International Nuclear Waste Disposal Concepts

(Updated November 2016)

  • There have been several proposal for regional and international repositories for disposal of high-level nuclear wastes, and in 2003 the concept received strong endorsement from the head of IAEA.
  • The European Commission is funding studies to to assess the feasibility of European regional waste repositories.
  • Arising from these studies, 14 EU countries resolved to set up a European Repository Development Organisation (ERDO) to collaborate on nuclear waste disposal.
  • Following this a similar initiative is under way for the Middle East and North Africa, and South East Asia is likely to follow.
  • Pangea Resources earlier identified a large area of outback Australia as having appropriate characteristics for deep geological disposal, and hence for an international repository.
  • In May 2016 a high-level commission in South Australia recommended establishment of an international repository there.

Responsibility for wastes

At present there is clear and unequivocal understanding that each country is ethically and legally responsible for its own wastes, therefore the default position is that all nuclear wastes will be disposed of in each of the 50 or so countries concerned.

The main ingredients of high-level nuclear wastes are created in the nuclear reactors which make the electricity in 31 countries. They are essentially not left-overs from imported uranium.There is thus no moral obligation on uranium suppliers in respect to the wastes, other than that involved in safeguards procedures.

For instance, Australian uranium is supplied under safeguards, which are essentially accounting and inspection procedures to ensure that neither the uranium nor any product of it (eg plutonium) contribute to fulfilling the aspirations of anyone wanting to build weapons. With the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Australian Safeguards & Non-Proliferation Office tracks "Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials" all the way through to used fuel, reprocessing (if undertaken), and recycling of plutonium (if separated) in mixed oxide fuels. The same kind of arrangements apply to Canadian uranium.

Thus any international waste repository has implications under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The trustworthiness and standing of the host country is fundamental to the project's acceptability to NPT states, which comprise virtually every country but India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Also, the international treaty produced by IAEA and signed by most nations of the world in 1997 covering the management and disposal of used fuel and high-level wastes requires that the host facility or system meets the highest national and international standards.

Even countries such as Australia with no nuclear power have need for secure disposal of long-lived radioactive wastes from their research reactors.

International repositories

In November 2003, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said to the UN General Assembly: "We should ... consider multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. Over 50 countries currently have spent fuel stored in temporary locations, awaiting reprocessing or disposal. Not all countries have the appropriate geological conditions for such disposal - and, for many countries with small nuclear programs, the financial and human resources required for the construction and operation of a geological disposal facility are daunting."

In an October article he included research reactors in the scope of this suggestion and concluded that "considerable advantages - in cost, safety, security and non-proliferation - would be gained from international co-operation in these stages of the nuclear fuel cycle."

Nearly 25 years earlier, in 1980, the IAEA-sponsored International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) waste management and disposal report had firmly recommended that proposals "for establishing multinational and international repositories should be elaborated" due to their non-proliferation advantages. "Centralised facilities for disposal of spent fuel and/or vitrified high-level wastes .... would reduce the diversion risk" and be more economical.

Individual waste repositories for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level wastes need to be reliably secure. Achieving high security means:

  • They can make a vital contribution to global environmental safety by ensuring that radioactive substances are permanently removed from the human environment,
  • They can greatly enhance global security in the broader sense by preventing malicious use of fissile and radiological materials.

Insofar as these functions are less than fully assured in any of the 50 countries concerned with radioactive wastes, there is a justification for some kind of international collaboration and facilities, possibly on a regional basis. In particular, the second point is arguably best achieved by international collaboration under IAEA auspices.

While most countries should be able to find suitably safe sites in stable geological formations, demonstrating this safety so as to create public confidence is best achieved where there is simple geology.

Certainly, geological disposal is the only foreseeable way of ensuring adequate safety and security in the long-term management of used fuel which is treated as waste, and also of separated high-level radioactive wastes which, if recycling of actinides becomes established, eventually will be mainly fission products.

While acknowledging each county's responsibility for its own wastes, the limits to the logic on indigenous disposal can be seen from the changing national borders within Europe over the last century. For Slovenia for instance (which has one nuclear power reactor), its capital city Ljubljana has politically lain within seven different states in the last 100 years.

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report in May 2016 notes:

There are international models that address the transfer 
of waste between countries. The Basel Convention, which applies to hazardous wastes other than radioactive waste, imposes requirements upon the transfer of hazardous wastes between countries; namely the transfer shall only take place where prior informed consent has been received and only if the transfer represents an environmentally sound solution. Hazardous wastes are commercially transferred under
 this regime. While the Joint Convention applies equivalent requirements to transfers of radioactive waste between countries, there are no operating models for the commercial transfer of used fuel for disposal.
Various organisations have looked into potential concepts. There are, however, commercial models for the transfer of used fuel between countries for reprocessing, as well as the take-back of fuel from reactors built by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation... The United Kingdom has reprocessed used fuel for many countries but does not accept the waste products for disposal. In all cases, transfers can only take place if the recipient country has the capacity to manage the waste safely and where such transfer has been agreed between the countries concerned.

In October 2016 the Reliable Nuclear Fuel Services Working Group (RNFSWG) of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) released a report, Overview of the Dual Track Approach for National Back-end Programs, focused on the needs of countries with small nuclear programs. It notes that under the IAEA Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, contracting parties have agreed that the country that discharges the spent fuel and receives the benefits of the power generated bears the responsibility for its management, including disposal. Since disposal is a relatively major burden with small quantities, due to high fixed costs, some international collaboration is suggested. This is the dual track beyond simply national approaches.

