Controlling Nuclear Fuel In A New Energy Era

By Congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher
January 2009

Among the challenges facing the new Congress and President-elect Barack Obama, none is quite as daunting as the exploding global demand for energy – one that is leading many nations to pursue nuclear power.

Regrettably, our current tools and norms are woefully insufficient for channeling the demand for nuclear power into safe and secure outcomes.

We need new ideas that make nuclear energy accessible to emerging nations but prevent the creation of new nuclear weapons programs. That is why I support a new international, multilateral compact that would offer safe and reliable electricity through nuclear power, while keeping the most sensitive parts of the fuel cycle under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Just three weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke about the goal of continuing to “keep the number of nuclear states as limited as possible.” This same goal was outlined in the June 2008 National Security Strategy.

However, the global arms control regime is under siege, in part, from the ever increasing demand for low-cost nuclear energy. Nuclear energy has a number of advantages: it’s carbon free and provides reliable electricity; its price is generally stable; and it can help create potable water and hydrogen.

The IAEA expects global nuclear power capacity to double by 2030.

Fifty countries have expressed interest in nuclear power and have asked the IAEA for technical guidance. Currently, 439 nuclear power reactors operate in 30 countries, with 36 new plants under construction. Of the reactors under construction, 17 are in developing countries with varying levels of security.

Unfortunately, building nuclear power plants gives countries access to weapons material. The United Nations warns that of the 60 states currently operating or constructing nuclear power or research reactors, at least 40 possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure to build nuclear weapons on relatively short notice. Once countries master uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, they have overcome a significant hurdle to developing nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences reports global stocks of plutonium are increasing. Additionally, nuclear energy creates disposal and spent fuel management challenges. Most startling, IAEA Director General El Baradei recently reported that there had been nearly 250 incidents of theft or loss of nuclear material from June 2007 to June 2008.

These are serious threats to global security. The instability created by the drive for nuclear energy is a direct threat to the world’s nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Not coincidentally, potentially hostile countries have learned the best way to get the world’s attention is to start a nuclear weapons program.

It’s time for a new international compact, one that would guarantee safe and reliable electricity through nuclear power and keep the most sensitive parts of the fuel cycle under IAEA supervision.

There has been some progress on this issue, most notably from the director general of the IAEA and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which has raised funds to create a low-enriched uranium stockpile. Now the world should begin a serious pursuit of a multilateral fuel cycle compact and a new nonproliferation bargain.

With an Obama administration, a new opportunity to deal with this issue has finally arrived. At the heart is the idea that there is no absolute need for countries to possess their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities, the two most sensitive stages of the fuel cycle. One of the most interesting ideas being considered is a fuel bank overseen by the IAEA.

The setup would be rather straight-forward.

The IAEA would maintain a regular supply schedule and ensure prompt payment. As a guarantor, the IAEA would provide oversight. It would judge whether conditions for supply are being met, assess the nonproliferation status of the recipient, oversee suppliers and generally act as a broker between the supplier and recipient. 

To make this model possible, I will work with President-elect Obama to undertake several steps in the short term.  The most immediate is a new commitment by the United States to lead negotiations toward a fissile material cutoff treaty.

This is a must-have.

We agreed to this commitment during the 2000 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Under the treaty, production of fissile material would end, and all enrichment and reprocessing facilities in nuclear weapons states would be subject to international verification. Following through on this agreement would make it easier to manage the fuel cycle and reduce the risk of theft of nuclear material.

Additionally, we must establish clear penalties for withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty. It took three years for the international community to condemn North Korea after it withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Instead of being allowed to act with impunity, I recommend that the Security Council prospectively adopt a resolution under Chapter 7 that states that if a nuclear power, after being found by the IAEA to be in noncompliance with its safeguard commitments, withdraws from the NPT, such a withdrawal would then automatically trigger sanctions.

The U.S. should also immediately ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States Senate’s failure on yet another commitment undertaken under the NPT directly undermines U.S. leadership on nonproliferation.

Furthermore, the U.S. needs to engage in immediate and unconditional direct negotiations with North Korea and Iran, the two rogue nations who are currently posing the greatest threat to nuclear nonproliferation. In both cases, the new administration should lay out clear options for normalizing relations. We could offer membership in a new multilateral fuel cycle compact in return for normalized status. If both countries reject an option that gives them the ability to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, then there will be clear and credible grounds for more forceful action. 

In addition, the Proliferation Security Initiative needs strengthening and an independent budget. Needless to say, this isn’t an exhaustive list of steps, and such an enterprise will not be easy. Outstanding questions and challenges remain–challenges that scientists around the world will play a key role in solving. 

Can we find a safe and reliable way to transport nuclear materials?

How can we promote a balance in energy production around the world, avoiding an over reliance on nuclear energy? And most importantly, how can we dispose of the waste products nuclear energy production creates?

The American Physical Society examined some of those questions in its 2005 report, Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risk. The report identified some key technical challenges for scientists to work on, including advanced technical safeguards and proliferation resistant reactors.

The ever-present threats around the globe mean the clock is ticking. I believe the United States must take a key leadership role in making a multilateral fuel cycle compact a reality, thus reducing the threat from nuclear proliferation.

U.S. scientists who work in academia, in private business and in our national laboratories have a big role to play.  And that is one of the reasons why I am very proud that the district I have represented since 1996–California’s 10th Congressional district–is the only district in the country that is home to two national laboratories: Lawrence Livermore and Sandia-California, which have a combined workforce of about 7,900 people.

Researchers across the spectrum of disciplines, studiously and without great fanfare, strive each and every day to advance our knowledge of the world inside a scientific laboratory. It is there where we construct the world’s fastest supercomputers and study global climate change. It is there where we house powerful lasers to study the beginnings of the cosmos and reproduce the power of the sun. As a nation facing many challenges, we will undoubtedly continue to rely on scientists to find answers to our most pressing problems, including addressing the technical issues that will ensure the peaceful use of nuclear energy and reduce proliferation. 

Congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher is currently serving her sixth term representing California’s 10th Congressional district, which includes San Francisco’s suburbs in Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano counties. In Congress she is a leader on defense, homeland security, high-tech, transportation and veterans’ issues and is known as one of Congress’s leading experts on nuclear nonproliferation.

Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher

Congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher