ACA’s journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent.

– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Risks and Realities: The “New Nuclear Energy Revival”
Share this

Sharon Squassoni

The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sits in the suburbs of Vienna, in the northeast corner of a country that has outlawed nuclear power plants since 1978. The irony of this situation masks deeper divisions in the nuclear energy debate, which recent assertions of a nuclear renaissance have papered over.

Concern about greenhouse gas emissions and energy security combined with forecasts of strong growth in electricity demand has awakened dormant interest in nuclear energy. Yet, the industry has not yet fully addressed the issues that have kept global nuclear energy capacity roughly the same for the last two decades. Although nuclear safety has improved significantly, nuclear energy’s inherent vulnerabilities regarding waste disposal, economic competitiveness, and proliferation remain. Moreover, nuclear security concerns have increased since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Nuclear energy’s revival depends strongly on public sector support and financial backing. Even if it were true that nuclear energy emits no carbon dioxide, that it is renewable, and that it will provide energy independence—all selling points made by President George W. Bush—the fact would remain that nuclear energy is more expensive than alternative sources of electricity.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has repeatedly cautioned that “nuclear energy alone is not a panacea, but it is likely in the near future to have an increasing role as part of the global energy mix.”[1] Such reticence from the agency tasked with promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy contrasts with the strong enthusiasm of business and media.[2] Yet here too, divisions are evident. Op-eds have swung between cautious optimism about nuclear expansion and growing pessimism about the proliferation-sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technologies: uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing that could provide the essential fissile material for nuclear weapons. Such concern increased after the 2004 revelations of a black market network for uranium-enrichment technology led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and the continuing refusal of Iran to halt enrichment-related activities.

The IAEA is at the forefront of efforts to manage future development of states’ fuel cycles so that access to weapons-usable fissile material—highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium—is limited, if not eliminated. As in the past, proposals likely to succeed are those that provide incentives to forgo sensitive fuel-cycle technologies rather than those that impose restrictions.[3] Even with such fuel supply assurances, however, any significant expansion of nuclear power is likely to prompt additional states to join the nuclear fuel haves. Already, Argentina, Australia, Canada, and South Africa have expressed interest in developing commercial uranium-enrichment capabilities. Ukraine is seeking cooperation with foreign partners “to obtain the full cycle of enrichment and production of nuclear fuel” to counter uncertain gas supplies from Russia.[4] Additional capacity in these states may not cause alarm, but it will make it increasingly difficult to justify why other states should not develop such capabilities.

Nuclear Power Today

Global nuclear energy capacity is currently about 368 gigawatts, with approximately 435 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 states. Three countries account for one-half of all nuclear power reactors: the United States (103), France (59), and Japan (55).[5] Most of the growth in nuclear energy occurred following the oil shocks of the 1970s. The low cost of uranium also helped make nuclear energy attractive. New nuclear energy development, however, started to slow after the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl accidents (1986) and after a drop in natural gas prices in the 1990s made gas-powered turbines more attractive than nuclear alternatives in Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, nuclear energy has been able to increase its share of electricity generation largely through better efficiency.

Coal and hydroelectric power still dominate the electricity market, with 39 percent and 19 percent shares, respectively, of world electricity generation. Nuclear energy accounts for about 16 percent of that supply, and gas and oil produce 25 percent. Renewable energy accounts for 1-2 percent. States that use nuclear energy to provide a significant portion of their electricity include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Some 20 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by nuclear energy.

Front and Back Ends of the Fuel Cycle

Nuclear reactors are supported by uranium mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication. Almost 90 percent of the world’s reactors are light-water reactors (LWRs), requiring low-enriched uranium for fuel. Uranium resources are available across the globe, although Australia and Canada account for more than one-half of current production and more than 90 percent of reserves. Other key producers include Kazakhstan, Namibia, Niger, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Uzbekistan. Although many countries may have uranium on their territory, the costs of extracting it could exceed the benefits for quite some time, particularly if it is of lower quality or quantity.

