It's inevitable that nuclear power will expand globally, raising the danger of increased proliferation. One controversial plan, GNEP, was pushed by the Bush administration as a way to curtail the risks. In a three-part Bulletin Web-Edition series, Leonor Tomero examined the program and what might happen to its partners and stakeholders if it's no longer funded. With that program looking less and less viable, how will the fuel cycle be managed going forward? Below, our five experts explore the issue.
It's a new day with a new administration, and the conventional wisdom is that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), being a Bush administration initiative, is dead. Well, maybe! While some people changed roles on January 20 and there will certainly be changes in various U.S. policies, there's much that hasn't changed:
In other words, the serious problems of energy supply, energy security, climate disruption, and nuclear weapons proliferation are now problems that belong to the Obama administration. To the extent that aspects of GNEP were conceived to solve, or at least ameliorate, those problems, they may well be continued by the new administration albeit with different emphasis.
The Bush administration, which earned a reputation for acting unilaterally, never received the credit it deserved for creating GNEP's international framework. In this case, Washington chose to seek collaboration as a means to attain its objectives rather than coercion. At last count, 25 nations had signed the GNEP Statement of Principles and 28 observer nations that may choose to join the partnership in the future attended a September meeting in Vienna. Is it likely that the Obama administration is going to tell all of these countries that the United States is no longer interested in continuing the international dialogue? I don't think so.
If there has been any consensus in this roundtable, it's that some sort of international nuclear fuel supply guarantee mechanism could be useful. Activity on this is proceeding on several fronts including GNEP, and again, I believe that it's unlikely the Obama administration will stop such activities.
At his recent confirmation hearing, new Energy Secretary Steven Chu laid out some of the elements of the Obama plan for dealing with energy issues, including "a continued commitment to nuclear power and a long-term plan for waste management and disposal." In response to a question regarding recycling, Chu stated, "Recycling is an option that we will be looking at very carefully." But he cautioned that it would need to be done with an eye toward proliferation resistance. Hmm--sounds a little like GNEP to me.
But what was most encouraging to me at Chu's confirmation hearing was his obvious understanding that our energy and environmental crisis can only be solved with an approach that I have described as "all of the above." Every available option must remain on the table and be used. Certainly we must grab for the low-hanging fruit associated with energy efficiency, and we must invest more to bring renewables into the generation picture. But because renewables are by their very nature intermittent, they cannot have a huge impact unless--and until--we develop adequate energy storage technologies and drastically improve our fragile electricity distribution network. For the foreseeable future we must continue to rely upon fossil fuels and nuclear energy for most of our base-load electricity generation, and when climate concerns are factored into the equation, nuclear energy should be preferable to coal. In these difficult economic times, nuclear power has another important benefit--the number of jobs created per megawatt of installed capacity is far higher than for any other source of electricity generation.
So is GNEP dead? As an acronym almost certainly, but its aims will continue to be vital if we're to meet the energy challenges of the future. To borrow from the famous French phrase, "GNEP is dead; long live GNEP!"
Going forward what should we do about the biggest issues that have plagued the nuclear power industry? They are--proliferation; the risk of another catastrophic nuclear plant accident; spent fuel/high-level waste disposal; and poor economics.
With respect to proliferation and spent fuel disposal, the Obama administration should terminate the reprocessing component of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is irrelevant to the near- and mid-term decarbonization challenge and faces long-term uncertainties regarding operational reliability, economic viability, and international control on abuse of the technology for weapons. President Barack Obama should reinforce the current U.S. commitment to the more proliferation-resistant, once-through fuel cycle at home and abroad and focus on building cooperative international monitoring and controls that would ultimately enable both the elimination of nuclear weapons and the future deployment of a closed nuclear fuel cycle, should the latter's technical and economic viability become apparent at some future date. Domestically, the federal government needs to begin identifying alternative geological disposal sites for the country's nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.
The most important factor affecting the safety of existing nuclear power plants isn't their design, but the safety culture at the plant. It's difficult to assess whether any of these nuclear plants is safe enough because the probability of a severe accident depends on many technical and human factors that are difficult to measure. Nevertheless, U.S. nuclear plants on the whole are safer today than they were two decades ago primarily because U.S. nuclear plant safety culture has improved. If another catastrophic nuclear accident occurs, it will likely be in one of several countries with demonstrably poor nuclear safety culture. Also, few, if any, of the states that are planning to construct their first nuclear power plant have adequate nuclear regulatory regimes and in several of these countries there is no evidence that a robust safety culture is in store. Thus, Washington and the nuclear industry should concentrate on improving the regulatory regimes and safety culture in these other countries.
The domestic nuclear power industry is confronting two big economic dilemmas. In the United States, new nuclear power plants are uneconomical when compared to other electricity generating technologies and improvements in end-use efficiency; and the unit costs of new nuclear plants are so high that they cannot be privately financed. It appears likely that construction of new plants will remain cost prohibitive until the price of carbon emissions exceeds $50 per ton of carbon dioxide. The nuclear industry, through its congressional boosters, has already received large federal subsidies and loan guarantees to support the construction of a few new nuclear plants. It has received additional subsidies from states and local governments.
Now the industry is returning to Congress for more taxpayer largess, claiming that it is needed to mitigate climate change and provide for jobs under the economic stimulus plan. We should reject this "lemon socialism" approach. The economically efficient way to mitigate climate change is to internalize the cost of carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade program or by carbon tax. We shouldn't subsidize the construction of new nuclear power plants, thereby penalizing alternatives that can provide climate-change mitigation quicker, safer, and cheaper. Subsidizing new nuclear plants is one of the least productive means to create jobs or to stimulate the economy in the next year or two, a key criterion of the stimulus package.
An appropriate role for direct federal support of low-carbon energy is to underwrite research, development, and demonstration of meritorious new technologies that are unlikely to be developed by private industry acting alone, either because the return on the investment is too distant or because the investment risks are too high. Alternatively, society may reap benefits by using production or investment tax credits to more rapidly expand the market for beneficial emerging technologies, thereby driving down unit costs of production to a level that allows the technology to become self-sufficient in the marketplace.
Further subsidization of new nuclear power plants doesn't meet either of these criteria. The first 6,000 megawatts of nuclear new-build capacity are already covered by a production tax credit comparable to wind, and sufficient loan guarantee authority ($18.5 billion) has already been made available to support construction of the first "new" Gen III+ reactor designs proposed for the U.S. market--the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 and the GE-Hitachi Economic and Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. All other reactor designs proposed for construction in the United States either don't qualify as innovative, have already been constructed elsewhere, or both.
