Monday, 16 July 2007

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

What does this mean for Australia, the United States, and other developing and developed ‘partners’? That’s a tough question to address in one post – but I’m getting a bit busy and new posts may be scarce for a while. So I’ll do my best.

During the recent 48th Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management conference in Tucson Arizona, there was considerable attention given to the GNEP. Both the first speaker in the opening plenary [Dr. Paul Lisowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fuel Cycle Management, Office of Nuclear Energy, US Dept. of Energy [DoE]] as well as the last speaker of the final plenary [Adam Scheinman, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Non-proliferation and International Security, US DoE, National Nuclear Security Administration] emphasised the role of GNEP including progress with countries including Russia, China, Japan, France, etc. Additionally, three technical sessions were devoted to GNEP. These included 6 panels and about 20 individual presentations from both government and industry.

As one looks beyond the marketing of GNEP it becomes obvious that the programme faces some significant challenges [beyond the funding problems being imposed by the US congress]. Few people have much to say about the strategic goals of the programme: to promote global energy security and reduce dependence on climate killing fossil fuels through the dramatic expansion of no/low emission nuclear technology. Furthermore that nuclear technology will be expanded in a way that minimises proliferation risk and drastically reduces the long-term repository burden from high level waste.

However, with respect to tactical implementation, the waters begin to muddy. My understanding is:

1. Non-proliferation goals of the US [as well as just about any other country in charge of its mental faculties] would be achieved through the voluntary agreement of ‘recipient’ or ‘partner’ countries to forego nuclear fuel enrichment based on long-term fuel supply assurances from a collective group of fuel supplier [aka fuel cycle] states [mostly those who already have nuclear weapon capabilities, with possibly a few others].

2. Fuel supplier states would become involved in fuel reprocessing to generate fuel for fast burner reactors. These reactors would digest the minor actinides and transuranics. The remaining residual waste will decay to the level of naturally background uranium in about 300 years [as opposed to about 350,000 years for high level wast coming out of today’s nuclear reactors]. Since humans have demonstrated our ability to design and build civil structures capable of lasting well beyond 300 years for several millennia now; confidence is very high in our ability to keep this waste ‘tight’ for 3 centuries.

Also during the conference, there were several scientific presentations explaining the PUREX flow-sheets – plutonium is never separated.

3. Partnering nations, those who are not enriching but receiving fuel from supplier states would benefit through security of fuel supply and an agreement that the supplier states would take back the fuel for reprocessing.

A point made by many is that the real challenge rests at the back end of the fuel cycle [waste]. If GNEP can’t offer anything new there, then it really isn’t offering much at all. For example, provided a country remains within the good graces of the UN Security Council, they currently have no problem getting a reactor and fuel through the industrial partners in existence today [Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, etc.]. GNEP doesn’t offer much new in this regard. However, through GNEP as it is defined today, some of the old significant challenges still remain. Unless something novel is proposed for the back end, states will still have to develop a long-term, high-level waste solution for the residual waste post-reprocessing. [The US has no policy to keep all this waste.] Individual, high level nuclear waste repositories are simply not an option for small, developing states.

Some opportunities for Australia.

Get back into enrichment

Presentations involving enrichment at this conference show expected demand increasing dramatically over the coming years together with some older enrichment capacity that must be upgraded or replaced in the near future. Several companies are already expanding their enrichment services to meet projected demand. Presentations included the status of the new National Enrichment Facility in New Mexico being constructed by Louisiana Enrichment Services. But there appears to be scope for more.

However, while Australia has proven our scientific ability relating to enrichment, we lack any demonstrated industrial capacity in this regard. Is it reasonable to think we can fast-track our related scientific achievements to an industrial capacity in time to meet the demand [and with competing countries and companies already moving in this area]? Partnering with existing companies to host facilities of their design and technology may be more reasonable.

There may also be advantages to becoming an enrichment state, eventually supplying our own fuel for example.

Reprocess & Burn

With enrichment, Australia may also then get into reprocessing and fast burner industries. Again, to me this seems a HUGE industrial leap, especially when the high level schedule/implementation ambitions of the GNEP programme are considered. Australia has no technology base with respect to the design of nuclear reactor facilities [ even OPAL was Argentinean design]. I doubt countries/companies in possession of such technology would be eager to export it. This is probably the least likely activity to be seen domestically in Australia.

Long Term Waste Management

Here, Australia could take advantage of the starkest features of our country – vast emptiness, extreme isolation and geologic stability. If there was ever an opportunity to see emptiness and isolation as a resource, the nuclear fuel cycle is it.

