Prof. Dr. Hamid Aït Abderrahim


Demonstration of Fuel Cycle Closure including P&T towards Industrialization by 2050

A game changer for the future of nuclear energy together with SMRs?



11 Rue d’Eggmont, 1000 Brussels or


the IPPC has provided in 2018 a Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.[1] In order to show a range of potential mitigation approaches, the report describes four illustrative model pathways which were selected among various scenarios to cap global warming at +1.5 °C with no or limited overshoot. They vary widely in their projected energy and land use, as well as their assumptions about future socio-economic developments, including economic and population growth, equity, and sustainability.

The IPCC special report includes a series of indicators relative to each pathway illustrating the differences between the various strategies. All of them see a drastic reduction of primary energy from coal, oil, and gas. Not surprisingly the share of primary energy by various renewable energies is strongly increasing. Worth noting however is the fact that this also applies to nuclear energy. In the IPCC simulations, nuclear energy contribution in 2050, as compared to 2010, is up 98 to 501 % depending on the relative pathway considered.

This duly interest for nuclear is anything but unexpected. As nuclear energy doesn’t entail any combustion reaction but rather the fission of heavy nuclei, the process itself has near to zero greenhouse gas emissions in the energy generation phase and can contribute to climate mitigation objectives. Average lifecycle GHG emissions determined for electricity production from nuclear energy ­— in the range of 6-10 g[CO2eq]/kWh — are comparable to the values characteristic to hydropower and wind. It’s about twenty times less than gas-driven systems and thirty to forty times less than thermal electricity generation from coal. Therefore, nuclear is generally considered as an additional effective way to tackle climate change as it can contribute to massive low-carbon baseload electricity production. End 2020, 441 nuclear reactors were in operation in 32 countries and 52 others are under construction. They produce a rather modest 10 % of the world power but this share currently represents more than 25 % of its low-carbon electricity.

However, relying on nuclear remains very controversial in many countries. What is mainly at stake is the hazardous nature of nuclear energy and whether it can be considered as environmentally sustainable, especially as regards the back end of the fuel cycle, i.e., the management of the generated nuclear and radioactive waste. Studies have highlighted the advantages of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling strategies versus a once trough fuel cycle scenario.[2] Open cycle policies require more natural uranium, have a stronger environmental footprint and generate bigger high-level waste (HLW) volumes — up to three times more. As the final repository is 99 % dedicated to HLW disposal, once-trough cycle would result in increased environmental impact. Meanwhile significant research efforts have been devoted to maximizing the fraction of spent nuclear fuel that can be recycled in nuclear reactors and reducing the long-term radiotoxicity of HLW to be disposed of in the geological repository. There is currently a broad scientific and technical consensus that disposal of high-level, long-lived radioactive waste in deep geologic formations must be considered as an appropriate and safe means of isolating it from the biosphere for very long-time scales.

But as operational permanent experience of high-level waste disposal sites is still lacking, many political decision-makers are reluctant to make any final decision on a back-end strategy and more globally on nuclear issues. For instance, European authorities were recently unable to concur and provide a conclusive recommendation on whether nuclear can be considered environmentally sustainable.[3] Hence the invitation made to the Joint Research Centre — JRC, the European Commission’s science and knowledge service — to carry out an analysis and to draft a technical assessment report on the ‘do no significant harm’ (DNSH) aspects of nuclear energy including the long-term management of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. The recent situation of war in Ukraine increased dramatically reconsidering the use of nuclear energy at large in Europe.

In its conclusions, JRC points out that “the analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the Taxonomy as activities supporting climate change mitigation.”

Closing the fuel cycle improves drastically the performance of nuclear energy in terms of better use of resources, reducing the burden of the nuclear waste and combining this with the SMR’s can be a game changer for the future of nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source for humankind. We will cover in this talk how the demonstration of closing the fuel cycle can be prepared for industrialization by 2050.


[2] Ch. POINSSOT et al., Assessment of the environmental footprint of nuclear energy systems. Comparison between open and closed fuel cycles, Energy 69 (2014) 199-211,

[3] EU leaders were to decide on the establishment of a framework — the so-called “taxonomy” regulation — to facilitate sustainable investment which would provide appropriate definitions to companies and investors on which economic activities can be considered environmentally sustainable. They couldn’t conclude on whether nuclear should be included or not.