The soaring rhetoric of last year’s political season is plummeting fast into a great sea of pragmatism. President Obama has accepted the wisdom of trading campaign talking points for realistic judgments on a range of national security issues from terrorist surveillance programs to military tribunals. Another issue looms, however, and it’s an important one: how to stem the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons technology. Here, too, the President may face a tradeoff between Democratic Party ideals on the one hand, and sober policymaking on the other.
While the “no nukes” booster club in the Democratic Party may rejoice over the continued decline of the domestic commercial nuclear sector, newly appointed Defense and Energy Department officials will soon learn that the loss of expertise and R&D; capabilities with respect to nuclear power at home translates directly into the erosion of U.S. influence over how the nuclear league expands abroad. With the French, Japanese, Russians and even the Chinese surpassing the United States in various areas of nuclear reactor development, skilled manpower and business acumen, we have increasingly less to offer international interlocutors as time goes by. If the trend continues, the U.S. government may find itself marginalized on a first-order national security issue.
The upshot is that, if President Obama is serious about restoring the clout that has to underpin any diplomatic effort aimed at controlling the expansion of nuclear weapons technology, he may need to take on some sacrosanct Democratic beliefs about nuclear power, and he may need an occasional Republican as an ally. This is because the two parties take somewhat different views of the complex issues surrounding nuclear power and nonproliferation. Republicans tend to have fewer hang-ups about nuclear issues, believing that the safety and proliferation risks associated with commercial expansion can be managed; and it’s fair to say that they support the construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States if it makes economic sense. Moreover, as the Bush Administration’s nuclear deal with India in 2008 demonstrated, Republicans are also more sanguine about deviating from purist nonproliferation approaches in achieving strategic objectives overseas.
Clearly, the Bush Administration’s dangling of incentives in front of New Delhi in the form of the lifting of nuclear trade sanctions and the promising of future R&D; cooperation with U.S. national laboratories rankled the ideologues in the Democratic Party, who remain firmly against commercial expansion and reactor research cooperation under just about any set of circumstances. Although both houses of Congress eventually approved the pact—principally on the basis that it would break India’s isolation and serve to facilitate its entry into an international safeguards regime—the split in the House vote among Democrats demonstrated that there was strong opposition to the overall approach. Taken together with the fact that the Democratic majority in both houses has only increased as a result of the November 2008 elections, the episode of the India deal could very well foreshadow the tension in his own party that President Obama, as pragmatist-in-chief, may have to deal with as he pursues a realistic nonproliferation strategy. The first test ahead, however, may not involve foreign policy but energy policy; and here is where the President may encounter some rough political roadways.
Energy policy is saturated with strategic implications no less than nonproliferation policy. Thus, it would make little sense to revive a domestic nuclear industry for the nonproliferation diplomatic leverage it would provide if it made no economic sense on its own terms. And here is where the debate is really engaged, with most Republicans and President Obama taking an open-minded, pragmatic view of the possibilities, but with the majority of Democrats taking a more ideological view.
Proponents for expanding civil nuclear power believe that advances in nuclear technology over the past several decades—taken together with the increased demand for electricity, on the one hand, and the growing imperative toward combating global warming, on the other—increase the attractiveness of nuclear energy for developed and developing nations alike. Some seem convinced that the world is on the cusp of a “nuclear renaissance.” Those opposed to nuclear power or agnostic about it tend to raise concerns about the high costs associated with the construction of new nuclear facilities, safety issues (including the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorist attack), proliferation concerns, and continuing uncertainties about the costs and safety of storing nuclear waste.
While there are 441 nuclear power plants operating worldwide, and another 31 are under construction, it’s safe so say that these concerns—especially the cost considerations compared to conventional and unconventional alternatives—have kept any nuclear renaissance on a modest trajectory, so far. How is this debate likely to look a few years hence?
Compared with most of the world, Americans are blessed with several sources of energy and a robust research and development capability in energy technology (some of it government-funded, most of it not these days). The principal sources for electricity generation in the United States include hydroelectric, solar, wind, nuclear and fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal). However, the sources of energy that provide for the most cost-effective “base load”, or minimum continuous electrical demands of the power grid over a 24-hour period, are limited to hydroelectric, nuclear and coal. As the United States has already harnessed the maximum energy potential from its rivers, this leaves only two economically viable options for meeting future demand for base load electricity: nuclear and coal.1
Opponents of nuclear energy argue that, given the right policies, renewables (such as solar and wind power) and biofuels can be commercially developed to compete with coal and nuclear energy. The Federal government and U.S. industry should indeed continue their already extensive R&D; efforts to refine these technologies. But can these sources of energy ever cover the base-load electricity requirements the United States will need without huge government subsidies?