South Australian proposal

In May 2016 the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission reported. A major recommendation was that a facility for the disposal of international used nuclear fuel and intermediate-level waste should be established. It found that the state "has the necessary attributes and capabilities to develop a world-class waste disposal facility, and to do so safely." Based on a "cautious and conservative approach", from assessments of used fuel inventories and potential global interest the commission determined that such a facility could generate more than AUD 100 billion in income in excess of expenditure (including a reserve fund of AUD 32 billion for facility closure and ongoing monitoring) over the 120-year life of the project.

The World Nuclear Association said that the report had "fundamentally changed the nature of the global nuclear waste discourse," and a multinational waste facility based in South Australia would provide a welcome option for countries operating nuclear facilities today. It would be a “viable alternative" to national projects. Such a large multinational waste storage facility would be a world first and should offer advantages in terms of siting and economics when compared to smaller national approaches.

Under the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety
 of Radioactive Waste Management, any proposal to store and dispose of used fuel in South Australia would require agreement between the countries concerned. In Australia, treaty level agreements would need to be developed between the federal government and the relevant overseas government. An agreement would also need to specify arrangements between the Australian Government and the Government of South Australia, to ensure these commitments were fulfilled. Further agreements may be required with third party countries: for example, if they have supplied uranium to the country wishing to store and dispose of used fuel in South Australia.

As Australia is a net exporter of energy, it has a significant role to play in assisting other countries to lower their carbon emissions. This includes countries with less opportunity for large-scale renewable energy deployment than Australia, for whom nuclear power makes a substantial contribution
 to their production of low carbon energy. For new nuclear entrants or countries with little prospect of siting their own used fuel disposal facilities, an international solution would remove a significant impediment to the new or ongoing use of nuclear power as a low-carbon technology. As a result, Australia would derive a reputational and financial benefit by hosting a facility for the disposal of international used fuel. 

Excluding countries which are committed to developing national solutions or already have structured programs leading to a domestic facility, and those with laws prohibiting export of wastes, the report identifies 90,000 tonnes of used fuel and almost 270,000 cubic metres of intermediate-levels wastes as a potentially accessible market and available for an Australian repository today. These amounts, comprising about one-quarter of actual world used fuel and ILW, are increasing annually.  By 2090 the amounts are 276,500 tonnes and 782,000 m3 respectively. The viability analysis is based on half these amounts.

Based on detailed analysis, the commission considered that a reasonable baseline price for the purpose of assessing viability would be A$ 1.75 million/tHM for used fuel. This is based on a reasonable baseline ‘willingness to pay’ estimate of A$ 1.95 million/tHM, less A$ 0.2 million/tHM to account for costs incurred by customers in preparing and delivering the waste to South Australia.

The management and disposal of intermediate-level waste commands a far lower willingness to pay than for used fuel since it is more readily managed and stored. However, a 2011 report from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has suggested that £25,900 per m3
 (in current terms, A$ 66,000 per m3) represents a levy that ought be imposed on nuclear power plant operators to reflect current costs and the potential for future increases. In the interests of conservatism, and to address the costs of packaging and transport (which are not as well defined as for used fuel) a price to charge of A$ 40,000 per m3 is considered appropriate for the purposes of a viability analysis.

Interim above-ground storage for used fuel inside heavily engineered, purpose-built casks would be followed by deep geological disposal, the repository design based on that under construction at Olkiluoto in Finland at 400-450 metre depth. In the analysis, the geological disposal facility for used fuel is notionally co-located with an intermediate-level waste facility, where those packages are placed in medium-depth vaults of 50-250 metres. The report said that integrated facilities with capacity to store and dispose of used fuel would be viable.

On a number of realistic scenarios, such a facility would be highly profitable. The timeline for establishing an interim storage facility and associated transport infrastructure, including harbour, port and railway would be 11 years after project commencement. 
Transferring used fuel and ILW from surface storage to underground repository would begin at 28 years. Revenue would thus commence at year 11, based on 3000 t/yr used fuel, so A$ 5.25 billion/yr over 30 years from then, simply for the fuel. Total capital cost would be A$ 41 billion over some years including 25% contingency, and operating expenses from year 11 about A$ 0.878 million (in 2015 $). Overall total revenue (in undiscounted terms) would be more than A$ 257 billion, with total costs of A$ 145 billion. 
The project would add 4.7% to gross state product and 1.9% to employment by 2030.

Legislative changes would be necessary at state and federal levels.

ARIUS and Europe – ERDO

Early in 2002 a new, non-commercial body to promote the concept of regional and international facilities for storage and disposal of all types of long-lived nuclear wastes was set up. This is ARIUS – the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage. A key objective is to explore ways of providing shared radioactive waste management approaches and facilities, in particular storage and disposal facilities for smaller users. Membership is open and comprises countries with small nuclear programs as well as industrial organisations with relevant interests. Arius is a successor to the Pangea proposal (see below).

Arius is focusing initially on Europe, and the feasibility of regional repositories there. In 2002 a European Commission Directive said that geological disposal of radioactive wastes was preferred and that "A regional approach, involving two or more countries, could also offer advantages especially to countries that have no or limited nuclear programs, insofar as it would provide a safe and less costly solution for all parties."

In mid-2003 Arius initiated the SAPIERR Pilot Project for European Regional Repositories, which obtained European Commission approval. This was undertaken over two years to 2005 to help the EC grapple with the regional repository issue as flagged earlier in the EC Radioactive Waste Directive. It allowed potential options for regional collaboration and for regional repositories to be identified, though it did not extend to site identification. Slovakia provided the project coordination.

Following this pilot study, in September 2006 a new EC-funded SAPIERR (Strategic Action Plan for Implementation of European Regional Repositories) project to assess the feasibility of European regional waste repositories was commenced, indicating a recognition in the EU that implementing 25 national repositories is not optimal economically or for safety and security.  The project was in line with proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia and the USA (with GNEP, now IFNEC) for multilateral cooperation in the fuel cycle in order to enhance global security.  Shared repositories for high-level nuclear wastes are an important element of this.

