There are over 430 nuclear power plants operating across the globe today in 31 countries. They provide approximately 13.5 percent of all the electricity generated in the world today (down from a peak of about 17 percent in the early 1990s). This initial introduction and ramp-up of nuclear power was driven largely by the U.S. domestic program—more than 100 of those plants are operating in the United States—and by the resulting follow-on of the Atoms for Peace program in which the United States proactively shared its technology with others. The Soviet Union and its satellites were the other significant players. It should also be noted that about 240 research reactors operate in 56 countries.
Later, of course, additional nations implemented significant nuclear power programs such as the French, British, Japanese, and others. But in the early days, U.S. influence was fundamental to non-Soviet nations. U.S. companies sold and built reactors around the globe. The U.S. government was the sole and then major supplier of enriched uranium for fresh reactor fuel in the free world. The United States signed agreements (known as 123 agreements because they flowed from section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act) that outlined promises by nations cooperating with the United States on civilian nuclear matters in return for U.S. assistance. Such provisions could include the promise not to pursue nuclear weapons, or to transfer, enrich, or reprocess U.S.-origin nuclear materials without advance U.S. consent. U.S. leadership in the creation and empowerment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the
Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty, and many other fundamental structures of the nuclear regime were intended to assure nuclear power that was safe, secure, and did not allow civilian programs to be used for nuclear weapons purposes.
Over the past 20+ years the United States has lost its early and almost virtual monopoly and major influence over the conduct of others, and U.S. influence will likely continue to diminish. The United States has not built a domestic reactor in more than 30 years (although we now see a small number of new plants being constructed). All but one of the major U.S. companies’ reactor vendors have either gone out of business or been bought by foreign firms. Many other nations now offer full fuel cycle services, including power plants, enrichment and reprocessing services, and fresh fuel. Russia, South Korea, India, and particularly China have significant nuclear power plant programs; they account for the vast majority of new plants under development. They also have the intention to market their nuclear technology to others and, notably, the South Koreans recently won a competition with the French and Japanese to build four large units in the United Arab Emirates. The South Koreans are also pressuring the United States as part of a new 123 Agreement to allow them to reprocess their spent nuclear fuel. Many additional countries have announced an intent or at least an interest in obtaining nuclear power plants, and the implications are potentially severe. Will it be Asia who will shape this future as U.S. and Western European influence diminishes? Does it matter and, if so, what needs to be done?
The United States is still the most important player in helping to shape the international nuclear regime of the future; its R&D agenda in universities and national labs is outstanding, and its regulatory system is still considered the global standard. The U.S. commitment to safety, security, nonproliferation, waste management, and the environment are as strong as ever, but its standing is no longer assured and its influence over the conduct of others has lessened. Other nuclear-leading nations benefit from the close ties that exist between their government and private industry. The challenge for the United States is how to reassert and sustain leadership in shaping the new nuclear regime in ways that best serve U.S. interests and priorities while preserving the separate roles of the government, private industry, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others that provide the strength and transparency of the U.S. system.
• What is the status and trajectory of U.S. influence on matters of key importance to the emerging nuclear regime? What does the United States care about and how can it best ensure that its interests are served? What role does the United States see for the international agencies, particularly the IAEA, and what should it do to ensure their effectiveness?
• How can the government, industry, and NGO community work together better to optimize U.S. interests?
• How should the United States determine the right balance of safety, nonproliferation, security, waste management, and the advancement of nuclear technologies? How does it pursue its top priorities?
• There are many considerations that must be taken into account in launching agreements between the United States and other countries on nuclear cooperation and in leading new international treaties and agreements. Some are political but there are also substantial technical issues. There will be serious consideration of changes in the currently used fuel cycles and this leads to safety and proliferation issues. Much of the technology is in the hands of industry and not under (U.S.) government control. What are the likely fuel cycles and fuel cycle issues bearing in mind these considerations? How can the United States best take advantage of its universities and national laboratories?
• What should be the U.S. position on transboundary movement of materials and wastes and how should it best be pursued? Should the United States champion multinational cooperation on the back end of the fuel cycle, including waste management and disposal? How?
Miller SE, Sagan SD, eds. On the global nuclear future, vol. 1. Daedalus Fall 2009; 138(4):1-171.
Miller SE, Sagan SD, eds. On the global nuclear future, vol. 2. Daedalus Winter 2010; 139(1):1-40.
Nikitin MB, Andrews A, Holt M. Managing the nuclear fuel cycle: policy implications of expanding global access to nuclear power. Congressional Research Service, October 2012.
Nikitin MB, Ker PK, Hildreth SA. Proliferation control regimes: background and status. Congressional Research Service, October 2012.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS
• Joonhong Ahn, University of California, Berkeley
• Robert J. Budnitz, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
• Benjamin M. Chase, Idaho National Laboratory
• Mark B. Halper, CBS, The Guardian, Weinberg Foundation
• Kathryn A. Higley, Oregon State University
• Alexa C. Kurzius, New York University
• Mark T. Peters, Argonne National Laboratory
• Per F. Peterson, University of California, Berkeley
• Natalia V. Saraeva, Argonne National Laboratory
• Tanju Sofu, Argonne National Laboratory
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 5
Alexa C. Kurzius, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar New York University
IDR Team 5 was asked to define the means to promote U.S. interests in international nuclear power in an era of diminishing U.S. and Western European influence.
