Takeaways from Facilitated Discussion of Cooperative Spent Fuel Management Opportunities in the Asia-Pacific Region
Background: The first day of the workshop comprised a facilitated discussion of an imaginary scenario for possible spent fuel management cooperation within the Asia-Pacific region. The basic scenario and the possibility of its discussion had been suggested at an earlier meeting in Singapore (December 2015). The core of this scenario entailed shipments of spent fuel and nuclear waste from countries A, B, and C to a storage site and repository in Country D. The nature of this Country D site was not specified in the scenario, whether a site established by a single country in collaboration with potential customers (referred to below as the regional collaborative site or approach) or some type of multinational site. Possible transfers of MOX fuel from Country A to Country B also were posited in this ABCD scenario.
Given the May 2016 recommendation by the South Australian Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle that South Australia pursue the opportunity to establish used fuel and waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia, considerable discussion of “Country D” in the scenario slipped over to focus on that recommendation. However, particularly in wrapping up the day’s discussion of the ABCD scenario, it was emphasized that the DSFS project was not endorsing the idea generally of a multinational approach to spent fuel and waste management or the proposal specifically of the South Australian Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, rather the discussion was designed to explore the specifics of how such cooperation might be operationalized.
A National Responsibility: Many participants emphasized that storage and disposal of spent fuel and nuclear waste is – and needs to remain – a national responsibility. The IAEA Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management codifies this (and the next topical meeting of the Joint Convention in September 2016 was expected to explore multilateral cooperation from the front end to the back end of the fuel cycle). At the same time, it was stated by several participants that there are different ways to define and meet that national responsibility. Thus, reliance partly on a site made available by a single country in collaboration with others in the Asia-Pacific region or a multinational site need not be inconsistent with or be excluded by the principle of national responsibility. From this latter perspective, it was suggested that the key question is whether a regional or multinational site complements and provides added value to national efforts. Put another way, any such site needs to be viewed through the prism of national programs, particularly how it would help those national efforts. In that regard, it also was emphasized by one participant that experience suggests that putting all of one’s eggs into one spent fuel basket is not necessarily a good idea. Rather, two (or more) parallel programs could provide insurance because national (or international) success is not guaranteed. A further point was that, in order to properly meet its national responsibilities, a country proposing to use a repository project elsewhere needed to have the capability to assess whether that project fully met safety standards.
What is the Model: Several participants noted that the scenario did not define the Country D storage site and repository and that in any case, there were different possible models. For example, a single country could create a site and open it for business; several countries could cooperate together in creating a site; private industry could take the lead; or a single country could take the lead but do so from the start in close collaboration with potential customers in the region and beyond. This latter model, it was noted, is the one currently envisaged for South Australia, should a decision be taken to go ahead. One participant suggested that, as a way to help encourage the siting of a multinational repository, the host country might receive some sort of credit (most obviously in a potential future carbon cap-and-trade system but the credit could be designed in other ways) in return for its contribution to mitigating climate change. Several participants noted that no customer country is likely to want to depend on a single solution and that any such complement to national programs would not expect to monopolize the market. Somewhat differently, the question arose of how to describe the objective of any such regional collaborative or multinational approach: making it part of the solution to the bigger problems of climate change, nuclear security, and non-proliferation was suggested as a more effective model than that of waste disposal per se.
Uneasiness about Implications for National Programs: Closely related, a number of participants were concerned that the availability of a regional or multinational site could undercut national programs. In particular, the possibility or perceived availability of such a site could make it harder to sustain political and public support for the hard decisions still to be made, not least in identifying and moving ahead with national repositories. Partly in response, it was noted that any collaborative site in another country or a multinational site would lack the capacity or the intention to be a complete answer to deal with spent fuel and nuclear waste in the Asia-Pacific region. Even assuming such a site would become available, participants agreed on the importance of preserving national programs.
Challenges v. Caution toward the Royal Commission Recommendation: Across Asia, nuclear power users emphasize the challenges that they already or will soon confront in managing spent fuel and nuclear waste. Challenges also are evident in establishing repositories. At the same time, partly for the reasons above, the participants took a very cautious approach toward the possibility that the Australian Federal and State Government in collaboration with potential customers would move to create a spent fuel and nuclear waste storage site and repository. While noting important differences (particularly from where the proposals emerged), the very public failures of previous multinational efforts, specifically the Pangea Resources proposal in Australia and Mongolia, also engender caution when weighing recent activities in South Australia. One participant also suggested that for a multinational disposal option to be viable, it would need to be cheaper than countries disposing of their spent fuel/HLW domestically.
