The IAEA actively supports the sustainable, safe, secure, reliable, and economic management of spent fuel by providing its Member States (MSs) with relevant technical information and guidance based on operational experiences, lessons learned and good practices regarding spent fuel management options (recycling and disposal), and by promoting the exchange of results and the sharing of knowledge.
For nuclear power to be sustainable, the nuclear fuel cycle must remain economically viable and competitive, which can be achieved by optimizing the use of fissile materials in reactor cores, by increasing uranium enrichment and fuel burnup, and by recycling valuable materials. This results in different fuel cycle options, some of them already implemented and others may be implemented in the future.
As storage durations extend, some storage systems in some countries are/will be deployed beyond their initial design and licensed periods. This requires knowing the conditions and behaviour of the spent fuel and storage systems, structures and components (SSCs) over a longer period to ensure safe storage and future transportability. In this regard the IAEA is coordinating international R&D activities through Coordinated Research Projects (CRPs) on assessing the performances of spent fuel and cladding during storage, and on developing ageing management programmes for storage systems operating beyond their initial licenced periods.
Over the last decades, national and international R&D programmes have been conducted on the development of advanced nuclear fuel cycles associated to Gen-IV reactors to improve the utilization of uranium resources, maximize energy production, minimize waste generation, improve safety and limit proliferation risks. Advanced fuel cycles are devoted to recycling and burning most of the long-lived radionuclides, lowering the burden of generated waste and reducing the ‘repository footprint’. The IAEA recently organized in Vienna the fourth international conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles (FR22), in April 2022, which enabled the exchange of information on national and international programmes, by providing experienced scientists, engineers, government officials, safety officers, fast reactor managers, etc. with a platform to share their scientific outlooks, with special attention to the future young generation of scientists.
The importance of having the right scientific, technical, and engineering skills, and of maintaining these competences, goes hand in hand with ensuring to deliver a comprehensive and safe nuclear fuel cycle. For these reasons the IAEA actively supports its MSs on the technical knowledge preservation and transfer to enhance the capabilities of professionals, especially of the young generation, through the development of e-Learning materials and courses on nuclear fuel cycle options and spent fuel management.
All stages of a selected nuclear fuel cycle option raise particular challenges and issues; therefore it is paramount to have an integrated view of the nuclear fuel cycle to ensure that influences from, and impacts on, all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle are clearly identified and understood, to enable effective decision making in the back end of the fuel cycle as well as to keep flexibility to accommodate new developments and technologies, as for example the new spent fuels coming from the small modular reactors that will be deployed in the next decades.