In 2007, four distinguished American statesmen (George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn) wrote of their support of “a world free of nuclear weapons.” One year later, presidential candidate Barak Obama embraced this vision and, the year after that, President Obama expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Advocates of the abolition of nuclear weapons believe that it would make the world safer and more stable. Others argue that a nuclear-weapons-free world would be less secure and less stable than feasible alternatives (e.g., markedly reduced numbers of nuclear weapons, greater transparency, elimination of “hair-triggers,” and enhanced security of nuclear materials). Still others believe that global zero is neither desirable nor achievable.
Among the perceived obstacles to achieving and maintaining a world with zero (or a very low number) of nuclear weapons is the substantial and growing civilian use of nuclear energy. Ensuring that materials from civilian nuclear facilities are not diverted to military use is a central feature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Facilities for enriching uranium can be used to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power reactors and/or to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. Plutonium separated from used reactor fuel can be recycled to produce electricity or can be used to make weapons.
Substantial international growth of the use of nuclear energy surely would be accompanied by expansion of enrichment capacity, and probably
also by expansion of plutonium production capacity. The spread of these dual-use capabilities would exacerbate the challenge to achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapons-free world.
• How might the civilian nuclear enterprise be modified to minimize the risk of diversion of technology and materials to the production of nuclear weapons?
• How might the civilian nuclear enterprise be modified to maximize the time required to produce nuclear weapons using diverted technologies or materials?
• What technical and institutional measures might realistically be implemented to achieve acceptable levels of verification of nondiversion to weapons use?
• How might the NPT realistically be modified or complemented to achieve desired levels of transparency and stability?
Blechman BM, Bollfrass AK, eds. Elements of a nuclear disarmament treaty: unblocking the path to zero. The Stimson Center: Washington, DC, 2010: 57-116. (Pages 57-116 are available to conference participants. You will need your Futures Network username and password to access these chapters. Reprinted with permission from the Stimson Center.) Nikitin MB, Kerr PK, Hildreth SA. Proliferation control regimes: background and status. Congressional Research Service Report RL31559, Oct. 25, 2012.
Because of the popularity of this topic, two groups explored this subject. Please be sure to review the other write-up, which immediately follows this one.
• Rodney M. Adams, Atomic Insights
• Carol J. Burns, Los Alamos National Laboratory
• Raymond P. Mariella, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
• Charles McCombie, Arius Association
• Catherine H. Middlecamp, University of Wisconsin–Madison
• Jessica M. Orwig, Texas A&M University
• Francis Slakey, Georgetown University
• Kumar Sridharan, University of Wisconsin–Madison,
• Paul P.H. Wilson, University of Wisconsin–Madison
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 6A
Jessica Orwig, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Texas A&M University
IDR Team 6A was asked to address how the widespread use of civilian nuclear power might be made compatible with a world that has few or no nuclear weapons.
The challenge is an issue dating back to 1946. Less than 1 year after the end of World War II, the United States wrote the Acheson-Lilienthal Report—the first document to recognize the need to control and limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
A Stark Reality
Fast forward 67 years, and the nuclear-weapons-free world that the Acheson-Lilienthal Report envisioned is a fading dream. Nine countries have acquired nuclear weapons technology and built and tested their products, several of which did so either partially or completely in secret. More than 2,000 nuclear test explosions have taken place around the world. And countries maintain stockpiles that number in the hundreds to thousands.
This stark reality is due in part because as weapons programs develop around the world, nuclear fuel cycle technology continues to spread. Nuclear power provides a cost-effective, low-carbon form of electricity compared with many fossil fuels, and is therefore a leading weapon in the battle against rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Herein lies the complication: the same technology that can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for nuclear power, a burgeoning source of clean, alternative energy, can also create weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium.
The United Nations founded the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957; this agency oversees and regulates civilian trade activity of uranium and plutonium worldwide. Despite the IAEA’s efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons by enforcing and upholding safeguards set by the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), breakout remains an ever-present threat.
With nearly seven decades of tension dividing peaceful applications and military applications of nuclear materials and technology, the team concluded that they needed a novel approach if they were going to present a solution that could, in theory, work. Ultimately, they proposed a contemporary twist on an existing idea that has, for political and economic reasons, never been tried: establish a capitalistic-driven nuclear market, composed of regional or multinational-owned alliances that market nuclear energy at competitive prices. The team approached all aspects of the business including such issues as fuel management and shared liability in the event of an accident.
