Analysis: Storage needs for nuclear growth

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

HANOVER, Germany, May 6 (UPI) -- Expanding nuclear power to meet growing energy demand worldwide may be hindered by the lack of repositories for spent nuclear fuel, but planned national underground repositories in some countries and interim storage options could sustain nuclear energy's rapid growth in the short term.

Proposed international storage sites for spent nuclear fuel in Russia and other countries may eventually serve to store some nuclear waste but are domestically unpopular, and Russia, in particular, doesn't have as much economic interest in hosting a site, experts say.

Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Managing the Atom Project confirmed this assessment in a phone interview with United Press International:

"Russia is rolling in oil money today and has a huge surplus. It's planning to build two 1-Gigawatt nuclear reactors per year up to 2015. By then, it hopes to have enough revenue to fund its nuclear industry commercially and not from the federal budget."

He said Russia is building nuclear reactors in several countries and marketing reactors elsewhere. After proposals to import radioactive waste for storage faced domestic opposition of 80-90 percent, Minatom, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, superseded by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy state corporation, focused on fuel lease agreements, he said.

Besides its traditional customers -- countries of the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe with whom Russia supplies and takes back fuel after it has been irradiated -- Russia recently established a contract with Iran, Bunn said.

The fuel-leasing program desired by Russia would involve sending reactor fuel to customers and offering two different services -- temporary storage with later return of the spent fuel or reprocessing without return of plutonium and wastes, according to a 2001 report on interim storage of SNF from Harvard's Managing the Atom Project and the University of Tokyo's Project on Sociotechnics of Nuclear Energy, co-authored by Bunn.

Russia believes there would be a large market for a service that doesn't require customers to take back the waste. But it would mean disposing of wastes in Russia, as if spent fuel were imported directly, the Harvard-Tokyo report said.

In 2001 the Russian Duma eased environmental laws that restrict import of SNF for storage or reprocessing and amended the atomic energy law to establish procedures for fuel leasing opportunities.

Proposals for international cooperation on nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing have identified several countries with appropriate geological conditions for deep underground repositories, including Russia. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it supports multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste -- including the international repository idea -- as offering cost, safety and security advantages.

A Russian international storage site would likely require access to U.S.-origin spent fuel because that is a large part of the market. That would require amending the Russian-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement (a Section 123 agreement under the Atomic Energy Act), however, which is unlikely until there is resolution of the dispute over Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, according to the Harvard-Tokyo report.

The IAEA believes allowing Russia to take U.S.-origin spent fuel for disposition offers safety advantages by concentrating storage of SNF at a few facilities in Russia, where it will be stored and eventually reprocessed in accordance with international safety standards, said Elizabeth Dobie-Sarsam, a spokeswoman for the IAEA.

But, Bunn said: "At the moment Russia professes not to be interested in non-Russian-origin SNF."

One storage plan for Russia came from the Non-Proliferation Trust Inc. in the late 1990s to import spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing and storage with a large portion of the revenues slated for nuclear warhead and environmental cleanup. The plan lacked sufficient support, however, and it could not go forward without a U.S.-Russian cooperation agreement, said Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was a backer of the plan.

"It needs an advocate in the U.S. government or a private company who would push it through the government," Cochran told UPI in a phone interview.

Cochran told UPI that he is wary of international storage schemes because they might lack adequate safeguards for the environment and the host countries.

He also opposes long-term schemes to reprocess SNF, which closes the fuel cycle and leads to a large accumulation of plutonium, which is consequently less safe and more costly.

Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group, has been a vocal critic of the Russian SNF site proposal, citing, among other fears, proliferation risks and that money would probably not go toward environmental cleanup.

Meanwhile several countries are considering underground storage shafts for nuclear waste.

"The IAEA encourages countries to proceed with the development of underground repositories for high level waste or spent nuclear fuel, such as the plans in Canada, Finland and France," said Dobie-Sarsam.

She added that, in the short term, such storage facilities may provide an option for countries with less advanced plans for storage facilities -- or without the appropriate geological conditions, but these countries need to have a program to ultimately take care of SNF or waste and each country has to manage these in a safe way -- as is stated in the Joint Convention on Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste.

She also noted that spent fuel and high-level waste can be stored safely for many decades -- based on 50 years of good storage experience.

There are about 200 existing nuclear power plants worldwide -- many slated for replacement or expansion -- and 30 reactors currently being built and at least another 35 planned for the next 10 years, according to the World Nuclear Association, an independent pro-nuclear non-profit based in Britain.

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