To be fabricated into fuel, the uranium must be converted into uranium hexafluoride. Four companies currently account for 88 percent of the conversion market: Rosatom (Russia), COMURHEX (France), ConverDyn (United States) and Cameco (Canada). Additionally, Brazil, China, Iran, and the United Kingdom operate uranium-conversion plants. Uranium enrichment, the next step in fuel fabrication, is conducted by four major enrichment suppliers, accounting for 95 percent of the market: Tenex (Russia); Eurodif (France); Urenco (France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom); and the U.S. Enrichment Corp., or USEC (United States). Other countries also have enrichment capability, although not all are commercial: Brazil (in commissioning stage), China and India (military), Iran (under construction), and Japan and Pakistan (military). Commercial capacity has exceeded demand for many years. Demand for enrichment was 38 million separative work units in 2004 while production totaled 50 million separative work units.[6] Although the IAEA estimates that enrichment capacity is sufficient for projected nuclear energy growth until 2030, other estimates suggest that substantial reactor orders would require “heroic efforts” to expand uranium mining and enrichment.[7] In addition, 16 countries have fuel fabrication plants, which take enriched uranium and process it into a form (fuel rods) that can be inserted into reactors. Four companies account for 84 percent of the market: AREVA (France), Westinghouse (United States), Global Nuclear Fuel (Japan and the United States), and TVEL (Russia).[8]

Spent fuel is either stored or reprocessed. Reprocessing uses mechanical and chemical processes to extract plutonium, uranium, and waste products from spent nuclear fuel. Currently, the plutonium is combined with uranium to form a mixed-oxide fuel, which can also be used in LWRs. About one-third of the existing stored spent fuel has been reprocessed. Worldwide, four primary commercial facilities reprocess plutonium from spent fuel for further power production: La Hague and Marcoule in France, Sellafield in the United Kingdom, and Chelyabinsk-65/Ozersk in Russia.[9] These four plants reprocess about 95 percent of all commercial spent fuel that undergoes the process. Belgium, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland have been the main customers of the British and French plants. Russia has reprocessed spent fuel from Finland, Hungary, and Ukraine. The Sellafield thermal oxide reprocessing plant closed in April 2005 after a leakage occurred and may reopen in mid-2007.[10] Japan has been reprocessing at the small-scale Tokai pilot plant since the 1970s, but the large-scale (800-ton capacity per year) Rokkasho-mura plant has been delayed for decades; it may begin operations this year. India, which is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has three small reprocessing plants. Only one of these, PREFRE, is partially safeguarded. Other states have current or past reprocessing capabilities, including the United States, which reprocessed fuel for weapons purposes and, for a short time, commercial purposes. The current reprocessing capacity worldwide is about 5,000 tons of heavy metal per year.

In the 1970s, the United Kingdom and France anticipated scaling up reprocessing capacity to move to a plutonium-based fuel cycle, including the use of plutonium fuel in fast reactors. This has not yet materialized. Fast reactors, unlike the prevalent thermal reactors that use a moderator to slow down neutrons, are capable of fissioning a wider range of isotopes and thus can be used to “burn up” more isotopes in fuel. No state has been able yet to commercialize such reactors.[11] Given their reported expense and the relative inexpensive cost of uranium, there have been few economic incentives to move forward. Belgium and Germany, for instance, have stopped sending their fuel for reprocessing in anticipation of phasing out their use of nuclear power.

Why Nuclear and Why Now?

Sharp increases in oil and natural gas prices have made nuclear energy more attractive in the last few years. Whereas oil was priced at below $10 per barrel in 1999, it rose above $60 per barrel in March 2007.[12] Natural gas prices are often pegged to oil prices, and these too have increased dramatically. In the United States and Europe, new electricity generation in the 1990s was fired by natural gas rather than coal, but this is now changing.

Prices of alternative energy sources are just one factor in national energy policies. Improved safety and efficiency, at least in U.S. reactors, also has contributed to more attention to nuclear energy, as well as to regulatory streamlining and incentives for new nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy also is increasingly being viewed as part of the solution to climate change and energy security.[13]

Pressures from Climate Change

The Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force in 2005, establishing legally binding levels for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of an average of 6 to 8 percent below 1990 levels between the years 2008-2012. There are many different routes to meeting the reduction levels, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. Although increased efficiency and energy savings are a common-sense solution, these are sometimes viewed as conflicting with economic growth imperatives. The December 2004 UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change noted that developing nations viewed binding emission caps as impediments to economic growth, while industrialized nations were unwilling to reduce levels unless developing nations also did.[14]

Nuclear energy, relative to fossil fuels, contributes little to greenhouse gas emissions.[15] The extent to which increasing reliance on nuclear energy will solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, however, is doubtful. Power generation accounts for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and transportation accounts for another 25 percent. Even optimistic scenarios of nuclear power expansion do not foresee a much-larger share for nuclear energy in overall electricity generation because, simply, electricity generation is forecasted to double by 2030.[16]

