Leadership and the Future of Nuclear Energy
June 9, 2011 | Speech | International Peace & Security

President Robert Gallucci spoke at a symposium co-sponsored by the Harris School Energy Policy Institute, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Chicago Council on Science and Technology.

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

I am glad to join you this evening, to reconnect with many people I have known over the decades I have worked in nuclear-related issues, and to join your discussions on the future of nuclear energy.

Leadership is a central theme of this conference, and I congratulate Bob Rosner of the Harris School Energy Policy Institute and Kennette Benedict of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for their leadership in shaping this event. Kennette, of course, for many years led our program work in this area at MacArthur, and the Foundation remains deeply involved in issues of nuclear safety and security. Leslie Berlowitz and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Alan Schriesheim of the Chicago Council on Science and Technology helped extend the reach of the conference. And Eric Isaacs of Argonne National Laboratory has been an invaluable resource. Thank you all.

At a critical moment in the nuclear world, it is particularly important for leaders from industry, government, the research and policy arenas, and civil society to collaborate and exchange ideas. This kind of dialogue creates a better, more informed environment for policy and I am privileged to be a part of it.

A year ago, there was something of a consensus that, given the threat of global climate change, nuclear power would play an increasingly important part in the world’s energy supply.

In 2009, 180 new nuclear plants were expected to be built over a decade. In the previous decade only 39 had been completed. At the end of 2010, there were 68 reactors under construction, 27 of those in China. South Korea, India, Russia, and other nations planned significant nuclear expansion.

In the U.S., where no nuclear power plants have been built since the 1970’s, there were similar ambitions.

Then came the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima disaster.

In some places, the nuclear renaissance was put on hold, but will likely proceed after a decent interval. In others, it is over.

China suspended approvals for 25 reactors already under construction and 32 that were planned, and also launched a review of its licensing and regulatory framework. Comprehensive program reviews are underway in Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

But on May 31, Germany announced a phase-out of all nuclear power by 2022. Japan decided not to build 14 new reactors. Several national leaders came out with statements such as that made by Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia: "I don't see nuclear energy as part of our future.” Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal reaffirmed their opposition to nuclear power.

In April, the IEA halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035 and UBS predicted that about 30 of the world’s 440 nuclear plants were likely to be closed.

In the U.S., NRG Energy Inc. abandoned construction on two new nuclear power plants in Texas. A Today/Gallup Poll, conducted mid-March, showed that 7 in 10 Americans were concerned about a nuclear disaster occurring at home.

What are we to make of this? On first analysis, it appears that a significant incident at a nuclear power plant has raised the perceived risk of nuclear power to a level that seems unacceptable to many policy makers.

All public policy has to balance risks against benefits. Fukushima reminded the world that nuclear power is not risk free. But no policy is. What are the risks of our current energy regime? Not trivial, I would argue.

IEA/OECD figures indicate that nuclear power provides about 13 percent of the world’s electricity. Hydro and other renewables provide close to 20 percent. The rest comes from burning coal, oil, and natural gas – some 67 percent. This regime carries both ordinary and extraordinary risks.

The ordinary risks are those associated with routine production and consumption.

The process of oil extraction requires environmentally damaging infrastructure, and produces quantities of dangerous waste water and toxic sludge. A short visit to the Niger Delta is ample demonstration of how oil production can degrade an environment.

Accidents happen: there are three to five hundred significant oil spills each year. The Gulf of Mexico Oil spill of 2010 released 4.9 million barrels into one of the world’s most productive marine systems, with costs to tourism alone of $23 billion over three years, and harm to fisheries and other ecosystems yet to be calculated.

Mining from oil shale is still more damaging, reducing prairies to barren moonscapes, contaminating surface and ground water, and emitting significant quantities of sulfur into the air.

“Fracking” for natural gas is one of the fastest growing means of fuel production. It contaminates ground water, reduces air quality, and leads to subsidence and seismic activity.

Mountain top removal for coal mining destroys mountain landscapes of high biodiversity, poisons headwater streams, and damages soils.

Burning the extracted fuel creates soot particles that injure lungs, nitrogen oxides that lead to smog, and sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain. The costs to human health are enormous: about $120 billion a year in the U.S. alone, according to the National Academy of Sciences, mostly due to 20,000 premature deaths from air pollution.

And that’s without the elephant in the room – anthropogenic climate change. I don’t think I need to underscore too heavily the magnitude of what significant global warming might cause, but here are some highlights from the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change: Warming of 2-3 degrees over the next century could cause water shortages for one-sixth of the world’s population, create food shortages for several hundred million Africans, make seas more acid and reduce fish stocks, displace 200 million people as sea levels rise, and threaten15 to 40 percent of the world’s species with extinction.

And all this is without consideration to what we might call the extraordinary risks. A world so heavily dependent on oil will tend towards conflict over the resource. It is not a coincidence that the oil rich areas of the world tend to be unstable or that the U.S. has expended so much blood and treasure in them. Oil has been a trigger for foreign wars, a factor in fomenting terrorism, and helped empower unpleasant regimes across the globe.

