International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation
(Updated November 2016)
- The International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), developed from the former Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), is a partnership of countries aiming to ensure that new nuclear energy initiatives meet the highest standards of safety, security and non‐proliferation.
- IFNEC involves both political and technological initiatives, and extends to financing and infrastructure.
The International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), formerly the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), aims to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies while providing greater disincentives to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. GNEP 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.
Domestically in the USA, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) was based on the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), and while GNEP faltered with the advent of the Barack Obama administration in Washington from 2008, the AFCI was being funded at higher levels than before for R&D "on proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and waste reduction strategies." Two significant new elements in the strategy were new reprocessing technologies which separate all transuranic elements together (and not plutonium on its own), and advanced burner (fast) reactors to consume the result of this while generating power. However, this then disappeared from the US Department of Energy (DOE) budget.
GNEP was set up as 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/IFNEC, reprocessing is to be a means of avoiding proliferation, as well as addressing problems concerning high-level wastes. Accordingly, the DOE briefly set out to develop advanced fuel cycle technologies on a commercial scale.
As more countries consider nuclear power, it is important that they develop the infrastructure capabilities necessary for such an undertaking. As with GNEP, IFNEC partners are working with the IAEA to provide guidance for assessing countries' infrastructure needs and for helping to meet those needs. For countries that have no existing nuclear power infrastructure, IFNEC 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.
With the USA taking a lower profile and effectively relinquishing leadership from 2009, the partners are focused on collaboration to make nuclear energy more widely accessible in accordance with safety, security and non-proliferation objectives, as an effective measure to counter global warming, and to improve global energy security. A change of name to International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) was adopted in June 2010, along with a new draft vision statement, which read: "The Framework provides a forum for cooperation among participating states to explore mutually beneficial approaches to ensure the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes proceeds in a manner that is efficient, safe, secure, and supports non-proliferation and safeguards." By some accounts, this envisages "cradle to grave" fuel management as central, along with assurance of fuel supply.
In mid-2015 the technical secretariat transferred from the DOE to the OECD NEA which will play a similar role as with the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) and the Multinational Design Evaluation Programme (MDEP).
Broadly, IFNEC's mission is the global expansion of nuclear power in a safe and secure manner. A major rationale is reducing the threat of proliferation of nuclear materials and limiting the spread of sensitive nuclear technology for non-peaceful purposes, to avoid increasing the present threat to global security.
A second issue addressed by IFNEC is the efficiency of the current nuclear fuel cycle. The USA, the largest producer of nuclear power, has employed a 'once through' fuel cycle. This practice only uses a small part of the potential energy in the fuel, while effectively wasting substantial amounts of useable 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, recover the residual uranium and plutonium from the used fuel to recycle at least the plutonium in light water reactors. However, no-one has yet employed a comprehensive technology that includes full actinidea recycle.
In the USA, this question is pressing since significant amounts of used nuclear fuel are stored in different locations around the country awaiting shipment to a planned geological repository which was to be 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 separated wastes after reprocessing it.
IFNEC also aims to address cost issues associated with the development and expansion of nuclear power in developing countries. 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.
Internationally, the countries identified by the US Department of Energy (DOE) as likely participants at both enrichment and recycling ends were the USA, UK, France, Russia and Japan. The USA now provides the steering group chairman, and Japan, China and France the vice-chairmen.
IFNEC parties and rationale
At the first ministerial meeting in May 2007, the USA, China, France, Japan and Russia became formally the founding members of GNEP. Four of the five are nuclear weapons states and have developed full fuel cycle facilities arising from that; the non-nuclear weapons state, Japan, has developed similar facilities to support its extensive nuclear power program.
To date, 33 nations are participants in IFNEC and 31 more are observer countries. Most of these signed the GNEP Statement of Principles1, which established broad guidelines for participation and incorporates seven objectives that touch on each element of GNEP. 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. The used fuel would then undergo advanced reprocessing so that the uranium and plutonium it contained, plus long-lived minor actinides, could be recycled in advanced nuclear power reactors. Waste volumes and 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 IAEA.