The SAPIERR project held its final symposium January 2009 in Brussels.  The results of studies on the viability of shared, regional European geological repositories were presented to 50 participants from 21 countries. The aspects considered included organisational and legal issues, economic impacts, safety and security considerations, and public and political attitudes to multinational repositories.

The main outcome of this was that 14 countries* resolved to move towards setting up a European Repository Development Organisation (ERDO). The first step in the strategy was the establishment of a self-financing Working Group (ERDO-WG) of interested countries in 2009 to prepare a consensus model to be agreed for ERDO, using the SAPIERR findings as a starting point. It proposes a sister organisation to waste agencies from European countries that have opted for a purely national repository program. This model was presented to potentially interested countries, and internal discussions are still in progress in several of these on adopting the multinational solution as one option when responding to the requirements placed on EU member states by the EC Waste Directive of 2011.** Some member states have already decided to follow this course. The ERDO-WG secretariat is provided by ARIUS, Switzerland and the administration by the Netherlands waste agency, COVRA.

* Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, though Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia subsequently did not continue in the ongoing ERDO-WG.

** At the end of 2011, the ERDO Working Group, led by representatives of the Dutch and Slovakian national programs, prepared a set of documents outlining the possible structure, operating methods and financing options for a formal, multinational, European waste management agency (the ERDO). These documents were submitted to all EU governments that might be interested in actively participating in the preparation of this next step, and also provided as information to those European countries, such as Sweden, Finland and France, that have decided on purely national approaches to managing their radioactive wastes. Discussions with potential participants have been underway since 2012, and a number of positive responses received. In December 2013 the EC, the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF) Waste Group and the ERDO-WG organised a meeting in Luxembourg to consider how to help all EU member states meet the requirements set by the EC Waste Directive of 2011. The meeting addressed the fact that some EU member states are not well equipped to meet Waste Directive targets, but could develop a common program for addressing many of its requirements. This led in June 2014 to a presentation to the European Parliament Working Party on Atomic Questions on the COMS-WD (Cooperation between Member States Responding to the Waste Directive) proposal.

In September 2014 Arius together with European partners submitted the COMS-WD proposal to the €80 billion Horizon 2020 EU research and innovation program. Nine EU countries (Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Slovenia) and the Joint Research Centre Institute for Transuranium Elements (JRC-ITU) were involved with Arius in this. JRC-ITU involvement is to ensure continued cooperation with other EU projects. However, the proposal was rejected as being ‘out of scope’ for Horizon 2020. Nevertheless, the multinational or dual-track option is being included by some countries in their strategies responding to the Waste Directive – Netherlands and Slovenia so far.

ARIUS and the Gulf

Alongside ERDO, Arius is evaluating whether similar, regional shared solutions would be appropriate for and of interest to emerging nuclear power programs in the Gulf, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and also SE Asia. The overall aim is to assess the interest within each region of working towards Regional Repository Development Organizations (RDOs) similar to the Europe's ERDO.  A scoping study was completed in 2011 and funding for a further two-year project was awarded in mid-2011 by two US Foundations. In 2011 the UAE's permanent representative to the IAEA raised the possibility of a regional repository and said that "Among GCC countries there is potential for a lot of co-operation in this area, including waste management and waste disposal."

In April 2012, an initial meeting took place in Abu Dhabi, hosted by the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and supported by the IAEA. Around 35 participants attended, primarily from UAE waste management and planning organisations. UAE was an obvious host for a first meeting since it has the most advanced nuclear power programme in the region and has also formally committed to a “dual track” radioactive waste management strategy that involves developing a national storage and disposal program in parallel with exploring regional cooperation options. A follow up to the Abu Dhabi meeting was in November 2012 in Tunisia, hosted by the Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA), with a widened group of participating MENA countries. In the six countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council region, which includes two nations with expanding nuclear power programs (the UAE and Saudi Arabia), consideration is also being given to launching a joint project on the feasibility of shared storage and/or disposal facilities. Further discussion has followed, including at a January 2015 workshop in Abu Dhabi.

Arius estimated that the cost of such a shared regional repository in the Middle East might be $4 billion, but would offer a large payback in the form of regional security. It would not be needed before about 2080.

The European and MENA initiatives will act as role models for a possible SE Asian initiative, where interest has been shown by representatives of potential nuclear power newcomer nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam and where involvement with the mature nuclear power programmes of the region (e.g. in the Republic of Korea and Taiwan) will add an extra dimension to the issue. Following a January 2014 meeting in Indonesia, further meetings are envisaged.

An EU group, the Implementing of Geological Disposal of radwaste Technology Platform (IGD-TP) was established in 2009 by several EU organisations to support research related to its vision and assist the various EU programs. It does not have government-level representation but is partly funded by the EU.

Fuel Leasing

There have been a number of proposals for fuel leasing. At present the normal process is that a utility buys uranium from a mining company, then gets it converted, enriched and fabricated, before using it and discharging the used fuel. That used fuel becomes the responsibility of the country in which it has been used, as outlined in the first three paragraphs of this paper.

Fuel leasing is an alternative concept whereby the utility leases its fabricated fuel from a supplier, probably in another country, and after it has been used that supplier takes it back. This concept is not yet in use except for some very limited applications, mainly for Russian-built nuclear power plants in NPT non-weapons states (e.g. India, Iran). The supplier would then add the leased used fuel to its own larger stocks to be stored for later disposal or reprocessing and recycling, in which case the valuable components would belong to the fuel supplier/leaser.