Governance Issues will Be Critical: With particular reference both to the generic Country D site posited by the scenario and the specific recommendation of the South Australian Royal Commission, a number of participants raised different “governance” issues for such a site. Issues included the role of other countries in facility life-cycle funding (and how to assure funding, particularly given the large up-front costs) and decision-making, particularly design and operation (including any possible expansion of the facility over time); ownership of materials, including at what point the national responsibility would end for materials shipped to the site as well as liability issues (with the possible complicating factor that some countries consider plutonium an asset – note: in the SA Royal Commission concept, Australia would eventually assume full ownership and liability for shipments to the facility); the role of international entities; transparency; technical standards for waste acceptance; advance agreement on waste volumes and types from each customer; assurance to funding entities of eventual operation; and other risks. One participant stressed that from the very start pursuit of any such facility, including that proposed in the Royal Commission report, would need to be a highly collaborative process. Everyone agreed that there would be a lot of details to be worked out.
Asiatom?: Mention was made of the lack of integration on nuclear energy in Asia (compared with Europe and Euratom) and that this made pursuit of multinational storage/disposal pathways more difficult. While the possibility of creating an Asiatom was mooted, several participants noted that significant political and technical challenges would need to be overcome for this to be happen.
IAEA Involvement: The importance of early IAEA involvement was also emphasized by some participants. For the most part, the participants did not see major IAEA safeguards technical challenges but cost was raised as an issue. One option is that the repository operate under the control of IAEA or some other international body although a complicating political issue was the fact that Taiwan is not an IAEA member. The International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk could also serve as a governance model.
The Reprocessing Dimension: The two features of the basic ABCD scenario – a Country D spent fuel storage site-repository and reprocessing-MOX fuel use – need to be kept separate in any future discussions. That said, it was suggested that one of the perceived payoffs of creating a complement to national programs could be to lessen incentives for reprocessing. It was explicitly noted that this potential benefit had been raised by the South Australian Royal Commission. Conversely, were such a site to be seen as extending the life of reprocessing, it would be viewed negatively in some countries. Still another participant proposed that providing a complement to national programs via a collaborative effort among several countries within the Asia-Pacific would make sense regardless of its impact on reprocessing programs.
Comprehensive Fuel Cycle Services: It was noted that offering more comprehensive services (particularly a spent fuel pathway) may be of interest for countries supplying reactor technologies and fuel to newcomers in order to stay competitive. Russia is already providing a fuel leasing/take-back to some customers (albeit for eventual reprocessing) and China may do so in the future.
Timing Considerations: The discussion assumed the possible availability of an interim storage site in South Australia within 15 years from a decision by the Federal and State governments to go ahead. The discussion left open the question of whether, if this timeline were met, it would provide a useful complement to national programs in the region given the lack of spent fuel storage capacity at some plants.
Proliferation Considerations: Over time, it was noted that a multinational repository would become a virtual “plutonium mine.” For that reason, who the host country is, how the governance issues are resolved, and the overall transparency would be essential. In this context, however, it was pointed out that there were significant security and proliferation gains from having a repository in one country rather than several countries. It also was proposed by one participant that the best place for such a “plutonium Fort Knox” would be the United States. An additional benefit could be the concomitant reduction in reprocessing projects around the world.
Transportation Considerations: From one perspective, transportation to any new site outside of today’s nuclear power users was seen as not raising fundamental security and technical issues – given experience as well as the bulk and weight of likely shipping canisters. However, some concerns were expressed about the dangers of piracy in the Asia-Pacific region. It also was noted that shipping routes for nuclear materials through the South Pacific has been a contentious issue at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conferences. The group agreed that transportation would raise real but solvable issues. Of these, the most important would turn out to be finding ports willing to serve as shipping and receiving locations.
U.S. Engagement and Consent Rights: The importance of U.S. engagement from the very start in any process to create a regional or multinational site was stressed. In large part, this importance stems from the existence of U.S. consent rights over the disposition of spent fuel from material originally supplied by the United States or produced in a U.S.-supplied reactor. But there is also a U.S. role as a major nuclear player. There was some discussion of how the United States would provide assurance to other countries concerning the exercise of U.S. consent rights over the decades-long process required – whether via existing mechanisms, new means of advance long-term consent, or even by becoming a party to international treaties/legal agreements relating to the operation of a regional or multilateral site. Different perspectives were expressed as to whether assuring U.S. exercise of American consent rights would prove a difficult issue. One participant thought that the United States should consider shipping some spent fuel to a future site as a gesture of support for both the facility and the concept. There was general agreement that this would be a good idea.
