Ellen Tauscher outlines U.S. policies on nuclear fuel cycle

On 19 January 2010, Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, gave a presentation at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University entitled "Addressing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Internationalizing Enrichment Services and Solving the Problem of Spent Fuel Storage."

She outlined the progress made in providing assurances of reliable fuel supply, in particular the approval by the IAEA Board of Governors of the Russian fuel bank proposal, and indicated that the United States will work to get IAEA approval of the NTI fuel bank proposal in the spring of 2010.

Speaking of fuel banks and other guaranteed fuel supply arrangements, Tauscher identified "the IAEA's perceived need to determine eligibility only on the basis of the record of compliance with safeguards" as the very first challenge these arrangements have to deal with. It is not clear whether she was saying that the U.S. administration believes that consideration other than a country's compliance with IAEA safeguards have to be taken into account in determining eligibility for fuel supply from a bank.

Tauscher indicated that the U.S. administration is skeptical about multinational enrichment facilities, citing the challenges of integrating them into the established commercial market and a potential problems with control over the technology.

On the issue of spent fuel management, she admitted that the two key options that are currently considered - isolation in a geologic repository and use of MOX fuel in light-water reactors - are "unattractive". In particular, she mentioned the problem of civilian plutonium:

Reprocessing does not significantly reduce the waste burden, but passes it on in the spent MOX. And reprocessing has resulted in large and growing stocks of separated plutonium - about 250 tons, and growing about 10 tons per year. The growing worldwide stockpiles of separated plutonium as a byproduct of reprocessing used civil reactor fuel represent one of our greatest nonproliferation problems.

She said that the U.S. administration supports research in fast and high-temperature reactors as one approach to dealing with the issue.

Tauscher indicated that meanwhile the administration supports the solutions that involve interim (retrievable) dry storage of spent fuel as well as those that involve establishment of regional or international interim storage facilities. She said that there is a clear potential in "fuel lease and take-back" arrangements, but admitted that the United States is unable to take its spent fuel back.

(with Mycle Schneider)