The future of global nuclear power through the eyes of young Russian and American professionals

Siegfried Hecker chats with some of the participants in the US-Russia Young Professionals Nuclear ForumSiegfried Hecker chats with some of the participants in the US-Russia Young Professionals Nuclear Forum

As we witness the increasingly detrimental effects of global climate change, the role that nuclear power could play globally to mitigate its effects continues to be debated. The series of articles featured in the Bulletin in December 2016 aired a broad spectrum of opinions, ranging in assessment of the role of nuclear power from insignificant to mandatory. In this series, we present the perspective of a new crop of nuclear professionals who collectively represent two of the world leaders in nuclear power—the United States and Russia.

These young professionals work together to exchange views and ideas as part of the U.S.-Russia Young Professionals Nuclear Forum that we created in May 2016 to encourage dialogue on critical nuclear issues of concern to both countries. As most official avenues of US-Russia cooperation on nuclear issues were being shut down in pace with the deteriorating political relations between Washington and Moscow, our objective was to turn to the younger generation, because those in it will have to live with the consequences of a world in which their countries no longer cooperate to mitigate global nuclear dangers.

In the United States, our efforts are organized within the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, although we reach out to universities and other organizations across the country. In Russia, we were fortunate to find the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), Russia’s flagship research university in nuclear engineering, to be an enthusiastic partner. Its rector, Professor Mikhail Strikhanov, has an unwavering international outlook that stresses the need for cooperation, especially in higher education and research. The young professionals are students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career professionals.

Hecker has previously written in the Bulletin about the remarkable period of post-Cold War nuclear cooperation between Russian and American nuclear weapon scientists and how the termination of that cooperation by our governments threatens our collective security. We viewed engaging young professionals from the two countries as one of the few avenues of continued cooperation. It has the potential of being particularly effective because at the forum meetings, the young Russians and Americans interact in an educational and non-adversarial environment.

The first three forum meetings focused primarily on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and countering nuclear terrorism. They featured exercises in which the young professionals worked in small groups side by side to explore solutions to vexing nuclear problems. One was a simulation conducted at Stanford in May 2018 just a few weeks before the historic Trump-Kim Singapore Summit. The other was an exercise in Moscow in October 2018 to advise their governments on a hypothetical crisis related to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

At the Moscow forum, we also asked the young professionals to explore what the two countries could do to promote the benefits of nuclear energy around the globe, while cooperating to mitigate the associated risks.

Preparation for the forum included online lectures by senior mentors as well as lectures and discussion sessions in Moscow by both Russian and American specialists. In the nuclear power exercise, we assigned eight key questions to 24 young professionals. We divided them into eight teams, each composed of Russian and American participants. The central question was whether or not an expansion of global nuclear power is necessary to help mitigate the danger of global climate change. Individual groups examined issues of supply and demand around the globe and some of the big challenges posed by an expansion of nuclear power—those of economics, safety and security, potential proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the disposition of nuclear waste.

The young professionals conducted research prior to the meeting, deliberated and debated within their teams during the meeting, and presented their findings to the larger group and the panel of senior mentors at the end of the exercise. During the past six months they have captured the essence of their findings in the eight articles featured in this special presentation in the Bulletin.

Their findings are generally pro-nuclear, which is not surprising considering that most of them have strong educational and research backgrounds in either nuclear technologies or nuclear security. But we found that their views were primarily driven by their serious concerns about the dangers of global climate change and the urgent need to confront these dangers.

Their articles are of interest not so much in that they break new ground in these areas, particularly since many other  established experts have tried to tackle these issues for decades. They are of interest because they represent the views of some of the younger generation of professionals working together across cultural and disciplinary divides. We were struck by the following comment in one of the papers  that reflects on the perceived urgency of the task at hand: “We are the first generation that is experiencing the dramatic effects of global climate change and likely the last that can do something about it to avoid catastrophic consequences for the Earth and its people.”