The concept was part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (now IFNEC) launched in 2006, in order to restrict the spread of sensitive technologies such as enrichment, but it did not come to fruition under that program. Of all the nuclear suppliers, Russia has expressed the most support for fuel leasing and take-back. Russia’s fuel supply contract with Iran involves leasing, and Iran is required to send the used fuel back to Russia. Russian law allows import of foreign used fuel for reprocessing and the return of wastes (as with reprocessing other countries' used fuel in France and Britain), and Russia's default position in supplying reactors to non nuclear weapons states is to take back Russian-origin fuel without requiring return of the wastes, as with Iran.

The Pangea proposal

A major research program in the 1990s by Pangea Resources, a UK-based company, identified Australia, southern Africa, Argentina and western China as having the most appropriate geological credentials for a deep geologic repository, with Australia being favoured on economic and political grounds. It would be located where the geology has been stable for several hundred million years, so that there need not be total reliance on a robust engineered barrier system to keep the waste securely isolated for thousands of years.

It would be a commercial undertaking and would have dedicated port and rail infrastructure. It would take spent fuel and other wastes from commercial reactors, and possibly also material from weapons disposal programs.

Pangea summed up the situation thus:
"By taking a fresh look at the reasons for the difficulties which have faced most national repository programs, and discarding the preconception that each country must develop its own disposal facilities, it is possible to define a class of simple, superior high-isolation sites which may provide a multinational basis for solving the nuclear waste disposal problem.

"The relatively small volumes of high-level wastes or spent fuel which arise from nuclear power production make shared repositories a feasible proposition. For small countries, the economies of scale which can be achieved make the concept attractive. For all countries, objective consideration of the relative merits of national and multi-national solutions is a prudent part of planning the management of long-lived radioactive wastes."

Early in 1999 Pangea Resources released its project proposal to the Australian public, expecting this "to initiate discussions which will enable us to more fully assess the feasibility and strategy of our proposal ... on (its) merits." The initial response from the federal government however was to reiterate Australia's long-standing and bipartisan policy of not importing nuclear wastes and saying that there was no immediate intention of considering such a proposal.

Then, after only cursory consideration, the Western Australian parliament passed a Bill to make it illegal to dispose of foreign high-level waste in the state without specific parliamentary approval. Pangea continued its geological investigations in that state while extending its feasibility study to other potential host regions.

Pangea objectives

The following were Pangea's objectives, but they are relevant to future proposals:

  • To site a deep geologic disposal facility in a region where the geology and biosphere conditions meet the test of simplicity coupled with robustness.

This is required to demonstrate that the performance of the facility from a safety standpoint will meet the highest international standards and international safeguard requirements.

In addition to its ideal geological characteristics, the host country should preferably be a first-world, stable democracy, familiar with high-technology enterprises. The basic technology envisaged is a multibarrier system similar to that envisaged in most countries with advanced plans for such high-level waste disposal, and as implemented for intermediate-level wastes.

  • To create a facility for deep geological disposal capable of accepting spent fuel, vitrified high-level waste, long-lived intermediate-level waste, and appropriately conditioned long-lived nuclear materials, such as immobilised plutonium.

To the degree necessary, the disposal facility would also have short-term storage capability to allow imported nuclear materials to reach a cool and safe condition for disposal.

  • To provide an economic and environmentally responsible disposal option.
  • To provide a safe and secure transportation service to the repository location.
  • To provide the host country with the opportunity to gain substantial economic benefits and to play an important role in enhancing security and non-proliferation efforts for the benefit of all nations.

Pangea's strategy implied that the geological barrier can be the primary safety barrier, in contrast to some other potential repository concepts where the waste form and the engineered barriers are required to be more dominant. There is a side benefit in that less complex and less expensive engineered barriers may be sufficient. Pangea also saw a potential public acceptance benefit, in that reliance on a simple geological barrier might be more readily understood and accepted.

The decision to concentrate effort on Australia was the result of adding in to the fundamental safety arguments considerations of a societal and political nature and to a lesser extent economics. The end result is that Pangea focused on extensive contiguous sedimentary basins extending from central Western Australia into northern South Australia.

Outline of proposed Pangea project

The Pangea concept envisaged a dedicated port and rail link to an inland repository site covering perhaps 5 sq km on the surface and 20 sq km underground (500 metres down). There would be a fleet of 35 dedicated and purpose-built ships at any one time.

Pangea's business plan was based on taking 75,000 tonnes of spent fuel and high-level waste from reprocessing spent fuel, plus some intermediate-level wastes from decommissioning nuclear facilities, over some 40 years. Spent fuel would be shipped to the facility at a rate of about 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes per year once it was fully operational. This rate is about 20% of the spent fuel generated annually by commercial reactors around the world, or to put it another way, the repository is designed to take 25% of the world's civil waste inventory at the time it opens. The projected size of the repository is thus similar to that proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The capital cost was estimated at US$ 6 billion, with some US$ 400 million per year operating cost. An Access Economics study projected total export revenues over 40 years of about US$ 100 billion, with payments to governments of about $50 billion (1998 dollars) before considering multiplier effects. This would have added about one percent to the Australian GNP. The project envisaged establishment of a shipyard and foundry for the manufacture of 70 specialised ships and some 3000 large stainless steel transport casks as well as port and fleet maintenance facilities. Direct employment would be about 2000, indirect about 6000 people.

While the concept is aimed at nuclear waste generated by countries other than the USA, though that country would need to be closely involved because through Non-Proliferation Treaty provisions it controls some 60% of the nuclear fuel worldwide and would have to authorise any international movement of it.

The commercial scheme would also provide the repository which can be used to dispose of unwanted nuclear materials from disarmament, which was seen as a major spin-off. These would include excess plutonium from nuclear weapons either in spent mixed oxide fuel or in the Synroc-based ceramic developed by ANSTO and chosen in 1998 by the US Department of Energy as the wasteform to immobilise some of its excess weapons plutonium.

Australian antecedents

The Pangea proposal had Australian antecedents. For instance, in 1983 the Labor government commissioned a report from the Australian Science and Technology Council on Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle. The 1984 ASTEC report recommended not only proceeding with uranium mining, but also becoming involved with other stages of the fuel cycle such as enrichment. It also flagged the "particular need for international collaboration in developing (high-level) waste management programs" and the desirability of enabling access to the highest quality geological sites for disposal of those wastes (para 2.3.51).

The Pangea concept can be traced to the Synroc Study Group, which began its activities in late December 1988. The Synroc Study Group was a vehicle set up by the Australian government to study the commercial potential for Synroc in a global context. It was conducted by four leading Australian resource companies, assisted by ANSTO and the Research School of Earth Sciences at at the Australian National University.

It is not current government policy to import nuclear waste into Australia, and this has been reiterated several times by government sources. In order for any repository proposal to be successful in any country, it would have to receive various government permits and meet full-scale licensing and environmental impact requirements in its host country.

In the event, the proposal proved to be ahead of its time for Australia, and apparently elsewhere.

Relationship to national programs

There has been some disquiet regarding both the Pangea and other international repository development proposals. There are two sources of this. One is from countries which are developing high-level waste facilities, where concern is expressed that foreign wastes may be imported to help fund those facilities without the endorsement of the citizens. Such fears are easily incited.

The second is that international proposals will erode the will of national governments to grapple responsibly with their own wastes, and provide a 'cop-out'. Prospects of a politically easier or economically better external solution might reduce commitment to implementing a national solution.

There are in fact a number of national programs for waste disposal now emerging, but there also remains much scope for international projects, particularly on a regional basis, as with other aspects of the fuel cycle. This is underlined by developments since 2003 - see above.

Russian plans 2001-06

In 2001 the Russian parliament (Duma) passed legislation to allow the import of spent nuclear fuel. The President signed this into law and set up a special commission to approve and oversee such imports. The commission would have 20 members, five each from the Duma, the Council (upper house), the government and presidential nominees. It would be chaired by Dr Zhores Alferoy, a parliamentarian who is also Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Nobel Prize physicist.

In 2003 Krasnokamensk was suggested as the site for a major spent fuel repository - it is a city 7000 km east of Moscow in the Chita region and is a centre for uranium mining and milling, the mines being run by the Priargunsky Combine.

This scheme was progressed in 2005 when the Duma ratified the Vienna Convention on civil liability for nuclear damage. However in July 2006 Rosatom announced it would not proceed with taking any foreign-origin used fuel.

See also Appendix 2.


Pangea papers presented in Tucson 1 & 3/3/99 and Darwin 30/3/99:
ARIUS Newsletters
McCombie, C. & Stoll, R. 2002, International and Regional Repositories - The Key Questions, Radwaste Solutions, March-April 2002.
McCombie, C & Chapman, N. 2002, Regional & International Repositories: not if, but how and when, WNA Symposium.

MCombie, C. 2009, Responsible expansion of nuclear power requires global cooperation on spent-fuel management, Innovations 4,4, 2009, pp 209-212.

Appendix 1:

Final Report of the MNA Expert Group of the IAEA, 2005

The Multinational Approaches Expert Group (MNA) was set up by IAEA Director General ElBaradei in order to advise the Agency on how multinational initiatives could help enhance global nuclear security. The Group included senior representatives from 26 countries. It held 4 meetings, each a week long, within its year of operation and presented its final recommendations on 22 February 2005.

The topics covered included all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, with most emphasis on the especially sensitive technologies such as uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing. The topics of greatest relevance for Arius - storage and disposal of sent fuel and radioactive wastes - were also prominent, however.

In the following, Arius have selected those passages that are of most direct relevance to its work. These sections are directly related to earlier statement from the Director-General in which he has emphasised the need to consider the merits of multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. He has pointed out that not all countries have the appropriate conditions for geologic disposal ?and that , for many countries with small nuclear programs for electricity generation or for research, the financial and human resource investments required for research, construction and operation of a geologic disposal facility are not available. Accordingly, the Director-General had already concluded that considerable economic, safety, security and non-proliferation advantages may therefore accrue from international cooperation on the construction and operation of international nuclear spent fuel and waste repositories.

The following is composed of extracts quoted directly from the Executive Summary of the published report.

The background to the study

The decades long nuclear non-proliferation effort is under threat: from regional arms races; from actions by non-nuclear weapon States (NNWS) that have been found to be in fundamental breach of, or in non-compliance with their safeguards agreement, and which have not taken full corrective measures; from the incomplete manner in which export controls required by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) have been applied; from burgeoning and alarmingly well organised nuclear supply networks; and from the increasing risk of acquisition of nuclear or other radioactive materials by terrorist and other non-State entities.

A different significant factor is that the civilian nuclear industry appears to be poised for worldwide expansion. Rapidly growing global demand for electricity, the uncertainty of supply and price of natural gas, soaring prices for oil, concerns about air pollution and the immense challenge of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, are all forcing a fresh look at nuclear power. As the technical and organisational foundations of nuclear safety improve, there is increasing confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants. In light of existing, new and reawakened interest in many regions of the world, the prospect of new nuclear power stations on a large scale is therefore real. A greater number of States will consider developing their own fuel cycle facilities and nuclear know-how, and will seek assurances of supply in materials, services and technologies.

The task and the approach chosen by the MNA Group

The mandate of the Expert Group was three-fold:

  • To identify and provide an analysis of issues and options relevant to multilateral approaches to the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle.
  • To provide an overview of the policy, legal, security, economic, institutional and technological incentives and disincentives for cooperation in multilateral arrangements for the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle.
  • To provide a brief review of the historical and current experiences and analyses relating to multilateral fuel cycle arrangements relevant to the work of the expert group.

