GNEP: the right way forward?

1 June 2006

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) proposed by US president George Bush in February 2006 has received a great deal of publicity, much of it centred on the apparent change in US strategy towards reprocessing used fuel, rather than continuing on the march towards repositories (see link below to 'Vision products'). There is, however, much more to the initiative than this and it is worthwhile to examine the obvious ways in which it addresses many of the awkward issues currently faced by the nuclear industry. But at the same time, there are undoubtedly some serious difficulties on the road ahead to ensuring the concepts become a serious reality.

There is some debate as to where the real motivation for GNEP lies in the US administration as its announcement seemed somewhat sudden and there are accusations (in common with the new initiative on nuclear trade with India) that not enough consultation, both within and outside the USA, had taken place first. It is possible, however, to see a gradual move in thinking within the country since about 2001 towards the advantages of reprocessing and GNEP merely makes this explicit. For several years, there has been interest in new forms of reprocessing which do not separate plutonium from uranium (in fact recovering both together), and which segregate other actinides from fission products, enabling the actinides to be burned. Indeed, the US budget for 2006 already includes $50 million to develop a plan for "integrated spent fuel recycling facilities." Nevertheless, the GNEP announcement can certainly be depicted as a major shift in official US policy, which has been wedded to the ‘once-through’ fuel cycle since the Carter Administration of the late 1970s.

The two most important areas addressed by GNEP are the concerns about proliferation of nuclear weapons and the difficulties the industry continues to experience in developing coherent policies for used fuel management.

The challenges of new countries using nuclear technology and the variability of political will when confronted with situations such as Iran’s suggest that moving to some kinds of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle is timely. One key principle is that the assurance of non-proliferation must be linked with assurance of supply and services within the nuclear fuel cycle to any country embracing nuclear power. Impetus had already been given to this by Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, who pointed to the need for better control of both uranium enrichment and plutonium separation at the UN General Assembly in October 2005. "We should be clear," he said, "that there is no incompatibility between tightening controls over the nuclear fuel cycle and expanding the use of peaceful nuclear technology. In fact, by reducing the risks of proliferation, we could pave the way for more widespread use of peaceful nuclear applications." This echoes the rationale of the NPT because as well as constraining the 'do-it-yourself' inclinations of individual countries, "multilateral approaches could offer additional advantages in terms of safety, security and economics," he said.

There remains the issue of who runs these multilateral initiatives – certainly Russia or the USA can be the inspiration but it seems preferable for the process to be under IAEA control or co-ordination so that they might guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel and services for bona fide uses, thereby removing the incentive for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. It is clear that GNEP must work within existing international arrangements.

There are already several approaches under discussion by an expert group convened by the IAEA including: developing and implementing international supply guarantees with IAEA participation, for example with the IAEA as administrator of a fuel bank; promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities to multinational control; including the non-NPT signatories (such as India and Pakistan) and creating new multinational, possibly regional, fuel cycle facilities for enrichment, reprocessing and used fuel management, based on joint ownership. A further idea is to reinforce existing commercial market mechanisms of long term fuel supply contracts, possibly involving fuel leasing and the take-back of used fuel, so obviating the need for fuel cycle facilities in most countries.

The other important matter addressed by GNEP is used fuel management. A significant part of the incentive of advanced reprocessing technologies is to reduce volumes of high-level wastes and simplify their disposal. This does not, however, mean that waste repositories such as Yucca Mountain will never be needed – they must still be planned for and developed, but the quantities of material destined for them will be much reduced. The difficulties encountered with establishing Yucca as an operating repository have undoubtedly influenced the move towards GNEP. The likelihood of having to establish several Yuccas in the USA alone, if there is a significant boom in nuclear power in the 21st century, has obviously concentrated a lot of official thinking. Thinking expansively, Yucca may no longer now be seen as a repository for the used fuel currently in storage at reactor sites throughout the USA, but as a facility for the receipt of the final wastes from future reprocessing activities. In other countries too, there also seems to be a shift in attitudes about the value of used fuel that could eventually have repercussions for many national waste management programmes. Some facilities currently envisaged as final disposal repositories may only be used for interim storage of spent fuel that will eventually be reprocessed and recycled, hence the trend to retrievability. But this is running some way ahead – the current plan in the USA remains to get Yucca Mountain licensed as a repository for the used fuel as it currently exists, as without this end solution it will be hard to license new reactors.

In moving towards longer term storage of used fuel with the expectation that it will eventually be reprocessed, it is important to demonstrate that the industry is not just passing the buck to the next generation. Used fuel must begin to be somehow presented as an asset, as a key foundation for fuelling the next generation of reactors, without the need to mine greater quantities of the finite uranium resource than necessary. Over 2 million tonnes of uranium have been mined since 1945, both for military and civil nuclear programmes. It makes sense in the future to use as much as possible of what were formerly regarded as wastes from previous nuclear operations as true fuel assets in new reactor types.

This leads to a further important part of GNEP, which is the link with the Generation IV programme and other advanced reactor initiatives. Reactor systems with full actinide recycling as part of a closed fuel cycle will produce very small volumes of fission product wastes without the long-lived characteristics of today's used fuel, and will have high proliferation resistance. The ‘classic’ closed fuel cycle with aqueous (Purex) reprocessing and recycling of plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel is not intrinsically proliferation resistant. There are, however, already significant quantities of separated civil plutonium, reprocessed uranium and depleted uranium in inventory and these may well be used when the new reactor designs become reality.


