- Nuclear Energy
- Expert Workshop Series
Although there is widespread recognition of the benefits of nuclear energy throughout the world, there is also near unanimity in the aversion towards spent fuel management. The Republic of Korea represents a perfect example of this phenomenon – while the Korean government is committed to the expansion of domestic nuclear power, the public has rioted over the issue of constructing repositories and storage facilities for nuclear waste.
In the US, the country with by far the largest legacy of spent nuclear fuel in the world, there has been a vacuum on the issue of back-end fuel cycle management following the Obama Administration’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain site. A history of opaque decision making and political missteps has led to a failure to establish a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste, prompting the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC). Drawing on lessons learned from countries like Sweden and the case of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the BRC made a number of recommendations, including the formation of an entity outside of DOE solely dedicated to waste management, assuring access to the Nuclear Waste Fund, creating solutions for the transportation of spent fuel, and implementing a new approach to repository siting that is more transparent, consent-based, and governed by enforceable agreements and arrangements with state and local governments. The DOE has been positive in its reception of the BRC report, and has already begun taking steps towards the implementation of near-term recommendations in the areas of storage, transportation, and disposal. These DOE initiatives in fulfilling BRC proposals will lay the groundwork for whatever organization is ultimately established for the purpose of managing nuclear waste in the US.
With regard to multilateral and regional approaches to spent fuel, history is fraught with proposals to internationalize nuclear waste management, with none having come to fruition. From the Regional Fuel Cycle Center concept espoused by Secretary Kissinger in the 1970s to the more recent proposals made by the IAEA under ElBaradei, no plans have ever gone beyond the conceptual stage. With essentially no precedent of success in this area, the international community increasingly faces the reality that no single mechanism of fuel cycle management is likely to address every country’s legitimate interests and needs. Although some proposed sites have met all the criteria for an adequate international spent fuel storage repository – geological suitability, adequate infrastructure, presence of nuclear specialists and experts, etc. – none of these plans have been realized. For a multilateral approach to become viable, it is likely that a number of guidelines would need to be followed: relaxation of the nonproliferation regime, better consensus building and respect for state sovereignty, and the provision of greater incentives (arrangements for take back, for example).
A number of interesting ideas were raised following the main presentations, including privatization of spent fuel management and not giving responsibility for commercial waste to governments. However, a number of participants noted the challenges of doing so because of the long history of government involvement in the nuclear industry and the necessity of multigenerational commitments in nuclear waste storage. Other participants mentioned that multinational approaches appear to only add additional layers of political opposition, and that additional incentives other than monetary would likely be necessary to overcome such barriers. Despite the importance of the spent fuel storage issue, it is still viewed politically as a problem that can be addressed down the road, delaying the implementation of real solutions.