Compact to begin with, spent nuclear fuel is rarely seen as waste any longer. Trends are definitely moving toward reprocessing, with new reactor designs aiming to burn recycled fuel – supported by research in Japan for example as well as ongoing recycling/reprocessing activities in many countries around the world [several of these countries are in the midst of expanding their capabilities in this regard]. But the final waste from reprocessing activities still needs a home. As I mentioned above, this final waste will be of significantly lower volume, lower activity and generate less heat. In a few hundred years it will achieve the same activity as the uranium under our feet at this very moment.

Should Australia consider and eventually agree to host such a site for, as an example, participating GNEP countries [a ‘supranational repository’]; the boost to that endeavour would be considerable. The international demand for such services could result in tremendous benefits for Australia. This is worthy of serious consideration – particularly when you consider that we will need a waste storage facility [or certainly access to such services] to handle the output from our use of lifesaving radio-pharmaceuticals as well as other non-power nuclear industrial products.

This is not a new topic to Australia, as discussed in this radio interview from 1999. But with reprocessing, we are speaking of a different breed of horse altogether.

So in conclusion, GNEP is not a ‘gate’ between countries and nuclear power, but rather one of several paths to obtain it. As it is being promoted at the moment, choosing this path will be 100% voluntary. Therefore, if it is to achieve the ambitious strategic goals mentioned above [as well as at the conference], GNEP MUST become the path of least resistance as perceived by non-nuclear states with nuclear power ambitions. This certainly seems improbable without a long term solution to the final waste streams, and in particular, highly active waste.


  1. I briefly looked at the Schedule for the conference, and noticed that no one presented anything the Thorium Fuel Cycle or Molten Salt Reactors. Perhaps the Gen IV proposals for breeders/actinide burners are still to far off in the future. Still, its potential contribution to non-proliferation, waste minimization, and on-line fuel processing would seem to be important to this community.

    Have you seen any talk in the Australian Nuclear community about the possible use of Thorium in its reactors?

  2. You know, I was in the radiological section of the Nuclear Power Industry for 16 years and I really enjoyed my time spent. I topped out as the RPM at the age of 35. However, I left in 2005 because we decommissioned the plant and at that time I was ready for a change in my life. I could no longer handle all of the regulatory scrutiny, strict procedure adherence, and management of personell. i was tired of having to make every action or decision around some regulatory process. So, in 2005 I made the change and have raised to new levels in my life. I've been assisting people in turning their annual income into their monthly income and having an absolute blast doing. Today my life consists of being present in my childrens life and travel around the world to meet new people and see new cultures. Most recently we spent 2 weeks in Sydney, Australia and stayed at the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel. What an amazing place be. It was so nice to actually visit the Opera House. In fact, my wife and I are looking to purchase some property there. Today I live an anazing live and no longer have to worry about the regulatory sturcture or processes. I live life on my terms with complete happiness and freedom.


  3. There was some talk on Thorium during the conference, but I do not recall a specific paper on it.

    I agree, there does seem to be potential to address ongoing concerns re: non-proliferation as well as waste through the use of Thorium reactor technology.

  4. Hi Ed,

    Got to your site by Google internationally for "GNEP Australia".

    I am not normally someone to watch TV, listen to news or read newspapers, but on July 20 I caught the front of the Sun with OUR BID FOR NUKE CLUB.
    (Thought the editor had a real bright flash by having a photo of aboriginal not-in-my-backyard Michael Long holding his BOMB scarf right under it. Michael was an AFL player and his team Essendon are also called "The Bombers")

    So I learned all about GNEP and I thought it was a reasonable thing. If you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs. Offering our arid outback to save the world is a noble thing. Besides that we'd be the most secure place to live with those 5 baddies looking after us and we would ofcourse all be rolling in the money.

    GNEP got me looking into nuclear power generation and in my travels came accross such things as the foreward looking statement on the Silex (ASX:SLX) website. Appearently after reburning the spend fuel rods the waste merges back into the background radiation after 220 years. That is generation 3+ but the next generation might actually burn the lot i.e. convert matter to energy. Quite a handy tool to have in your arsenal while traveling the universe. And of course we can help that Victorian de-salination plant get of the ground instead of using windmills)

    So Yes, I think Australia joining that NUKE CLUB would be a good idea. However, the issue died quickly. No other papers pointing bones, no crushing media whip-up, no web reports, no nothing. And even now the hit-list only gets the 2006 news from that original Howard meeting. GNEP was meant to occur 'near' APEC but now it seems that Bush is not even turning up.

    So what does all this mean, GNEP a goer or what ?

    I was seen the next day collecting my drycleaning with a sign on the back of my long black coat:
    "If you don't want to freeze your buts off,
    GO NUCLEAR energy NOW !"
    Didn't know it was such as hushed up topic, could have been shot.


    P.S. I vote with my shares. Most of them are uranium companies.