Capitalize on a Nuclear Market
Thirty-one countries use nuclear power as either a primary or secondary energy source. At least nine of these countries produce the LEU necessary to power their reactors while others purchase the material. The team’s overall consensus was that the threat of military proliferation with help from state-owned fuel cycle facilities is a political nightmare. So, at its heart, their solution was to reduce the number of state-owned fuel-cycle facilities capable of enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium in favor of a “global service model.”
The way to do this, team members suggested, is to create a competitive international market for nuclear fuel. Imagine a world where different regional or multilateral alliances, located across the globe, supplied nuclear material. To be competitive with each other and capable of supplanting current, state-owned fuel-cycle facilities, each entity would offer a series of commodities and services, for example, reactor technology, fuel supply, shared liability and assets with the buying country, and agreements to take back spent fuel and dispose of the nuclear waste. Instead of today’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multinational body that controls certain trade and transfer of nuclear material, the new model might include multiple “Nuclear Buyers Groups” that manage regional energy commerce. The idea being that these alliances could become competitive enough to make state-owned fuel cycle facilities obsolete, while also providing diversity in a sociopolitical context to facilitate interactions with all countries, including non-weapons states. In turn, this would reduce the number of states with facilities that could be adapted for weapons capability, while enabling safe, transparent application of nuclear power.
Facilities that control the global supply of nuclear material were first suggested in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report 67 years ago, and later in multi-
lateral agreement proposals in the NPT. Specifically, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report proposed an “Atomic Development Authority” which would have been a single international agency that controlled the world’s supply of nuclear material and would release small amounts at a time to individual states. The difference in the team’s approach is that they put a capitalistic spin on an otherwise seemingly monopolistic scenario. Key to their solution is the involvement of politically diverse stakeholders.
Technology with Transparency
What will mitigate the risk of further proliferation and/or diversion of materials? After all, profit drives capitalistic markets, and nuclear weapons-grade uranium could prove more lucrative than LEU, especially in the absence of individually, state-owned nuclear weapons technology. To limit this possibility, the team proposed that the international nonproliferation regime and the role of the IAEA must be strengthened. This includes both real commitments to the reduction of existing stockpiles and adoption of business models with best practices, such as those promoted by the NSG, the IAEA, and the World Institute for Nuclear Security. The team argues that these practices should include a strict code of ethics to which alliances would adhere, and terms regarding safety, security, longer-term waste disposal models, and last but not least, transparency.
Transparency is perhaps the most challenging of the terms, but advanced technology could help. For example, technology with built-in systems that automatically monitor and record operation, status, and security could increase confidence in the security of energy systems. Additional benefits could come from alternative fuels and novel detection technologies that could readily identify any covert activity concerning processing of highly enriched uranium.
Transparency ties to another important facet—trust: trust between consumers and suppliers, between competing companies and—in this case—between nation states. Suppose every nuclear weapon, save one, vanished overnight, and the only one left was under North Korea’s control. The political mistrust between North Korea and other states like the United States, China, and Russia would almost certainly spark a frenzy of nuclear weapon production the following morning by those and other states. Trust and the lack thereof are, in part, why states with nuclear weapons are unwilling to relinquish or even reduce their supply and also a partial reason behind a growing desire for nuclear weapons by non-nuclear weapons states.
Cultivate a New Culture
Nuclear weapons provide a certain level of political power and are therefore a desirable commodity. The underlying culture of power, political gain, and persuasive advantage that come with the possession of nuclear weapons must change if a world with widespread civilian nuclear power and little to no nuclear weapons is to ever exist, the team argued.
If at all possible, transform the cultural attitude surrounding the possession of nuclear weapons from positive to negative, one team member argued. Right now the proliferation of nuclear weapons has more of a negative aura, hence extensive clandestine efforts by certain states to obtain nuclear weapons designs and technology. Extrapolate that attitude toward the possession of weapons, and it might further discourage non-nuclear weapons states’ desire for nuclear weapons and possibly motivate a reduction in nuclear warhead stockpiles by nuclear weapons states.
Another approach to discouraging non-nuclear weapons states’ self-asserted need for independent state-owned fuel cycle capabilities would be sharing liability and control of nuclear material across multiple nations. The competitive, multinational fuel-cycle facilities the team proposed would be owned by both nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear weapons states. From such a collaborative effort, the strong political divide separating the two states might be softened.