As I've written in earlier rounds of this discussion a multifold increase in nuclear power deployment across the globe would substantially mitigate against future climate disruptions.
Such conclusions are far from mine alone, MIT and the International Energy Agency have concluded the same thing and the State Department's International Security Advisory Board predicts that global energy demand will double by 2030 and that the expansion of nuclear energy, especially in less-developed countries, is "inevitable" due to increased future costs for oil and natural gas and the fact that nuclear power produces no carbon emissions.
Much of the debate at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in December centered on the availability of "adaptation funds" for less-developed countries so they will be able to cope with devastations wrought by climate change. Under the Kyoto Protocol's financing system, the world's developed economies would buy emission-reduction credits from less-developed countries or build clean energy projects in those countries. Such a system, if fully adopted, would likely trigger significant financial incentives to deploy new nuclear energy globally.
Without Kyoto, nuclear energy's global footprint will likely increase if national climate policies are adopted that include carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, or other alternatives that provide significant incentives to climate-friendly energy technologies and disincentives to carbon dioxide emitting ones.
The nuclear energy plans that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has adopted are an excellent case in point. The UAE's interest in evaluating nuclear energy is motivated by its need to develop additional sources of electricity to meet its future demand projections, ensure the continued rapid development of its economy, and a desire to do so in a socially responsible manner. Recent analysis has concluded that the UAE's annual peak demand for electricity is likely to rise to more than 40,000 megawatts by 2020, reflecting a cumulative annual growth rate of about 9 percent from 2007.
If we reflect back on the essence of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), the plan was created to help manage the growth of global nuclear power without a parallel spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies worldwide, providing infrastructure development support as well as nuclear fuel-cycle services. As the Obama administration develops its climate-mitigation strategy, it should try to capture these two core pieces of GNEP that merit continued support, strengthened international fuel supply and disposition schemes as well as a workable program for international fuel "take-back."
Regarding the first part, I refer to Argonne's TRUST concept or Terms for Reliable Uranium Service Transactions through leasing. TRUST would provide for fuel supply and used fuel management in a global marketplace. A guiding principle of the program is its reliance on existing market structures such as commercial arrangements that have been successful in the United States and other countries with substantial nuclear power programs. The terms of the lease would be limited to the assembly of fuel components and services, use of the fuel, and storage of spent fuel at facilities owned by the nuclear utility. The lease would end when, and if, the spent fuel is removed from the site, a so-called "cradle to casket" scheme so that long-term disposition decisions would be determined after the lease has expired, which could include return of the fuel to the supplier.
Regarding take-back regimes, a good start would be to strengthen our domestic back-end programs, offering interim storage approaches to meet the Energy Department's contractual obligations to U.S. nuclear plant operators, progress there could be applied internationally and could entail expanded onsite dry cask storage, regional storage, centralized storage, and/or establishing one or more international interim storage facilities.
To meet this world of increased nuclear power, the United States must invest in research into advanced nuclear fuel-cycle technologies, including enhanced use of advanced computation simulation approaches that will lead to new, transformational, and more proliferation-resistant nuclear technologies. Funding such groundbreaking research is a better proposition than running after international competitors to find variants on traditional reprocessing techniques or evolutionary modifications of existing reactor designs.
Finally, when it comes to the dangers of proliferation in this new global nuclear world, my thoughts are best captured by James Hanson, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He wrote, in an open letter to the President-elect, that "potential proliferation of nuclear material will always demand vigilance, but that will be true in any case, and our safety is best secured if the United States is involved in the technologies and helps define [the] standards."
Soon after taking office January 20, President Barack Obama and his team will have to decide what to do about two recently negotiated U.S. bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements.
One is a nuclear cooperation deal with Moscow that President George W. Bush withdrew from congressional consideration after the Russia-Georgia conflict in August. The other is a landmark deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that was initialed in November and is expected to be signed any day. Approving both of them would provide significant foreign-policy benefits to the United States. Moving forward on the U.S.-Russian nuclear deal could provide a boost to relations as the two countries square off over missile defense, a follow-on to START, Georgia, and Europe's future security structure. For its part, the UAE deal would serve as a powerful counter to Iranian claims that the United States isn't prepared to extend the benefits of nuclear cooperation to Islamic Middle Eastern countries. Nonetheless, both of them should move forward only if Congress and the new administration take other actions to make them jibe better with broader U.S. nonproliferation policy.
Even before the Georgia crisis, U.S. lawmakers had raised concerns about the Russia deal because they believed that Moscow hadn't sufficiently reined in Iran's uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing programs and had continued military cooperation with the country. But to be fair, Russia has dragged its feet in finishing the Iranian light water nuclear reactor at Bushehr and has arranged a fuel-leasing program for the reactor to mitigate the chances of diversion and to undermine Iranian arguments for providing its own fuel. It has also offered Tehran the possibility of buying a share in its developing multinational uranium enrichment center at Angarsk in Siberia--an offer that Iran has refused. Still, Russia has been a major obstacle to tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran, arguing instead that Washington needs to participate in direct diplomacy with Tehran.
Now that the Obama administration seems prepared to engage in more diplomacy, it only seems fair of Congress to insist that Russia do its part by exerting greater pressure on Tehran if Iran doesn't take U.S. diplomatic initiatives seriously. In this regard, legislation approved last year by the House Foreign Affairs Committee is a good starting point. It would require the president to certify that Russia is preventing nuclear materials and other highly sensitive goods from being transferred to Iran, aside from what is needed for the Bushehr reactor.
That legislation also included a particularly valuable provision that would require Congress to first affirmatively approve any decision to grant Russia the right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel. Such a provision would slow dangerous efforts begun in the Bush administration to reverse the global decline in reprocessing, which can produce pure plutonium for nuclear weapons as well as fuel for nuclear power plants. It should be made a permanent amendment to the 1978 U.S. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.
The deal with the UAE is moving forward, in part, because that country has promised to enact laws prohibiting reprocessing or enrichment. But as some commentators have pointed out, the agreement itself reportedly doesn't ban these practices. While few analysts believe that the UAE has any intention of violating this commitment, its representatives are holding up the agreement as the "gold standard" for nuclear cooperation deals, applicable to other potentially more dangerous countries in the Middle East, such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia. One solution, as nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick argues in a forthcoming Arms Control Today article, would be for the United States and the UAE to strike a side deal in which they agree that Abu Dhabi effectively will hew to this commitment. This, too, should become a standard part of future U.S. nonproliferation policy.