Moreover, much of that electricity growth will occur in the developing world, specifically in China and India. Because China and India are not bound to Kyoto Protocol reductions, their decisions on electricity production may be influenced by other factors, including cost and, in the case of India, a decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow nuclear cooperation with a non-NPT state.[17] Significant nuclear expansion will likely occur only after the time frame of the Kyoto Protocol because new nuclear power reactors will require 10-15 years to become operational following a decision to build. It is likely to take even longer in “new” nuclear technology states without existing infrastructure, including a system for regulating nuclear safety. Under the most optimistic scenario (five years to build), reactors under construction now will not make a significant difference in the time frame of the Kyoto Protocol.

Two years ago, the International Energy Agency concluded that “unless governments introduce new energy policies, growth in world energy production and consumption in the next three decades is projected to be 65 percent higher than the growth in the past 30 years.” More than 70 percent of that growth would come from outside the major developed countries, those states are grouped together in the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), with the largest shares coming from China and India. At the same time, the International Energy Agency noted that global carbon dioxide emissions would grow by 69 percent in the absence of new policies. Again, much of the growth would come from outside the OECD countries.[18] The carbon content of energy would increase because of the “declining share of nuclear and hydro power in the global energy mix.” The International Energy Agency forecasts that nuclear energy could drop to 10 percent of electricity generation in the absence of significant policy changes.

Assuming no significant policy changes emerge, nuclear energy is expected to grow to 416 gigawatts by 2030, about a 20 percent increase in capacity. This includes the retirement of 27 gigawatts of nuclear energy in Europe. Much of the increase will come from China, which plans to install 40 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020; Japan, which plans to install 28 gigawatts by 2015; and India, which plans to install 40 gigawatts by 2030. The case of India is uncertain, as its previous goals remain unmet and its current plans assume buying a foreign LWR, a prospect that is far from assured.

Energy Insecurity

Many states are wary of depending on imported energy sources, leading states such as France and Japan to rely on nuclear power for most of their electricity needs. Recent cutoffs have underscored the instability of the oil and gas supply. In 2006 a natural gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine resulted in a temporary cutoff of natural gas supplies to western and central Europe. In 2007, price disputes between Russia and Azerbaijan and between Russia and Belarus caused a temporary cutoff in oil supplies to Russia from Azerbaijan and in oil supplies from Russia to Germany, Poland, and Slovakia.[19] Other developments also have underscored the uncertainty of oil and gas supplies, among them temporary production shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico and the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, instability in Nigeria, and nationalization of oil and gas fields in Bolivia in 2006.

Shifting to a plutonium-based fuel cycle was once thought to be a solution to potential uranium shortages, but many agree that the supply of uranium will be sufficient for several decades.[20] Already, China, Japan, and India are seeking to secure long-term uranium contracts to support nuclear expansion goals. Relative to gas and oil, the ability to stockpile uranium offers greater assurance of weathering potential cutoffs. Efforts also are already underway to establish an international nuclear fuel bank in an attempt to inject greater certainty in fuel supplies, although these are targeted at providing incentives for states to forgo uranium enrichment.[21] Uranium conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication—the three steps after uranium mining that are necessary before fuel can be inserted into a reactor—are now concentrated in a handful of countries. Although cost and economies of scale should argue against additional enrichment capacity, this may not be enough to dissuade some states from pursuing enrichment.[22]

Ultimately, only the development of breeder reactors, which produce additional nuclear material (plutonium or U-233) that can be used for future fuel, could provide real energy independence. Yet, the risks and costs associated with breeder reactors, which have not yet been proven commercially, are significant, especially where safety, security, and nonproliferation are concerned.

The Next Three Decades

Some nuclear expansion is already underway, but its direction is uncertain.[23] Where will expansion take place? Will expansion be limited to reactors only, or will it include enrichment and reprocessing facilities? What spent fuel disposal options will be necessary or desirable?

With the exception of South Africa, most of the growth in nuclear energy will occur in Asia and South Asia. One-half of the 26 reactors now under construction are located in Asia. States with the most growth have full nuclear fuel cycles; China, Japan, and India already have enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. South Korea continues to express interest in further developing a pyroprocessing technique that does not separate plutonium from uranium, as a solution to growing stockpiles of spent fuel.