There is, however, one additional factor in the mix: climate change. Most experts believe that anthropogenic warming is real and must be dealt with thoughtfully and decisively using long-term policies. Some system of mandatory reductions in the production of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels is very likely, whether it is a cap-and-trade system like that of the Waxman-Markey bill or some other kind. When that happens, nuclear power proponents believe that their power source will become increasingly attractive and commercially viable compared to coal.2 This may prove mistaken, but it is worth taking under advisement.
The Bush Administration was receptive to this idea. One of its initiatives to jump-start nuclear energy in the United States was the Nuclear Power 2010 Program (NP2010). The central objective of NP2010 is to promote the deployment of cutting-edge, prototype Generation III-plus reactors, such as the Westinghouse AP1000 and the General Electric ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor).3 Working with the Department of Energy and industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has also implemented a program designed to minimize regulatory impediments by streamlining the licensing process for plant construction and operation.
These initial revitalization efforts, however, only partially address the problems of nuclear energy in the United States today. Even setting aside regulation, nuclear power has not yet proven itself reliable in keeping its start-up costs at projected levels (although its operating costs remain reasonable compared to other means of generating electricity). That doesn’t mean, however, that it will never will be so. It makes no sense to tout the limitless potential of solar and biofuels technology while assuming nuclear technology and business acumen to be static and closed to innovation. But it’s mainly up to the nuclear industry to do its own heavy lifting. Can it do it?
The jury is still out. Everyone in the energy business remembers the nuclear industry’s inability to keep to planned construction schedules and hold down cost overruns in the 1970s and 1980s, when most nuclear power plants were being built. While the track record of the new multinational syndicates has improved somewhat in recent years, the U.S. nuclear industry still needs to persuade customers that it can deliver multi-billion dollar projects on time and within budget. Equally important, the perception that nuclear power is unsafe is still held in the popular culture and by some respectable authorities in the anti-nuclear camp. It is ultimately the industry’s responsibility to convince Americans that modern safety features on currently operating and new Generation III-plus units will prevent another Chernobyl, or even another Three-Mile Island.4
While Americans have been bickering about nuclear power, vast changes have been afoot overseas, where many countries lack our resources endowments and our inhibitions and regulatory gridlock with regard to nuclear power. Most nations contemplating the development of nuclear power want to provide for their own energy security and enhance energy diversity. They see the prospect of doing their part in reducing greenhouse gases as icing on the cake. And despite its inability to get any traction for nuclear power at home, the Bush Administration supported the development of nuclear energy programs abroad, particularly when doing so would help prevent friends or allies from being subject to political blackmail.5 More ominously, several advanced countries are more than willing to sell nuclear technology to prospective customers.
That puts a huge burden on the international safeguards system, whose main task is to erect a wall between civilian and military uses of nuclear energy. Everyone understands the issue: Nuclear power programs can be exploited to create nuclear weapons, and the consensus in the West is that the fewer new nuclear-weapon states the better. That is why signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (with the exception of the five parties who possessed nuclear weapons at its inception) have agreed to forgo the development of nuclear weapon programs and are required to negotiate with the IAEA a regime of audits and inspections, called Safeguards Agreements. However, in pursuing a civil nuclear power program, no NPT signatory is obligated to abrogate its right to develop a fuel cycle of its own, and here precisely lies the central problem between promoting or tolerating nuclear power programs and stemming proliferation: A country that develops and controls its own fuel cycle can divert materials for military uses.
Clearly, the United States and its principal nuclear partners remain concerned about the proliferation of nuclear processing technology and weapons manufacturing know-how. Let’s be frank, however: Outside the United States, top-tier nuclear merchants may be willing to cut buyers a little slack (or a lot of slack) to make a big sale, and examples abound of the blurred lines of demarcation between government and commercial interests.
One of the more aggressive international marketing efforts over the past several years has been undertaken by the French, who trust nuclear power to generate 78 percent of their electricity. The international nuclear giant Areva, a leader in promoting nuclear power worldwide, is essentially owned by the French government. President Nicolas Sarkozy has been at the forefront of those supporting the effort to market the firm’s product line by visiting countries in North Africa, the Middle East and South Africa. During a fall 2007 trip to China, he announced the largest international nuclear deal ever made.
The Russian Atomic Energy Agency
(ROSATOM) is also adept at developing attractive financing packages and fuel leasing options that might be hard for some developing nations to resist. By negotiating contracts to replace old Soviet-era units in places such as Armenia and Kazakhstan, the Russians may successfully overcome fears about their propensity to use energy as a political weapon. As is the case with France’s Areva, ROSATOM actively seeks business opportunities in the Middle East and the Russians have generated a considerable profit in completing the Bushehr nuclear facility in Iran. To the chagrin of the United States and like-minded European states, Russian firms seem to be profiting from Tehran’s longstanding desire to acquire nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.
