Chris Palmer, Freelance Science Writer
Since its inception, the nuclear enterprise has played two extreme roles: as a limitless source of clean energy, promising to replace fossil fuels, and as the harbinger of doom, raising the specter of nuclear annihilation and environmental disasters such as Chernobyl. As fears have swelled, the development of technology using nuclear power has stalled, with little progress in the past decades. And while some countries—Russia, China, and India—are accelerating their nuclear power programs, every time there is a nuclear accident, some other countries—the United States and, more recently, Germany—scale back research and development. In the United States, 104 nuclear reactors were constructed between 1965 and 1977, but ground has been broken on only three reactors since then. In 2011, just days after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, the German government declared it would close all of the country’s nuclear plants by 2022.
Beyond the public’s apprehension concerning the safety of nuclear power, which calls out for better communications strategies, several challenges lie ahead for the nuclear enterprise in the United States. The workforce in nuclear technology is aging, there is an overreliance on large, high-risk reactor designs, and the supply of radioisotopes for nuclear medicine remains unstable—all problems crying out for solutions.
The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Conference in 2013 focused on the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies to generate new ideas about how to move nuclear technology forward while making the world safer and more secure. Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of the
Department of Energy, spoke about the need to maximize both safety and energy production in his keynote address. Paraphrasing President Obama’s position on nuclear energy, which plays a strong role in the administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy, Moniz said, “When we enhance nuclear security we’re in a stronger position to harness safe, clean nuclear energy and when we develop new, safer approaches to nuclear technology, we reduce risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.”
Conference participants joined one of 14 Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) teams each comprising about half a dozen leading researchers and thinkers—including engineers, material scientists, policy makers, social scientists, and writers—to collaborate on creative solutions to challenges designed to propel the policy, engineering, and social aspects of the nuclear enterprise forward.
PROMOTING U.S. NUCLEAR INFLUENCE
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States has dominated the global nuclear enterprise. The United States has built and now maintains an unparalleled research and development program within federal and university laboratories. The nation’s regulatory system is still considered the global gold standard, and the United States remains firmly committed to safety, security, nonproliferation, waste management, and protection of the environment. However, U.S. influence has slowly eroded as Russia, China, India, and South Korea have each developed significant nuclear programs that account for the majority of new plants under construction. Among these four nations, 70 plants exist and another 69 are being built. Meanwhile, the United States has not completed construction on a new reactor in more than 30 years and its aging workforce of highly trained nuclear engineers is set to retire. IDR Team 5 considered the means by which the United States can reassert its interests and influence in the global nuclear market.
The team focused primarily on economic solutions—collectively referred to as Nuclear 2.0—to prop up U.S. nuclear interests. They imagined expanding export markets for nuclear reactors, encouraging entrepreneurship and startup funding for small modular reactors, developing new revenue streams for nuclear power such as water desalination and waste heat processing, and enticing oil and gas companies to invest in nuclear power. Nuclear 2.0 would also include provisions for propagating the U.S. regulatory procedures for safety and waste management as well as its strategies for emergency management and cleanup following nuclear accidents.
NUCLEAR POWER IN A NUCLEAR WEAPON-FREE WORLD
Over a century of fossil fuel use has polluted our water and air, accelerated the warming of the planet, and spurred regional conflicts. Nuclear technology offers a viable option for providing an efficient, renewable, and clean source of energy. However, current nuclear technology relies heavily on the production of low-enriched uranium, which can be used to create weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. With more and more countries working to ramp up their own nuclear energy programs, concerns arise that burgeoning nuclear technology in those countries may be subverted for the creation of weapons. Participants in IDR Challenge 6 considered ways to make civilian nuclear power more compatible with zero (or with a smaller number of) nuclear weapons. Discussions focused on technical, economic, and policy solutions.
On the technical front, challenge participants suggested a move toward powering reactors with thorium fuels, which cannot be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. They also explored alternatives to light water reactors, such as fuel-once reactors that do not use reprocessed fuel and small modular reactors, in order to reduce the amount of nuclear waste maintained on-site as a byproduct of energy production.
