The World's Growing Inventory Of Civil Spent Fuel

Luther J. Carter and Thomas H. Pigford

The rapid and already large accumulation of spent fuel generated by civil nuclear power reactors around the world represents a significant but neglected problem for the nuclear non-proliferation regime as well as for the nuclear industry and an environmentally concerned public. During the past decade, the non-proliferation regime rightly has focused on urgent problems that could not wait. Admittedly, the same urgency does not hold for the spent fuel problem even though every ton of spent fuel contains enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. No diversion of plutonium from spent fuel for weapons purposes has been reported, and no threat of such a diversion appears imminent. But the non-proliferation regime cannot be complete and truly robust as long as the spent fuel problem remains unresolved.

After nearly 40 years of nuclear energy generation, no permanent geologic repository is available in any country to receive spent fuel or the high-level waste left from the reprocessing of such fuel. This is important from the standpoint of non-proliferation as well as radiological protection. Geologic disposal offers what is almost certainly the most available and practical means of preventing, or at least strongly discouraging, recovery of spent fuel for reprocessing and separation of its plutonium for weapons.

Significant geologic disposal programs are under way in the United States and a few other countries, but the actual opening of a repository for spent fuel and high-level waste is many years away. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, which is expected to open this year, will be the world's first custom-designed deep geologic repository, but no spent fuel or high-level waste will go there. Congress decided in 1979 that WIPP shall receive only transuranic low-to-intermediate-level waste from the nuclear weapons production complex. Meanwhile, surface storage of spent fuel, historically seen as a half measure, continues as the default solution.

For better security, the world's now widely dispersed spent fuel inventories should, apart from freshly discharged fuel that must remain at the reactor sites for initial cooling, be brought together at a modest number of regional and global sites. Ideally, these sites would be chosen to facilitate final disposal to follow interim storage. The specific modalities would differ from site to site, but all sites would be part of an internationally sanctioned regime exercising full control over the fuel and its ultimate fate.

For its part, the United States would be wise to adopt a two-part strategy for storage and disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste on federal land within or adjacent to DOE's Nevada Test Site, some 80 miles from Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain, a site long under investigation for a geologic repository, is here, and just to the east of it is Jackass Flats, a site with excellent potential for interim storage.

The first part of the U.S. strategy would consist of an unqualified commitment to consolidated national interim storage of spent fuel and high-level waste at Jackass Flats, with these materials to be gradually brought there and kept in casks, concrete monoliths or vaults at the surface or near surface.

In the second part of the strategy, spent fuel and high-level waste would eventually be moved from Jackass Flats into the Yucca Mountain repository. This should be done to a stringent standard of protecting future people from radiation doses any greater than those now allowed near licensed nuclear facilities. Equally important, the plan should be one to prevent or discourage recovery of plutonium for nuclear explosives.

The international community may now have a grace period before any diversions of plutonium from spent fuel for weapons purposes occur, but there is no reason for complacency. Many years, if not decades, will be required to establish the facilities and institutional arrangements necessary for a safe, effective international spent fuel storage and disposal regime.

By taking the lead, the United States could establish precedents important to preventing spent fuel from civil power reactors from ever becoming a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The spent fuel problem is truly global. By the end of 1998, there was on the order of 130,000 metric tons of it, almost a third of it American.<1> Most of this fuel (roughly 90,000 tons) remains at the 236 nuclear power stations (which together have 433 reactors), in 36 different countries.<2> Twenty-nine of these countries are non-nuclear-weapon states, five are the declared nuclear-weapon states as defined by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China), and two are de facto nuclear-weapon states, India and Pakistan. Forty of the nuclear stations are shut down but still have spent fuel to be watched over.<3>

Several tens of thousands of spent fuel are stored away from the nuclear power stations, at special "away-from-reactor" sites within a country's nuclear program and at several fuel reprocessing plants, as in the case of those in France, the United Kingdom and Russia. The French and British plants, especially, provide storage for significant amounts of foreign fuel that are under contract awaiting reprocessing.

