What does this mean for Australia, the United States, and other developing and developed ‘partners’? That’s a tough question to address in one post – but I’m getting a bit busy and new posts may be scarce for a while. So I’ll do my best.
During the recent 48th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management conference in Tucson Arizona, there was considerable attention given to the GNEP. Both the first speaker in the opening plenary [Dr. Paul Lisowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fuel Cycle Management, Office of Nuclear Energy, US Dept. of Energy [DoE]] as well as the last speaker of the final plenary [Adam Scheinman, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Non-proliferation and International Security, US DoE, National Nuclear Security Administration] emphasised the role of GNEP including progress with countries including Russia, China, Japan, France, etc. Additionally, three technical sessions were devoted to GNEP. These included 6 panels and about 20 individual presentations from both government and industry.
As one looks beyond the marketing of GNEP it becomes obvious that the programme faces some significant challenges [beyond the funding problems being imposed by the US congress]. Few people have much to say about the strategic goals of the programme: to promote global energy security and reduce dependence on climate killing fossil fuels through the dramatic expansion of no/low emission nuclear technology. Furthermore that nuclear technology will be expanded in a way that minimises proliferation risk and drastically reduces the long-term repository burden from high level waste.
However, with respect to tactical implementation, the waters begin to muddy. My understanding is:
1. Non-proliferation goals of the US [as well as just about any other country in charge of its mental faculties] would be achieved through the voluntary agreement of ‘recipient’ or ‘partner’ countries to forego nuclear fuel enrichment based on long-term fuel supply assurances from a collective group of fuel supplier [aka fuel cycle] states [mostly those who already have nuclear weapon capabilities, with possibly a few others].
2. Fuel supplier states would become involved in fuel reprocessing to generate fuel for fast burner reactors. These reactors would digest the minor actinides and transuranics. The remaining residual waste will decay to the level of naturally background uranium in about 300 years [as opposed to about 350,000 years for high level wast coming out of today’s nuclear reactors]. Since humans have demonstrated our ability to design and build civil structures capable of lasting well beyond 300 years for several millennia now; confidence is very high in our ability to keep this waste ‘tight’ for 3 centuries.
Also during the conference, there were several scientific presentations explaining the PUREX flow-sheets – plutonium is never separated.
3. Partnering nations, those who are not enriching but receiving fuel from supplier states would benefit through security of fuel supply and an agreement that the supplier states would take back the fuel for reprocessing.
A point made by many is that the real challenge rests at the back end of the fuel cycle [waste]. If GNEP can’t offer anything new there, then it really isn’t offering much at all. For example, provided a country remains within the good graces of the UN Security Council, they currently have no problem getting a reactor and fuel through the industrial partners in existence today [Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, etc.]. GNEP doesn’t offer much new in this regard. However, through GNEP as it is defined today, some of the old significant challenges still remain. Unless something novel is proposed for the back end, states will still have to develop a long-term, high-level waste solution for the residual waste post-reprocessing. [The US has no policy to keep all this waste.] Individual, high level nuclear waste repositories are simply not an option for small, developing states.
Some opportunities for Australia.
Get back into enrichment
Presentations involving enrichment at this conference show expected demand increasing dramatically over the coming years together with some older enrichment capacity that must be upgraded or replaced in the near future. Several companies are already expanding their enrichment services to meet projected demand. Presentations included the status of the new National Enrichment Facility in New Mexico being constructed by Louisiana Enrichment Services. But there appears to be scope for more.
However, while Australia has proven our scientific ability relating to enrichment, we lack any demonstrated industrial capacity in this regard. Is it reasonable to think we can fast-track our related scientific achievements to an industrial capacity in time to meet the demand [and with competing countries and companies already moving in this area]? Partnering with existing companies to host facilities of their design and technology may be more reasonable.
There may also be advantages to becoming an enrichment state, eventually supplying our own fuel for example.
Reprocess & Burn
With enrichment, Australia may also then get into reprocessing and fast burner industries. Again, to me this seems a HUGE industrial leap, especially when the high level schedule/implementation ambitions of the GNEP programme are considered. Australia has no technology base with respect to the design of nuclear reactor facilities [ even OPAL was Argentinean design]. I doubt countries/companies in possession of such technology would be eager to export it. This is probably the least likely activity to be seen domestically in Australia.
Long Term Waste Management
Here, Australia could take advantage of the starkest features of our country – vast emptiness, extreme isolation and geologic stability. If there was ever an opportunity to see emptiness and isolation as a resource, the nuclear fuel cycle is it.
Compact to begin with, spent nuclear fuel is rarely seen as waste any longer. Trends are definitely moving toward reprocessing, with new reactor designs aiming to burn recycled fuel – supported by research in Japan for example as well as ongoing recycling/reprocessing activities in many countries around the world [several of these countries are in the midst of expanding their capabilities in this regard]. But the final waste from reprocessing activities still needs a home. As I mentioned above, this final waste will be of significantly lower volume, lower activity and generate less heat. In a few hundred years it will achieve the same activity as the uranium under our feet at this very moment.
Should Australia consider and eventually agree to host such a site for, as an example, participating GNEP countries [a ‘supranational repository’]; the boost to that endeavour would be considerable. The international demand for such services could result in tremendous benefits for Australia. This is worthy of serious consideration – particularly when you consider that we will need a waste storage facility [or certainly access to such services] to handle the output from our use of lifesaving radio-pharmaceuticals as well as other non-power nuclear industrial products.
This is not a new topic to Australia, as discussed in this radio interview from 1999. But with reprocessing, we are speaking of a different breed of horse altogether.
So in conclusion, GNEP is not a ‘gate’ between countries and nuclear power, but rather one of several paths to obtain it. As it is being promoted at the moment, choosing this path will be 100% voluntary. Therefore, if it is to achieve the ambitious strategic goals mentioned above [as well as at the conference], GNEP MUST become the path of least resistance as perceived by non-nuclear states with nuclear power ambitions. This certainly seems improbable without a long term solution to the final waste streams, and in particular, highly active waste.
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