Two sensitive processes in particular would not need to be employed in most countries: enrichment and reprocessing. The limitation on these, by commercial dissuasion rather than outright prohibition, was at the heart of GNEP strategy. A corollary of this dissuasion is that GNEP/IFNEC member nations would be assured of reliable and economic fuel supply under some IAEA arrangement such as the so-called international fuel bank.
GNEP/IFNEC work plan
The GNEP members set up two principal working groups, continued under IFNEC:
- The Reliable Nuclear Fuel Services Working Group (RNFSWG) is addressing nuclear fuel leasing and other considerations around comprehensive nuclear fuel supply goals, and includes evaluation of back-end fuel cycle options. It is led by France and Japan.
- The Infrastructure Development Working Group (IDWG) is addressing human resource development, radioactive waste management, small modular reactors, financing options, engagement with specialist organizations and identifying infrastructure requirements for an international nuclear fuel services framework enabling nuclear power deployment in many countries. It is led by the UK and USA.
In January 2007, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new strategic plan for GNEP initiatives, including preparation of an environmental impact statement. It would assess three facilities: a fuel recycling centre including reprocessing and fuel fabrication plants; a fast reactor to burn the actinide-based fuel and transmute transuranic elements; and an advanced fuel cycle research facility. The DOE envisaged the first two being industry-led initiatives. In June 2009, the DOE cancelled the programmatic environmental impact statement for GNEP "because it is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing, which was the primary focus of the prior Administration's domestic GNEP program."4
New reprocessing technologies
An early priority was seen to be 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 separated fissile material is not 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 (see page on Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel). This has resulted in the accumulation of 240 tonnes of separated reactor-grade plutonium around the world (though some has been used in the fabrication of mixed oxide fuel). While this is not suitable for weapons use, it is still regarded as a proliferation concern. New reprocessing technologies are designed to combine the plutonium with some uranium and possibly with minor actinides (neptunium, americium and curium), rendering it impractical to use the plutonium in the manufacture of weapons. GNEP/IFNEC 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 result in the accumulation of separated pure plutonium.
Several developments of PUREX which fit the GNEP/IFNEC concept were 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 were undertaken in the French Phenix fast reactor.
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 fuel fabrication plants. A plant for fuel including americium and curium would be more complex (due to americium being volatile and curium a neutron emitter).
Advanced recycling reactors
The second main technological development originally 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 transported to a recycling centre, where it would be reprocessed and the transuranic product (including plutonium) transferred to a fast reactor on site. This reactor, which would destroy the actinides, would have a power capacity of perhaps 1000 MWe.
The areas of development for fast reactor technology centre on the need for fast reactors 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.
The advent of such fast reactors would mean that reprocessing technology could and should step from the aqueous processes derived from PUREX described above to electrometallurgical processes in a molten salt bath. Separating the actinides then is by electrodeposition on a cathode, without chemical separation of heavy elements as occurs in the Purex and related processes. This cathode product can then be used in a fast reactor, since it is not sensitive to small amounts of impurities.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) is developing this 'Advanced Recycling Center' concept which combines electrometallurgical separation and burning the final product in one or more of its PRISM fast reactors on the same site.2 The separation process would remove uranium, which is recycled to light water reactors; then fission products, which are waste; and finally the actinides including plutonium.
With respect to the ultimate disposition of nuclear waste from recycling, three options exist conceptually:
- User responsibility. The radioactive wastes from the nuclear fuel recycling centre could be considered as processed waste belonging to the user nation that sent its used nuclear fuel to the recycling centre. These wastes might then be shipped back to that user nation for final disposal.
- Supplier responsibility. The nation hosting the recycling centre might retain the waste or, if a different supplier nation had manufactured the original fuel, all wastes arising from the original fuel could be considered the responsibility of that fuel supplier nation.
- Third-party responsibility. A disposal facility might be sited in a country that is, in particular cases, neither the supplier nor the user, but is using its technological capability and geological suitability to manage the safe delivery of a commercially and environmentally valuable service.