The UAE has been working on addressing other U.S. congressional concerns--i.e., by tightening its export-control laws, given its past history as a hub for the A. Q. Khan nuclear black market network. While further certifications and conditions might well be in order to ensure dangerous goods aren't flowing through the UAE to Iran, this is probably not reason enough to shoot down the deal, and can be addressed by other means, as Fitzpatrick suggests. For example, the Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against Iran could be given real responsibility and a hands-on role by stationing customs experts in Dubai.
President-elect Barack Obama has shown with his political appointments, campaign statements, and energy plans that his administration's take on nuclear power won't be a complete revolution from the Bush era, but rather a thoughtful series of evolutionary steps.
Obama said during the campaign that "nuclear [power] should be in the mix," as Miles Pomper mentions, but Obama also ended that sentence with, "if we can make it safe." The Obama administration will continue to encourage the national laboratories, academia, and industry to research--but not develop--waste-management tools, and continue efforts to examine reprocessing and advanced fuel-cycle technologies under programs such as the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. But any near-term plans for commercial-scale construction for such facilities, as called for in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), will likely be halted.
As the new administration continues funding research, it will also continue to uphold the country's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations by assisting nations in evaluating their readiness for nuclear power, according to experts such as Jon Wolfsthal, who has held positions at the Energy Department and is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.S.-sponsored studies that evaluate a country's ability to finance a nuclear program, the appropriateness of its electrical grid for a new reactor, and whether it can initiate proper nuclear safety and security measures most likely will all continue under Obama and could serve other purposes than facilitating the sale of nuclear reactors to foreign nations as they did during the Bush administration. Such studies have proven revealing, for example, that Jordan, a country that has been interested in building a reactor, is far from ready in the near term--a proposed 1,000-megawatt reactor would overload its entire electricity grid, which can handle only 2,500 megawatts.
Other international components of GNEP could also continue in the Obama administration. The GNEP radioactive waste working group, which fosters discussion among 50 or so international energy ministries on topics ranging from radioactive waste disposal to regional repositories, may be worthwhile to continue. The Bush administration's habit of sidestepping oversight on such policies, however, may make it impossible to build the trust necessary in Congress to fund even these beneficial pieces of GNEP.
Through continued nuclear energy research under the new administration, better waste solutions and "a cost-efficient, safe way to produce nuclear energy," as Obama has said he would like to develop, may be discovered. But it's doubtful that such discoveries will be made before renewable energy sources become a viable solution for countries looking to dramatically boost their energy capacities in the next 50 years. As soon as developing nations receive financial incentives to build a renewable energy infrastructure, the green energy revolution will really start rolling and nuclear power, with its burden of nuclear waste, will no longer be seen as a viable option.
That said, a strong green energy revolution won't make the nuclear option simply disappear. Some states see gaining nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities, and with it the potential for nuclear weapons, as a boon to their global power and prestige. The nine (recognized and unrecognized) nuclear weapon states will need to work together to decrease that allure. The creation of global multilateral enrichment centers could create a system in which no single state manages and owns its own facilities. This could curb the desire of states to build their own enrichment centers and speed up the natural evolution away from all things nuclear.
A primary driving force behind the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was to incentivize countries to voluntarily forgo building sensitive fuel-cycle facilities. Hence the twin ideas of a multinational or international fuel bank and cradle-to-grave fuel leasing (including spent-fuel take back). While progress is being made on the concept of a nuclear fuel bank, the same can't be said for take-back schemes. The main issue with the latter revolves around concerns over nuclear waste disposal. Simply put, if a country can't effectively manage and dispose of its own nuclear waste, how can it possibly take back and dispose of someone else's waste?
The issue of waste disposal has been a contentious one in the United States for a long time. Listening to the debate, one might think we have no solution to the problem. But a solution does exist; there's a worldwide consensus that deep geological disposal is the correct way to deal with these materials. What remains to be decided and implemented is what form the waste will take and where it will be located. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, as amended, specified that the first U.S. repository would be located in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
I don't want to argue the merits of Yucca Mountain as a repository site. The Energy Department submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the repository earlier this year, and my long experience with the NRC suggests that it takes its mandate to protect the public health and safety seriously. If it can't establish with a high degree of certainty that the repository will be safe, it won't issue it a license.
In my view, at least two legislative mistakes were made with regard to the U.S. waste issue, and they both involve time limits. First, February 1998 was specified for when disposal of nuclear waste was to begin. This date wasn't met, and because it wasn't met, many people characterized the repository program as a failure. It's not a failure. Much scientific and engineering progress has been made. There's no technical or safety reason that necessitated the 1998 date. We should take our time and get it right. A second mistake was made when the NRC was directed to finish its review and issue a decision in only 3-4 years. Again, what was the rush? The NRC should be allowed, as it is with all other licensing activities, to expend the time needed to arrive at a thoroughly justified decision.
Today we know that it will be many years before Energy actually accepts spent fuel and disposes of it. In the meantime, spent fuel continues to accumulate at reactor sites, and more and more of it is being placed in dry storage. Both Jill Parillo and Miles Pomper have advocated for dry storage. It's easy to agree with them because it's the only near-term option. Fortunately, dry storage is a very safe and mature technology; however, it's not a substitute for actual permanent disposal.
Returning to the subject of waste forms touched on earlier, my personal belief is that vitrified waste free of virtually all plutonium is preferable to unprocessed spent fuel. There are sharp disagreements on this subject, of course, largely centering on the issue of nonproliferation. I find myself in complete agreement with Jill on at least one important factor. If and when it's decided to reprocess spent fuel, it doesn't make sense to separate out and segregate the cesium and strontium. She is right to focus on the unusual hazards associated with these materials, particularly cesium. It's preferable to leave these two materials embedded and diluted in vitrified waste where they aren't readily dispersible. Because of heat load, this may require near-surface storage for many decades, but this too can be done safely.
It's clear today that under the best of circumstances it will be a long time before the United States is in a position to take back used fuel from other countries (if it ever happens at all). This doesn't mean that it's a bad idea; rather it suggests that there's another reason to get serious about nuclear waste disposal and forge a politically acceptable approach to get it done. I think we will all agree that the incoming Obama administration must tackle the issue of waste disposal whether or not we experience a nuclear revival.
Miles Pomper and Stephen Goldberg have made several good suggestions regarding how the Obama administration should focus its nuclear energy efforts--i.e., encouraging developing countries that are considering nuclear power to forgo proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities; using enhanced computer simulations to develop and qualify advanced high-burnup nuclear fuels for existing reactors; and promoting "smart grids," plug-in hybrid vehicles, and electric vehicles.