Two primary deciding factors dominate all assessments of multilateral nuclear approaches, namely "Assurance of non-proliferation" and "Assurance of supply and services". Both are recognised overall objectives for governments and for the NPT community. In practice, each of these two objectives can seldom be achieved fully on its own. History has shown that it is even more difficult to find an optimum arrangement that will satisfy both objectives at the same time. As a matter of fact, multilateral approaches could be a way to satisfy both objectives.

The "Assurance of supply" value of a multilateral arrangement is measured by the associated incentives, such as the guarantees provided by suppliers, governments and international organisations; the economic benefits that would be gained by countries participating in multilateral arrangements, and the better political and public acceptance for such nuclear projects. One of the most critical steps is to devise effective mechanisms for assurances of supply of material and services, which are commercially competitive, free of monopolies and free of political constraints. Effective assurances of supply would have to include back-up sources of supply in the event that an MNA supplier is unable to provide the required material or services.

Whether for uranium enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing, or spent fuel disposal and storage, multilateral options span the entire field between existing market mechanisms and a complete co-ownership of fuel cycle facilities. The following pattern reflects this diversity:
Type I: Assurances of services not involving ownership of facilities.
Type II: Conversion of existing national facilities to multinational facilities.
Type III: Construction of new joint facilities.

On the basis of this pattern, the Group reviewed the pros and cons associated with each type and option. Pros and cons were defined relative to a "non-MNA choice", namely that of a national facility under current safeguards.

Spent fuel disposal

At present there is no international market for spent fuel disposal services, as all undertakings are strictly national. The final disposal of spent fuel is thus a candidate for multilateral approaches. It offers major economic benefits and substantial non-proliferation benefits, although it presents legal, political and public acceptance challenges in many countries. The Agency should continue its efforts in that direction by working on all the underlying factors, and by assuming political leadership to encourage such undertakings.

The final disposal of spent fuel (and radioactive waste as well) in shared repositories must be looked at as only one element of a broader strategy of parallel options. National solutions will remain a first priority in many countries. This is the only approach for States with many nuclear power plants in operation or in past operation. For others with smaller civilian nuclear programmes, a dual-track approach is needed in which both national and international solutions are pursued. Small countries should keep options open (national, regional or international), be it only to maintain a minimum national technical competence necessary to act in an international context.

Spent fuel storage

Storage facilities for spent fuel are in operation and are being built in several countries. There is no international market for services in this area, except for the readiness of the Russian Federation to receive Russian-supplied fuel, and with a possible offer to do so for other spent fuel. The storage of spent fuel is also a candidate for multilateral approaches, primarily at the regional level. Storage of special nuclear materials in a few safe and secure facilities would enhance safeguards and physical protection. The IAEA should continue investigations in that field and encourage such undertakings. Various countries with state-of-the-art storage facilities in operation should step forward and accept spent fuel from others for interim storage.

Combined option: fuel-leasing/fuel take-back

In this model, the leasing State provides the fuel through an arrangement with its own nuclear fuel "vendors". At the time the government of the leasing State issues an export license to its fuel "vendor" corporation to send fresh fuel to a client reactor, that government would also announce its plan for the management of that fuel once discharged. Without a specific spent fuel management scheme by the leasing State, the lease deal will of course not take place. The leased fuel once removed from the reactor and cooled down, could either be returned to its country of origin which owns title to it, or, through an IAEA-brokered deal could be sent to a third party State or to a multinational or a regional fuel cycle centre located elsewhere for storage and ultimate disposal.

The weak part in the arrangement outlined above is the willingness, indeed the political capability, of the leasing State to take-back the spent fuel it has provided under the lease contract. It could well be politically difficult for any State to accept spent fuel not coming from its own reactors (that is, reactors producing electricity for the direct benefit of its own citizens). Yet, to make any lease-take-back deal credible, an ironclad guarantee of spent fuel removal from the country where it was used must be provided, otherwise the entire arrangement is moot. In this respect, States with suitable disposal sites, and with grave concerns about proliferation risks, ought to be proactive in putting forward solutions. Of course, commitment of client States to forego enrichment and reprocessing would make such undertakings politically more tolerable.

As an alternative, the IAEA could broker the creation of multinational or regional spent fuel storage facilities, where spent fuel owned by leasing States and burned elsewhere could be sent. The IAEA could thus become an active participant in regional spent fuel storage facilities, or third party spent fuel disposal schemes, thereby making lease-take-back fuel supply arrangements more credible propositions.

Conclusions of the Expert Group

The potential benefits of MNAs for the non-proliferation regime are both symbolic and practical. As a confidence-building measure, multilateral approaches can provide enhanced assurance to the partners and to the international community that the most sensitive parts of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle are less vulnerable to misuse for weapon purposes. Joint facilities with multinational staff put all MNA participants under a greater degree of scrutiny from peers and partners and may also constitute an obstacle against a breakout by the host partner. They also reduce the number of sites where sensitive facilities are operated, thereby curbing proliferation risks, and diminishing the number of locations subject to potential thefts of sensitive material.

Moreover, these approaches can even help in creating a better acceptance for the continued use of nuclear power and for nuclear applications, and enhance the prospects for the safe and environmentally sound storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.