It would be encouraging if one could point to renewable sources of energy – sunlight, wind, rain, the tides, and geothermal heat – as a clear and present solution. But these technologies are not yet robust, reliable, and cost-effective.

Of course, we should be conserving power, working on a “smart grid,” retrofitting houses and businesses for energy efficiency, and so on.

But at present, it seems to me that the risks of fossil fuels dwarf the risks of nuclear power and that, for the foreseeable future, nuclear power will remain an indispensible part of our energy supply and a lead strategy in reducing carbon emissions.

I don’t want to oversell how effective the nuclear strategy can be, however. Before Fukushima there were already considerable barriers to nuclear expansion – of cost, time, public resistance, and so on. Nuclear power was never going to be a quick fix. The real question is whether it can make any material difference at all in terms of emissions.

Electrical power stations produce almost a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Forty one percent of electricity is coal generated. India and China, the fastest growing economies, are highly reliant on coal and generate only 2 percent of their electricity from nuclear power. In consequence, industry analysts predict that 46 percent of electricity will be coal-generated by 2030, even given the most optimistic projections for nuclear expansion and investment in renewable sources, such as hydro.

In other words, even building nuclear power plants as rapidly as possible will not lead to appreciable reductions in emissions. That does not mean giving up on nuclear power – if we do not deploy it, the situation will be still worse. But it underscores that additional measures are necessary to address climate change concerns.

It seems inescapable to me that nuclear power should be a part of a broader, better energy policy. And if that is the case, what are the risks, and how do we reduce them?

First, the ordinary risks, or safety. Here, we need to review our approach to reactor design, revisit our approaches to reactor operations, emergency response, and transparency – but also look at the whole fuel cycle, from mining and transport to reactor design and waste management.

What did we learn from Fukushima?

The reactors responded pretty well, even under the extreme circumstance of a major earthquake; it was the breakdown of power and water supplies that caused the catastrophe. A complex of flawed facility design and operational decisions seem to have been the real causes of the disaster.

There was insufficient redundancy and independence in the electrical power supply to the cooling pumps, a series of problems due to the storage of spent fuel and over-packing of spent fuel in the ponds.

We should begin with the assumption that we must design against events far worse than those we think likely.

Good emergency procedures are vital. They must be well rehearsed, with proper equipment at the ready and local populations who know what to do, or not to do, in an emergency.

Just as important, national governments and industry must to come to terms with the need for transparency. This extends from reporting seemingly minor incidents to sharing information with the international community during a crisis.

The recent G8 Joint Statement is a good step forward. It endorses more stringent safety criteria and mandates stress tests that assess the capacity of a facility to withstand severe challenges using a “defense in depth” logic. Great idea.

But the hard part will be to apply these stress tests consistently and globally.

We should see strong commitments on these issues at next week’s IAEA meeting of ministers in Vienna [June 20-24]. And I would seriously consider an independent commission in the U.S. to evaluate our own performance on nuclear safety and to recommend corrective actions that could reduce the chances of a Fukushima here at home. The Natural Resources Defense Council has written to President Obama with this recommendation.

One not-so-helpful aspect of the post-Fukushima safety discussions is the tendency to defer consideration of the extraordinary risks, the security challenges, posed by nuclear power.

This is a mistake. I would put even greater emphasis on the security risks. Here we have two quite distinct threats – those of proliferation and terrorism.

In my judgment, the risk of traditional proliferation, that is, of more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, is serious but not overwhelming.

It is true that some nations want the power and status conferred by nuclear weapons, that some will probably seek to acquire them, and that there may not be non-violent ways of stopping them.

But the record of the last 65 years should inspire a degree of confidence. Almost the entire world – about 189 countries – has signed up to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Only Israel, India, and Pakistan and now North Korea stand outside the treaty regime and acquired nuclear capability.

All these cases, and any similar ones that may develop in the future, need specific and tailored engagement by the international community. There are no hard and fast rules.

In the meantime, all suppliers of nuclear technology should avoid transferring uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technology, and thereby preserve a useful hurdle to proliferation. Selling nuclear reactors is one thing; sweetening the deal with fissile material production capability is another.

Diplomatic and even military pressure, used in combination has helped prevent proliferation. And deterrence has helped us manage the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries when it did occur. We have been remarkably successful at this since WWII; I suspect we will continue to be.

Terrorism, on the other hand, poses a different kind of threat. The disaster at Fukushima could just as well have been the result of a deliberate attack. An attacker would only have needed to know the weaknesses in facility design and operation in order to put the fuel and reactor cores at risk. This logic also applies to theft and diversion.

For more than a decade, American presidents have said that the greatest threat confronting our country is that a terrorist will detonate a nuclear device in one of our cities.

Some say this is farfetched. I am convinced it is perfectly feasible, a risk low in probability but high in consequence.