The total plutonium content of all the spent fuel remaining in surface storage is on the order of 1,100 tons,<4> or about four times the plutonium in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union at the peak of the nuclear arms race. The world's power reactors each year are generating about 10,000 additional tons of spent fuel containing on the order of another 100 tons of plutonium. Plutonium recovered from civil spent fuel, dubbed "reactor grade," is inferior as a nuclear explosive to the plutonium produced to a "weapons-grade" standard. Nonetheless, several kilograms of this material may have a potential explosive yield equivalent to several thousand tons of TNT.

The highly radioactive fission products present in spent fuel are an obstacle to recovering the plutonium for diversion to nuclear weapons. For this reason the United States has made achieving a "spent fuel standard" its immediate goal in the conversion of plutonium from dismantled U.S. and Russian warheads to a more proliferation-resistant form. (In the far term, or within several hundred years, spent fuel loses by radioactive decay much of its inherent resistance to diversion.) Nonetheless, diversion of plutonium from spent fuel is in fact possible for a rogue state of the technical competence of an Iraq, Iran or North Korea, or even for some terrorist groups, particularly if they have state support. There is also the possibility that a major industrial state might feel coerced by new and threatening circumstances to exploit its inventory of spent fuel as a source of weapons-usable fissile material, even if this meant breaking with the non-proliferation regime.

Spent fuel is being treated seriously under the non-proliferation regime. Spent fuel storage in non-nuclear-weapon states is subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and those states report regularly to the agency on the whereabouts of their spent fuel. Also, the IAEA conducts periodic inspections to confirm physical inventories and verify that no fuel is missing or unaccounted for. The United States and the other four declared nuclear-weapon states have safeguards agreements with the IAEA too, but these are crafted by mutual consent to apply narrowly to a very few special facilities, with nuclear power plants typically excluded.

Genesis of the Problem

In the classic concept of the civil nuclear fuel cycle that had emerged by the 1960s, large accumulations of spent fuel would not occur. Rather, all spent fuel was expected to be chemically reprocessed after only several months of cooling for recovery of the unfissioned uranium and plutonium. Plutonium recovered through reprocessing would then, according to the classic concept, be refashioned into new fuel, and the uranium recovered would be re-enriched for recycle. The fission products and such actinides as americium, curium and neptunium would go to geologic disposal as high-level waste.

Every light water reactor (LWR) could have been built with enough storage for all spent fuel generated over the life of the reactor, but no need was seen for this. Typically, a reactor's spent fuel cooling pool was built to hold only about two full core loadings, or about 200 tons of fuel for the large 1,000-megawatt reactors that began coming along in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such a reactor normally would generate some 1,000 tons of spent fuel before the end of its 40-year operating permit, with about 20 to 27 tons being removed from the core each year and placed in the reactor's cooling pool. The pool, it was believed, would never fill up because shipments of spent fuel to reprocessing plants would soon equal newly discharged fuel placed in the pool for cooling.

The reality, however, turned out to be quite different from the classic vision. In the United States, reprocessing of civil spent fuel never really materialized. Commercial reprocessing plants were built at West Valley, New York, Morris, Illinois, and Barnwell, South Carolina, and others were planned. But owing to technical, economic and regulatory difficulties, only the West Valley plant actually operated, and it shut down after six profitless, trouble-plagued years.

Although the French and British would demonstrate that there are circumstances in which commercial reprocessing is possible, the technology is difficult, the regulatory requirements are demanding, and the economics can be prohibitive, especially where cheap uranium fuel makes plutonium fuel unattractive.

Also, proliferation risks can trigger government intervention. In the 1976 presidential campaign, President Ford called for a deferral of reprocessing and for "a new international regime for…storage of civil plutonium and spent reactor fuel" and for "centrally located, multinationally controlled nuclear waste repositories." Jimmy Carter said that if commercial reprocessing were to proceed at all it should be only under international auspices. Later, as newly elected president, Carter called for deferral of both reprocessing and the commercial introduction of breeder reactors. The Carter policy was later rescinded by President Reagan but reprocessing never regained industry favor in the United States.

