This EOE article is adapted from an information paper published by the World Nuclear Association (WNA). WNA information papers are frequently updated, so for greater detail or more up to date numbers, please see the latest version on WNA website (link at end of article).
Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
- GNEP is a partnership of countries aiming to improve the proliferation-resistance of the nuclear fuel cycle while guaranteeing access to fuel supplies.
- It involves both political and technological initiatives, the latter mainly in relation to reprocessing and burning actinides in fast reactors.
- It is focused on limiting the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.
- In the US context, a major emphasis is closing the fuel cycle.
The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is a comprehensive strategy to expedite the development of nuclear power around the world while improving the use of resources and providing greater disincentives to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It was initiated by the USA early in 2006, but picked up on concerns and proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia. The vision was for a global network of nuclear fuel cycle facilities all under IAEA control or at least supervision.
GNEP is both a research and technology development initiative and an international policy initiative. It addresses the questions of how to use sensitive technologies responsibly in a way that protects global security, and also how to manage and recycle wastes more effectively and securely. The USA had a policy in place since 1977 which ruled out reprocessing used fuel, on non-proliferation grounds. Under GNEP, reprocessing is to be a means of avoiding proliferation, as well as addressing problems concerning high-level wastes. It is now a high priority of the US Department of Energy to develop and deploy advanced fuel cycle technologies on a commercial scale as soon as possible.
GNEP is an unprecedented alliance of nuclear energy leaders in both the East and the West. For the first time, both China and Japan have joined with Western governments to develop and deploy nuclear energy worldwide.
Broadly, GNEP’s mission is the global expansion of nuclear power in a safe and secure manner while reducing the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation and the spread of sensitive nuclear technology for non-peaceful purposes. The possible spread of nuclear material and technology for developing weapons of mass destruction must be countered to avoid increasing the present threat to global security.
A second issue addressed by GNEP is efficiency of the current nuclear fuel cycle. The USA, the largest producer of nuclear power, employs a "once through" fuel cycle. This practice only uses a part of the potential energy in the fuel, while effectively wasting substantial amounts of usable energy that could be tapped through recycling. The remaining fissionable material can be used to create additional power, rather than treating it as waste requiring long-term storage. Others, notably Europe and Japan, recycle some of the residual uranium and plutonium recovered from the used fuel in light water reactors. However, no one has yet employed a comprehensive technology that includes full actinide recycle.
In the USA this question is pressing since significant amounts of used nuclear fuel are stored in many locations around the country awaiting shipment to a planned geological repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This project is delayed, and in any case will fill very rapidly if it is used simply for used fuel rather than the much smaller volume of separated wastes after reprocessing it.
Another issue addressed by GNEP is the cost to develop and expand nuclear power. For developing nations seeking to make use of nuclear power for electricity generation, costs for establishing nuclear technology initially, including high capital costs and inefficiencies in the fuel cycle, make it less attractive then more traditional technologies. Nuclear programs require a high degree of technical and industrial expertise. This is a serious obstacle for emerging countries attempting to develop nuclear power, although efforts are underway to increase the number of indigenously-trained nuclear experts through a variety of education and training initiatives.
GNEP Parties and Rationale
At the first ministerial meeting in May 2007, the USA, China, France, Japan and Russia formally became the founding members of GNEP. Four of these are nuclear weapons states and thus have full fuel cycle experience and facilities, Japan also has full fuel cycle facilities as of 2007. The five are all major users of nuclear power.
At the second ministerial meeting in September 2007 the founders were joined by eleven other countries which signed the Statement of Principles (appended). The new members included Australia and Kazakhstan as significant uranium suppliers, Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and Ukraine as countries without major fuel cycle facilities but significantly dependent on nuclear power, Poland as an emerging nuclear energy country and Ghana and Jordan as countries further from having domestic nuclear power. Canada and UK were among those 22 other countries present as observers. Canada – the world's leading uranium supplier, South Korea and Italy joined later in 2007. The UK is expected to join in the future.