Lack of strong nuclear expansion, however, has not stopped several countries from expressing interest in developing enrichment capabilities, including Argentina, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. None of these countries has a domestic reactor base that would require developing enrichment capability. Instead, they may be interested in enrichment to keep their future options open and for export purposes. Brazil, which is commissioning a new centrifuge enrichment plant at Resende, will likely produce more low-enriched uranium than is needed for its consumption by 2015. If such decisions were made purely on economic grounds, the thresholds for achieving economies of scale are high but not insurmountable.[24] One estimate is that indigenous centrifuge enrichment becomes cost effective at the capacity level of 1.5 million separative work units, an amount required by 10 1-gigawatt plants. Even then, such an enrichment plant is unlikely to be competitive with larger suppliers such as Urenco.[25]

More than a dozen countries without nuclear power are reportedly considering their nuclear energy options. These include states in Europe (Poland and Turkey), the Middle East (Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates), Africa (Namibia), Central Asia (Georgia), and Asia (Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam). It is unlikely that these states will pursue a full nuclear fuel cycle in the short run, but they may also desire to keep their options open.

A key question is what impact the U.S. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) will have on global nuclear expansion. Will it make nuclear power “safe” for all states, as its proponents claim? The domestic portion of GNEP involves the development of “advanced recycling” of spent fuel, which overturns the 1970s-era U.S. policy of not encouraging the use of plutonium in the civil nuclear fuel cycle. The international component of GNEP envisions a consortium of nations with advanced nuclear technology that would provide fuel services and reactors to countries that “agree to refrain from fuel-cycle activities” such as enrichment and reprocessing. It is essentially a fuel leasing approach, wherein the supplier takes responsibility for the final disposition of the spent fuel. It is not clear if or how states would agree to refrain from fuel cycle activities, but the two components of GNEP together send a mixed message that recycling is valuable for some states but not for others.

South Korea, for one, seems to view GNEP as a green light to proceed with its pyroprocessing technique.[26] Until now, the United States has not permitted South Korea to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel because of proliferation concerns. Other states may be more interested in having someone else solve the problem either of spent fuel storage or high-level waste storage. Greater reprocessing capacity might help solve spent fuel storage but not necessarily high-level waste storage because no commercial reprocessing service will store high-level waste.[27] There also is no commitment yet to take back spent fuel, and delays in opening the Yucca Mountain repository, the first of its kind, provide little confidence that will happen. A further complication is the uncertainty of U.S. intentions. Although the Department of Energy has stated that, under GNEP, the supplier would take responsibility for the final disposition of spent fuel, it also has stated that the supplier “would retain the responsibility to ensure that the material is secured, safeguarded, and disposed of in a manner that meets shared nonproliferation policies.” As ever, the devil is in the details.

Implications for Nonproliferation

The expansion of nuclear power could have cascading effects on the nuclear nonproliferation regime, ranging from practical pressures to significant vulnerabilities. On the practical side, additional facilities will mean additional safeguards effort by IAEA inspectors. Although reactors themselves require relatively few inspection days, there will be significant work in helping prepare new nuclear states for nuclear power programs. Already, the IAEA has conducted workshops on infrastructure requirements, including energy needs and planning considerations; nuclear security and safeguards; physical infrastructure; current and future reactor technology; experience in developing nuclear programs; human resource requirements; and public perceptions.

Should a nuclear renaissance result in more states with so-called bulk-handling facilities (enrichment and reprocessing), the task of inspecting such facilities could place significant strain on the IAEA and the safeguards system. Some critics of the IAEA suggest that current methods of inspection cannot provide timely warning of diversion of a significant quantity of special nuclear material. Yet, the largest enrichment and reprocessing plants under safeguards now are under EURATOM safeguards; the IAEA’s role in verifying material balances in those plants is limited by the IAEA-EURATOM agreement. The only experience in safeguarding commercial-scale enrichment and reprocessing plants outside of EURATOM in a non-nuclear-weapon state is in Japan, where incidents with significant material losses have raised questions.

One question is whether new nuclear states would raise proliferation concerns by virtue of their geographic location, the existence of terrorist groups on their soil, or other sources of political instability. Would expanded nuclear infrastructure in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Vietnam, and the GCC countries lead their neighbors to worry about and respond to the possibility that these countries will develop weapons programs? More broadly, will a nuclear renaissance that succeeds in limiting the number of states with uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing capabilities ultimately further erode the NPT by extending the existence of haves and have-nots from nuclear weapons into the nuclear fuel cycle? In the short term, efforts to limit expansion could slow some states’ implementation of the safeguards-strengthening measures in the 1997 Model Additional Protocol. In the long term, other decisions to strengthen the NPT could be jeopardized.

