Saturday, 6 October 2007

GNEP and the Vienna gathering

The originally proposed GNEP Fuel Cycle

By now, most interested parties should be well aware of the GNEP meeting that took place in Vienna last month and the 11 nations [including Australia] who subsequently came onboard with the previous 'big-5' [France, Japan, Russia, China and the United States]. See the signed Statement of Principals document here.

in the 20-September issue of Nucleonics Week [subscription required] Ann MacLachlan and Mark Hibbs provide an interesting overview of the programme's status from a more global perspective than I've seen since the Vienna meeting. One sentence in particular caught my eye:
Faced with broad resistance to that stance last year, the US stepped back from seeking commitments from non-fuel cycle countries never to develop enrichment and reprocessing.
The entire article is worth a read.

It seems that now, the emphasis is on a more consensus based approach to hammering out a nuclear future - 'together'. The article quotes several ranking officials in the US and elsewhere saying the programme is only roughly defined on purpose so that members are not constrained into a predefined path which may conflict with national interest, it's one of several programmes, etc. - fair enough. Additionally, membership is voluntary and - as political endeavours tend to be these days - totally non-binding.

Also interesting to me is the list of old and new members - or even more interesting, who's not yet in the club. The 'big-5' are arguably the world's nuclear heavyweights. Of the new members:

Australia - No power reactors, and in need of considerable infrastructure upgrades to begin to consider any. We host 1 operational research reactor [OPAL 20MW], two shutdown research reactors [HIFAR 10MW and MOATA 100 KW] and one shutdown critical facility [0 power]. We are a nuclear power featherweight, but 40% of the worlds currently identified uranium reserves us a seat at the adults' table [for example on the IAEA board of governors].

Bulgaria - With 2 operational power reactors, 2 under construction [however construction began in 1987] and 4 shutdown power reactors and 1 shutdown research reactor; let's call Bulgaria a nuclear lightweight.

Ghana - 1 operational research reactor - featherweight

Hungary - 4 operational power reactors, 2 operational research reactors and 1 decommissioned research reactor - lightweight

Jordan - no reactors of any kind - flyweight

Kazakhstan - 1 power reactor permanently shutdown in 1973, 3 operational research reactors - featherweight

Lithuania - 1 operational and 1 shutdown power reactors, no research reactors - lightweight

Poland - no power reactors, 1 operating and 4 shutdown research reactors - featherweight

Romania - 2 operational power reactors, 2 operational and 2 shutdown research reactors - lightweight

Slovenia - 1 operational power reactor and 1 operating research reactor - lightweight

Ukraine - 15 operational, 4 shutdown [all at Chernobyl and of the same design] power reactors and 2 under construction power reactors; 1 operational and 2 shutdown research reactors - middleweight

[All information from the IAEA PRIS and RRDB databases]

Most are relatively minor players in the world of nuclear power - but players nonetheless.

Let's contrast GNEP membership with that of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and particularly which members of the NSG are not yet on-board the GNEP.

Not yet participating in GNEP
Argentina, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Republic of Korea, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and United Kingdom.

I believe Ms MacLachlan and Mr Hibbs took a similar look and noticed as I do that some significant nuclear middleweights are taking a very cautious approach to GNEP. I like to keep a close eye on countries in this category [particularly those in red above]. Due to their size, available resources and demonstrated success in the nuclear power field, as a group their actions reflect the direction of the global industry and technology without a lot of political smoke and mirrors.

I said recently that the Canadian nukes were lean and good decision makers. This goes for most other countries in the group. Korea is developing its own domestic nuclear technology [building their own research reactor and - as pointed out in the referenced article - looking to get into pyroprocessing on the ground floor]. Argentina is also doing well. Don't give me guff about the fuel issue with OPAL. Yes it was significant, but it was identified early without any credible threat to any sort of release. Basically it was a unfortunate event that has been and continues to be handled very well. And when the Argentineans emerge from it they will have gained some valuable expertise in their reactor/fuel design and manufacturing groups.

Ditto the other countries highlighted above. Their nuclear industries are lean but successful.

By not jumping onto GNEP, they are also signaling that they are not desperate, but want to protect the future opportunities they see on their doorstep.

I suspect this is why the US is changing [the authors say 'stepped back'] the GNEP programme. They are faced with their own dramas. Energy security and climate change issues loom. Nuclear power can play a role in addressing both [at least - as a nation - they seem to have figured that much out which is more than I can say for about half of Australia]. But what they need now is participation. They have their own big election in about a year and GNEP has to appear to be the Global Partnership that it's proponents are touting. It's had funding issues within the US and unless it takes off on its own accord, may suffer following the election.

I may sound like a bit of a nuclear heretic, but I can't just blindly throw my support behind GNEP. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I oppose it either. It could do some good, but I don't read about it and think 'Panacea' - particularly for Australia. It may help us sell a bit more uranium.

I've talked in other posts about my reluctance toward GNEP and the US's political tendency to invent a 'bigger and better' programme to satisfy political objectives and/or provide a bit of time / pressure release when existing programmes fail to get runs on the board at a rate which pleases their political overlords. Quotes from the article mention pulling GNEP back to avoid duplication of work with, for example the IAEA's infrastructure programme, or GEN-IV's technology development. This is good news. From a technology perspective, maybe GNEP can focus on reprocessing and waste treatment [finally a role for Australia]. It's difficult to understand what is going on in the USA however. I used to have a link to a DOE website explaining Gen-IV technology - it no longer works. Today, I can't even find any planned activities for this year or accomplishments for 2006. Has the 'bigger, better, super-deluxe model' GNEP already overshadowed Gen-IV? [That was quick.] I hope Gen-IV is encouraged to return to the DOE's radar and the US/DOE continues its support for the relevant technology development. Since Australia is said to have joined the Gen-IV along with GNEP, I remain hopeful.

Just take a look at the membership of the Gen-IV international forum [GIF]. There you will find those 'middleweights' I discuss above -and therein lies the future of nuclear power.

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