What Waits to Be Seen
If the team’s model began to take root tomorrow, it could not fully mature as described. A major hurdle that the companies would face, and which governments are facing today, is long-term disposal of nuclear waste. Moreover, the likelihood that civilian nuclear power will continue to expand means more waste and an even greater need for a solution to long-term nuclear waste disposal. Furthermore, the advanced technologies that could readily promote transparency remain to be developed. Nuclear scientists and engineers can measure the residual signatures of a nuclear test, but they have yet to design an instrument capable of verifying that material is not associated with a military program without revealing sensitive national security information.
Finally, the team discovered that in order to answer one question, they had to ask each other a myriad of other questions. Perhaps the most relevant was, “What’s different about 2013 that might make our model possible
when a similar model did not work 50 years ago?” One outstanding difference is the impending need to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Another is that compared to times during the Cold War, when nuclear proliferation seemed politically necessary, proliferation is now openly portrayed as an undesirable act. For example, in 2010 the United States and Russia signed the New START Treaty, which commits the countries to reduce their number of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in June 2013, U.S. President Obama announced new plans for reducing both U.S. and global nuclear weapons stockpiles. With changing climates and changing attitudes, there might be room for great changes in nuclear policy, too. Will we soon as a nation be deciding the origin of our nuclear fuel by casting votes on ballets etched with company names like “Nuclear Now” or “Clean, Green Nuclear Machine”? That waits to be seen.
• Matthew T. Domonkos, Air Force Research Laboratory
• Audeen W. Fentiman, Purdue University
• Elisabeth A. Gilmore, University of Maryland
• Seth A. Hoedl, Harvard Law School
• Jyoti Madhusoodanan, University of California, Santa Cruz
• Mark W. Maier, The Aerospace Corporation
• Robert Rosner, The University of Chicago
• Alexander H. Slocum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 6B
Jyoti Madhusoodanan, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar University of California, Santa Cruz
IDR Team 6B was asked to identify ways the widespread use of civilian nuclear power might be made compatible with a world free of, or with a small number of, nuclear weapons.
The team agreed at the outset that the present challenge was not framed accurately. Concerns with expanding civilian nuclear power have focused on their potential to be diverted and exploited for weapons development. But civilian uses of nuclear energy are not the primary bottleneck preventing a “Global Zero” nonproliferation treaty that aims to reduce the number of
weapons worldwide to very few, or zero. Instead, governments’ reluctance to enter such agreements stems, in no small measure, from their disagreement with enforcement policies.
The team agreed that expanding civilian nuclear power across the world has many advantages. According to them, nuclear power is the most practical technology currently available to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use quickly. Expanding nuclear power facilities will also support the economic growth of all nations, and concurrent increases in their energy needs. With this background, Team 6B reframed the challenge question: How can we create a framework that facilitates civilian nuclear power without undermining a “Global Zero Treaty” in the future?
The team recognized that all potential solutions have both technical and political aspects. Policy-based solutions rely on technological safeguards, but technical safeguards only work within a political framework. They attempted to achieve one goal with their recommendations, namely: What interventions can we propose today that will remain relevant in 30 years? Toward this broad objective, the team focused on three questions:
• What technologies, if promoted, have the potential to minimize the misuse of nuclear technology?
• How might technical and political interventions internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle?
• How can we promote the development of improved detection technologies?
Technologies to Minimize Misuse of Nuclear Technology
Enriched uranium is the most commonly used nuclear fuel in light-water reactors today; spent fuel from such reactors contains plutonium, another fuel obtained by reprocessing this material. Both materials are easily diverted or exploited for use in weapons rather than power production. The worldwide spread of light-water reactors means a global infrastructure of uranium enrichment—creating a source of fuel for nuclear weapons.
Hence, Team 6B recommended reducing global dependence on light-water reactor technology that uses these fuels. Stockpiles of uranium and plutonium in enrichment facilities and waste repositories also create vulnerable targets that may be attacked even with nonnuclear weapons. Thus, the team suggested increasing the use of alternative fuel technologies that can potentially decrease these vulnerabilities, and thus reduce concerns of
weapons proliferation. As an example, they discussed technologies that use thorium. Unlike uranium, thorium does not need to be enriched before use. The spent fuel from a thorium-based fuel cycle is too contaminated to be easily reused in weapons, and is more easily traceable.