A nuclear renaissance that embraces reprocessing as necessary to reduce spent fuel accumulation could result in more plutonium in transit, providing more potential targets for diversion. A renaissance that includes widespread installation of fast reactors would similarly increase targets for diversion. Further down the road, will the next generation of reactors be more or less proliferation resistant than existing reactors? As of December 2002, the Generation IV Forum had not yet adopted a standard methodology for evaluating proliferation resistance and physical protection for the six systems under consideration.[28]

Finally, there is a larger question of whether technological developments will outpace nonproliferation initiatives, such as fuel supply assurances and multinational fuel-cycle centers, voluntary export guidelines, and further restrictions within the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Some recent criticism of the U.S. GNEP program has been aimed at the aggressive timeline for technology demonstration of advanced reprocessing, in contrast to developments more closely tied to nonproliferation objectives, such as supporting more proliferation-resistant reactors with sealed fuel cores that would limit handling of fuel.[29]


There is little doubt that nuclear energy will remain an important part of the global energy mix, but it is not the panacea that many advocates are selling. To begin with, a nuclear renaissance will take too long to have more than a negligible impact on carbon dioxide emissions that threaten significant climate change in the next decade. Further, the petroleum-dominated transportation sector, which accounts for 25 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions, offers few footholds now for nuclear energy substitution. (By contrast, oil only accounted for 5 percent of the global electricity mix in 2001.) In the distant future, perhaps nuclear energy may help offset transportation emissions through the production of hydrogen.

Nonetheless, nuclear energy could grow faster to 519 gigawatts by 2030 given significant policy support.[30] This would require not only that policymakers and regulators take steps to mitigate the inherent risks of nuclear power, which are calculated differently by all states, but that nuclear energy is as cost effective as alternative sources of electricity. Factors that may help improve the position of nuclear energy vis-à-vis alternatives include higher prices for other sources (natural gas and coal through a carbon tax), scaling down of reactor sizes to mitigate initial capital investment, regulatory improvements, and waste disposal solutions.

The nonproliferation risks of a nuclear renaissance clearly depend on the shape of nuclear expansion. More LWRs pose essentially no new technical challenges to the safeguards system, but additional enrichment or reprocessing capabilities in non-nuclear-weapon states could easily strain the system. A shift to fast reactors with reprocessing will likely introduce further strains on the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Fleets of fast reactors that burn plutonium could help diminish the size of civilian plutonium stockpiles eventually, but their cost effectiveness is highly doubtful. The provision of “cradle to grave” fuel services, as foreseen by GNEP, could go far toward limiting the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle technologies but awaits real decisions by key governments, such as the United States and Russia, on spent fuel and waste disposition. Clearly, measures are needed to help shape these potential developments to minimize the proliferation impact.


A Short History of Nuclear Power in the United States

The first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States began operation in 1960. The Atomic Energy Commission soon forecast that the United States would install 1,000 reactors by the year 2000, but this did not materialize. In the heyday of nuclear power in the United States, 41 orders for nuclear power plants were placed in just one year (1973). Five years later, however, the nuclear bubble burst. The last new nuclear power plant in the United States was ordered in 1978, but it was ultimately cancelled, along with 120 other orders. A combination of high construction and operating costs, safety concerns, the accident at Three Mile Island, and disputes over long-term storage of nuclear waste continued to make nuclear energy more costly than other alternatives. Nonetheless, more than 46 units entered service between 1979 and 1989.

Since then, the U.S. nuclear power industry has steadily improved its safety records and operating capacities and has lowered operating costs. Reactors with 40-year operating lives may now be extended another 20 years. Since 2001, U.S. national policy has supported new nuclear reactors, providing tax incentives, streamlined licensing, and funds for advanced research and development. As a result, utilities have expressed interest in applying for licenses for more than 30 new reactors. The 2005 Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed by President George W. Bush in August 2005, contained significant incentives for new commercial reactors. These include production tax credits, loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays, and extension of the Price-Anderson Act nuclear liability system. Higher fossil fuel prices and possible greenhouse gas controls may spur further interest by utilities and other potential reactor developers.

