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Energy Expert Calls on United States to Take Leadership in Nuclear Energy Framework
The next U.S. president will have a historic opportunity to exercise leadership in increasing the global investment in nuclear technology, energy expert Victor Reis said at a AAAS briefing.
But the stakes are higher than just finding an alternative to the rising price of oil and coal.
Reis, a senior advisor to Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, said that a well-designed nuclear energy framework could drive global growth by bringing affordable, reliable energy to the developing world, address climate change through clean energy production, and promote international security by securing nuclear materials around the world.
"By increasing the civilian nuclear enterprise, the next U.S. president can make use of a historic opportunity to simultaneously attack the biggest interlocking issues that society will face for the next 50 years," said Reis.
Speaking at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., Reis said that around 1.6 billion people, or 25% of the world's population, live without access to electricity and 2.4 billion, or 35%, rely on traditional, carbon-rich biomass like wood for their energy needs because they have no access to modern fuels.
Because experts have found a strong correlation between electricity use and almost every statistic for quality of life including life expectancy, literacy, education, and gross domestic product per capita, Reis said, it is imperative that developed nations bring power to the world's neediest citizens.
In addition to being an effective technology to meet the future energy needs of the developing world, Reis said that nuclear power generation is better for the environment because it does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In order to meet a conservative target of maintaining atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 550 parts per million—a goal echoed in a 2008 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—while still fulfilling the world's energy needs, Reis says that governments must invest heavily in nuclear technology.
"A lot of people around the world don't have access to electricity, and you don't want them to burn carbon-rich sources like coal," said Reis, adding that he doesn't see "how you can realistically address climate change without nuclear power." Reis said he is encouraged that many politicians, including those running for president, recognize climate change as among the most pressing issues for their first term in office.
Sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, the 2 June briefing on nuclear energy brought together scientists, policy makers, students, and the media.
At the event, Benn Tannenbaum, the Center's associate program director, said that he has noticed an increasing amount of opinion and commentary articles on nuclear technology in the nation's largest newspapers, suggesting that it is becoming a heavily discussed issue.
"Nuclear energy has tremendous implications for the coming century," said Tannenbaum. "It's absolutely that vital that policy makers make informed decisions with the help of scientists to determine if and how nuclear energy programs move forward. The stakes are incredibly high."
Reis said that regardless of U.S. domestic plans to increase nuclear energy production, a widespread global initiative to generate electricity using nuclear power is already underway. Around the world, there are already 439 nuclear reactors in 31 countries, representing 16% of the world's total electricity production. In the United States alone, there are 104 reactors representing 20% of domestic electricity production. Reis added that there are around 93 nuclear power-generating facilities on order or planned globally.
He pointed out, however, that there are many challenges to increasing nuclear power around the world, most notably ensuring that radioactive materials used in nuclear power production are not obtained by terrorists or rogue states.
One controversial solution announced in 2006 by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an international agreement that has been signed by 21 nations including the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France.
Under GNEP, the United States and other nations with advanced civilian nuclear energy production facilities would be responsible for safely reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from energy production and then would export it to be reused for other nations' energy programs. This would reduce the number of nuclear enrichment and reprocessing sites around the world, Reis said.
He said that the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, announced by Bush in 2004, would also help to significantly reduce the overall number of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal while modernizing their design. Weapons experts believe that this may encourage other nations including Russia to reduce their stockpiles.
While some experts like former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger suggest that nations should aim to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world, others such as former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch believe that it is an unreasonable goal and poor policy.
Beyond the proliferation of enriched nuclear material, many critics of nuclear power production in the United States fear the increased amount of toxic materials that need to be transported from the reactors to storage after they are used.
Reis said he understood those concerns but pointed to the 100 million miles of safe travel that the Department of Energy has overseen for the nation's nuclear weapons and energy materials. He said the same procedures can be applied to commercial nuclear energy.
In addition, many nuclear power critics fear the consequences of reactor accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Reis once again pointed out the globe's "remarkable" safety record during more than 12,000 reactor-years of operation with significant improvements made to world's nuclear infrastructure following the incidents.
The Three Mile Island incident caused no documented injuries and led to important improvements in U.S. and global safety operations, he said. He added that the Chernobyl disaster involved a reactor that was poorly designed and did not have sufficient containment, which lead to a new generation of reactors with higher safety specifications.
Another significant issue with nuclear energy production is where to store the radioactive materials. One controversial proposal is to transport all waste to the Yucca Mountain Repository, a geological storage facility1000 feet deep in the Nevada desert.
While the plan has its advantages, such as the ability to retrieve the materials after they are deposited, Reis said that many find the program "geographically unfair" because it makes one region assume the entire burden of the nation's nuclear waste.
Regardless of the decision to increase nuclear energy production over the coming decades, Reis said that the Department of Energy (DOE) is able and ready to meet the new challenges of the 21st Century.
With over 12,440 Ph.D. scientists, 25,000 visiting scientists, and 17 laboratories across the country, Reis said that the DOE laboratories "represent one of the biggest scientific collections in the world [and] maybe in the history of civilization."
Beyond access to some of the top scientific minds and computers in the world, Reis highlighted several major DOE achievements including maintaining six top research facilities, certifying the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal without underground testing, helping other nations secure their nuclear materials, and cleaning up the Rocky Flats weapons production facility and helping convert it into a wildlife refuge.
In addition, Reis said that the DOE has nine years of successful operation of its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the facility is an underground radioactive waste repository serving as a frontrunner for the Yucca Mountain site.
"Because of the implications of nuclear energy, good or bad, it is important that the next administration seize the opportunity for global leadership by using the Department of Energy's world leading assets," Reis said.
Reis added that the nuclear enterprise could become a vehicle for international cooperation, echoing a December 1953 speech by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which he pledged to devote the nation's "entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."
10 July 2008