The Japanese, meanwhile, are responsible U.S. partners in nonproliferation matters; but even Japan’s sincere concerns about WMD proliferation at times seem to be at odds with the historically close relationship between its nuclear industry and government. Unconstrained by the statutory requirements that limit the U.S. government’s advocacy of the U.S. nuclear industry, Japanese officials are often seen—and are expected—to actively promote the product lines and services of Japanese nuclear firms abroad. An additional complicating factor resulting from the globalization of the nuclear industry is the ownership of significant commercial interests by Japanese giants Toshiba and Hitachi in Westinghouse and General Electric, respectively—the two U.S. firms that produce nuclear reactors.
Given the increased interest in nuclear energy throughout the world as a means of providing energy security, coupled with aggressive marketing by producers of nuclear technology, it’s clear that more nations will choose the nuclear option in the coming decades. In strictly economic terms, they may be foolish to do so; but that will not necessarily stop them. The advanced nuclear states and several key multinational organizations are already reshaping their policies to channel what they believe to be an inevitable trend toward nuclear expansion down a peaceful path in which concerns about safety, proliferation and economic feasibility are responsibly addressed.6 The issue then becomes how to ensure that new nuclear power aspirants develop their civil programs in a manner that promotes safety and nonproliferation.
As the Obama Administration conducts its comprehensive policy review of domestic nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear technology abroad, sooner or later it will confront what seems to be an emerging informal “pay to play” rule: To be taken seriously by advanced nuclear states and developing countries alike as authorities on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, countries must invest in their own nuclear technology. What options will the Obama Administration have once this dynamic becomes clear?
One choice is to stick with and perhaps expand some of the initiatives it has inherited. Among the noteworthy international programs geared to channel the development of nuclear energy along a proliferation-resistant path is the IAEA-administered “technical consultation” program. Funded principally by the United States and several like-minded partners, the program includes an evaluation process to determine countries’ long-term energy requirements and help them decide whether a civil nuclear power program is a sensible part of the mix.
Equally significant has been the work of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an organization established by the United States and four other advanced nuclear states in September 2007, with 16 partner states initially joining. Now expanded to include 25 countries, GNEP promotes voluntary cooperation among states that share a common vision, including the safe and regulated expansion of civil nuclear power and the development of advanced fuel-cycle technologies and supply mechanisms. Unlike other international entities, the GNEP organizational structure provides a direct link to the governments of the participating states. Unfortunately, the overall nonproliferation character of GNEP seems to be generally misunderstood by many critics in Congress and the Democratic Party.
Regardless of the forum, the main Gordian knot seems to be convincing states to forgo the development of an expensive and potentially dangerous fuel cycle capability. The international community, including the IAEA and GNEP, seems to be going about this in what can fairly be described as a carrot-on-a-stick manner. Their proposals have tended to include the creation of fuel repositories in various states under the control of international watchdog groups like the IAEA. However, not all potential beneficiaries are convinced that the
collective of states contributing uranium to such a repository would forswear cutting off nuclear fuel for political purposes. To convince nuclear newcomers that it is to their benefit to forego creating their own fuel cycles, more must be done to ensure their supply of nuclear fuel. The United States should take the lead in this area.
Given the stasis in the U.S. nuclear industry, another way to cope with the pay-to-play reality is to leverage some of our alliance relationships. While the United States has formal nuclear cooperation arrangements with more than forty countries and international forums (such as the IAEA, Euratom and the Generation-IV International Forum), it enjoys particularly close collaborative R&D; relationships with the French and Japanese. Because of the relative, and in some cases absolute, decline of nuclear energy expertise in the United States, both of these interlocutors are more advanced in a number of technologies and research capabilities than the United States. The United States is already working with the French and Japanese on several efforts, including the development of a Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor.
Over the past several years, the Department of Energy has negotiated bilateral R&D; “action plans” with France, Japan, China, Australia and Russia. Cooperation with Russia, however, has been marking time. Although the United States has more to gain from the relationship than Russia, the Bush Administration felt compelled to place on hold the completion of the underpinning legal framework (e.g., the “123 agreement”) after Russia’s incursion into Georgia last summer.7 During its first five months, the Obama Administration left that suspension in place. However, at the July 2009 summit in Moscow, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signaled their intent to resume the bilateral dialogue on civilian nuclear cooperation and to bring the 123 agreement into force. The Obama Administration would be wise to pull out the stops on this important initiative by explaining to members of Congress why long-term U.S. nonproliferation objectives would be advanced by cooperating technologically with the Russians.