Reprocessing nonetheless continued in France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, and made a beginning in Japan. When contracts were negotiated a few decades ago, the French and British commercial reprocessors had their foreign customers pay up front for the new plants that would reprocess their fuel. The reprocessors had an advantage over the utilities because in some countries, particularly Germany and Japan, "closing the nuclear fuel cycle" was dictated by national law or policy. But global reprocessing capacity simply never developed on a scale sufficient to stop the continued accumulation of spent fuel. Most spent fuel, in Europe and Japan as well as in the United States, would remain in the reactor cooling pools, and up to now only about a third of all spent fuel generated has been reprocessed. Moreover, the roughly 10,000 tons now being generated annually is roughly three times greater than the world's total maximum rated reprocessing capacity of about 3,200 tons.<5>

The reprocessors are not likely to expand their capacity substantially given the severe competition and cost disadvantages that they face. The cost of fuel reprocessing and MOX manufacture is high, and for utilities in most if not all countries it is cheaper to buy fuel made from newly mined and enriched uranium. New political developments, including the rise of the Green party as an influential force in coalition governments in Germany and even in France, cast still further doubt on the future of reprocessing. Although the goal of closing the nuclear fuel cycle has receded before the reprocessors like a mirage, they have by now separated about 180 tons of plutonium, of which nearly three-fourths has been separated by the French and British.<6> Stocks of separated civil plutonium are now approaching twice the 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium declared "excess" to military needs and now being recovered in the dismantling of U.S. and Russian warheads.

How the Utilities Cope

In the United States, spent fuel, almost without exception, remains at the 73 nuclear power stations, of which there are 66 still operating, some having two or more reactors. When a utility finds the existing space in its reactor cooling pool nearly all taken, its first expedient is "reracking," drawing the storage racks closer together and adding boron as a "neutron poison" as a precaution against accidental criticality. If this has been done and pool space is again running out, another option usually available is to create new storage, typically elsewhere on the reactor site.

This storage may either be "wet" or "dry." That is, the utility may either build a new pool, or place the spent fuel in dry storage using passively cooled monoliths, vaults or casks. Dry storage becomes an option after the spent fuel has been several years out of the reactor. Before that, pump-circulated water cooling is required to remove the fuel's intense heat. In the U.S. experience, utilities that run out of space in their reactor cooling pools usually look to on-site dry storage, which can be added as needed in modular fashion. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has, for its part, said that at-reactor storage, wet or dry, can continue safely for at least 50 years. But safety is not the only issue for the American utilities. Frustrating and almost maddening for many is the fact that the U.S. government is not honoring in a timely way its statutory and contractual obligations to take the spent fuel off their hands.

In principle, the above expedients are open to utilities everywhere. But in practice, whether for regulatory or political reasons, the expanded at-reactor storage option is not always available. In some countries, especially Germany, crises about spent fuel and high-level waste storage appear unavoidable. For German utilities, the problem arises in part from their contractual agreement with the French and British reprocessors of their fuel to take back the resulting high-level waste. The German anti-nuclear movement has shown that it can bring its activists together by the thousands, even tens of thousands, for spectacular and often violent protests. German politics have begun to undergo a sea change which, should it persist, will be the undoing of nuclear power in Germany. The new German coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Greens is calling for early termination of the utilities' reprocessing contracts and looks to eventually phasing nuclear power out entirely.

Even France, pillar of the nuclear enterprise in Europe and the world leader in plutonium recycling, is having to face new questions and problems about spent fuel and its nuclear fuel cycle choices. The French utility Electricité de France (EDF) is understood to be increasingly skeptical about the economics of reprocessing and the conversion of many EDF reactors to MOX fuel. The Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique is now exploring very long-term interim storage as an alternative to reprocessing.<7>

Cogema, the government-owned fuel cycle company, may find itself in a political bind with respect to returning to its foreign customers all radioactive wastes generated from the reprocessing of their fuel. These customers—in particular utilities in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Japan—are bound by contract to take back all reprocessing wastes. Cogema, for its part, is bound by French law to see that they do. However, some of these countries do not yet have licensed facilities for storing or disposing of these wastes. Cogema is now under sharply conflicting pressures. On the one hand, with the future of its business threatened by the unfavorable economics of reprocessing and plutonium recycle, Cogema wants to accommodate its customers and their waste storage and disposal problems. A senior Cogema official has said that "enough room" is available at La Hague to allow foreign waste to be kept there until solutions are found.<8> In Paris, the French Greens are now part of a coalition government with the Socialists. A Green serves as minister of environment. Her party is pressing to have Cogema make its foreign customers take back their nuclear wastes.