Safer, proliferation-resistant reactor designs and fuel cycles
IDR Team 6B began by identifying what makes one fuel cycle superior to another with respect to facilitating widespread nuclear power, but few or no nuclear weapons. Factors such as cost, ease of production, and compatibility with global deployment were considered most crucial, since a fuel cycle that failed to meet these criteria would be unsuitable for widespread power production. Safe, secure reactor designs that meet these criteria would lower barriers to adoption of the new technology and help enforce tracking of resources. The team also agreed the technology should be intrinsically resistant to clandestine diversion or exploitation. Thus, there should be no weapons-suitable materials involved, and the steps involved in the fuel cycle should not be easily diverted or exploited for use in weapons, as they are in the current light-water cycle.
Having defined this “ideal” nuclear fuel cycle in concept, the team analyzed the fuel-once reactor, a developing technology that meets many of these criteria. One caveat the team recognized is that current fuel-once reactors still use highly enriched uranium, which is directly usable in weapons. However, the reactor minimizes other infrastructure and processes that have historically been vulnerable to proliferation exploitation.
They discussed the steps needed to promote the widespread use of this ideal reactor, both nationally and globally. Team 6B thinks giving the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the budget and authority required to license this reactor would catalyze interest from private investors and startup companies. The team also suggested that the Department of Energy support the deployment of at least two pilot systems based on the fuel-once reactor technology to meet non-carbon energy targets. Data gathered from these pilot systems could then inform the NRC licensing decision.
IDR Team 6B recommended adopting a more inclusive international stance to “level the playing field,” so all countries have access to nuclear power technology. Two political aspects to achieving this goal are to cre-
ate an expanded nuclear energy supply to meet global needs, and ensuring appropriate global perspectives of those who enforce international nuclear policies.
At present, state-of-the-art reactor technologies are held proprietary by specific U.S.-based companies, so even if other countries have fuel resources, they cannot necessarily use them in the best way possible. Potential technical solutions to this problem may be to standardize some aspects of fuel cycle technologies across the world, perhaps by creating an international center that everyone can access.
Another technical solution would be to internationalize repositories for intermediate and permanent waste storage. In this scenario, each country would run its own reactors, using common international fuel sources and repositories. When fuel rods needed replacement, they would be transported to a repository where they would be secured in part by using technical means such as to safely store or dispose of fuel pellets. This approach requires standardization of fuel cycles and assemblies among nuclear power–generating nations.
Team members also emphasized the need for an improved nonproliferation treaty. Current regulations do not restrict access to nuclear resources when nations break the treaty. As a result, a country that signs the non-proliferation treaty, acquires enriched uranium, and then breaches the agreement does not lose access to these resources. Despite their noncooperation, such a country can then use civilian nuclear resources to develop weapons.
Improving Detection Technologies
IDR Team 6B proposed improving available technologies to track fuel cycle resources so they are less easily diverted or exploited. Their suggestions on how to achieve this goal focused on policy-based interventions. They emphasized the impact of governmental choices early in the planning process, drawing a parallel to the development of GPS technology.
Navigation systems are now familiar to anyone trying to reach a grocery store in a new city. But GPS technologies were originally created for, and restricted to, military applications such as guiding weapons. However, policy makers at the time specifically chose to develop the technology with signals that could eventually be deployed differently for both civilian and military uses. As one group member noted, this decades-old, conscious decision enabled civilian applications of a potentially high-risk technology originally developed for military applications.
Team 6B suggested implementing a Grand Challenge to develop an open-access monitoring system for fuel cycle resources. Grand Challenges, a recent government initiative, offer incentives to companies and researchers who identify innovative solutions to important national or global problems. Deliberately seeding crowd-sourced applications could accelerate progress toward a viable solution. However, the team also recognized that crowd-sourced solutions, which may be highly reliable for detecting true violations, often carry the caveat of frequent false alarms.
IDR Team 6B recognized that establishing a “Global Zero Treaty” does not hinge upon civilian applications of the nuclear fuel cycle. A significant shift in international treaties may be the only way to reduce or prevent overt diversion of physical resources or exploitation of fuel cycle knowledge to military applications. Clandestine operations, however, may be reduced with technologies that are inherently more resistant to diversion, and improving detection techniques to monitor global activity.
Team 6B identified specific technological and political steps to decouple advances in civilian nuclear fuel cycle applications from global nonproliferation agreements. One suggestion was a Grand Challenge to develop an open-access monitoring system for nuclear fuel cycle resources. The team also recommended specific policy changes to support the development of safer, tamper-resistant and proliferation-resistant reactor technologies, such as small modular reactors and fuel-once reactors. Both technologies—improved reactors and better detection systems—have the potential to scale internationally to meet energy needs, reduce carbon emissions, and promote economic growth.