As far as assurances of supply are concerned, multilateral approaches could also provide the benefits of cost-effectiveness and economies of scale for whole regions, for smaller countries or for those with limited resources. Similar benefits have been derived in the context of other technology sectors, such as aviation and aerospace. However, the case to be made in favour of MNAs is not entirely straightforward. States with differing levels of technology, different degrees of institutionalisation, economic development and resources and competing political considerations may not all reach the same conclusions as to the benefits, convenience and desirability of MNAs. Some might argue that multilateral approaches point to the loss or limitation of State sovereignty and independent ownership and control of a key technology sector, leaving unfairly the commercial benefits of these technologies to just a few countries. Others might argue that multilateral approaches could lead to further dissemination of, or loss of control over, sensitive nuclear technologies, and result in higher proliferation risks.

In order to maintain momentum, the Group recommends that attention be given - by the IAEA Member States, by the IAEA itself, by the nuclear industry and by other nuclear organisations - to multilateral nuclear approaches in general and to the five approaches suggested below.

Five suggested approaches

The objective of increasing non-proliferation assurances associated with the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, while preserving assurances of supply and services around the world could be achieved through a set of gradually introduced multilateral nuclear approaches (MNA):

1. Reinforcing existing commercial market mechanisms on a case-by-case basis through long-term contracts and transparent suppliers' arrangements with government backing. Examples would be: fuel leasing and fuel take-back offers, commercial offers to store and dispose of spent fuel, as well as commercial fuel banks.

2. Developing and implementing international supply guarantees with IAEA participation. Different models should be investigated, notably with the IAEA as guarantor of service supplies, e.g. as administrator of a fuel bank.

3. Promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities to MNAs, and pursuing them as confidence-building measures, with the participation of NPT non-nuclearweapon States and nuclear-weapon States, and non-NPT States.

4. Creating, through voluntary agreements and contracts, multinational, and in particular regional, MNAs for new facilities based on joint ownership, drawing rights or co-management for front-end and back-end nuclear facilities, such as uranium enrichment; fuel reprocessing; disposal and storage of spent fuel (and combinations thereof). Integrated nuclear power parks would also serve this objective.

5. The scenario of a further expansion of nuclear energy around the world might call for the development of a nuclear fuel cycle with stronger multilateral arrangements – by region or by continent – and for broader cooperation, involving the IAEA and the international community.



Appendix 2:
From Arius Newsletter #11, October 2005.


Nine requirements to develop an international repository in Russia

Neil Chapman and Charles McCombie

Arius is simultaneously promoting both of the multinational disposal models that were defined in last year's seminal IAEA report (IAEA, 2004) - regional repositories, shared by cooperating partners (e.g. the SAPIERR initiative), and international disposal facilities, provided as a service by a large nuclear country. As is well known, the only option of the second type that is currently being discussed is the possibility of spent fuel storage in the Russian Federation. The storage proposal is currently rather general and was re-stated most recently in July by Aleksandr Rumyantsev, head of Rosatom, at the Moscow Rosatom-IAEA Conference, described earlier in this Newsletter. It would involve using surplus capacity at the state-owned Mining and Chemical Processing Plant, an underground facility for spent nuclear fuel storage, disposal, reprocessing and transportation, near Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia.

The concept of a Russian storage and/or disposal facility is regarded with suspicion by the majority of people - owing to the unenviable record of environmental pollution in the former Soviet Union, its poor nuclear industry safety performance, and the continuing lack of transparency and variable integrity of Russia's industrial and financial systems. What would it take to alleviate these suspicions and make a sceptical international community 100% confident? This Topical Article presents our views as nine key requirements that we believe would have to be met to make the 'Russian Option' an attractive and achievable solution. It is based upon a longer, invited article to be published in the Safety Barriers magazine (Radon Press) in Russia, later this year.


Multinational initiatives to facilitate safeguards, provide increased nuclear security and guarantee the supply of fuel cycle services to countries with nuclear power programmes are very much at the forefront of international discussion (IAEA, 2005; McCombie and Chapman, 2004). Non-proliferation is a key issue in current deliberations on global security within the United Nations. Although the most urgent security and non-proliferation issues are concerned with the front end of the fuel cycle, it is equally important to ensure that spent fuel is properly managed. A major international workshop held in Moscow this July (see Newsletter item in this issue) explored many of the issues involved and focussed in particular on the role that the Russian Federation could play in providing facilities that would improve global control of spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes.

Suggestions have been made from time to time by Russia concerning the possibility of long-term or permanent spent fuel storage services. The current focus is on using the Krasnoyarsk facility as an international store and, possibly, as a final repository for spent fuel. Under existing national legislation, Russia could import spent fuel for:

  • long-term storage, with eventual return to the sender;
  • storage, with regeneration of light water reactor fuel for re-use in new generation reactors, perhaps in Russia (thus possibly entailing no return requirement to the sender);
  • storage, with reprocessing and return of some of the ensuing wastes to the sender.

Each option is economically attractive for Russia since they all provide either income from provision of services or fuel for the future, or both. However, at present, the law does not allow import for eventual disposal.

Arius is supportive of developing a Russian option that would be attractive to potential users and which would satisfy international requirements for safety and security. Success for such an initiative will require a range of important international stakeholders to be highly comfortable with what is offered and with the conditions attached. In addition to the technical aspects, complex political, societal and security issues are at stake. As stated in a paper by Alex Burkart (US State Department) at the July symposium in Moscow:
"The overriding principle for State-to-State transfers of nuclear waste are established both in an IAEA Code of Practice and the Provisions of the Joint Convention. A sending State should ship waste or spent fuel only with the consent of the receiving State and only after satisfying itself that the receiving State has the administrative and technical capacity, as well as the regulatory structure, needed to manage the waste or spent fuel safely. Similarly, the receiving State should only consent to receiving the waste or spent fuel if it can satisfy itself that it can meet those requirements. This means that shipments of spent fuel and nuclear waste fall clearly under State jurisdiction and reflect a State's policy. While technical factors are important in evaluating a proposal, political factors always count in State decisions as well."