In Russia, the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) is eager to provide spent fuel storage and disposal services for the world. MINATOM, a fervent believer in reprocessing and plutonium recycling, sees in the global spent fuel problem a chance to pay for expanding and completing its nuclear fuel cycle program. The minister of atomic energy, Yevgeny Adamov, has been proposing to his counterparts in Switzerland, the United States and other countries that their utilities send their spent fuel to Russia for long-term storage and subsequent reprocessing—possibly without any obligation to take back any radioactive waste. But Russian law, like the French, forbids importation of nuclear waste for storage and disposal.

Pending before the Duma, however, is legislation to eliminate the present prohibition against accepting spent fuel from abroad. The law would be amended to say, "importation, with the aim of reprocessing, storage or disposition, of spent fuel, radioactive waste and materials from other countries can only be realized with the permission of the government of the Russian Federation" in keeping with recommendations of the IAEA, the nation's economic interests and the safety of its environment. In a letter of support for the amendment, Yevgeny Velikhov, the president of the prestigious Kurchatov Institute, has argued that attracting foreign-related investments is the only way to come by the enormous sums needed to clean up Russia's own legacy of nuclear waste and contaminated nuclear sites.

The Problem of Geologic Disposal

Spent fuel storage would be less of an issue around the world if geologic disposal programs had made the progress hoped for. In a few countries there is still the hope that spent fuel will be reprocessed and that only high-level waste and certain other wastes from reprocessing will be permanently disposed of. But convictions on this score continue to erode in the face of the economic, technical and political realities of plutonium recycling. In the United States and increasingly abroad the concept of treating spent fuel as nuclear waste and disposing of it in a "once through cycle" to geologic repositories has taken hold.

Consider for a moment where the U.S. nuclear waste program now stands. The elaborate process mandated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 for screening multiple repository sites proved unrealistic. Political firestorms were being ignited at every turn, sometimes threatening incumbent senators important to the White House. The upshot was that in 1987 the NWPA was amended to narrow the search to Nevada and the site at Yucca Mountain.

If this site were found acceptable, DOE was to have a repository built and licensed there by 1998, when, by law, the department would start accepting spent fuel from the utilities. Using a huge tunnel-boring machine of the kind used to create the tunnel beneath the English Channel, DOE was to succeed in boring a large five-mile-long tunnel loop through Yucca Mountain. But establishing the mountain's suitability for a repository proved elusive.

As time passed, utilities with nuclear plants, seeing no repository being ready by 1998 or indeed by any time certain further down the road, felt increasingly aggrieved. The utilities were collecting from their rate-payers more than a half billion dollars a year for the Nuclear Waste Fund, yet besides the uncertainty hanging over geologic disposal, there was no hope under existing law and policy of federal interim storage for the utilities' spent fuel. The 1987 NWPA amendments prohibit DOE from choosing an interim storage site until DOE recommends to the president a geologic repository site for licensing and development. This tight linkage between the geologic disposal and surface storage options was meant to keep surface storage from becoming, de facto, the permanent solution. The 1987 amendments, in a special concession to Nevada, also specifically excluded interim storage in that state.

In the 1997–98 Congress, the utilities, joined by the state public utility commissions and a number of governors, sought to overcome the barriers to interim storage. The House and Senate passed similar but not identical bills that would have, in effect, designated Jackass Flats adjoining Yucca Mountain as the site for an interim storage facility unless the government moved quickly to build one somewhere else. Under the bills, the Yucca Mountain repository project was to continue but under less stringent radiation protection standards. The Clinton White House threatened a veto and the legislation never became law. The White House objected to the proposed relaxation of the radiation protection standard and also saw the interim storage proposal as untimely.