One of the long-term goals of the U.S. government and its partners is to develop a reactor with an essentially “closed” fuel cycle, one in which spent fuel is reprocessed and re-used. This has become the technological holy grail of nuclear advocates. The leading concept is the development of fast reactors that use up the waste they produce, thereby dramatically reducing the scope of the long-term storage problem. The United States needs to actively collaborate with France, Japan and Russia because of the unique capabilities each of those nations brings to the table to solve the complex technical problems associated with the closing of the fuel cycle.
What will the Administration actually do? It’s still too soon to say, but we can hazard a guess at a general orientation and offer a few suggestions.
The appointment of Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, formerly the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel laureate in physics, is a sign that President Obama is open to giving the United States a chance to rebuild its technological base. During Chu’s Senate confirmation hearing in January, he indicated his support for the construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States and for continuing with Bush Administration incentives to industry. Chu, however, offered no nuclear waste storage alternative to Yucca Mountain, although he did acknowledge that it was the Federal government’s responsibility to develop a long-term solution. Nuclear power advocates gave Chu’s remarks on the nuclear waste issue mixed reviews. While he indicated his support for reprocessing in general and recognized the overall success that the French and others were enjoying with respect to their own reprocessing programs, Chu nevertheless seemed wedded to the view typically held by non-engineers in academia that the waste issue was still essentially “a research problem.”
To prove the point, in June the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy shut down the Bush Administration’s plans to demonstrate commercially viable technologies for closing the fuel cycle by canceling the programmatic environmental impact statement for the domestic research component of the GNEP initiative. The announcement stated that the Energy Department was doing so because the Department was no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing. While not unexpected—given the Democrats’ widely known aversion to GNEP—the decision signaled a major policy change from the Bush Administration’s approach. This does not mean, however, that the Obama Administration has closed the door on all nuclear R&D; efforts. The Energy Department still intends to pursue improvements in “proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and waste management strategies”; but for now it will shelve the more aggressive near-term demonstration projects favored by the Bush Administration and downshift into long-range science-based research.8
The demise of domestic GNEP activities aside, little of the Obama Administration’s emerging pragmatism with respect to nuclear energy seems to be amusing the anti-nuclear advocates in the Democratic Party. And there may be more for them to swallow. In order to increase U.S. influence over international nuclear proliferation developments, President Obama may have to revisit the cuts made by Congress. He could decide to expand U.S. government funding of R&D; programs even beyond the modest Bush Administration levels to redouble research efforts aimed at closing the nuclear fuel cycle and accelerating the timelines for building prototypes of next-generation reactors. He may also decide to provide support under the authority given to him by the economic stimulus legislation for significantly broadening Bush’s NP2010 program, to include extending government-backed loans to companies during the initial design and NRC licensing phases.
If he does these things, the President will put himself in a much better position to engage with advanced nuclear states and developing nations on high-priority nonproliferation issues, such as the establishment of international fuel supply mechanisms and the modernization of the NPT. Other more internationally focused actions include completing the stalled “123” nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, increasing the presence of U.S.-provided expertise at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, and fully funding the important nonproliferation activities of the international side of GNEP. These will not be popular decisions among many of the party faithful, but they will be the right decisions.
2Today, there are approximately 104 nuclear power reactors operating in the United States, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. To maintain this ratio, a significant number of new plants must be built over the next several decades. A number ofexisting power plants, originally designed to operate for forty years, have applied to have licenses renewed, initially for another twenty years.
3Generation III-plus reactors employ advanced passive safety features such as natural circulation, gravity and compressed gases to keep the core cooled if the nuclear reaction is shut down during an unforeseen malfunction.
4It is also industry’s responsibility in tandem with the Federal government to explain what post-9/11 security measures have been put in place to defend against and mitigate the effects of terrorist attacks. Probabilities and consequences of a breach of a containment structure by an attacking aircraft or shoulder-fired missile, for instance, remain contentious issues.
5The Department of Energy is currently administering a $54 million program to design and test Western-manufactured fuel assemblies as an alternative, non-Russian source of nuclear fuel for Ukrainian reactors.
6Often referred to as the “advanced fuel cycle states”, the list includes Japan, France, Russia, China and the United States; and the principal international organizations are the IAEA, the European Atomic Energy Community, the Nuclear Energy Agency, the Generation-IV International Forum, and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.
7The term “123 agreement” comes from Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (as Amended), which lays out strict requirements before nuclear agreements involving the exchange of technology or detailed information can be consummated.
8While GNEP was zeroed out in the FY09 budget (eliminating as well any formal funding of U.S. government participation in the international partnership of 25 nations it helped to found), some funding for nuclear R&D was shifted into advance fuel cycle research and Generation IV reactor projects.