Nuclear Newcomers: A number of participants thought that the availability of a regional or multinational site would be particularly beneficial to countries with new and/or small nuclear power programs. Such countries, it was noted, need not be only in the Asia-Pacific region. However, it also was acknowledged that spent fuel and nuclear waste from these nuclear newcomers would not be sufficient to justify such a site – given both the small quantities involved and the fact that for such newcomers, on-site storage would be necessary for an extended period of time before the spent fuel could be sent to a repository.
Opportunities for More Limited Cooperation within the Asia-Pacific Region: Closing out the discussion of the scenario, more limited opportunities for cooperation were considered. Here, it was stressed that prior meetings of the NTI Spent Fuel project had identified a number of promising opportunities. At this session, several participants highlighted cooperation related to aircraft collisions with nuclear power plants as well as the importance of Underground Research Laboratories.
Common Issues and Collaboration: It was noted by several participants that there are common issues that need to be confronted in both ongoing national programs and in any future regional or multinational facility. Collaboration should focus partly on clarifying such issues, thereby reinforcing both national programs and a complementary regional or multinational approach.
South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission: Current Status
Presentation by John Carlson
The Royal Commission’s report was released to the public on 9 May 2016, and is available at: http://nuclear.sa.gov.au/the-report
Inter alia, the Commission recommended that the South Australian Government pursue the opportunity to establish used nuclear fuel and intermediate level waste storage and disposal facilities in South Australia consistent with the process and principles outlined in the report (Chapter 10). Immediate steps recommended were for the government to:
a. make public the Commission’s report in full;
b. define a concept, in broad terms, for the storage and disposal of international used fuel and intermediate level waste in South Australia, on which the views of the South Australian community be sought;
c. establish a dedicated agency to undertake community engagement to assess whether there is social consent to proceed;
d. in addition, task that agency to:
i. prepare a draft framework for the further development of the concept, including initial siting criteria;
ii. seek the support and cooperation of the Australian (i.e. national) Government;
iii. determine whether and on what basis potential client nations would be willing to commit to participate.
The SA Government has established the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency. This Agency has initiated a comprehensive state wide consultation program, involving the following key stages:
- Citizens’ Jury One — 50 randomly selected South Australians are to answer the question: “What are the parts of the Royal Commission’s Report that everyone needs to discuss?” They have met over two weekends – 25-26 June and 9-10 July 2016.
- State-wide Consultation — commencing in mid-July, over 100 sites across the state will be visited. All South Australians will be encouraged to get involved in the conversation.
- Citizens’ Jury Two — in October, a second Citizens’ Jury of 350 (300 plus the first group of 50 from Citizens’ Jury One) will be convened to evaluate the feedback from the state-wide consultation and consider the options on the important issues raised by the Royal Commission. The Citizens’ Jury is due to report to the SA Government in November.
- Government Response — the SA Government will consider the Royal Commission’s recommendations and the community’s views in deciding the next steps. The Government’s response is scheduled for November, though this will depend on when the Jury’s report is presented.
This process is being documented in detail at www.yoursay.sa.gov.au/nuclear. Progress reports can be subscribed to via this website.
If the repository proposal proceeds, a range of approvals and also diplomatic and other support will be required from the Australian Government. The Australian Government is establishing an officials’ level taskforce to review relevant policy, legislative and regulatory issues. This is expected to report by the end of the year.
This proposal is complex technically, financially and politically. Whether the proposal proceeds is very much dependent on social consent and bipartisan political support.
The notional time frame discussed in the Commission’s report is for development of legislative and regulatory frameworks, conceptualization and planning, regional area surveys, detailed site investigations, site confirmation, facility design and construction for a geological disposal facility to take between 20 and 30 years. The conceptual timeline for the operation of those facilities involved would be:
- for establishing an interim storage facility and associated transport infrastructure, including harbour, port and rail — 11 years after project commencement;
- for transferring spent fuel and intermediate level waste from the interim storage facility to the geological disposal facility and intermediate depth facility — 28 years after project commencement;
- ending the import of spent fuel and intermediate level waste to port and interim storage facility — 83 years after project commencement;
- decommissioning and backfilling of geological disposal facility, triggering the commencement of the post-closure monitoring phase — 120 years after project commencement.
On this basis, if a commitment to commencement of the project was taken in say 2019, the first transfers of spent fuel to the interim storage facility could be made in 2030, and the first transfers to the repository could be made in 2047.