Its objection on the latter score was two-fold: on the one hand, interim storage in Nevada could be justified only if the permanent repository was to go there; on the other hand, to begin such storage there now anyway could tilt or bias the investigation of Yucca Mountain irrespective of that site's true merits. Also, DOE was worried lest any move now toward interim storage divert budgetary and political support away from the Yucca Mountain project.

Meanwhile, the utilities were bringing law suits to force DOE to begin accepting their spent fuel. But while the courts affirmed that the utilities were due damages, they refused to order DOE to take their spent fuel.

Legislation similar to that which failed in the last Congress is now pending in the new Congress. But its prospects do not appear any brighter this time around. Nevada's governor and two U.S. senators remain adamantly against any spent fuel or high-level waste coming to their state, whether for storage or disposal. They argue that the Yucca Mountain site is technically unsuitable, claiming in particular that containment of radioactivity will be degraded by large influxes of water. Many environmental groups, national as well as local, side with Nevada and support the Nevadans' view that spent fuel can remain safely at the reactor sites for many years, even for decades.

Last fall DOE completed its Yucca Mountain Viability Assessment, concluding that no "disqualifying conditions" had been identified. But research will continue in anticipation of a final recommendation for or against site approval in 2001. In his February 25 testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson said, "the administration continues to oppose interim storage at Yucca Mountain in advance of completion of the scientific and technical work necessary to make a decision on whether it is a suitable site for a repository." Hoping to avoid "an unnecessary legislative showdown" this year on the issue, Richardson said alternatives to centralized interim storage are under consideration, including having DOE take title to the spent fuel while it remains at the reactor sites and assume management responsibility. But Richardson also made clear the administration is not now endorsing any of these proposals.

Integrated Surface/Geologic Storage

Presently, circumstances argue strongly for closely integrated geologic repository and surface storage projects at Yucca Mountain and the adjoining Jackass Flats site. These projects should be pursued together toward common goals of preventing radioactivity at harmful concentrations from reaching the human environment and of isolating plutonium securely from potential proliferators.

We see these as the realities vitally at play:

* The U.S. geologic disposal program is making a last stand at Yucca Mountain. If the Yucca Mountain project fails, Congress will have no stomach for reopening the search for sites.

* Surface storage at Jackass Flats is the default solution if the geologic disposal project fails or is postponed.

*The Yucca Mountain and Jackass Flats sites offer major advantages for geologic disposal and for very long-term surface storage: a desert climate, with only seven inches of rainfall annually; little population in the region; and a closed hydrologic basin that drains to Death Valley.

* For the nuclear non-proliferation regime worldwide, consolidated surface storage of spent fuel at a few internationally sanctioned sites would be far better than the present widely dispersed storage at nuclear stations and fuel cycle facilities. It would be better for transparency, accountability, security and control. But for the very long term, when institutional control may be lost, surface storage cannot offer anything like the security of final disposal in a deep geologic repository. Mining a sealed repository to recover the fuel and its plutonium would be difficult. High temperatures from earlier radioactive decay would impede waste recovery for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A facility for monitored surface storage at Jackass Flats would allow DOE to start moving spent fuel from the 73 nuclear stations to Nevada and meet its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. All U.S. spent fuel—except fuel in reactor pools for initial cooling—would go to Jackass Flats. A complete "greenfield" decommissioning of the 13 reactors already shut down would then be possible. Additional shutdowns are a certainty because present operating permits of all power reactors still on the grid will expire by the early 2030s. How many utilities will seek license extensions is uncertain.

A surface storage facility at Jackass Flats could help bring about a geologic repository design better able to protect the health and safety of future people. It would relieve the pressure to promote the present design on an unrealistic schedule and it would provide time greatly needed to overcome formidable design challenges. The design alternatives now favored by DOE would not give people of distant times the protection afforded today to people living near nuclear power plants. The need for a design that assures greater safety conflicts with the present plan to file a licensing application with the NRC in 2002, only three years away. This deadline could compromise the completeness and integrity of design work and make impossible an iterative approach that emphasizes careful analysis of the most promising alternatives. Having an interim storage facility nearby should ease the pressure for early licensing of a repository.

