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Winter 2009 Vol. 8 Number 3

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©Sanford/Agliolo/Corbis Fueling the 'Nuclear Renaissance'

Driven by a growing need for energy and the high prices of fossil fuels, more than two dozen nations around the world -- from Belarus to Vietnam to Egypt -- are considering nuclear energy or have announced plans to build their first nuclear power plants. While nuclear energy could provide more countries with reliable, low-carbon-emissions power, its wider use could also have a dangerous downside. Nations that build facilities to enrich uranium themselves for nuclear fuel would then have a facility that could also be used to enrich uranium for bombs. How can the international community accommodate the growth of nuclear power while discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons?

Assuring a reliable supply of nuclear fuel would give nations less incentive to build their own uranium-enrichment plants, says a new joint report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Despite an ample supply of nuclear fuel available on the international market, "newcomer" nations may fear that relying on other countries could leave them vulnerable to being cut off if political tensions flare.

The international community should continue to explore a broad menu of ways to provide assurances against political disruptions of supply, the report says. And over time, nations should work to create a global system of international centers that can handle uranium enrichment, management of spent fuel, and other parts of the fuel cycle that pose security risks. Countries will likely feel more sure of a stable fuel supply if they are part-owners of these centers, which would also let many more nations share in the profits of uranium enrichment.

The chief disadvantage of these centers is that sensitive technology and knowledge could leak and contribute to a nation's attempt to build nuclear weapons, the report cautions. The U.S. and Russia should work diligently with other countries to create specific, stringent plans to keep this from happening.

Agreeing to take back spent fuel for disposal or reprocessing could be an even stronger inducement for nations not to build their own enrichment facilities because it would let them avoid the security and environmental hazards of storing spent fuel, the report says. But it notes that taking another nation's nuclear waste is politically unpalatable for many countries. The U.S. and Russia should cooperate to lease fuel to newcomer nations for the lifetime of their reactors. For now, the spent fuel should be sent back to Russia -- which is further along in offering these services -- and to the U.S. as well, if it eventually becomes possible.   -- Sara Frueh

Internationalization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Goals, Strategies, and Challenges. U.S. Committee on the Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle, U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council; and Russian Committee on the Internationalization of the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Russian Academy of Sciences (2008, 206 pp.; ISBN 0-309-12660-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The study was co-chaired by John Ahearne, executive director emeritus, Sigma Xi, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; and Nikolay Laverov, vice president, Russian Academy of Sciences. The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences