Below are key takeaways from a workshop in Paris on NTI's Developing Spent Fuel Strategies Project:
For a waste management program to have best chance of success, it is extremely important to recognize that a national problem exists and for that recognition to translate into a national commitment to provide a solution in a reasonable amount of time. The problem cannot just be put off for future generations to deal with when the current generation is continuing to create the waste as it benefits from nuclear power. Several countries have had a national debate that led to a decision in principal which provided the foundation for, and clear national incentive to, address the problem. The BRC also provided such a justification in its recommendations.
A staged, adaptive approach has allowed successful national programs to move forward toward a consistent set of goals (i.e. safe storage and timely disposal of HLW/SNF) while preserving the flexibility necessary to adjust to both changing conditions and opportunities to improve through the lengthy program period. This has been recommended also by the BRC for the future US program.
The first operating national repository for HLW/SNF, which can be expected within a decade, may provide a game changer for timely waste management solutions in other parts of the world. However, the 15 year operation of WIPP (the first custom-built deep repository, albeit for what would be considered intermediate level waste rather than HLW) did not have this effect
Spent nuclear fuel storage will be need for extended periods of time everywhere until the fuel has cooled sufficiently (40 years or more) and repositories are open and able to accept waste in sufficient quantities to begin to significantly drawing down the inventory. Therefore high priority should be given to spent fuel storage options in program planning.
Both storage and disposal programs for HLW/SNF are needed. Spent fuel storage provides the interim solution until the repository is operating and the repository program provides the necessary public and political assurance that the storage site will not become a de facto repository.
Spent fuel disposal appears to be quite expensive, but is a small fraction (roughly 5% of the total cost to the consumer) of the overall cost of electricity generated by nuclear power. Therefore, even significant rises in the cost of waste management, while they should be avoided to the extent possible, do not present a substantial penalty to overall delivered costs – particularly when compared to the potential costs of failure to provide a workable disposal solution.
Geological disposal can, in principle, be both a business venture and a public service. As yet no viable business ventures have been initiated.
The lack of a repository program strains the credibility of the nuclear community and undercuts public and political acceptance for all nuclear activities.
In countries with successful programs (e.g. Sweden, Finland and Canada), in a variety of ways, the waste producers (utilities) play a meaningful role in making sure the program is moving forward. This push appears seriously lacking in the U.S. Industry should be incentivized to recognize the need for their support and leadership, not just their funds.
It is important, particularly in the U.S., that a clear analysis demonstrate, as quantitatively as is feasible, the differences between once-through fuel cycle programs and reprocessing/recycling programs with regard to national security and non-proliferation, as well as their impact on waste management in terms of costs, volumes and toxicity of wastes, long term containment, etc.
The longer spent fuel is stored, the less self-protecting it becomes as the strongly radiating shorter lived isotopes that provide the protection continue to decay, and thus the greater proliferation risk it presents.
While a number of future scenarios should be considered, one potential game changer would be if China or perhaps Russia becomes the eventual market leader in supplying nuclear reactors and the accompanying fuel cycle. Impacts of such developments on safety, security, non-proliferation and waste management are among the factors to be evaluated.
Another potential game changer is increased public and political awareness of the overall system effects on the nuclear enterprise if climate change is acted upon in a comprehensive and serious manner.
With regard to potential multinational initiatives, such as regional/international storage and/or disposal of spent fuel, large challenges remain, but the alternative – requiring each nuclear power nation to be self-sufficient at the back-end – is equally challenging. While this may best be addressed in a staged adaptive approach, serious consideration of security, non-proliferation, cost, etc. require the attention of all nuclear nations, particularly countries with small nuclear programs and limited resources and countries with large nuclear programs.
Sensitivity to the mutual impacts of national and multinational initiatives is also vital. The possibility of multinational options arising should not be used as an excuse for countries to neglect assessment of national options; national programs should not oppose multinational approaches. The international organisations such as the IAEA and the NEA should develop and promote consistent and even-handed views on both approaches.
For regional approaches, it is not necessary to jump straight into repository discussion; types of cooperation short of disposal (such as joint canister construction, for example) can be helpful starting points.
While the principal objective for the U.S. at present must be to get the its waste management program in order and moving forward, a better understanding of the relationship and potential links between a successful domestic waste management program and our international objectives and priorities is also critical. U.S. influence over international nuclear developments, and the back end of the fuel cycle in particular, is substantially affected by the status of our domestic programs and policies.
Addressing non-technical issues when dealing with the public and their elected representatives at all levels of government has been shown to provide substantial benefits and has helped to make the siting of waste management facilities successful in many countries. Examples of ‘added value’/‘lateral projects,’ generating feelings of pride in the disposal mission (and spreading that message through site tours and speaking engagements), and providing a public service were discussed.