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Nuclear Power Likely To Grow, Royal Society Says, So Nations Should Plan Ahead

Despite the ongoing events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Britain’s Royal Society, for one, believes that a renaissance of nuclear power construction is likely. If so, it says in a report released today, then governments and international bodies need to develop coherent long-term policies that take account of not just nuclear safety but also security, proliferation risk, and managing the whole fuel cycle from cradle to grave. “Spent fuel can no longer be an afterthought and governments worldwide need to face up to this issue,” Roger Cashmore, head of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority and chair of the Royal Society working group that drafted the report, said in a statement.

Some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have decided to abandon nuclear power and projections for growth are low in Europe and the United States. But elsewhere enthusiasm remains high. In China, Southeast Asia, and Russia, there are plans for dozens of new plants. The panel estimates that there could be 10 new nuclear nations by 2030.

The panel’s first recommendation is that all countries should place their civil nuclear programs under international safeguards run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so that spent fuel cannot be diverted for weapons use. Those countries that already have nuclear weapons should separate their civil and military nuclear programs. To make nuclear technology more easily available to countries without increasing proliferation risk, the report favors having countries that already have nuclear know-how offer cradle-to-grave fuel cycle services to those that don’t, so that spent fuel ends up in a country that can safely reprocess or store it. Some countries (the United States and Russia) have offered such services, as well as some companies.

The panel views the trend for nuclear industries to amalgamate into multinational companies as a positive development, bringing more transparency to the industry. It suggests the setting up of a World Nuclear Forum, made up of CEOs and government leaders, to discuss nuclear developments and responsibilities. Spent fuel, the panel says, should be reprocessed only when there is a clear plan for its use and that plan should minimize the amount of separated plutonium. Where plutonium is separated, it should be made into new mixed oxide fuel as soon as possible and reused in reactors designed for the purpose.

Learning the lessons of Fukushima, the panel says that only a minimal amount of spent fuel should be stored near reactors. Centralized stores away from reactors are more secure and, if the fuel must be stored in water, it recommends against packing it too densely. Dry storage is safer in the long run, it adds. But it is the responsibility of governments and the nuclear industry to plan for the final disposal of nuclear waste at the outset. “Fukushima has shown that we cannot be complacent about the safety of nuclear power. However, the same principle must apply to nuclear security and nonproliferation. Both governments and the nuclear industry need to seriously reassess their responsibilities in these areas,” Cashmore says.

Science Insider, 12 October 2011