On the economic front, team members imagined the creation of a competitive international market for nuclear fuel to eliminate countries’ economic incentive to develop their own nuclear programs. A limited number of global companies could enter into full service agreements with countries wanting to participate in the nuclear enterprise to provide reactor installation, cheap fuel, waste disposal, maintenance, and, more important, the take back of spent fuel. Each supplier would be held to similar standards and each buyer country would be supplied with the same standardized, tamper-resistant technologies to keep all countries on a level playing field. Such equal-partner relationships would create a sense of shared responsibility for safety and security for all members. As an added layer of transparency, global fuel cycle resources could be monitored with an open access database, ensuring that no resources were diverted into weapons programs.
SAFEGUARDING SPECIAL NUCLEAR MATERIALS
A critical facet of the nuclear enterprise is safeguarding the special nuclear materials (SNMs)—plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium enriched in the isotopes of uranium-233 or uranium-235—that are formed
in nuclear reactors or extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Whereas the vast majority—up to 99 percent—of SNMs are secured in known locations, the whereabouts of about 1 percent of SNMs are currently unknown. To prevent the illicit use of SNMs, members of IDR Team 3 thought about approaches to both keep close track of the secured 99 percent and detect the missing 1 percent. SNMs can be modified so they are more easily detected if stolen or misplaced. Team members suggested embedding SNMs in packaging that emits a GPS-linked alarm if tampered with or moved. The materials themselves can also be modified to produce an active chemical, electrical, or thermal signal for easy tracking in case of loss or theft.
Radiation detectors are currently capable of locating unsecured, highly shielded SNMs, but only if they are bundled in large quantities and only at limited locations such as border checkpoints. Improvements in detection technology are needed for smaller amounts, as are methods for deploying that technology more broadly. Technological innovations can come in the form of detecting signatures of material used for radiation shielding and developing novel sensor architecture such as neutron-interception semiconducting chips. In general, sensors need to be cheaper, smaller, and mobile in order to create a widely distributed detection network supported by public and private partners. In addition, novel computational methods are needed to make sense of the network’s data.
LIGHT WATER REACTORS
The vast majority of nuclear power generated in the world today comes from light-water reactors (LWRs) in which fuel, packed into a protective cladding, heats water to produce steam that drives giant turbines. The harsh conditions inside reactors can cause both fuel and cladding to crack, erode, and break into small pieces. IDR Team 2 centered on developing a novel type of fuel for these reactors to maximize performance and safety, while enhancing waste disposal options and reducing the cost of disposing spent fuel.
Since the safety of fuel for LWRs is closely tied to the cladding in which it is placed, the teams focused on improvements to the fuel-cladding complex. IDR Team 2B envisioned fuel pellets in a donut-shaped casing with inner and outer cladding. Water would run across the outside surface, as well as though a central hole, thereby transferring heat more quickly and increasing energy efficiency. Honeycomb fuel designs were also discussed.
The team also called for greater access to computational and experimental facilities for nuclear engineers to optimize fuel-cladding designs.
IDR Team 2A imagined an annular or ring-shaped design with coolant flowing through internal channels that could be protected by rupture disks in the case of tube failure. The team also called for modifying reactor designs to run at lower power to ensure safety requirements could more easily be met while reducing the amount of nuclear material that enters the fuel cycle.
RADIONUCLIDES AND RADIOPHARMACEUTICALS
Participants tackling IDR Challenge 1 were asked to identify improvements in technology to ensure the future development and supply of radionuclides and radiopharmaceuticals.
The United States is by far the leading consumer of radioisotopes for diagnostic imaging, the most widely used being technetium-99m (Tc-99m). Yet, there are no Tc-99m production plants in the United States, making the country vulnerable to periodic interruptions in overseas production. Therefore, reflecting one of the directives of the American Medical Isotope Production Act of 2012, one of the primary aspects of this challenge was to find a way to maintain a reliable supply of Tc-99m. However, Tc-99m’s precursor, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), is made from highly enriched uranium, raising nonproliferation concerns. These concerns drove the two IDR-1 teams to focus on the development of alternative radionuclides and radiopharmaceuticals.