Some attractive design options are not yet receiving their due. A design still to be seriously considered is to cover waste containers with a coarse inner layer of gravel and a fine outer layer of sand, thus creating a capillary barrier to whisk water away. This would be a unique feature possible only for a repository such as the one at Yucca Mountain that would be built above the water table.

The project is simply not far enough along yet in its examination of design alternatives to allow early commitment to a particular plan. For instance, is the design to be for a "hot" repository with spent fuel emplaced in a dense configuration, or a "cool" repository with the fuel in a less dense configuration? Some 700 acres underground would be needed for a hot repository, whereas the requirement for a cool one might be three times greater. But analysis shows that a cool repository design, by avoiding chemical reactions of rock with hot steam, would yield more reliable predictions of performance and provide better retention of long-lived radionuclides.

Besides the need for time to think through and work out the design options, the project is still waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue the final radiation standards that the NRC must follow in preparing the regulations by which the repository will be licensed. The final EPA standards are not likely for at least another year.

We believe that disposal in a geologic repository does afford the best protection of future people against harmful radiation doses, at least at far distant times when institutional control may be lost. Equally important, it also affords greater protection against recovery of plutonium for weapons. With regard to the latter concern, under U.S. policy related to dismantling nuclear weapons, warhead plutonium would come to Nevada for storage and disposal at Jackass Flats and Yucca Mountain, in irradiated MOX fuel and in "cans" of plutonium placed inside canisters filled with glassified high-level waste.

What if analysis indicates a performance for geologic disposal that is not up to the standard of radiation protection that has been set? The project could still proceed, but only after further trial and development to improve performance. Relaxation of the safety standard itself, as attempted in the House and Senate bills of the last Congress, should be made only after special review by the scientific community and the public and approval by Congress.

Setting New Precedents

In establishing a national center for nuclear waste storage and disposal in Nevada, the United States could set precedents important to the evolution of a global network of centers strengthening the international non-proliferation regime. A precedent of overriding value would lie in the utilities giving up all title to and control over the spent fuel the moment it passes into the government's physical custody. This is already established U.S. national policy, and it sets the right example for the world. Plutonium in spent fuel may, under certain circumstances, have significant economic value. But whether it should be recovered and recycled is not a decision appropriately left to the discretion of electric utilities and nuclear fuel cycle companies. Rather, it is a decision properly belonging to the highest levels of government.

Another important precedent would be to proclaim as equal and inseparable goals protecting future people both from harmful doses of radiation and from diversions of plutonium for use in nuclear explosives. Some specialists around the world live by the argot and values of the non-proliferation community. There are others who live by the values and assumptions of nuclear waste disposal programs, thinking not in terms of rogue states, terrorists and hidden reprocessing labs, but rather of ground water travel times and radionuclide dispersion coefficients. It is now time for these two groups of specialists to cooperate closely in achieving their goals. They should also be reconciling their policies whenever conflicts arise. To keep a repository open to monitor the integrity of spent fuel containers over the very long term is, for instance, not an option to embrace without first weighing it against an early sealing of the repository to better discourage recovery of plutonium for weapons use.

We believe that for the United States to pursue a parallel strategy integrating geologic repository and surface storage projects would, by force of example, help foreign leaders and decision-makers find their way to successful storage and disposal programs. Success for the United States in Nevada would be a much needed demonstration that the job can be done, and in a technically robust manner. It could be directly relevant for countries or regions where adjoining storage and disposal sites comparable to those in Nevada might be found—for instance, in China's Gobi Desert, Saharan Africa or the West Australia outback.

The Nevada storage and disposal center could take on a significant international role and become a model of openness and transparency. A strong presence by the IAEA would be encouraged, but whereas the IAEA's country-specific data are kept in strict confidence, the data in Nevada would, with few exceptions, be available to anyone. Researchers and visitors from every nation would be welcome, and some would no doubt take a direct part in the center's continued monitoring of repository performance. Others might join in developing repository design features helpful in keeping spent fuel plutonium more secure against recovery for weapons.