The Statement of Principles incorporates seven objectives which touch on each element of GNEP, and it establishes broad guidelines for participation. This document is the foundation and the archetype for all future involvement in the partnership.
Under GNEP, so-called 'fuel-cycle' nations would provide assured supplies of enriched nuclear fuel to client nations, which would generate electricity before returning the used fuel. It would then undergo advanced reprocessing so that uranium and plutonium it contained, plus long-lived minor actinides, could be recycled in advanced nuclear power reactors. Waste volumes and their radiological longevity would be greatly reduced by this process, and the wastes would end up either in the fuel cycle or user countries. Nuclear materials would never be outside the strictest controls, overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)IAEA. Two sensitive processes in particular would not need to be employed in most fuel cycle countries: enrichment and reprocessing. The limitation on these in other countries, by commercial dissuasion rather than outright prohibition, is at the heart of GNEP strategy.
A corollary of this dissuasion is that GNEP member nations would be assured of reliable and economic fuel supply under some IAEA arrangement yet to be specified.
GNEP is an equal and voluntary partnership which expects to benefit greatly from the vast experience in nuclear energy each member nation contributes. The partnership will also benefit from an unprecedented industry component, with the commercial sector poised to bring new technologies to market in the areas of fuel enrichment and reprocessing, and also advanced reactors that will mark the next generation of nuclear power. As the partnership expands, it also will enhance development of reactors appropriate for the smaller grids in developing nations.
GNEP Work Plan
The 16 GNEP members agreed to set up a nuclear fuel services working group, to address nuclear fuel leasing and other considerations around comprehensive nuclear fuel supply goals. Another working group, on nuclear infrastructure development, would address the financial, technical and manpower challenges surrounding nuclear power deployment in many countries.
An early priority is the development of new reprocessing technologies to enable recycling of most of the used fuel. One of the concerns when reprocessing used nuclear fuel is ensuring that elements separated not be used to create a weapon. One chemical reprocessing technology – PUREX – has been employed for over half a century, having been developed in wartime for military use. This has resulted in the accumulation of 240 tonnes of separated reactor-grade plutonium around the world (though some has been used in mixed oxide fuel). While this is not suitable for weapons use, having separated plutonium of any kind is no longer seen as appropriate and future reprocessing will result in the plutonium being combined with some uranium and possibly with minor actinides. GNEP creates a framework where states that currently employ reprocessing technologies can collaborate to design and deploy advanced separations and fuel fabrication techniques that do not involve the accumulation of separated pure plutonium.
Several developments of PUREX which fit the GNEP concept are being trialled:
- NUEX separates uranium and then all transuranics (including plutonium) together, with fission products separately (USA).
- UREX+ separates uranium and then either all transuranics together or simply neptunium with the plutonium, with fission products separately (USA).
- COEX separates uranium and plutonium (and possibly neptunium) together as well as a pure uranium stream, leaving other minor actinides with the fission products. A variation of this separates americium and curium from the fission products (France).
- GANEX separates uranium and plutonium as in COEX, then separates the minor actinides plus some lanthanides from the short-lived fission products (France).
The central feature of all these variants is to keep the plutonium either with some uranium or with other transuranics which can be destroyed by burning in a fast neutron reactor – the plutonium being the main fuel constituent. Trials of some fuels arising from UREX+ reprocessing in USA are being undertaken in the French Phenix fast reactor. Separated uranium that is not mixed with plutonium needs to be re-enriched.
The second main technological development envisaged under GNEP is the advanced recycling reactor – basically a fast reactor capable of burning minor actinides. Thus used fuel from light water reactors would be reprocessed at a recycling center and the transuranic product transferred to a fast reactor on site which both produces perhaps 1,000 megawatts electrical (MWe) of power and incinerates the actinides. A key objective of this program is to obtain design certification of a standard fast reactor from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
An associated need is to develop the required fuel fabrication plant. That for plutonium with only some uranium and neptunium is relatively straightforward and similar to today's MOX plants. A plant for fuel including americium and curium would be more complex (due to americium being volatile and curium a neutron emitter).