If we're serious about mitigating climate change, however, we will need to ensure that federal energy policies are economically efficient and that federal investments supporting demand- and supply-side programs and technologies are prioritized--with the highest priority given to those technologies that can provide early carbon offsets at the least cost and risk to the environment and international security. The most economically efficient way to mitigate climate change is to establish meaningful limits on greenhouse gas emissions, such as capping carbon emissions and then letting the demand- and supply-side alternatives compete on a level playing field.
If there's an appropriate role for federal support, it isn't to subsidize a politician's favorite technology. Instead, it should:
The nuclear reactor technology that would be used in next generation reactors (dubbed Gen III+) doesn't meet either of these criteria. The reactors are too large, too inherently costly per unit, and too difficult to deploy in large numbers to reasonably expect that production or investment tax credits would help them to surpass some cost threshold and lead to economies of scale in their production.
Indeed, the history of nuclear reactor build rates and cost shows no such relationship. Nor are these Gen III+ reactors sufficiently different from existing nuclear technology to qualify for federal long-term research and development support.
Government support for this technology simply subsidizes the deployment of high-cost units that have little immediate prospect of contributing to economies of scale that would lead to significant reduction in the cost of subsequent units. Such subsidies can in fact discourage innovation, by keeping technologies in the marketplace that otherwise would be passed over in favor of more cost-effective solutions.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published the latest edition of its World Energy Outlook. The report states that nuclear capacity must grow to at least 1.8 times current capacity by 2030 if global temperature increases are to be kept to 2 degrees Celsius. "[Political action] is urgently needed to ensure secure energy supplies and to curtail rising emissions of greenhouse gases," according to IEA Executive Director Nobou Tanaka in November. "We must usher in a global energy revolution by improving energy efficiency and increasing the deployment of low-carbon energy."
The IEA report offers an excellent backdrop to discuss the nuclear policies of the incoming Obama administration.
I agree with Miles Pomper that Obama's international nuclear energy efforts should be focused on diplomacy, cooperative research, and new economic incentives. Two of Miles's proposals have particular merit in my opinion--support for grid-appropriate reactors and encourage developing countries considering nuclear power to forgo proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities.
As Miles points out, this effort could include financial, human capacity-building, and industrial and regulatory infrastructure assistance. Argonne National Laboratory has been engaged in a series of studies that analyze the infrastructure requirements and the economics of new regional nuclear power plant deployments. In a 2007 study, we focused on Eastern Europe and discovered that Poland would benefit from partnering with its Baltic neighbors to import electricity derived from new nuclear generation facilities in Lithuania, prior to Poland deploying its own nuclear plants. One of the main drivers in implementing nuclear energy in the region is meeting future electricity generation requirements in a constrained carbon environment.
The energy research agenda for the new administration should focus on such innovative approaches, if nuclear energy is going to make a significant impact on climate change. For example, enhanced computational simulations could identify and target the physical processes that underlie the design of both the next generation of nuclear plants and advanced nuclear fuel cycle facilities, which could improve the economics, safety, and safeguards of future nuclear plant operations. Research on advanced materials would also be beneficial, as would a new generation of high performance and long-lived nuclear fuels, system components, and reactor vessels, which could advance the economics, security, and safety of future nuclear reactors.
An additional domestic proposal that the Obama administration should consider is a more direct link between new nuclear energy and "smart" grids, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, and other electricity end-uses that are tied to expanded clean energy jobs, reduced dependency on petroleum, and more sustainable uses of natural resources such as expanded generation of clean water through desalination technology.
In light of the credit squeeze, developers of new nuclear energy projects need to be more creative in securing affordable financing. Prospects for financing these projects might improve if long-term power purchase agreements with plug-in electric hybrid vehicle manufacturers were to be implemented. An example is the deal between French carmaker Renault and power group Électricité de France (EDF to develop a mass-production electric car. The two companies have announced that by January 2010, they will complete a study of the engineering, regulatory, and financial requirements necessary to set up a nationwide electric vehicle infrastructure in France. One of the most intriguing economic opportunities that such a study could explore is how EDF could offer consumers a reliable, economically competitive pricing structure for electricity through long-term power purchase arrangements with EDF, which uses nuclear energy to produce 87.5 percent of its electricity generation.
Last week's presidential election opens the door to new thinking when it comes to U.S. policies for managing the global growth of nuclear energy.
While viewing nuclear energy "as part of the mix," President-elect Barack Obama is less supportive of it than the Bush administration. Due to the failure to sufficiently address nuclear waste and nonproliferation issues, nuclear energy technologies are likely to be deemphasized in the Obama administration. Instead, Obama's international nuclear energy efforts are more likely to be focused on diplomacy, cooperative research, and new economic incentives.
Obama has indicated that he doesn't favor Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. His electoral victory in Nevada and the long-time opposition of Harry Reid, Nevada's Democratic senator and the Senate majority leader, make it likely that the Energy Department's effort to move forward with this option will be slowed, if not ended.
As Jill Parillo indicated, Obama favors addressing the buildup of spent fuel at U.S. nuclear power plants by storing the material on an interim basis (100 years or more) in dry casks. He's also likely to halt the Bush administration's efforts under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to move forward with reprocessing. Instead, he will charge Energy with focusing on basic research until more proliferation-resistant methods can be perfected.
Where Obama is likely to continue the Bush administration's efforts is internationally. One proposal that might find support is the grid-appropriate reactors that were included in GNEP. These small- and medium-sized plants (typically between 250 and 500 megawatts) are better suited to the limited electrical grids of developing countries than the 1,000 megawatt or larger reactors typically built by major nuclear reactor manufacturers. These reactors could have a nonproliferation payoff as well, since most small- to medium-sized reactors currently built are proliferation-prone, such as the smaller heavy water reactors operated by India.
Obama would also be well-advised to continue and strengthen what's known as "the attractive offer"--an effort by the United States and Russia to encourage developing countries considering nuclear power to forgo proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities. These incentives currently include financial and physical, human, and regulatory infrastructure assistance. Already the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries have indicated their willingness to make a political commitment to rely on the market for fuel-cycle services, rather than building their own facilities.
In addition to seeking commitments from new nuclear power countries, the Obama administration should beef up incentives for countries with existing nuclear energy programs, which are seen as less prone to proliferation problems. For example, providing countries with less proliferation-sensitive fuel cycle facilities, such as fuel fabrication plants, in return for commitments not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing and to bring into force the Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These agreements give the IAEA greater legal authority within member states--i.e., the right to inspect undeclared facilities.
