As a result of research and experience conducted worldwide for decades, there is a vast amount of technical information on nuclear fuel cycle options, covering various combinations of nuclear fuel types, reactor types, used or spent nuclear fuel treatments and disposal schemes. However, the myriad of options may make it difficult to understand the nature and magnitude of the differences between the various fuel cycle options.
In this context, the NEA Expert Group on Back-end Strategies (BEST) was established in 2017 to explore various technical and socio-political aspects that should be considered by policymakers when making a decision to pursue or deploy a particular nuclear fuel cycle option. The group has authored the newly released report Strategies and Considerations for the Back End of the Fuel Cycle, which examines nuclear fuel cycle technologies and their differentiating characteristics.
A webinar was organised jointly by the NEA and the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) on 24 February 2021 to discuss the key findings of this report. During his opening remarks, NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV underlined the strong scientific consensus regarding the ability of deep geological repositories to support the safe disposal of high-level radioactive waste. “We know what to do with nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is not a challenge we cannot overcome,” he said. “Not only do we know what to do with the nuclear waste today, but we also have great hope for having new options for managing nuclear waste in the longer term future, using technology to denature nuclear waste, to reduce toxicity, to reduce heat load, and perhaps also to recover some energy value that is left in the nuclear waste.”
The new NEA report illustrates an understandable picture of the various nuclear fuel cycle options that are being considered by different countries, the reasons why each could be attractive in particular contexts, and the aspects that are being or should be considered when making a decision to pursue or deploy a nuclear fuel cycle. Based on physics and the processing of material through the fuel cycle, the report finds that nuclear fuel cycle options can be reduced to three: open-cycle, mono-recycle and multi-recycle. There are challenges, opportunities and risks shared by all nuclear fuel cycle options to a similar degree. For example, all fuel cycle options require deep geological disposal.
One of the key findings of the new NEA report is that accelerating technology development through international collaboration in multi-recycle and enhanced recycle efforts can lead to great improvements in many aspects of the back end of the fuel cycle. William McCaughey, BEST Chair and Director of Advanced Fuels Technologies at the United States Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, noted that international collaboration should also be accelerated in facilitating shared infrastructure in used or spent fuel management to reduce costs and to enhance safety and effectiveness. “This will benefit most countries out there who either have small or medium-sized nuclear power programmes or have limitations in their natural and financial resources to do it alone,” he said.
This is a narrative that the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) has been engaged in since its inception. IFNEC is an NEA Secretariat-serviced body that develops best practices for nuclear development among its participating countries. The IFNEC Reliable Nuclear Fuel Services Working Group (RNFSWG) considers the dual-track approach a management solution for spent fuel and high-level waste. Under this approach, the national back-end program includes the pursuit of two parallel and consistent paths – (i) a national program directed at the development of an in-country repository — the national track; and (ii) participate in activities that support the development of shared solutions — the multinational repository track.
“Public concern for the transportation, storage and disposal [of nuclear waste] remains a source of concern around the world. And we are all aware of how public perception impacts the political decisions related to storage and disposal,” said Aleshia Duncan, Chair of IFNEC’s Steering Group, during her remarks. “Discussions like the ones we have today are important because they help to provide an education and normalise the back-end as part of the cycle necessary to provide electricity generation, medical agricultural and industrial applications needed to sustain us.”