Storage and disposal of limited amounts of foreign fuel might also be a possibility. Citizens in the San Francisco Bay area, worried in recent years about the return of research reactor fuel of U.S. origin, have by their protests pointed up the political sensitivity of bringing foreign nuclear waste into the United States. Fears raised about "mobile Chernobyls" may take on a particularly sharp edge when the spent fuel or high-level waste in question is from abroad. But once the Nevada center is established, movement of spent fuel and high-level waste to Nevada may increasingly be seen as routine and uneventful.

In such circumstances, Congress could strengthen the U.S. precedent by allowing the center to receive some spent fuel and high-level waste from other countries. The spent fuel being returned from foreign research reactors should ultimately go to Nevada anyway in the interest of the non-proliferation regime. This fuel, along with spent fuel from the Navy's nuclear fleet and from some domestic research and test reactors, is made from highly enriched uranium, which lends itself far more readily to making a bomb than does plutonium.

The Nevada center could easily accommodate the modest tonnages of spent commercial reactor fuel generated in Latin America by Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, thus providing a storage and disposal center for most of the Western Hemisphere (Canada will have its own plans for spent fuel storage and disposal). Limited amounts of other fuel might come from abroad when justified by proliferation concerns—North Korea being a special case in point. While DOE has helped in "canning" the some 8,000 spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the secure storage and disposal of this material will be necessary sooner or later.

A half century ago the United States tried to head off a nuclear arms race by proposing, in the Baruch Plan, that all fissionable materials and production facilities be placed under the exclusive control of an International Atomic Development Authority. This turned out to be politically unrealistic then, as it also would be today. But bringing spent fuel and the plutonium it contains under the control of a global network of internationally sanctioned storage and disposal centers is a far more modest goal. While the politics are daunting, it is not a goal that strikes us as far-fetched. The service proposed is one that many of the world's electric utilities would surely welcome.

Although die-hard advocates of the closed nuclear fuel cycle will oppose this idea, they are becoming increasingly few in the United States and may gradually be losing political clout in all countries. Abroad there would initially be powerful opposition from the French, British, Russian and Japanese enterprises that have invested billions in fuel reprocessing plants and other facilities in a thus far failed effort to make the closed fuel cycle a reality. But history is proving unkind to these enterprises and their influence with their national governments is likely to wane over time.

But success will be hard-won. The status quo, however unsettled and unsatisfactory, represents a massive inertia not easily overcome. Anti-nuclear activists have thus far shown that their price for cooperating with nuclear waste storage and disposal projects is a complete shutting down or phasing out of nuclear power. These activists, by reinforcing state or local opposition and by playing indiscriminately to public fears of things nuclear, can under some circumstances be a paralyzing force. Picking the right place to begin is critical. The circumstances in Nevada today may be as good as any to be found anywhere for creating a spent fuel and high-level waste storage and disposal center in a globally significant manner. The United States should test this proposition now, at Jackass Flats and Yucca Mountain.


1. Martin J. Cruns, IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, personal communication, March 12, 1999.

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2. "World List of Nuclear Power Plants," Nuclear News, The American Nuclear Society, March 1998; Peter H. Dyck and Martin J. Cruns, "Rising Demands: Management of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Plants," (table, "Storage Capacities and Inventories in Some Countries in 1997") IAEA Bulletin, vol. 40 January 1998, p. 26.

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3. "World List of Nuclear Power Plants," Nuclear News, March 1998, p. 53.

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4. David Albright et. al., "Ending the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons: Background Information and Key Questions," Table VI.I, "Estimated Global Fissile Material Inventories, end of 1997 central estimates in tons."

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5. David Albright, Frans Berkhout and William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, 1996, Table 6.2, World Industrial Scale Reprocessing Plants, Oxford University Press.

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6. David Albright, citing the latest numbers from the Institute for Science and International Security's Plutonium Watch survey, interview, March 11, 1999.

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7. Ann MacLachlan, "France's CEA investigating if spent fuel can be stored decades, if not centuries," Nuclear Fuel, August 10, 1998, pp. 12–13.

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8. Ann MacLachlan, "Cogema, Critics Spar over Legality of Storing Foreign Reprocessing Waste," Nuclear Fuel, November 16, 1998, pp. 10–11.

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Luther J. Carter is a writer in Washington, DC and author of Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing with Radioactive Waste. Thomas H. Pigford is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.