But such efforts could be undermined if the Bush administration doesn't convince members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), meeting this month, to ban sales of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to states that fail to meet certain criteria. In order to win congressional approval of the foolish U.S.-India nuclear deal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged to make NSG approval of certain conditions her "highest priority." Sales would be barred to countries that haven't joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not agreed to the Additional Protocol, or failed to maintain a good nonproliferation record. Suppliers would be discouraged from providing such equipment to states in particularly sensitive regions. If she falls short, though, President-elect Obama should make NSG agreement on these issues his highest nonproliferation priority.
I disagree with Stephen Goldberg and Alan Hanson--just being at the table won't ensure our influence over new nuclear states. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) puts U.S. international nonproliferation and nuclear safety objectives at risk.
Energy Department budget documents and official statements from 2006, when GNEP was first launched, described a nonproliferation policy for the partnership. But it never made it through international negotiations. That early policy required partner nations receiving fuel services to "forgo their own investments in enrichment and reprocessing technologies," while requiring supplier nations to develop proliferation-resistant reprocessing techniques that didn't separate out pure plutonium. When states showed little interest in the initiative given these criteria, Energy changed the rules. At the September 2007 GNEP meeting in Vienna, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman assured potential partners that in joining GNEP, "nobody is giving up their rights--nobody is giving up anything."
It will be hard to convince nations to follow our lead in instituting nonproliferation policies when we haven't formulated any such policies for GNEP's domestic component. A recent 970-page Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on GNEP released by Energy last month is a good example. (A further report by the National Nuclear Security Administration--spurred by the 14,000 public comments received on the PEIS--that will specifically deal with proliferation concerns is expected in December.)
In the PEIS, Energy assessed a scenario where GNEP remains unimplemented and the United States generates electricity and spent fuel with light water reactors as we do now. It also assessed a "fast reactor recycle alternative," where reprocessing and fast reactor facilities are built as called for by GNEP.
In the future GNEP scenario, Energy assumes that futuristic nuclear technologies will start working in five years, the government will subsidize the extreme costs, and that nuclear waste problems will virtually go away since uranium (96 percent of spent fuel) will be burned in the fast reactors. It's hard to imagine how such a scenario will be implemented. The costs for fast reactors and reprocessing centers are prohibitive (more than $100 billion), major technical hurdles remain, and Congress has shown no interest in funding such facilities.
The PEIS further states that cesium and strontium, which are currently embedded within spent fuel rods, would be separated out through reprocessing and "could be stored at the recycling center for 300 years" or transported to a future high-level storage facility. After 30 years of operation, an estimated 7.5 billion to 12.4 billion curies of highly radioactive cesium and strontium could accumulate at such a GNEP facility. This would dwarf the 131 million curies of cesium and strontium currently stored at the Hanford Site in Washington state that the National Academy of Sciences calls "the nation's most lethal single source of radiation other than inside an operating reactor."
I do not, as Miles Pomper's asserts, believe that the United States should wait to find a technological fix to a political problem. The truth is we don't have a sustainable waste solution that politics is holding up. Instead, we must overcome political hurdles as quickly as possible to start funding groundbreaking research at our national labs to discover a true and workable solution to U.S. nuclear waste problems--and before we create more waste here and abroad.
President-elect Barack Obama points us in the right direction by suggesting we find longer-term interim storage for our spent fuel, which will buy us time to find more permanent waste solutions. We can find a solution if the new president and a new Congress overcome the political divisions that have kept the country from progressing on this issue. Obama pledged during his campaign that he would work to overcome such divides, let us hope he can.
The extent to which Miles Pomper and I agree is greater than he realizes, as my underlying assumption is not that nuclear power is certain to undergo a "rapid" global expansion. While I'm certain that there will be an expansion and that it will be global--because it has already started--I'm equally certain that it won't be rapid.
Miles has pointed out some of the impediments to nuclear power growth, foremost of which is financing--especially given the ongoing financial crisis. Probably the biggest impediment for developing countries, after financing, is their lack of regulatory infrastructure and an adequate safety and quality culture. These impediments will conspire to slow the growth of nuclear power. This isn't so bad. While I'm a strong advocate for nuclear energy, there's obvious merit in having growth occur in a slow, careful, and deliberate fashion.
Where Miles and I do disagree, however, is where the United States stands in the nuclear supply arena. As Stephen Goldberg's contribution makes clear, the world isn't waiting for the United States to lead it into a nuclear renaissance. Long ago, leadership was ceded to France, Japan, Russia, and increasingly South Korea. Rather than facilitating a renaissance, it appears that the Bush administration woke up one day to see the nuclear train leaving the station and has been running to jump on ever since. I agree with Stephen that Washington must do what it can to reassert leadership; this will require a new domestic commitment to nuclear energy and concomitant investment in research.
I don't want to diminish Miles' and Jill Parillo's concerns regarding nuclear waste. Obviously, this waste must be stored, protected, and disposed in an environmentally acceptable manner. Miles correctly points out that this has largely been a political problem in the United States. While the nuclear industry has awaited a U.S. geological repository, it's been safely storing used fuel in dry casks for almost 25 years. Such interim storage can be extended for many more decades.
Often overlooked is good news concerning waste disposal. In New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground repository for the country's defense-related radioactive waste, has received and disposed low- and intermediate-level material since 1999. A similar facility is in operation in Sweden. Only the disposal of used fuel and vitrified waste from recycling facilities remains to be demonstrated. But that too will come. Once accomplished, the prospects for an international repository and/or a nuclear fuel leasing regime with used fuel take back become more viable. This would be a positive step for countries with small nuclear programs and developing countries.
With regard to research on fast reactors and advanced recycling technologies, Tom Cochran proves to be the eternal pessimist to counter Stephen's eternal optimism. I share some of Tom's skepticism about fast reactors. But I also think it's too early to end such research as long as it requires only modest expenditures. I also part company with Tom on recycling; France has demonstrated that it can be done reliably and economically. (By economical I mean that for a small increase in fuel-cycle cost, gains can be made in reducing the volume of high-level waste and its radiotoxicity while recovering fissile material from the used fuel.) Research in this area could improve efficiency and economics of recycling.
Energy is the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century. We must lift much of the world out of poverty, which will require large increases in energy production while simultaneously curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In order to accomplish this, we must stop pitting one form of energy against another and adopt solutions that are based on "all of the above"--including efficiency, renewables, nuclear energy, and if it can be demonstrated, carbon sequestration. That said, an energy future without a significant contribution from nuclear energy simply isn't an option.