We also note that the articles uniformly reveal that the young professionals across the board firmly believe that the benefits and risks of expanding nuclear power globally must be pursued and tackled in a concerted effort of major nuclear powers (especially the United States and Russia), other developed nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and all stakeholders. These younger voices stated: “The most important shift necessary to facilitate [nuclear power] expansion is an increase in international cooperation and multilateralization in the form of, for example, international reactor supply contracts, multinational enrichment conglomerates, nondiscriminatory fuel banks, and international waste repositories.”

We believe the readers will find the sentiments and opinions of the young Russian and American professionals interesting and encouraging. We certainly have found them eager and able to work together effectively—a lesson that the more senior professionals and the governments need to relearn.

Editor’s note: The Young Professionals Nuclear Forum cooperation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Both foundations also provide support to the Bulletin.

Nuclear power and global climate change

As young professionals beginning our careers in the United States and Russia, we believe strongly that nuclear energy must play a key role in mitigating climate change. We are the first generation that is experiencing the dramatic effects of global climate change and likely the last that can do something about it. To avoid catastrophic consequences for the Earth and its people, we have to develop and implement a solution in the shortest period of time possible because the planet is at a point of no return.

What countries will be the most important in leading a significant expansion of global nuclear power—both from the perspective of the supplier and the user?

Any global expansion of nuclear energy will be governed by the economics of energy—including demand and pricing—but also by larger geopolitical forces such as domestic politics or the relations between countries that are users of nuclear power and nuclear technology supplier countries. Because the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is a major impetus for nuclear expansion, population size and density will also play a major part. This means that the geographic distribution of nuclear energy generation could change dramatically.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi at the Bushehr Nuclear Plant in 2015.

Should nuclear power be expanded significantly into developing countries?

As demand for energy rises in the developing world, nuclear power could provide one partial solution to the global climate crisis. Large countries such as Russia and China are both investing in nuclear power and positioning themselves to export technology and expertise. But whether developing countries should incorporate nuclear energy depends on a range of factors such as local energy demand and the availability of other energy sources. They should also consider how competitive nuclear energy would be. Most important, countries that go nuclear should have sufficient technological, industrial, and political stability.
The world's first AP1000 reactor, at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China.

What will be required for a significant expansion of global nuclear energy?

The nuclear energy industry is sitting at the nexus of old and new technologies and systems. The industry needs to make significant changes or risk becoming irrelevant to the quest of mitigating the impact of climate change. Meeting the goal of launching 30 plants per year, however, does not require new technological advancements.
Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 & 2 cooling towers and containment buildings.

Why nuclear power plants cost so much—and what can be done about it

The global sustainability of nuclear power thus relies on efforts to increase its economic viability. But how? Standardized designs and downsized reactors can help. Governments can offer additional support. But that still might not be enough to keep the nuclear power industry alive in the United States.
On a tour of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI).

Resolving safety and security concerns about nuclear power

Whether safety and security questions will prevent a significant expansion of global nuclear power in the future—and a corresponding reduction in climate-altering pollution—depends largely on how governments and the nuclear industry respond. To confront these challenges, countries should change the way nuclear reactors are constructed and operated—continuing some already-begun modifications and improvements to existing reactors in the short term, and switching to new, improved designs in the longer term.

Will nuclear proliferation challenges limit a significant expansion of global nuclear power?

Any plan that advocates for the expansion of nuclear power must account for potential proliferation risks. To mitigate these risks, individual states and the international community should pursue policies in line with the recommendations in this article.
An example of dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel.

Will nuclear waste disposal challenges limit a significant expansion of global nuclear power?

Nuclear waste disposal is compounded by an unfortunate fact: Even countries with established nuclear programs do not have permanent repositories for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Nevertheless, we conclude that interim measures such as dry cask storage on the path to permanent solutions will allow countries to expand nuclear power to mitigate the imminent threat of global climate change.


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Heinrich Schmid

Our planet earth is dangerously overpopulated by our species Homo sapiens. We must reduce the number of births. Japan is doing it. They should be lauded.
Heinrich Schmid

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