It's inevitable that nuclear power will expand globally, raising the danger of increased proliferation. One controversial plan, GNEP, was pushed by the Bush administration as a way to curtail the risks. In a three-part Bulletin Web-Edition series, Leonor Tomero examined the program and what might happen to its partners and stakeholders if it's no longer funded. With that program looking less and less viable, how will the fuel cycle be managed going forward? Below, our five experts explore the issue.
Going forward what should we do about the biggest issues that have plagued the nuclear power industry? They are--proliferation; the risk of another catastrophic nuclear plant accident; spent fuel/high-level waste disposal; and poor economics.
With respect to proliferation and spent fuel disposal, the Obama administration should terminate the reprocessing component of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is irrelevant to the near- and mid-term decarbonization challenge and faces long-term uncertainties regarding operational reliability, economic viability, and international control on abuse of the technology for weapons. President Barack Obama should reinforce the current U.S. commitment to the more proliferation-resistant, once-through fuel cycle at home and abroad and focus on building cooperative international monitoring and controls that would ultimately enable both the elimination of nuclear weapons and the future deployment of a closed nuclear fuel cycle, should the latter's technical and economic viability become apparent at some future date. Domestically, the federal government needs to begin identifying alternative geological disposal sites for the country's nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.
The most important factor affecting the safety of existing nuclear power plants isn't their design, but the safety culture at the plant. It's difficult to assess whether any of these nuclear plants is safe enough because the probability of a severe accident depends on many technical and human factors that are difficult to measure. Nevertheless, U.S. nuclear plants on the whole are safer today than they were two decades ago primarily because U.S. nuclear plant safety culture has improved. If another catastrophic nuclear accident occurs, it will likely be in one of several countries with demonstrably poor nuclear safety culture. Also, few, if any, of the states that are planning to construct their first nuclear power plant have adequate nuclear regulatory regimes and in several of these countries there is no evidence that a robust safety culture is in store. Thus, Washington and the nuclear industry should concentrate on improving the regulatory regimes and safety culture in these other countries.
The domestic nuclear power industry is confronting two big economic dilemmas. In the United States, new nuclear power plants are uneconomical when compared to other electricity generating technologies and improvements in end-use efficiency; and the unit costs of new nuclear plants are so high that they cannot be privately financed. It appears likely that construction of new plants will remain cost prohibitive until the price of carbon emissions exceeds $50 per ton of carbon dioxide. The nuclear industry, through its congressional boosters, has already received large federal subsidies and loan guarantees to support the construction of a few new nuclear plants. It has received additional subsidies from states and local governments.
Now the industry is returning to Congress for more taxpayer largess, claiming that it is needed to mitigate climate change and provide for jobs under the economic stimulus plan. We should reject this "lemon socialism" approach. The economically efficient way to mitigate climate change is to internalize the cost of carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade program or by carbon tax. We shouldn't subsidize the construction of new nuclear power plants, thereby penalizing alternatives that can provide climate-change mitigation quicker, safer, and cheaper. Subsidizing new nuclear plants is one of the least productive means to create jobs or to stimulate the economy in the next year or two, a key criterion of the stimulus package.
An appropriate role for direct federal support of low-carbon energy is to underwrite research, development, and demonstration of meritorious new technologies that are unlikely to be developed by private industry acting alone, either because the return on the investment is too distant or because the investment risks are too high. Alternatively, society may reap benefits by using production or investment tax credits to more rapidly expand the market for beneficial emerging technologies, thereby driving down unit costs of production to a level that allows the technology to become self-sufficient in the marketplace.
Further subsidization of new nuclear power plants doesn't meet either of these criteria. The first 6,000 megawatts of nuclear new-build capacity are already covered by a production tax credit comparable to wind, and sufficient loan guarantee authority ($18.5 billion) has already been made available to support construction of the first "new" Gen III+ reactor designs proposed for the U.S. market--the Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 and the GE-Hitachi Economic and Simplified Boiling Water Reactor. All other reactor designs proposed for construction in the United States either don't qualify as innovative, have already been constructed elsewhere, or both.
It's a new day with a new administration, and the conventional wisdom is that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), being a Bush administration initiative, is dead. Well, maybe! While some people changed roles on January 20 and there will certainly be changes in various U.S. policies, there's much that hasn't changed:
In other words, the serious problems of energy supply, energy security, climate disruption, and nuclear weapons proliferation are now problems that belong to the Obama administration. To the extent that aspects of GNEP were conceived to solve, or at least ameliorate, those problems, they may well be continued by the new administration albeit with different emphasis.
The Bush administration, which earned a reputation for acting unilaterally, never received the credit it deserved for creating GNEP's international framework. In this case, Washington chose to seek collaboration as a means to attain its objectives rather than coercion. At last count, 25 nations had signed the GNEP Statement of Principles and 28 observer nations that may choose to join the partnership in the future attended a September meeting in Vienna. Is it likely that the Obama administration is going to tell all of these countries that the United States is no longer interested in continuing the international dialogue? I don't think so.
If there has been any consensus in this roundtable, it's that some sort of international nuclear fuel supply guarantee mechanism could be useful. Activity on this is proceeding on several fronts including GNEP, and again, I believe that it's unlikely the Obama administration will stop such activities.
At his recent confirmation hearing, new Energy Secretary Steven Chu laid out some of the elements of the Obama plan for dealing with energy issues, including "a continued commitment to nuclear power and a long-term plan for waste management and disposal." In response to a question regarding recycling, Chu stated, "Recycling is an option that we will be looking at very carefully." But he cautioned that it would need to be done with an eye toward proliferation resistance. Hmm--sounds a little like GNEP to me.
But what was most encouraging to me at Chu's confirmation hearing was his obvious understanding that our energy and environmental crisis can only be solved with an approach that I have described as "all of the above." Every available option must remain on the table and be used. Certainly we must grab for the low-hanging fruit associated with energy efficiency, and we must invest more to bring renewables into the generation picture. But because renewables are by their very nature intermittent, they cannot have a huge impact unless--and until--we develop adequate energy storage technologies and drastically improve our fragile electricity distribution network. For the foreseeable future we must continue to rely upon fossil fuels and nuclear energy for most of our base-load electricity generation, and when climate concerns are factored into the equation, nuclear energy should be preferable to coal. In these difficult economic times, nuclear power has another important benefit--the number of jobs created per megawatt of installed capacity is far higher than for any other source of electricity generation.
So is GNEP dead? As an acronym almost certainly, but its aims will continue to be vital if we're to meet the energy challenges of the future. To borrow from the famous French phrase, "GNEP is dead; long live GNEP!"