Stephen Goldberg argues that the United States must have a robust research and development program to create and deploy advanced reprocessing technologies and fast reactors in order for us to influence how other countries manage their nuclear fuel and waste. I'm reminded of early nineteenth-century parliamentary debates in Britain about the slave trade, where it was argued that the country should remain in the trade to guarantee the humane treatment of slaves.
Stephen also claims that I "prejudge the value of a vibrant advanced fuel cycle research and development program, including the discovery of new processes that would obviate [my] concerns." Stephen is an eternal optimist who believes new discoveries will solve the economic and reliability problems confronting fast reactors and the economic woes of reprocessing. Where we part ways is that I believe research and development often reveals that some development paths are highly unlikely to succeed and aren't fruitful or cost-effective to undertake further. Moreover, what Stephen proposes is likely to do more harm than good by promoting reprocessing research and development centers in non-weapon states.
Argonne National Laboratory, where Stephen works, has been pursuing the development of plutonium-fueled fast reactors since April 26, 1944. That's when Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Alvin Weinberg, and others gathered there to discuss the possibility of using fast breeder reactors to heat and light cities. After 64 years and tens of billions of dollars it is abundantly clear that it is an uneconomic, unreliable, and proliferation-prone technology. It's time to pull the plug on this effort and instead pursue more fruitful avenues of research. The same can be said, I might add, regarding research and development of magnetic and inertial confinement fusion technologies for electricity production.
But more importantly, we're in the midst of a global climate and human development emergency. Now is the worst time to throw money at light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel technologies. We need clean, scalable, cost-effective energy solutions now that can be safely, economically, and rapidly disseminated to the widest possible range of countries. Even if the proliferation and environmental risks could eventually be tamed, developing and building the industrial infrastructure to close the nuclear fuel cycle would require many decades before it yielded significant carbon displacement. The opportunity cost of such misplaced investment is enormous when you consider that it's not only the gross amount, but also the timing of carbon reduction that matters.
Nuclear power will continue to play a modest role in mitigating climate change over the next 20-30 years--the most relevant time frame for addressing the climate issue. Its increased use will be predicated upon evolutionary improvements to the nuclear technology we have today, and not on some laboratory's vision of an ideal closed fuel cycle. Facing a range of renewable power options--from biogas and small hydroelectric to wind, solar, and geothermal--that are cost competitive with electricity from new nuclear plants in various parts of the United States, a significant expansion of conventional nuclear power after 2030 is by no means assured.
Chasing the distant mirage of plutonium recycling in numerous fast reactors serves no useful purpose at this critical juncture in human history, so let's prove we're serious about dealing with the global energy and climate problem by putting this particular pipedream aside.
I just returned from the Middle East and it's abundantly clear that U.S. influence in that part of the world is receding. The financial meltdown that’s going on is also contributing to an international lack of confidence in U.S. policies and is affecting our ability to influence day-to-day events around the world.
I have reflected upon my earlier contribution as well as the contribution of Miles Pomper, who writes in his most recent response that he doesn't share Alan Hanson’s or my underlying assumption "that nuclear power is certain to undergo a rapid global expansion. Obviously, nuclear industry proponents would like this to be the case, but there are many impediments to nuclear energy's growth."
I think the economic forces are already in play in a variety of countries including India, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates, which will make deployment of nuclear energy essential so that economic-growth targets for these countries can be met. Therefore, Miles’s views may already be overtaken by events on the ground. In my opinion, the real key questions are: Will nuclear energy be deployed in a responsible manner by these countries and will the United States have any influence over their decisions?
Washington needs to be engaged bilaterally and multilaterally to have a positive impact on these nations' technological development and choices. It's still very uncertain how these countries will acquire their nuclear fuel and where and how their spent fuel will be disposed. Embedded in these questions are further questions, regarding choices of technologies and facilities that will be utilized. The United States and its major nuclear energy partners (i.e., Russia, Britain, France, and Japan) need to be at the forefront developing and implementing a robust nuclear fuel supply and disposal regime to limit the spread of new enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. This is the essence of the U.S. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It's clear to me that our global nonproliferation and nuclear safety priorities will be significantly at risk, if the United States is not at the table discussing with these countries our recommendations on how to implement advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies.
Tom Cochran states that GNEP's advanced reprocessing technologies are "essential but unlikely to reduce the repository requirements because fast reactors will not be deployed in large numbers," and "would be even more costly than the conventional PUREX method, and produce even larger inventories of intermediate and low-level nuclear wastes." Tom's views prejudge the value of a vibrant advanced fuel cycle research and development program, including the discovery of new processes that would obviate Tom’s concerns. The challenges of how to handle the growing quantities of commercial spent fuel will be one of the key drivers shaping the GNEP program.
As a precondition to meaningful discussions with all of our international counterparts, we need to be engaged actively and productively in the research and development of these technologies. Otherwise, we will not be viewed as a credible player.
As much as I appreciate Alan Hanson's support for my argument, I don't share his underlying assumption--or Stephen Goldberg's--that nuclear power is certain to undergo a rapid global expansion. Obviously, nuclear industry proponents would like this to be the case, but there are many impediments to nuclear energy's growth. As Charles Ferguson and Michelle Smith demonstrate in the Bulletin's recent special issue on nuclear energy, potential hurdles range from high financing costs during a time of tight global credit to insufficient labor and supplier markets. Indeed, as Mycle Schneider points out in a recent Bulletin Web-Edition report, given the forthcoming retirement of early generations of reactors constructed in the pre-Chernobyl days, we may actually see a decline in the number of active nuclear reactors.
Plus, energy companies, particularly in the nuclear arena, aren't purely free-market actors making decisions according to Adam Smith's framework. Rather, these companies are tightly interwoven with the political leadership of their countries, and their choices are based on politics as much as economics. Just ask Gazprom's former chairman, and current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev or Sergei Kiriyenko, Russia's former prime minister and Rosatom's current head.
If nuclear energy prospers in the future, it will be because governments decide to provide their nuclear industries with direct or indirect government subsidies, loans, trade supports, and liability limits. So countries first need to decide whether building nuclear power plants (especially those needed to replace the plants being taken out of service) is a cost-effective way of tackling climate change or energy security concerns relative to other options such as increased efficiency or greater use of alternative energy.
Jill Parillo is correct when she writes that nuclear energy will find it hard to clear this bar unless governments first seriously address how to handle nuclear waste and spent fuel. After all, that's exactly what I was arguing when I said that before searching for technological solutions, "countries need to engage each other and their people in a transparent discussion on how to deal with spent nuclear fuel." And she's right that "until the United States develops a solution for its own nuclear waste problem . . . it's not responsible to facilitate a global nuclear renaissance."
But she's too quick to throw up her hands and imply that the United States needs to wait for decades to find a technological fix to a political problem. Saying that a solution can't be found because Nevada doesn't want a repository is a cop-out. It may be true that Yucca Mountain will never open as long as one of the state's senators, Harry Reid, is Senate majority leader. But that's a fact of political life, hardly a law of nature. And Yucca Mountain's current capacity limit also is largely a function of politics.
Indeed, the two leading presidential candidates have at least pointed in the direction of a possible solution. Republican presidential nominee John McCain first tried to duck the issue by calling for some other country to host an international spent fuel repository, and at times implying that reprocessing would tackle the problem. But on the whole, since then, he's been fairly straightforward in saying that Yucca Mountain should open despite the political costs in Nevada, a critical swing state. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has been unwilling to go against Reid. But he has called for interim storage of spent fuel, a solution that would provide breathing space to reach a political agreement and explore technological options.
Americans should challenge their candidates to explain how they would tackle this issue at home as president before creating new problems abroad.
Nuclear energy is very exciting: It's going to solve the energy crisis, end U.S. reliance on oil and the rogue states that sell it, and help developing nations meet their doubling energy demands. This is all possible, we're told, because the U.S. Energy Department, industry, and the national laboratories will develop new technologies, new policies, and new international regimes to facilitate the sale of nuclear reactors and fuel using proliferation-resistant technologies, all the while following nonproliferation codes of conduct.
If I read Alan Hanson's piece without thinking twice, I wouldn't understand at all why there's any controversy over a global nuclear renaissance. Miles Pomper says we should think first about principles, then technology. Alan lays out the principles. He says nuclear energy could help meet growing energy demands, but agrees that legitimate proliferation concerns exist due to the dual-use nature of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Alan then explains how such worries could be put to rest with fuel-supply arrangements, mentioned by Stephen Goldberg, which will curb the spread of enrichment technology, and "safe and proliferation-resistant fuel recycling [a euphemism for reprocessing]," which has already been demonstrated in Europe.
It's exciting to talk about principles and futuristic technologies, but what about accountability and responsibility? Developing nations do have growing energy needs, but it's totally irresponsible and shortsighted to sell them nuclear reactors and fuel and then leave them with tons of toxic waste and no long-term safe storage plan.
I'm not saying proliferation-resistant technology can't be developed or that nuclear energy isn't a potential answer to the energy crisis, but I want to know who's going to take responsibility for the waste that's going to be created and how they will dispose of it in a safe and sustainable manner.
I know Nevada doesn't want the 50,000 tons of commercially generated waste that's ready to be placed in the Yucca Mountain repository. (Even if it did, with 2,000 tons of U.S. civilian spent fuel produced each year, Yucca will be legally full before it ever even opens.) I also know that France wants to sell nuclear fuel and provide reprocessing services to developing countries, yet has no intention of storing resulting waste.
If the United States took responsibility for commercially generated waste and decided that reprocessing was its long-term solution, it still wouldn't solve the problem of finding safe and sustainable storage for the other 90 percent of radioactive material separated from the reusable plutonium. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists has proven that reprocessing actually expands the total volume of low-level radioactive waste created by a factor of 20. Tom Cochran already mentioned the technical hurdles of closing the fuel cycle through reprocessing and fast neutron reactors. I would add another one--cost: A reprocessing facility will cost $35 billion to build and a prototype fast burner reactor will require anywhere from $40 billion to $150 billion in federal subsidies.
I do agree with Alan that just because GNEP's technology is unproven today, doesn't mean it won't work someday. Congress appropriated $149 million for GNEP research and development, but with more money and more flexibility to research a variety of safe and sustainable storage solutions, not just reprocessing, U.S. labs could discover better ways to deal with the waste problem that exists today. Until the United States develops a solution for its own nuclear waste problem and can offer it to all nations interested in nuclear power, it's not responsible to facilitate a global nuclear renaissance.
A valid criticism of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), at least as it was originally conceived, is that it focused too much on preferred technologies, without first obtaining an international or domestic consensus on the basis for their selection. Miles Pomper made an invaluable contribution to this discussion when he advised that we "focus on first principles, then technology." Let's take his advice and examine the principles.
The fundamental assumption underpinning this discussion (and GNEP itself) is that the world is about to embark upon a global expansion of nuclear power. The consequences of such an expansion will be an increased demand for fissile atoms and an increased amount of used nuclear fuel produced. Both of these consequences could be problematic, and both also are connected to the overarching fear of increased weapons proliferation.
The vast majority of nuclear reactors operating today, and in the immediate future, are light water reactors fueled with enriched uranium. Therefore, more reactors will require more uranium and more enrichment capacity. Enrichment technology can be used to produce nuclear fuel or at higher enrichment levels, weapon-grade material. Because of its dual-use capability, it would be desirable to find ways to limit the spread of enrichment technology in a noncoercive manner. Thus, GNEP's focus on assured-supply mechanisms, a concept that Stephen Goldberg has already elaborated upon.
The other source of fissile atoms is the used fuel from light water reactors that contains not only residual unfissioned uranium 235 but also fissile plutonium. It's possible to recover the residual uranium and plutonium from used fuel by a process generically referred to as reprocessing. Again, we are confronted with a dual-use technology because reprocessing can separate plutonium from used fuel to create new fuel or to construct a nuclear explosive device. GNEP, as originally conceived, advocated for the development of "proliferation-resistant" reprocessing technology to deal with this problem. I must again agree with Miles that the term "proliferation resistant" isn't only undefined but also glibly used. Any sophisticated separations technology has the potential for abuse. But this doesn't mean that it must be proscribed.
The potential increase of used fuel worldwide was another driving force behind GNEP. While an accumulation of used fuel doesn't present a significant proliferation risk in the short term, over the centuries as the self-protecting radiation barrier decreases, recovering plutonium from the fuel becomes easier. GNEP originally offered a resolution to this by proposing to take back spent fuel, develop advanced separation technologies, and burn separated actinide elements in fast neutron reactors. This is a good vision but not something that could be accomplished in the next few decades. The technology isn't yet proven. That said, I'm not as pessimistic as Tom Cochran about their eventual availability; almost every successful technological innovation is built on a foundation of prior failures from which lessons are learned for subsequent improvements.
But since fast reactors aren't on the immediate horizon, the destruction of fissile plutonium in the near term must be done using existing light water reactors. The Energy Department has incorporated this possibility into GNEP. Of course, this hasn't been well received by those who say reprocessing and reuse of spent fuel shouldn't be done for fear of proliferation. Yet, safe and proliferation-resistant fuel recycling has been demonstrated in Europe and soon will be demonstrated in Japan and probably in China. The sophisticated technology needed to do this properly (and to make improvements to eliminate the production of pure plutonium) and the massive investments necessary to build these recycling facilities should assure that they're few in number. As with other aspects of GNEP, coercion and prohibition shouldn't be necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
Regardless of how GNEP proceeds, it has already accomplished worthwhile objectives such as opening a multilateral dialogue among nations and challenging old assumptions about nuclear power. GNEP has already evolved into an important forum for discussion rather than negotiation as desired by Jill Parillo.
Stephen Goldberg has been careful to focus his discussion on the least controversial aspects of Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), providing fuel services to emerging nuclear energy countries. He ignores the more troubling aspects of the partnership--its reliance on fast neutron reactors and a closed fuel cycle and developing, demonstrating, and deploying advanced nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies and fast reactors for this purpose. Establishing a reliable supply of nuclear fuel for emerging nuclear energy states is a worthy, though not new, objective, which is unlikely to impact states of concern such as Iran. Advanced fuel reprocessing technologies coupled with widespread reliance on fast reactors in self-selected countries is both unnecessary and doomed to failure for a variety of reasons.
To place Goldberg's comments in perspective it would behoove those less familiar with GNEP to first read the Energy Department's GNEP Strategic Plan, particularly the objectives under the heading "1.2 Principles." There you will find establishing fuel supply arrangements to be the fourth of six objectives. The primary objective of those who first promoted GNEP was to reduce the requirements for geologic disposal of spent fuel by selectively separating plutonium and long-lived actinides and burning them in a fleet of fast reactors. This part of the GNEP vision is a proposed marriage of two failed technologies--fast reactors and reprocessing.
As has been noted by Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, the GNEP vision of burning the long-lived actinides, requires for every 100 thermal reactors of the type used throughout the United States today, some 40-75 new fast reactors of similar capacity. The commercial use of large numbers of fast reactors for actinide burning is unlikely to occur because--to borrow observations made by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover more than 50 years ago--fast reactors have proven to be “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolong shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.” The development of fast reactors to breed plutonium failed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. I would argue it failed in the Soviet Union despite the fact that the Soviets operated two commercial-size fast breeder plants, BN-350 (now shut down in Kazakhstan) and BN-600 (still operational in Russia), because the Soviet Union and Russia never successfully closed the fuel cycle and thus never operated these plants using MOX (mixed-uranium and plutonium oxide) fuel.
Relative to the existing open fuel cycle, the use of a closed MOX fuel cycle in thermal reactors has proven to be more costly and less safe. It leads to greater routine releases of radioactivity into the environment, greater worker exposures to radiation, larger inventories of nuclear waste that must be managed, and it doesn't appreciably reduce the geologic repository requirements for spent fuel or high-level nuclear waste. GNEP's advanced reprocessing technologies--essential to the success of the GNEP vision--are unlikely to reduce the repository requirements because fast reactors will not be deployed in large numbers. Moreover, the advanced reprocessing technologiers are even more costly than the conventional PUREX method and produce even larger inventories of intermediate and low-level nuclear wastes.
The closed fuel cycle technologies required by GNEP pose greater proliferation risks than the once-through fuel cycle. Even though GNEP's ambitious vision of deploying new reprocessing plants and fast reactors in large numbers will surely fail to materialize, the partnership's research program will encourage in non-weapon states the development of research facilities well suited for plutonium recovery, i.e., small hot cells and even larger reprocessing centers, as well as the training of experts in plutonium chemistry and metallurgy, all of which pose grave proliferation risks.
Global population growth in combination with further industrial development will lead to a doubling of worldwide electricity consumption by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association. Add an increasing shortage of fresh water and the increasing need for energy-intensive desalination plants, and nuclear energy offers significant opportunities to meet growing energy demands of a developing world. Because of this and other reasons, an expanding set of non-nuclear countries are considering deploying new nuclear power plants.
Nuclear energy also enjoys a unique position in the climate debate. It's the only carbon-free energy source that's already contributing to energy supplies on a relatively large scale and is also expandable without requiring major technological breakthroughs. In addition, it offers a hedge against the vulnerability of interrupted deliveries of fossil fuels. This is a key issue in regions such as Eastern Europe, which is subject to the whims of Russia and other supplier states.
A recent MIT study on the future of nuclear power indicated that to be a substantial mitigation measure against future climate disruptions, nuclear energy would need to expand 1,000-1,500 gigawatts by the middle of the twenty-first century--a tripling or quadrupling of current nuclear capacity. At the same time, government incentives to reduce carbon emissions and institute carbon-trading schemes will increase the economic competitiveness of nuclear power versus other electricity sources.
It should be noted that a robust nuclear fuel supply and disposition economy will need to be provided to these emerging nuclear energy countries. Such a regime must also reduce the incentive for countries to develop new nuclear enrichment and/or reprocessing capabilities, potential sources of proliferation of nuclear materials for weapons.
International fuel schemes are being proposed that would provide fuel to nuclear consumer nations and provide for its return. Representatives of the nuclear industry, along with Argonne National Laboratory, developed a novel concept entitled TRUST, or Terms for Reliable Uranium Service Transactions through leasing. The program would provide for fuel supply and used fuel management in a global marketplace. A guiding principle of TRUST is its reliance on existing market structures such as commercial arrangements that have been successful in the United States and other countries with substantial nuclear power programs. The term of the lease would be limited to the assembly of the fuel components and services, use of the fuel, and storage of the spent fuel at facilities owned by the nuclear utility. The lease would end when, and if, the spent fuel is removed from the site.
This arrangement has significant benefits--including providing small buyers with a lowered cost and reduced risk of interruptions due to a diversity of uranium supply, through economies of scale. Beyond just decreasing cost, the program would also decrease the risk of proliferation by allowing the lessor to maintain legal title to the fuel, ensuring the return of spent fuel on a schedule and on commercial terms (rather than a direct sale, which is more final) to be specified in the lease agreement. This is similar to current leases for industrial equipment, which typically require the lessee to comply with all laws and regulations governing use of the equipment. A lease for the provision of nuclear fuel to an emerging nuclear energy country should require that the utility comply with all applicable laws, conventions, and agreements concerning possession and use of that fuel, including International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguard Agreements.
We have learned a secure and defined disposition path for the used fuel is the critical implementation step to execute TRUST. As such, the goals of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership would support such a requirement by having countries with secure, advanced nuclear capabilities provide fuel services--fresh fuel and recovery of used fuel--to nuclear consumer nations.