At present, a number of factors contribute to the changing landscape of nuclear power worldwide. Rising foreign interest in nuclear technology, competition from other energy markets, and limited construction of new plants in the United States threaten the U.S. role as the long-standing nuclear superpower. In addition, public perception of nuclear power technology following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan and complex U.S. export regulations make promoting and expanding nuclear power increasingly difficult.
Drawing on the country’s strengths, the team discussed the nuclear power enterprise in the United States and developed proposals that would help the United States maintain its position as a global leader. They dubbed their solution Nuclear 2.0, a group of ideas that embraces today’s global political and market climate and possesses momentum for the future.
First, a little bit about U.S. nuclear power technology in an international context. This country has more nuclear power plants in operation than any other nation, with 99 currently in use. The new reactor designs of several American firms are considered among the best in class for their technology and passive safety features. Westinghouse’s AP1000®—an advanced
light-water reactor being built in the United States and China—is one of the best current examples of superior technology and passive safety. The development of its precursor was supported by funding from the Department of Energy in the 1990s.
The safety culture of the United States is, in a positive sense, unlike almost anywhere else. The team discussed how this emphasis on safety drives operational standards for nuclear power facilities and why the United States has a special culture of reporting and correcting problems. Much is owed to the overall excellence of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an organization that is generally respected around the world as the gold standard for nuclear power safety regulation. But global dynamics are changing, altering the power structure, safety standards, and nonproliferation interests worldwide. Developing countries, including China, India, and Brazil, are building or continuing to expand their nuclear power systems. Some of the major developed countries too are looking to build more nuclear power plants, because they produce fewer carbon emissions than fossil fuel and deliver consistent power to the grid in the way that solar and wind energy do not.
The recent deals that Turkey struck with Russia and Japan to build nuclear reactors are also examples of the changing global dynamic. The team agreed that these deals are significant practically and politically—in part because the United States was not part of the bidding process. In addition, Russia’s decision to finance construction was discussed as one driven by geopolitical motivations.
The tenuous relations between the United Kingdom and China serve as an example of a developed country ostensibly ceding part of its nuclear enterprise independence to China, through the use of Chinese capital to build a new reactor in the United Kingdom. One team member speculated that it is a means to maintain nuclear capacity within the United Kingdom, despite the power shift.
Nuclear 2.0 is an attractive solution to maintaining U.S. influence because it relies on the country’s very special ecosystem—an unparalleled scientific research base, strong university programs, national labs, capital markets, and a culture of innovation—as an environment that can promote nuclear power technology development for the good of the country, and for the world. This can also help maintain existing university programs in nuclear engineering, which are threatened due to a recent stagnancy in domestic research funding.
The team also recommended encouraging entrepreneurship and sup-
porting existing startups in nuclear energy. As an example of how to spur innovation, a team member mentioned NASA’s successful, modest investment in the commercialization of space. And given that venture capitalists are funding nuclear power companies around the country, the team agreed that funding small startups has potential to further develop the enterprise.
In terms of policy, the team recommended that a major positive development would be if the U.S. government promoted expanding U.S. export markets to allow the country to continue to be a global provider of nuclear reactors. They discussed the necessity for the country to support nuclear power technology advancement, through government funding, which is certainly as important as encouraging entrepreneurship. Financial incentives also came up as a way to support the domestic industry. And although this was not discussed at length, the nuclear waste challenge needs to be addressed, specifically high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. The United States presently has no place to dispose of its nuclear waste permanently, which could complicate matters down the line, and already has.
The team also suggested strategic partnerships as a way to help secure a leading role for the United States in the future. One example mentioned was the Westinghouse-China agreement to build AP1000 reactors, among the safest and most economical Generation III+ reactors available. Also, investment from the oil and gas industries into the nuclear power field can help those companies remain relevant as the United States moves away from fossil fuel.
A more practical side of Nuclear 2.0 is the suggestion to change the cost model of nuclear power technology. One way to do this is to continue to develop smaller, modular reactors, which can be completely manufactured in one factory and installed onsite almost anywhere, including remote locations. Small modular reactors are developing technology that the team sees as having high potential; startup companies that manufacture these reactors came up in conversation as examples. Changing the cost model also includes the consideration of new revenue streams, such as using nuclear technology to produce heat, desalinate saltwater, and provide reliable power to the national grid.
With more countries expanding into nuclear power, global safety standards and nonproliferation have become a concern. U.S. policy was discussed at length, particularly the 123 Agreement. Authorized by Section 123 of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, the 123 Agreement requires a specific agreement between the United States and another country as a condition for the transfer of nuclear energy-related technology for peaceful purposes.
The United States recently signed a 123 Agreement with Vietnam, opening up a potential market in that country. However, Vietnam also has deals with Russia and Japan, showing that the United States is not the only country with a stake in the game.
Overall, it is in the interest of the United States and by extension the world to follow through with our country’s safety regulation systems as plants are being built globally. We have a proven track record for innovation and safety and countries, like Japan after Fukushima Daiichi, look to us for our expertise in putting in place methods for managing events both following incipient accidents and also during actual accidents.
Moreover, nuclear power technology offers an attractive future for clean energy, peaceful use of nuclear technology, the domestic economy, and the U.S. culture of science and innovation. Implementing the ideas included in Nuclear 2.0 can help protect the nuclear power industry in the United States and secure our position in the future.