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Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Working Paper

Published By

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, page(s): 44

April 2010


With the recent attention to new nuclear power, the challenge of managing the spread of nuclear technology has increased. At the same time, the growth of interest in nuclear power can serve as an important opportunity to improve the related safety, security, and nonproliferation regimes. One such opportunity arises in the context of the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, and the concern over how to mitigate the spread of enrichment and reprocessing, as well as how to store and ultimately dispose of spent nuclear fuel.

The first essay in this collection, "The Key Role of the Back-End in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" by Charles McCombie and Thomas Isaacs, has been reprinted from the Winter 2010 issue of Daedalus on the global nuclear future. It focuses on the proliferation concerns that arise from enrichment and reprocessing as well as on the opportunities at the back-end of the fuel cycle for regional and international initiatives that may help to assuage energy, security, and waste concerns. Managing the emerging nuclear order will require the development of a clear set of goals, in which the issues surrounding the back-end of the fuel cycle must be included and satisfactorily addressed. This essay seeks to contribute to those efforts.

It is followed by four new papers whose authors were invited to reflect on this issue and to share their thoughts on this topic. These new papers reflect a diversity of sources and opinions, in keeping with both the global importance of these questions and the benefits of developing an international perspective on how they might be addressed. The authors focus on various aspects of the challenges raised by the back-end of the fuel cycle and offer possible options for addressing these challenges.

This volume also includes an edited version of remarks made by Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security, at a January 2010 conference at the Hoover Institution. Tauscher's remarks underscore the shared sense of the importance of addressing the back-end of the fuel cycle, in government as well as within academic and other non-governmental circles. This importance cannot be overstated when considering the growth of nuclear power. As Tariq Rauf observes in his essay, most of the spent fuel around the world is kept at the nuclear power plants that have generated it. All of the authors, however, support the idea of moving from the current status quo toward some form of multinational or international approach to dealing with spent fuel, including the possibility of the establishment of international spent fuel repositories. Although Rauf notes the likelihood of strong public opposition to international repositories (based on the traditional resistance even to national repositories), Frank von Hippel observes that communities in Finland and Sweden that host nuclear power plants have actually volunteered to host underground repositories, suggesting that it may be possible for public opposition--even toward international repositories--eventually to be overcome.

Two of the authors (Frank von Hippel and Atsuyuki Suzuki) suggest that the United States should be the first to serve as a host for an international repository and take spent fuel from other countries with small programs, as a way both to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and to increase nuclear safety and security worldwide. Suzuki asserts that such an approach, by the United States, would serve as an "epoch-making opportunity for the [Obama] administration to take the leadership" on this issue.

The essays in this collection engage with the challenge of the back-end of the fuel cycle in very different ways, whether through a cross-comparison of the programs of Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Russia, or through a focus on the history and current role of international organizations in this area. All, however, are linked by a recognition that the back-end of the fuel cycle has often been overlooked in discussions of the anticipated nuclear renaissance. They also share a general support, in principle, for international approaches to the backend of the fuel cycle, although, as Noramly Bin Muslim points out, such approaches "by no means constitute a ‘magic bullet' that can solve nonproliferation problems."

This publication thus stands as the continuation of the conversation begun both by the special issues of Daedalus on the Global Nuclear Future and by a meeting sponsored by the Academy in Abu Dhabi on nuclear power in the Middle East. With a growing desire for development, and a reliable energy supply, comes the need for a global expansion in nuclear power. A serious discussion of all aspects of this expansion is necessary if it is to be managed safely and securely.

We hope that the papers contained herein contribute to that discussion and help to build the basis for a more sustainable international nuclear order.

Leslie Berkowitz
CEO, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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