If we're going to have an energy world fuelled largely by hydrogen, we need to create a better link between today and the future

Although it is almost certain that fresh uranium will still have to be mined, the quantities will be much lower than required by the current generation of reactors. While the nuclear industry is convinced that there are more than adequate uranium reserves and resources to fuel any conceivable growth path of nuclear energy this century, the higher uranium prices which are likely to be necessary to develop all the new mines will make recycling uranium and plutonium from used fuel relatively more attractive in an economic sense. When uranium prices were depressed by the ready availability of secondary supplies, there was a widespread perception that uranium would be very cheap forever, making recycling hard to justify. There is now recognition that new uranium mines require substantial capital inputs which must be recovered by adequate prices, also giving a fair return to the mining company. So despite the recent trend towards higher uranium prices, it is possible to look forward to an even lower fuel price element in the economics of the next generation of reactors. Low and relatively stable fuel prices are already a significant advantage of the current generation of evolutionary reactors against alternative fossil fuel generating modes, but the future looks even better.

Finally, it can be argued that GNEP makes a contribution to the idea, explicit within the NPT, of the leading nuclear nations spreading the benefits of nuclear technology to other countries. After the provision of many research reactors in the early days, the USA and the other nuclear weapons states have done relatively little in this regard. It may also be argued that the economies of scale in enrichment and reprocessing plants and eventually waste repositories, suggest that there should be only a small number of facilities worldwide. Although developing national facilities may appear to meet some immediate local objectives, in the long run it would be better from the economic standpoint to re-deploy the resources elsewhere and buy, with guarantees, from abroad. The current national repository solutions that are posed certainly make little sense either economically or politically. But moving to an international regime requires substantial changes to the rules of nuclear commerce as they currently stand.

This leads to the first of the difficulties in getting GNEP up and running. Some will argue that it is very ambitious on several counts – the new technology required, the timescales quoted and particularly the wholesale changes to the current international arrangements. Yet these are clearly in need of reform – they have worked rather well in the early days of nuclear power, but if a much more expansive future is foreseen, with thousands of reactors being built to satisfy the world’s need for cheap power, potable water and hydrogen, some fundamental reforms are needed. Tinkering with the existing arrangements will not be enough.

There are also some concerns about the extent to which following GNEP will upset existing nuclear research programmes in particular countries, and also the current plans for the fuel cycle. There are always strong vested interests in continuing along the same path. In Japan, for example, there are fears that having just re-established their nuclear programme on a twin platform of new reactor construction combined with the reprocessing of used fuel at Rokkasho and subsequent recycling of plutonium in light water reactors, GNEP may prove to be a diversion. Having struggled to obtain public acceptance for reprocessing and subsequent recycling, the implication within GNEP that a much superior reprocessing technology is just around the corner may pose local difficulties. That it may eventually bring foreign used fuel to Japan is a very hot political potato.

On the other hand, some have claimed that GNEP really doesn’t go far enough. If we’re going to complete a ‘once per century’ reform in international nuclear arrangements, GNEP may look too closely at present day proliferation and waste concerns, rather than the challenges of reaching a more expansive nuclear future. Its concentration on ‘burner’ rather than ‘breeder’ reactors fits in with the proliferation concerns, but does less to promote the vision of thousands of future reactors. If we’re going to have an energy world fuelled largely by hydrogen, we need to create a better link between today and the future, but GNEP only goes a limited distance in this.

One barrier to the creation of multinational fuel cycle facilities, with attendant guarantees of supply in exchange for strict adherence to safeguards, is the view held by some countries that they ought to develop full fuel cycle facilities because of security of supply or import-saving reasons. Transport of nuclear fuels from continent to continent has also become difficult, to add to concerns about the reliability of various suppliers, so there is some argument for developing facilities ‘at home’. For example, countries possessing significant uranium resources are inclined to develop them and then think about developing other areas of the fuel cycle too. Hence Brazil’s involvement in uranium and enrichment, to fuel its own reactors and, less obviously, the views now regularly expressed in Australia that it should “add value” to its uranium sales by converting and enriching too. Becoming regional fuel cycle centres under full IAEA safeguards may cover these aspirations as the number and location of these is yet to be specified. The economic case with economies of scale suggests, however, that there should be relatively few large facilities worldwide.

An alternative view of GNEP may see it as somewhat discriminatory and potentially anti-competitive. By restricting parts of the fuel cycle to particular countries, albeit with fair rights of access to nuclear materials, there is a risk of maintaining or even reinforcing the existing NPT arrangements that have always upset certain nations, notably India and Pakistan. Similarly, by maintaining a market stranglehold on, for example, enrichment facilities in the existing countries, it can be argued that the market will be uncompetitive and lead to excessive profits being achieved by those who are so favoured. The more expansive nuclear vision surely needs it to become a more ‘normal’ business as far as public acceptance is concerned, with as few special provisions and restrictions as possible. So somehow a reasonable balance has to be established, which hits many possibly competing objectives.

Finally, it is clear that GNEP must overcome a number of difficulties of coordination in both the USA itself and also internationally. Nuclear policy within the USA often gives the impression of ‘too many initiatives and too little action’ and it is not surprising that Congress sees fit to allocate or withdraw funding in seemingly inconsistent ways. The overall nuclear programme needs to be made more coherent, with full integration of the plans for new reactors, used fuel management and the more visionary goals of GNEP. The full funding requested for GNEP has unfortunately already been cut by the House Committee on Appropriations, which doesn’t bode well. Similarly, on the international stage, GNEP must be integrated with what is happening under IAEA auspices and also the plans announced by president Putin for international fuel cycle facilities located in Russia. Although it is good that several parties are thinking along the same lines, it is necessary for the plans in so important an area to be properly coordinated without national interests holding too much sway.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members

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