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April 1st, 2009

Can a nuclear fuel “lease” system aid the growth of nuclear power?

Published on April 1st, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

For those who still see a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the world’s energy future, the Russian Federation’s and the United State’s respective national academies of sciences have a proposal that is akin to pruning a bush in order to make it flourish: Provide to those nations that want to use it a stable – but tightly controlled – supply of nuclear fuel from a small number of supply centers. When the fuel is spent, it must be returned or exchanged for a fresh supply.

The problem the academies are trying to solve how to accommodate countries desiring to expand or start  nuclear-derived energy plants while not also facilitating the enrichment of uranium for bombs.

The two academies note that, “Any approach for enhancing the nonproliferation features of international fuel cycles must be staged to respond to the nonproliferation needs of the time period. Today, this suggests a focus on convincing countries that they do not need to establish their own enrichment facilities, which has motivated efforts by several countries and international organizations to address the enrichment issue.”

A book has just been published that contains a joint report from the two nations about how this proposal could work. Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle summarizes key issues and analyses of the topic, offers some criteria for evaluating options, and makes findings and recommendations to help the U.S., the Russian Federation and the international community.

The authors acknowledge that the idea for a stable but controlled source of nuclear fuels has pitfalls. One, for example, is that nations who might consider a use-and-swap “leasing” system would, understandably, be fearful of the risk of having their supply unilaterally cut off during an international incident. On the other hand, the user nations could avoid the security and environmental hazards of storing or processing spent fuel

Supplier nations could also face internal political problems related to the costs and risks associated with handling another country’s nuclear wastes, not to mention costs associated with keeping the lid on the intellectual capital and preventing intelligence leaks.

The authors believe, however, that it may be possible over time to forge a worldwide system of international centers that are responsible for uranium enrichment, spent fuel management and transportation. They also envision a form of collective ownership of these centers that would allow some joint control and profit sharing. The report also suggests that another incentive to encourage other countries not to develop their own enrichment systems is to have the U.S. and Russia provide “the necessary infrastructure for safe and secure use nuclear energy.”

The authors, lastly note, that the sine qua non in all this is an atmosphere of cooperation between the U.S. and the Russian Federation.

“The joint committees recognize 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. It is the joint committees’ hope that current disagreements that have recently emerged will not interfere with the United States and Russia working together toward their common goal of inhibiting nuclear weapons proliferation as nuclear energy use grows across the world.”



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