Terrorists would have a hard time getting their hands on a ready-made nuclear weapon and would therefore more likely aim to build an improvised nuclear device (or IND). It would probably be a “gun-type device,” like the one dropped on Hiroshima. Making a plutonium bomb, like that dropped on Nagasaki, is far harder. But it would be a mistake to assume that terrorists would be unable to build a plutonium bomb – imperfect or inefficient as it might be by the standards of the designers at Livermore or Los Alamos.

The consequences of either device would be catastrophic. A bomb on the scale of Hiroshima could kill a quarter of a million people in a major city. A smaller device could kill tens of thousands over several weeks. The economic and political costs would be incalculable.

The biggest impediment to making a nuclear weapon is getting the fissile material, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

So our objective in addressing the security risks of nuclear power is simple: make sure that terrorists cannot get their hands on fissile material from the nuclear fuel cycle.

I would argue that we need to carefully control enrichment technology, because it can be used to produce HEU; and we need to stop the spread of reprocessing technology because it does produce plutonium.

There is a debate over whether spent fuel reprocessing is a prudent or irrational way to manage radioactive waste and conserve uranium, from both economic and technical points of view. I take the latter view.

My reasoning (I have discovered that foundations call this a "logic model"):

  1. The more fissile material there is available, the more likely it is that an IND will be manufactured and an act of nuclear terrorism will occur.
  2. If energy producers choose to recycle plutonium in thermal reactors, it will be impossible adequately to account for plutonium in the nuclear fuel cycle. The risk of theft or diversion would rise.
  3. The introduction of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel into any country's nuclear fuel cycle increases the risk that plutonium will be acquired by a would-be nuclear terrorist.
  4. So any nation thinking about recycling plutonium needs to be aware of, and take account of, the additional risk of nuclear terrorism.
  5. In my view, there is nothing to be won by the introduction of plutonium fuels into the nuclear fuel cycle that is not substantially off-set by an increased risk to security.

If we eliminate the possibility of terrorists obtaining fissile material, we eliminate most of the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack.

So, as we think about the security risks and begin to assess how to minimize them going forward, our priority should be to end the recycle of plutonium and the use of mixed oxide fuel. If separated plutonium exists, it can be stolen from a storage or fuel-fabrication facility, a nuclear reactor, or in transport.

In my opinion there is no acceptable reprocessing technology – not COEX, not UREX+, not pyroprocessing. If a mixed oxide fuel can be used in a thermal reactor, it can also be used directly to make an improvised nuclear device, or be purified by a determined terrorist sufficiently to be used in such a device.

So I do not buy the arguments made for plutonium recycle in the U.S., China, India, the Republic of Korea, and beyond. The claim is that recycle would facilitate radioactive waste management, save uranium and SWUs, and prepare the way for fast reactors.

American proponents even argue it would help the U.S. regain technical credibility and international leadership in nuclear energy.

It is not at all clear that recycle will ease radioactive waste management. Indeed, it may well exacerbate the challenge. Moreover, safe spent-fuel storage is at hand in dry storage – local or off-site – good, arguably, for hundreds of years.

The economic arguments for recycle, which depend on the price of uranium and the cost of enrichment and reprocessing, are weak and have gotten weaker over time.

And the large scale adoption of fast reactors is hardly inevitable – or even likely for a very long time.

I have told the Blue Ribbon Commission, a U.S. panel investigating storage options for nuclear waste, that it is folly to argue for a recycle approach. It is politically risky, economically unwise, and technically unnecessary. The only remaining argument is that the U.S. needs to be an industry leader. But it is a poor leader that persuades others to go in precisely the wrong direction.

Instead, the U.S. should argue that the risks of plutonium recycle in thermal reactors are simply too great, and that no country, no matter how advanced, should follow that course. This is where the question of leadership comes in: it is vital that the U.S. get its policy right. If we do, we can credibly influence the rest of the world. If not, we have no credibility, and reduced leverage, in persuading China, Korea, Japan, and others not to recycle.

Thankfully, there are early signs that the Commission will not endorse reprocessing and that it may advocate locating nuclear waste at a central repository or two in the U.S. This is vastly preferable. It will require a well executed long-term strategy to bring local communities on board, but it has been done in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland, so why not here?

So what should we conclude about Fukushima, safety, and security?

Our response to Fukushima should not be restricted to a narrow discussion of Japan’s errors in facility design and operation, though these are certainly instructive for nuclear plans.

We should take advantage of this opportunity to get the nuclear safety and security equation right, once and for all. No one will be better off if the price of reduced carbon emissions is another nuclear disaster, either natural or deliberately caused.

My criteria for a good national strategy would include assurances of top-notch facility design and operation, highly trained personnel, and rigorous safety standards. And, of course, no reprocessing of any kind.

America's nuclear energy choices, and those of other nations, could vastly increase – or diminish – the danger of nuclear terrorism. Let’s make the right choices.

Thank you for listening to my own thoughts on these issues. I look forward with great interest to hearing your ideas, and I welcome your questions.

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