The IFNEC program is considering the ownership and final disposal of waste, but this discussion has not yet reached beyond the preliminary stages. The second and third conceptual options for waste disposal would require one or more international radioactive waste final disposal facilities (see page on International Nuclear Waste Disposal Concepts), and serious discussion of those options will begin only when nations enter into real consideration of the sensitive issue of the hosting of such facilities.
In 2012 the RNFSWG produced a paper entitled Comprehensive Fuel Services: Strategies for the Back End of the Fuel Cycle to pursue agreement on the basis for international cooperation on repositories and reprocessing for these activities to be commercialised. In mid-2015 the working group decided to develop a multinational repository concept paper, and in October 2016 this was released as a report: Overview of the Dual Track Approach for National Back-end Programs, focused on the needs of countries with small nuclear programs. It notes that under the IAEA Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, contracting parties have agreed that the country that discharges the spent fuel and receives the benefits of the power generated bears the responsibility for its management, including disposal. Since disposal is a relatively big burden with small quantities, due to high fixed costs, some international collaboration is suggested. This is the dual tack beyond simply national approaches.
Finally, IFNEC is concerned to foster the development of 'grid-appropriate reactors', i.e. smaller units (perhaps 50-350 MWe) for electricity grids of up to 3 GWe. These should incorporate advanced features including safety, simplicity of operation, long-life fuel loads, intrinsic proliferation-resistance and security3. In mid-2014 Jordan hosted a small modular reactors workshop to consider how SMRs could be effectively deployed in specific types of markets while identifying key challenges and opportunities.
In October 2007, the DOE awarded $16 million to four industry consortia for GNEP-related 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 centre and advanced recycling reactor. Areva and JNFL are focused on the Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center, a reprocessing plant (which will not separate pure plutonium), and MHI on the Advanced Recycling Reactor, a fast reactor which will burn actinides with uranium and plutonium. These are the two main technological innovations involved with GNEP. In this connection MHI has also set up Mitsubishi FBR Systems (MFBR). INRA appears to have materialized out of a September 2007 agreement between Areva and JNFL to collaborate on reprocessing. Its contract with the DOE was extended in April 2008.
A significant setback for the US leadership of GNEP was related to funding by Congress. 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. For FY 2009, GNEP did not receive any funding although $120 million was allocated to the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), which funds research into reprocessing technologies. The funding for AFCI was only about 40% of the amount requested by the administration. Thus in the USA, GNEP was largely reduced to an R&D program on advanced fuel cycle technologies, and then faded out altogether apart from token mention of IFNEC.
Outcomes of IFNEC
Under any scenario, the USA and others will require waste repositories; however, recycling used fuel will greatly reduce the amount of waste destined for disposal. For the planned US repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the reprocessing-recycling approach with burning of actinides and perhaps also some long-lived fission products would mean that the effective capacity of such a repository would be increased by a factor of 50 or more. This is due to decreased radiotoxicity and heat loads, as well as reducing greatly the ultimate volume of waste requiring disposal.
IFNEC 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 IFNEC will possibly make its primary contribution to reducing proliferation risk.
a. Uranium and plutonium are members of the actinide group, which comprises the 15 successive chemical elements from actinium on the periodic table. The so-called 'minor actinides' are the actinides present in used nuclear fuel other than uranium and plutonium. Most of the radiotoxicity of used fuel comes from plutonium and the minor actinides. The destruction of plutonium and the minor actinides through recycling therefore reduces the long-term radioactivity in high-level wastes and also reduces the possibility of plutonium being diverted from civil use. [Back]
1. GNEP Statement of Mission [Back]
2. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, The Advanced Recycling Center Conceptual Design Document for Power Reactor Innovative Small Module and Nuclear Fuel Recycling Center, submitted to the United States Department of Energy under DE-FC01-07NE24504 (10 April 2008) [Back]
3. GNEP Fact Sheet on Grid Appropriate Reactors [Back]
4. Fatal blow to GNEP?, World Nuclear News (29 June 2009); Federal Register, Notices, Vol. 74, No. 123, pages 31017-31018 (29 June 2009) [Back]
D. Spurgeon, The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership – realising the promise of a worldwide expansion of nuclear power, World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium 2007
Draft Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, DOE/EIS-0396, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy (October 2008)