The Bush administration has supported nuclear energy since it entered office. In 2001 the National Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, recommended that Bush “support the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy.” Specifically, the group recommended that the United States “reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment of fuel conditioning methods…that reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance. In doing so, the United States will continue to discourage the accumulation of separated plutonium worldwide.” The group also recommended that the United States consider technologies in collaboration with international partners “to develop reprocessing and fuel treatment technologies that are cleaner, more efficient, less waste-intensive, and more proliferation-resistant.”

In fiscal year 2003, the Department of Energy launched the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) to develop and demonstrate nuclear fuel cycles that could reduce the long-term hazards of spent nuclear fuel. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), established in early 2006, is now considered a centerpiece of the AFCI, and much of the AFCI funding will be spent on demonstrating a new spent-fuel separation technology called Urex+.[1]

In introducing GNEP, the Energy Department envisioned that the United States, which currently has 103 operating nuclear reactors, would install 300 reactors by 2050. “Advanced recycling” of fuel is a key part of GNEP. Commercial reprocessing of spent fuel, although rehabilitated by the Reagan administration, ultimately was abandoned for economic reasons. It appears that part of GNEP’s emphasis on recycling fuel is based on the assumption that the United States is unlikely to open a second repository for nuclear waste beyond the already designated site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. At present, the United States has 55,000 metric tons of spent fuel in storage and is producing about 2,000 metric tons per year. U.S. officials have testified before Congress that, by 2010, the Yucca Mountain repository will be oversubscribed, despite an earliest anticipated opening date of 2017. Congress has passed legislation to authorize non-site-specific work related to identifying a second repository.[2] Nonetheless, many observers believe that there is no rush to take care of U.S. spent fuel and that reprocessing may not be the best answer.



1. Urex+ chemically removes uranium and other elements from dissolved spent fuel, leaving plutonium and other highly radioactive elements.

2. R. Shane Johnson, Statement before the Subcommittee on Energy, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, April 6, 2006.


Sharon Squassoni is a senior associate with the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.



1. See “Nuclear Power Not Panacea for Energy Supply, But It Certainly Helps—UN Atomic Chief,” UN News Center, December 1, 2006.

2. See Geoffrey Colvin, “Nuclear Power Is Back—Not a Moment Too Soon,” Fortune, May 30, 2005, p. 57; “The Greening of Nuclear Power,” New York Times, May 13, 2006, p. A16; “Nuclear Spring,” Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2006, p. 8.

3. See Lawrence Scheinman, “The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: A Challenge for Nonproliferation,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 76 (March/April 2004). For Scheinman’s discussion of past proposals, see Lawrence Scheinman, “Equal Opportunity: Historical Challenges and Future Prospects of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Arms Control Today, May 2007, pp. 18-22.

4. “Ukrainian leaders See Nuclear as Key to Energy Independence,” Nucleonics Week, February 23, 2006, p 4.

5. Russia has 31 operating reactors. Eight states have between 10 and 20 reactors (Canada, China, Germany, India, South Korea, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom). Five states have between five and 10 reactors, and 13 states have between one and four reactors. One-half of the states in the last category rely on nuclear power to supply more than one-third of their electricity needs.

6. This difference can be a little misleading because some enrichment demand is met by downblended Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU). Nonetheless, even the most optimistic estimates for worldwide demand by the World Nuclear Association posit 52 million separative work units by 2020. See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report Submitted to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” INFCIRC/640, February 2005.

7. Thomas L. Neff, “Uranium and Enrichment: Enough Fuel for the Nuclear Renaissance?” Briefing presented at Global Nuclear Renaissance Summit, December 5, 2006.

8. Per Brunzell, “Nuclear Fuel Cycle; Technical Issues,” Briefing presented at IAEA conference “New Framework for the Utilization of Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century: Assurances of Supply and Nonproliferation,” September 2006.

9. See Frans Berkhout, “The International Civilian Reprocessing Business,” Energy and Security, No. 2 (September 8, 2005).

10. “THORP: Delay After Delay; Re-Opening Now Unlikely Until Mid-2007 at the Earliest,” Nuclear Monitor, March 19, 2007, p. 8.

11. The Russian BN-600 operates commercially now, but uses HEU fuel. See IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” p. 78.

12. See Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, “Petroleum Navigator,” found at http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/wtotworldw.htm.

13. See Charles D. Ferguson, “Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks,” Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, No. 28 (April 2007).

14. “United Nations High Level Panel on Threats Challenges and Change,” UNGA A/59/565, December 2004.

15. The contribution is not zero because the inputs leading up to the operation of reactors require fossil fuels. See http://nuclearinfo.net/Nuclearpower/SeviorSLSRebutall.

16. International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2006,” 2006, p. 71.

17. See Fred McGoldrick et al., “The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal: Taking Stock,” Arms Control Today, October 2005, p. 6-12.

18. The International Energy Agency estimated that “power generation, which currently accounts for around 40 percent of the emissions, will contribute almost half the increase (or 8 billion metric tons) in global emissions between 2000 and 2030. Transport will account for more than a quarter, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors for the rest.” International Energy Agency, “30 Key Energy Trends of the IEA and Worldwide,” 2005, p. 32.

19. Deutsche Welle, “Merkel Puts Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out in Question,” January 1, 2007, found at http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2304599,00.html.

20. See Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Red Book Retrospective: Forty Years of Uranium Resources, Production and Demand in Perspective (Paris: OECD, 2006); World Nuclear Association, “Supply of Uranium,” March 2007, found at http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.html.

21. Oliver Meier, “The Growing Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Debate,” Arms Control Today, November 2006, pp. 40-44.

22. A single enrichment plant can supply up to 25 percent of the world market: 10 million separative work units, which is enough for 100 reactors.

23. According to the World Nuclear Association, 26 reactors were under construction as of January 2007, with another 64 planned and 156 proposed. Much of the short-term growth will come from Asia. India and China top the list of reactors under construction, with seven and five, respectively; China and Japan top the list of planned reactors with 13 and 11, respectively. China and South Africa lead in the number of proposed reactors (50 and 24), followed by the United States (21), Russia (18) and India (15). Of course, this latter category can be highly speculative. Meanwhile, other states are phasing out nuclear energy, and some are reconsidering decisions to phase out nuclear energy. Belgium, Germany, and Sweden have made decisions to phase out nuclear energy. In the case of Germany, the deadline is 2020, although Chancellor Angela Merkel has questioned this decision, given the need to meet Kyoto carbon dioxide emission targets and recent uncertainties about the reliability of Russia as a source of oil and gas. Seventeen nuclear reactors currently provide 30 percent of Germany’s electricity generation.

24. This discussion draws from an analysis generously provided by Harold A. Feiveson. See Harold A. Feiveson, “Global Warming, Radioactive Waste Disposal, and the Nuclear Future,” Arms Control Today, May 2007, pp. 13-17.. The IAEA Experts Group did not address the economics of enrichment, merely noting that there was little data on the topic.

25. IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” p. 63. EURODIF produces 8 million separative work units per year; URENCO, 6 million separative work units per year; Rosatom, 20 million separative work units per year.

26. This technique, developed for metal fuel, does not separate plutonium from uranium. South Korea would then recycle the spent fuel in CANDU reactors. See “Pyroprocessing Might Be Nearing ROK Goal of Inclusion in GNEP,” Nuclear Fuel, February 26, 2007.

27. A complication is that the United States must provide consent to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel. For Russia to reprocess such fuel, a nuclear cooperation agreement (“Section 123” agreement) is necessary. This is currently under negotiation.

28. U.S. DOE Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee and the Generation IV International Forum, “A Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems,” December 2002, p. 18, found at http://nuclear.energy.gov/genIV/documents/gen_iv_roadmap.pdf.

29. Matthew Bunn, “Assessing the Benefits, Costs, and Risks of Near-Term Reprocessing and Alternatives,” Testimony before the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, September 14, 2006. See Jessica Tuchman Matthews, speech given at the First Annual Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor Global Nuclear Renaissance Summit, December 5, 2006.

30. For a discussion of the International Energy Agency’s Alternative Policy Scenario (APS), see International Energy Agency, “World Energy Outlook 2006,” pp. 361-385. The APS assumed that certain states would slow the retirement of reactors and that most reactors proposed already would come online with a few exceptions. This scenario did not account for states announcing the introduction of nuclear power, of which there are now at least 12 and possibly more. The scenario speculated that nuclear energy would be more competitive if natural gas prices hovered between $4 and $5 per million British thermal units (they are currently at $6.13); if coal exceeded $70 per ton (in the United States, it averaged $23 per ton on the open market, although prices are highly variable); if a carbon penalty was introduced; and if nuclear investment required less than $2,000 per kilowatt hour.

Posted: May 7, 2007