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Date:  Sept. 30, 2008

Contacts: Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer    

Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

International Cooperation Needed to Prevent Spread of Uranium Enrichment Technology As Global Interest in Nuclear Energy Grows

 

WASHINGTON — As more nations pursue nuclear power, the United States and Russia, along with other countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should redouble efforts to ensure a reliable supply of nuclear fuel so that countries seeking nuclear energy have less incentive to build their own facilities to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, says a new report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Russian Academy of Sciences.  Such facilities pose proliferation risks because they can also be used to produce the key ingredients for nuclear weapons. 

 

Driven by growing energy demands, high prices for fossil fuels, and concern about climate change, more than two dozen nations – Egypt, Vietnam, Belarus, the Gulf States, and Turkey, among others -- have announced that they are considering or planning their first nuclear power plants.  The fuel for these plants is fabricated from enriched uranium, which can be purchased from outside suppliers -- currently, two international consortia, Russia, and the U.S.  However, some countries may fear that relying on others could make them vulnerable to a cutoff of supplies for political reasons.  The report draws upon discussions from an international workshop convened by the academies at the IAEA, involving 10 countries that might participate in a system to assure reliable supplies of fuel.

 

The international community, supported by the U.S. and Russia, should continue to explore a broad menu of approaches to provide assurances against political disruptions of the nuclear fuel supply, an effort led by the IAEA, the report says. 

 

Over time, Russia, the United States, and other nations should work to create a global system of a small number of international centers to handle sensitive steps of the fuel cycle, such as enrichment and management of spent fuel, possibly including reprocessing, storage, and disposal.  Russia has created one such center, the International Uranium Enrichment Center at Angarsk.  The centers could either be owned by groups of nations -- as with two existing consortia -- or overseen by an international organization.  Aside from the countries that provide technology for the fuel cycle centers, participating nations should meet two major criteria: They should not have an enrichment facility or be developing one, and they should be in compliance with IAEA safeguards and nonproliferation agreements.

 

International institutions that manage the nuclear fuel cycle and arrangements that let many countries share in the profits of uranium enrichment provide a somewhat more equitable and sustainable long-term basis for limiting enrichment and reprocessing to a small number of countries, the report says.  And nations may feel assured of a stable fuel supply if they are part-owners of the fuel centers, or if international mechanisms are in place to provide backup supplies.

 

The chief disadvantage of international centers is the potential for sensitive technology or knowledge to leak and contribute to a nation's efforts to build nuclear weapons, the report says.  The U.S. and Russia should work diligently with other countries to create specific, stringent plans to prevent this from happening.  

 

Assuring fuel supplies may have only a modest impact on lessening countries' motives to build enrichment facilities, the report says.  It urges the U.S. and Russia to provide other incentives, such as assistance in establishing the infrastructure for safe and secure use of nuclear energy.

 

Agreeing to take back spent fuel also could be a very powerful incentive -- since nations would not need to build facilities to store their own spent fuel or waste -- and would lower the number of countries that store plutonium-bearing material.  However, many countries face political barriers to taking other nations' spent fuel or nuclear waste.  The U.S. and Russia should work on cooperative approaches to lease fuel to "newcomer" nations for the lifetime of their reactors, with the spent fuel being sent back to Russia for the present -- since it is further along in offering these services to other nations -- or to the U.S. as well if that eventually becomes possible.

 

There are many proposals in development to reduce proliferation risks from the nuclear fuel cycle, the report notes.  Some proposals are based on technology -- for example, facilities whose uranium or plutonium cannot be used in a nuclear weapon without substantial additional processing.  Others are based on re-examining and modifying regulations and requirements concerning nuclear materials, technology, activities, and expertise.  Similarly, efforts are under way to reduce the environmental impacts of the fuel cycle while increasing the amount of energy extracted from fuel material.  Such options should be developed and assessed systematically, with decisions based on clear objectives and technically sound criteria, the report says.  However, while these are being explored, the international community should not delay taking steps that are feasible today, such as assuring a reliable fuel supply. 

 

In addition, the report recommends that nations stop accumulating plutonium as soon as practicable, and reprocess spent fuel only when it is necessary to make new fuel or for safety reasons.  Reprocessing when fuel is not needed in the near-term creates excess stocks of plutonium, which pose security risks.

 

The U.S. and Russia have signed an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation, but the agreement faces several obstacles in the U.S. Congress, and President Bush has withdrawn it from consideration there.  The lack of a working agreement makes some international fuel cycle options impossible and is impeding joint efforts on nonproliferation for nuclear energy technologies.  The report notes that it is unlikely that the U.S. government will bring the agreement into force in an environment of worsening relations between the United States and Russia, but study co-chairs John Ahearne and Nikolay Laverov added, "We hope that the current disagreements that have recently emerged will not interfere with our countries working together toward our common goal of inhibiting nuclear weapons proliferation as nuclear energy use grows across the world."  2009 will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Cooperative Agreement on Science, Engineering, and Health, under the auspices of which this project took place.

 

The two-year study was sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with additional support from the Russian Academy of Sciences and assistance from the IAEA in arranging the international workshop.  The U.S. committee was appointed by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Russian committee was appointed by the Russian Academy of Sciences, a self-governing, nonprofit organization chartered by the Russian government to conduct research to understand the natural world and society, and to promote technology and prosperity.  Committee rosters follow.

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Copies of Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above). 

 

 

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Committee on Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle

U.S. National Research Council

 

John F. Ahearne (chair)

Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

Research Triangle Park, N.C.

 

Robert J. Budnitz

Earth Sciences Division

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Berkeley, Calif.

 

Matthew G. Bunn

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

John F. Kennedy School of Government

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

 

William F. Burns

U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and

U.S. Army War College (retired)

Carlisle, Pa.

 

Steve Fetter

School of Public Policy

University of Maryland

College Park

 

Rose E. Gottemoeller

Carnegie Moscow Center

Moscow

 

Milton Levenson

Independent Consultant

Menlo Park, Calif.

 

STAFF

 

Micah Lowenthal

Study Director, Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board

 

 

Committee on Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Russian Academy of Sciences

 

Nikolay P. Laverov (co-chair)

Russian Academy of Sciences

Moscow

 

Valery S. Bezzubstev

Department of Safety and Security Regulations

Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities

Rostekhnadzor

Moscow

 

Alexander V. Bychkov

Research Institute of Atomic Reactors

Dimitrovgrad, Russia

 

Valentin B. Ivanov

Institute of Geology of Ore Deposits, Petrography, Mineralogy, and Geochemistry

Russian Academy of Sciences

Moscow

 

Boris F. Myasoedov

Russian Academy of Sciences

Moscow

 

Vladislav A. Petrov

Division of Structural Petrophysics

Laboratory of Radiogeology and Radiogeoecology

Institute of Geology of Ore Deposits, Petrography, Mineralogy, and Geochemistry

Russian Academy of Sciences

Moscow

 

Mikhail I. Solonin

Technology and Innovation Center

TVEL Corp.

Moscow

 

STAFF

 

Yuri K. Shiyan

Director, Office for North American Scientific Cooperation