World survey | Radwaste

Disposal plans (part 2: reprocessing)

3 July 2012

A review of radioactive waste management strategies, inventories and recent developments in countries with operating nuclear power plants. By Caroline Peachey

Policies for management of spent nuclear fuel vary from country to country and depend on a huge number of factors, including economics, security, public acceptance and more. There are typically three main options for spent fuel management: direct disposal, reprocessing, or adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Reprocessing is the separation of uranium and plutonium out of used fuel and the conditioning of the remaining material as waste. In some countries, the process is taken a step further when the uranium and plutonium are integrated into mixed-oxide (MOX) or reprocessed uranium (RepU) fuel.

Reprocessing is currently being pursued in China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the UK. China and India have opened new reprocessing facilities over the last couple of years, while Japan is commissioning its Rokkasho reprocessing plant for start-up by the end of the year.

French firm Areva can reprocess up to 1700 tHM/year of spent fuel in two facilities at its La Hague, France plant. Areva supplies commercial reprocessing services to EDF as well as foreign customers.

Russia has a 400 tHM/year capacity plant in Chelyabinsk, and in the past has also reprocessed foreign fuel (and still has contracts to reprocess fuel from Bulgaria, Iran and Ukraine).

India’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) reprocesses used fuel from pressurized heavy water reactors to extract reactor-grade plutonium for use in fast breeder reactors. Capacity at three sites in Trombay, Tarapur and Kalpakkam was reportedly 330 tHM/year in 2011, following the start-up of a new plant a Tarapur in January of that year, according to the World Nuclear Association.

China’s Gansu province 50tU/year capacity pilot reprocessing plant was commissioned in 2010 and there are plans to build a commercial facility by 2025.

In Japan, nuclear energy policy has been under review since September 2011, six months after the Fukushima accident, and the long-term consequences on back end fuel cycle strategy remain to be seen. Since 1967, the country had envisaged fast breeder reactors for mainstream of nuclear power generation, with the goal of commercial FBRs being in operation around 2050. Now the policy has shifted somewhat towards using MOX fuel in light water reactors.

Japan has been sending its spent fuel (around 7000 tU) abroad for reprocessing since 1969. Its domestic reprocessing plant project (Rokkasho) has experienced multiple delays, and at latest estimate is expected to be complete in October 2012. By March 2011 the plant had reprocessed around 430 tU of spent fuel during pre-service testing. Between 1980 and 2006, Japan also reprocessed around 1100 tU of fuel at its Tokai reprocessing plant.

Historically the UK’s approach has been to reprocess spent fuel, but the facilities for this are ageing or, in some cases, shut down. The current strategy is to reprocess all Magnox fuel; around 90% had been reprocessed between 1964 and 2010. The Magnox reprocessing plant (1500 t/year capacity) is expected to continue operation until 2016 to complete the remainder. Reprocessing of oxide fuel from domestic advanced gas cooled reactors (AGRs) and foreign light water reactors (LWRs) is also carried out at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield.

The present strategy (as of 2011) is to complete the LWR and AGR reprocessing contracts ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ and cease reprocessing at Thorp. In an autumn 2011 ‘credible options’ paper, the NDA reaffirmed this strategy as the ‘most viable and cost-effective option.’ NDA is due to announce its preferred option later in 2012. The plan for the remaining AGR fuel once after the Thorp plant stops operating around 2018 is for interim storage (likely wet), pending conditioning and disposal in a geological disposal facility.

The situation in the United States is worth specific attention. After having developed a closed fuel cycle in the early days of nuclear power, the USA switched to a once-through cycle in 1978 mainly because of proliferation concerns. In 2006, a major political transition occurred with the launch of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which proposed the return of the closed fuel cycle. Then, in 2009, after more than two decades of work, the US government decided to halt the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada and subsequently chartered a ‘Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s nuclear future’ to recommend a new strategy for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. It looked increasing likely that the US might change its policy towards reprocessing. However, in its final report, published in January 2012, the BRC said that: “it would be premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to closing the fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycles and technology options.”

Historically, reprocessing policy has been volatile, and countries have changed track a number of times over the years. In the past, Belgian, German, Swedish and Swiss spent fuel has been sent for reprocessing, but this is now prohibited and the current policy is for direct disposal.

Until the mid-1990s, the Belgian back-end fuel cycle strategy was to reprocess spent fuel from all commercial nuclear power reactors. This resulted in 672 tHM of spent fuel being sent for reprocessing in France and Belgium.

Sweden originally pursued reprocessing, sending 140t of spent fuel to Sellafield between 1972 and 1982, and 55t to La Hague between 1978 and 1982, before reprocessing contracts were cancelled. OKG plans to fabricate the material from Sellafield into approximately 80 MOX fuel assemblies. The fuel from the French reprocessing was exchanged for 24 tons of used MOX fuel from Germany, which is now in storage at Clab. The exchange meant that Sweden did not have to build a disposal facility for vitrified waste and Germany did not need to build a disposal facility for used MOX fuel.

Switzerland has signed reprocessing contracts for around a third (1140 tHM) of the spent fuel that is expected to arise from 50 years’ operation of its five reactors (3575 tHM). However, current policy prohibits reprocessing for ten years from July 2006-2016, and envisages disposal of all radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in geological repositories.

Many countries have adopted a ‘wait and see’ strategy, with interim storage of used fuel envisaged until a decision is made. Argentina is due to make a decision on reprocessing or final disposal by 2030; Brazil is keeping the reprocessing option open until an international consensus is reached, and other countries including the Czech Republic, Hungary and South Korea are tentatively pursuing deep disposal.

South Korea, for example, has expressed its desire to reprocess used nuclear fuel, but it is currently prohibited from doing so domestically or overseas by a 1974 cooperation agreement with the United States. The cooperation deal is due to expire in 2014 and is currently being re-negotiated.

South Africa also expressed its intentions to reprocess in August 2008 when the nuclear safety director of the Minerals and Energy department announced that Eskom would seek commercial arrangements to reprocess its used nuclear fuel overseas.

Author Info:

This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

Related Articles
Disposal plans (part 1: spent fuel)
Disposal plans (part 3: geological disposal)
Disposal plans (part 4: low- and intermediate-level waste)

Amount of spent fuel sent for reprocessing as of 2010

UK: 53,000 tHM

France: 26,550tHM

Japan: 8530 tHM

Germany: 6686 tHM

Russia: 5000 tHM

Switzerland: 1135 tHM
Belgium: 672 tHM

Bulgaria: 315 tHM

Hungary: 273 tHM

Sweden: 195 tHM

More information

This report was compiled from dozens of different sources, including national radioactive waste management organizations, power plant operators and industry reports. For more information see:
Radioactive waste management programmes in OECD/NEA member countries:
Reports from The IAEA Joint Convention Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (2011): 
The IAEA Nuclear Waste Management Database:
Report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials: ‘Managing Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors: Experience and Lessons from Around the World’ (2011)
Other sources include: Blue Ribbon Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USA); the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (UK), Posiva (Finland), Nagra (Switzerland), Andra (France), SKB (Sweden), NWMO and OPG (Canada), Atomic Energy Commission (Taiwan); Enresa (Spain); Nesca (South Africa); Rosatom (Russia); Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (Pakistan); Nuclear Energy & Radioactive Waste Management Agency (Romania), the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Germany); JNFL (Japan); State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate (Ukraine) and the World Nuclear Association.

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