One bottleneck in the development of novel radioisotopes is the regulatory process, which holds radionuclides to the same testing standards as conventional disease therapies, even though radionuclides are given at vastly smaller doses, often just once or a small handful of times in the course of care. Each of the three teams suggested that relaxing regulations and streamlining the approval process could dramatically speed up the time to market. Reflecting the conference’s broad emphasis on transparency and sharing, Team 1B proposed incentives for researchers to submit data about new imaging agents to a public toxicology and pharmacokinetics database so that other researchers would not have to repeat safety studies of compounds that have already been tested. Team 1B also emphasized increased collaboration with clinicians to determine their imaging needs. Most of the more than 350 cyclotrons around the world produce just a single type of radionuclide. To accelerate the adoption of a diversity of new radionuclides, Team 1A recommended designing the devices so that they can manufacture a variety
of radionuclides. The team also suggested that the use of new radionuclides could be promoted by the creation of service providers that handle all of a client’s needs—from radioisotope creation to separation and preparation for point-of-care applications.
The two decades following the dawn of the nuclear age saw an explosion in creative ways to harness the power of the atom. However, development of nuclear technologies has stagnated since the 1960s as fears about nuclear power and proliferation permeated society. The two IDR-7 teams were asked to recall this early creative period and identify novel applications of nuclear phenomena that could benefit humankind.
IDR Team 7A focused on the energy-producing potential of nuclear phenomena. They imagined a combined heat and power plant in which radioactive particles interact with semiconductor chips to create electricity, akin to the process that takes place in solar panels. This application could be built into a solid-state generator with no moving parts, making it ideal for use in developing nations lacking the resources to maintain and repair more complex reactor designs. The team also pointed to new research confirming the ability to produce hydrogen in high-temperature (200 degrees Celsius) reactors that could dramatically reduce the cost of fuel cells for vehicles.
Increasing the world’s access to food drove the discussions of IDR Team 7B. The team proposed irradiating nonpotable water to make it safe enough to irrigate crops, thereby reducing the need to use fresh drinking water to grow food. The team also suggested channeling the waste heat generated by nuclear power plants to break down organic waste matter into compost. Creation of compost keeps the organic waste out of landfills, reduces methane emissions, and provides farmers with an inexpensive soil amendment.
Three high-profile nuclear accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—have created a profound sense of public mistrust in the nuclear enterprise. The three teams taking on IDR Challenge 4 had the opportunity to design and fund putative 3-year public/private initiatives to both understand and bridge the gap between public perception and the scientific realities of the nuclear enterprise.
Citing previously successful awareness campaigns in the fields of public health and the environment, all three IDR teams concluded that involving
the public in decisions such as where to site new nuclear facilities—and giving them a realistic picture of the known risks—creates a sense of buy-in and trust. The teams also acknowledged the need to research baseline levels of public attitudes and specific areas of mistrust regarding the nuclear enterprise and compare those baselines to ongoing surveys to analyze the effectiveness of their interventions. Each team also discussed ways to educate nuclear science industry leaders and policy makers about the public’s concerns regarding nuclear power and provide these individuals with effective communication training.
Each team took a different approach to communicating with the public. IDR Team 4A outlined the creation of an independent agency funded by the Nuclear Waste Fund called the “National Center of Nuclear and Radiation Communication” that would function as a nonpartisan source of public information. The center would organize town hall meetings, encourage nuclear utilities to interact with local communities, and develop new outreach tools such as video games, summer camps, massive open online courses, and TED talks.
IDR Team 4B considered a two-track approach to communicating with the public: a targeted education module for the K-12 age group and a public relations campaign for adults. Schoolchildren would receive hands-on lectures, field trips to local power utilities, and a high school–level Nuclear Science and Medicine course. The public relations campaign would rely on storytelling techniques, celebrity endorsements, and various mass media—books, viral YouTube videos, and Hollywood blockbusters.
IDR Team 4C imagined a program aimed at identifying 2,000 or so influential Americans who could be educated about the nuclear enterprise with the hope that these individuals could effectively convey what they’ve learned to their respective communities.
Participants in the 2013 NAKFI Conference on the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies engaged a broad range of scientific and political issues. Attempts to reconcile the high-yield, high-threat facets of the nuclear enterprise saw a handful of themes emerge throughout the final conference presentations, including the need for increased transparency (between the public and nuclear leaders as well as among nations), sharing (of both resources and responsibility), and simplicity (smaller, safer reactor designs and single-stream nuclear fuel cycles).