Nuclear Power Expert Testifies on Safety and Non-Proliferation

Next-generation safeguards technologies

  • “Use controls” that impede operation if a nuclear facility is operated in a manner that strays from peaceful use.
  • High-speed data recovery and on-line alerting that allow a transition from the current system of periodic IAEA inspections to a system of continuous remote monitoring.
  • Radiation activated nuclear fuel tags.
  • Advanced automated air samplers to detect diversion of nuclear material.

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Global electricity demand is expected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2025 and nuclear power is a primary carbon-free energy source for meeting that massive expansion. But, Iran and North Korea clarify the challenge: technologies used in peaceful nuclear power programs could be diverted for the production of fissionable material for nuclear weapons. That combination of facts led the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) to issue a report titled  Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risks.

Nuclear energy has long been viewed with suspicion by the general public because of various health and safety concerns, but over the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift in public perception, according to Roger Hagengruber (University of New Mexico), who chaired the APS report. Nuclear energy is a viable option to carbon-based energy sources, in light of mounting public concern about global warming. Other countries recognize the value of nuclear energy and worldwide, more than thirty new nuclear plants are under construction.

“The intent of our report is to provide an informative, educational document to help Congress see the technical details supporting the issue, independent of any political agendas,” said Hagengruber, emphasizing that the report is “a consensus document,” and there were some dissenting voices during discussions.

The consensus that emerged focused on four main points:

  • Safeguards technologies (see sidebar on page 3) are the first line of defense against proliferation. The current international safeguards program run by IAEA largely installs technologies that are the result of R&D carried out by the United States 10-20 years ago. The program in safeguards R&D needs to be revitalized.
  • Increase the priority of proliferation resistance in design and development of all future nuclear energy systems.
  • Develop and strengthen international collaborations on key proliferation-resistant technologies.
  • A policy decision about reprocessing should not outpace the science. Since there is no urgent need for the US to initiate reprocessing, the Department of Energy should take sufficient time to identify the most cost-effective technology that would also be the most resistant to threats of proliferation.

These four steps won’t solve the proliferation problem. “No single diplomatic, military, economic, or technical initiative alone will be able to fully deal with the proliferation challenge, ” said Hagengruber. “ The best prospect for achieving non-proliferation goals while expanding nuclear power is to engage all appropriate means and to maximize their respective contributions.”

In February of this year, President Bush announced a new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Like the POPA report, it identifies a pathway to globally expand nuclear power while limiting proliferation risks. A key element of GNEP is the creation of a fuel services program that would provide nuclear fuel to nations in exchange for their commitment not to develop enrichment or reprocessing technology. In addition, GNEP contained the first three POPA recommendations, but differed on the fourth point, laying out a more aggressive plan for reprocessing.

Hagengruber was invited to testify before Congress on the issue of reprocessing. “Let me be clear,” he explained to Members, “we do not oppose eventual reprocessing, but we believe that a premature decision could diminish the growing momentum for nuclear power among the general public.”

When GNEP was first announced, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman declared that the program “brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe, in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation. If we can make GNEP a reality, we can make the world a better, cleaner, safer place to live.”

GNEP’s progress through Congress thus far has been less than smooth. Many members support nuclear energy, but there are concerns that GNEP might not be ideally formulated. Representative David Hobson (R-OH), chair of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee publicly expressed “serious policy, technical and financial reservations” about the reprocessing plan in GNEP.

The House Energy and Water report for FY2007 “strongly endorses the concept of recycling spent nuclear fuel,” but finds GNEP lacking in its strategic plan for achieving this. For instance, GNEP favors an alternate recycling process using fast burner reactors, which might be technologically desirable, but which the Committee feels “adds significant cost, time and risk to the recycling effort.”

Nonproliferation and national security issues are also a concern, particularly with regard to the need to integrate spent fuel recycling, “keeping sensitive materials and facilities within a secure perimeter and minimizing offsite transportation of special nuclear materials.”

A final Committee concern centers on the lack of a requirement for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel, particularly in light of delays and mounting costs of the planned high-level nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain.

Hagengruber’s panel is now doing a study of interim storage of spent nuclear fuel. He anticipates that the report will be completed by the end of the year.

Hagengruber is practical about the limitations of technical solutions. “In the end, technology alone can’t stop proliferation, and some sort of long-term institutional changes will be needed,” he observed. “That was part of the rationale for GNEP. Nuclear energy will go forward whether the US pursues it or not. Perhaps if the US takes a leadership role, it can shape that agenda.”

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