Nine requirements

We believe that nine key requirements will need to be met for the Russian proposals to have any realistic chance of success and international acceptance:

1. Import of spent fuel for disposal, as well as storage, should be permissible. A new law will be required in the Russian Federation to allow disposal of fuel that is not to be, or cannot be, recycled (reprocessed or regenerated). Potential users of a Russian service are unlikely to wish to receive fuel back after interim storage. A major attraction of an international facility is that provisions for long-term storage and disposal do not have to be made in one's own country, thus avoiding the high costs of a national repository and also reducing many of the political and societal problems entailed in siting such facilities. In addition, this would allow accommodation with the United States over the fate of US-flagged fuel. In the words of Burkart's paper:
"Before approving new arrangements for the retransfer of any spent fuel containing U.S.-origin nuclear material, the United States would almost certainly need to be assured that the spent fuel was destined for eventual disposal and not for reprocessing. A permanent repository need not be available at the time of the export, and long-term interim storage could be part of any scheme. But the scheme should also involve specific plans for, and the commitment of sufficient resources to, development of a geologic repository."

2. A geological disposal option (not only for spent fuel, but also for vitrified high-level wastes and other long-lived wastes) should be part of the package. As noted above, any country that does not want to build a repository for spent fuel will not want to have to build one for returned reprocessing wastes or for its other long-lived wastes. Russia needs to be prepared to retain HLW from reprocessing of foreign spent fuel, to accept high level wastes that customer countries may already have received from other reprocessing countries and to accept other long-lived wastes from customer countries. The service should thus be complete, so that countries can use it for all their wastes that will require deep disposal.

3. International acceptability is essential, in particular to the European Union and the United States. Disposal outside the EU is not current EU policy and the USA has strict requirements (mentioned above) with US-flagged materials. Any country (or group of countries) would have to present the scheme's credentials to their own public and institutions with great commitment. Acceptability will depend upon the scheme being openly executed to the highest technical standards being developed internationally, using appropriate best available technology and being subject to international monitoring. At present, politicians and the public tend to prefer national options, arguing that this enables closer control of possible environmental and safety impacts. It will only be possible to gain support for export if Russia can demonstrate clearly that there will be no relaxation of standards.

4. Economic advantages for user and supplier. Any scheme must benefit both implementer and user economically. If the previous requirements are met, Russia stands to benefit substantially by charging appropriate rates for a service not currently available anywhere else. The approach to compensating host communities willing to accept an international responsibility needs to be set out clearly, so that users are convinced of the equity of the scheme. Offering a service that enhances global security and helps small countries to meet their waste management responsibilities can also bring significant political advantages. Users should be prepared to pay for avoiding the problems and unpredictable costs of running their own national disposal programmes, which can take decades and might never even reach a successful conclusion. Disposal prices will thus be significant but, owing to the huge economies of scale in repository implementation (e.g. see figure on page 2 of this Newsletter), they may still be less than small nuclear countries would have to pay for a national repository.

5. Long-term availability of facilities should be guaranteed for user countries. The facilities offered by Russia may be unique. If so, they need to be available over the period that wastes will be generated by user countries, so that all wastes for geological disposal can be exported - otherwise their national problems are not solved. This point is very important for some Central and Eastern European countries that began a nuclear power programme under the assumption that spent fuel would be returned to the USSR ?an option that was later withdrawn.

6. International support and recognition. If the scheme proves internationally acceptable (point 3, above) then the major nuclear nations and international agencies and associations (IAEA, OECD-NEA, WNA) should throw their weight behind it, acknowledging that Russia would be providing a service that will enhance global security and safety. These organisations can promote groups to help establish and guard the rights of the various parties to any waste transfer agreements.

7. Transparent project management. Information on the way that the scheme is managed, along with all its significant technical, societal and economic aspects, should be available to interested parties. Public and political communication should have high priority in Russia and internationally. The acceptability of the project to national and local stakeholders in Russia needs to be clear. An analogue for major international services being provided by one or a few countries is reprocessing, where customers countries have formally joined together to require extensive access to information from the reprocessors. A similar arrangement may be appropriate for disposal and Arius could be a pre-cursor for such a group.

8. Use of best knowledge and expertise. Transparency and international standards will be achieved by ensuring direct participation of the best international technical expertise. The Russian scheme should be a truly international project, generating wide enthusiasm in the global scientific and technical community. Russia could take the initiative by establishing credible advisory groups at the outset, including internationally recognized experts in the disposal area.

9. Active involvement of the IAEA in establishing the project and, later, in an oversight monitoring role, will underwrite its overall credibility. The IAEA has already expressed its interest in the monitoring function.

Satisfying each of these nine requirements presents its own challenges, especially since some of the main players have very different views on them. But each of the key players needs to be confident and convinced, which requires their involvement in setting up such a scheme. Purely unilateral initiatives (in Russia or elsewhere) will probably not succeed - a proper multinational approach is absolutely essential.

We believe that, given the encouraging developments within Russia, the key players should now join in a free and open discussion to develop plans for how a specific project can be established - a project that addresses each requirement head-on.

The immediate objective should be to produce:

  • an agreed set of requirements that an international repository must fulfil;
  • a project plan, which, over several years, would lead to implementation of such a repository;
  • recommendations for specific actions by national and international organisations so that the first steps can be taken towards this implementation.

We hope that 2006 will see such an initiative take shape, with Arius taking a role in promoting it, alongside our activities in shared regional solutions.

IAEA (2004). Developing and Implementing Multinational Repositories: infrastructural framework and scenarios of co-operation. TECDOC 1413
IAEA (2005) Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
McCombie, C. and Chapman, N. (2004). Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centres - an Old and New Idea. Annual Symposium of the World Nuclear Association, London, 8-10 September 2004.

You may also be interested in