A third aspect is an advanced fuel cycle research facility in the USA.
Finally, GNEP is concerned with fostering the development of "grid-appropriate reactors", i.e., smaller units (perhaps 50-350 MWe) for electricity grids of up to 3 gigawatts electrical (GWe). These should incorporate advanced features including safety, simplicity of operation, long-life fuel loads, intrinsic proliferation-resistance, and security. The Westinghouse Iris design is instanced. (The IRIS-50 is a modular 50 MWe or more pressurized water reactor with integral steam generators and circulation by convection within the pressure vessel. Fuel is similar to present light water reactors. Enrichment is 5% with burnable poison and fueling interval of 5 years – or 8 years with 10% enrichment or equivalent MOX core. A larger version of IRIS is a modular 335 MWe unit.)
One significant setback for the US leadership of GNEP has been funding. For FY 2007 the program – including some specifically US aspects – had $167 million, and for FY 2008 Congress cut it back to $120 million, severely constraining the fuel cycle developments. Early in 2007 siting studies for an initial reprocessing plant were completed by eleven commercial and public consortia, for a total cost of $10.5 million.
In October 2007 the US Department of Energy awarded $16 million to four industry consortia for studies. The largest share of this, $5.6 million, went to the International Nuclear Recycling Alliance (INRA) led by Areva and including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd (JNFL), Battelle, BWX Technologies and Washington Group International. INRA was contracted to provide three major studies: technology development roadmaps analyzing the technology needed to achieve GNEP goals; business plans for the development and commercialization of the advanced GNEP technologies and facilities; and conceptual design studies for the fuel recycling center and advanced recycling reactor. Areva and JNFL will focus on the reprocessing plant and MHI on the fast reactor, but drawing upon assistance from the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).
Outcomes of GNEP
Under any scenario, the USA and others will require waste repositories; however, recycling will greatly reduce the amount of waste requiring disposal. For the US Yucca Mountain repository, the reprocessing-recycling approach with burning of actinides and perhaps also some long-lived fission products means that the effective capacity of the repository is increased by a factor of 50 or more. This is due to decreased radiotoxicity and heat loads, as well as the reduced ultimate volume of waste.
GNEP envisages the development of comprehensive fuel services, including such options as fuel leasing, to begin addressing the challenges of reliable fuel Supply while maximizing non-proliferation benefits. The establishment of comprehensive and reliable fuel services, including used fuel disposition options, will create a more practical approach to nuclear power for nations seeking its benefits without the need to establish indigenous fuel cycle facilities. It is through enabling such a comprehensive framework that GNEP makes its primary contribution to reducing proliferation risk.
The development of advanced reprocessing technologies and fuels enable further developments in advanced reactor technology. The areas of development for fast reactor technology center on the need for them to be cost competitive with current light-water reactors. Countries such as, France, Russia and Japan have experience in the design and operation of fast reactors and the USA is working with them to accelerate the development of advanced fast reactors that are cost competitive, incorporate advanced safeguards features, and are efficient and reliable.
As more countries consider nuclear power, it is important that they develop the infrastructure capabilities necessary for such an undertaking. The USA is working with the IAEA to provide guidance for assessing countries’ infrastructure needs and for helping to meet those needs. Major GNEP partners are ready to help countries interested in expanding the use of nuclear energy to achieve responsible implementation and management. For countries that have no existing nuclear power infrastructure, GNEP partners can share knowledge and experience to enable developing countries to make informed policy decisions on whether, when, and how to pursue nuclear power without any need to establish sensitive fuel cycle facilities themselves.
- WNA paper on Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)
- Spurgeon, D. 2007, The Global Nuclear Energy partnership – realising the promise of a worldwide expansion of nuclear power, WNA Symposium. [www.gnep.energy.gov United States Department of Energy].