent plans to prevent this from happening.
Assuring fuel supplies may have only a modest impact on lessening countries' motives to build enrichment facilities, the report says. It urges the U.S. and Russia to provide other incentives, such as assistance in establishing the infrastructure for safe and secure use of nuclear energy.
Agreeing to take back spent fuel also could be a very powerful incentive -- since nations would not need to build facilities to store their own spent fuel or waste -- and would lower the number of countries that store plutonium-bearing material. However, many countries face political barriers to taking other nations' spent fuel or nuclear waste. The U.S. and Russia should work on cooperative approaches to lease fuel to "newcomer" nations for the lifetime of their reactors, with the spent fuel being sent back to Russia for the present -- since it is further along in offering these services to other nations -- or to the U.S. as well if that eventually becomes possible.
There are many proposals in development to reduce proliferation risks from the nuclear fuel cycle, the report notes. Some proposals are based on technology -- for example, facilities whose uranium or plutonium cannot be used in a nuclear weapon without substantial additional processing. Others are based on re-examining and modifying regulations and requirements concerning nuclear materials, technology, activities, and expertise.
Similarly, efforts are under way to reduce the environmental impacts of the fuel cycle while increasing the amount of energy extracted from fuel material. Such options should be developed and assessed systematically, with decisions based on clear objectives and technically sound criteria, the report says. However, while these are being explored, the international community should not delay taking steps that are feasible today, such as assuring a reliable fuel supply.
In addition, the report recommends that nations stop accumulating plutonium as soon as practicable, and reprocess spent fuel only when it is necessary to make new fuel or for safety reasons. Reprocessing when fuel is not needed in the near-term creates excess stocks of plutonium, which pose security risks.
The U.S. and Russia have signed an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation, but the agreement faces several obstacles in the U.S. Congress, and President Bush has withdrawn it from consideration there. The lack of a working agreement makes some international fuel cycle options impossible and is impeding joint efforts on nonproliferation for nuclear energy technologies.
The report notes that it is unlikely that the U.S. government will bring the agreement into force in an environment of worsening relations between the United States and Russia, but study co-chairs John Ahearne and Nikolay Laverov added, "We hope that the current disagreements that have recently emerged will not interfere with our countries working together toward our common goal of inhibiting nuclear weapons proliferation as nuclear energy use grows across the world." 2009 will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Cooperative Agreement on Science, Engineering, and Health, under the auspices of which this project took place.
The two-year study was sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with additional support from the Russian Academy of Sciences and assistance from the IAEA in arranging the international workshop. The U.S. committee was appointed by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Russian committee was appointed by the Russian Academy of Sciences, a self-governing, nonprofit organization chartered by the Russian government to conduct research to understand the natural world and society, and to promote technology and prosperity.
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