No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since the 1970s, and yet, in that span of time, reactor technology has made considerable strides. For nuclear engineer Eric Loewen, the progress is embodied in a reactor design called PRISM, short for Power Reactor Innovative Small Module. The reactor would be compact and easy to mass-produce, and where the problem of radioactive waste has long weighed against new reactor construction, PRISM would actually run on nuclear waste.
Now that the nation is faced with a dwindling fossil fuel supply, interest in nuclear energy has surged and innovative new reactor designs are being submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review. But speakers at two recent AAAS events said that progress toward construction has been slow because of a significant remaining fear: that nuclear materials could fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists or contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Balancing the needs for power and security, and assessing how security efforts would impact the development of nuclear technologies, was the central topic as a panel of influential nuclear experts gathered for a public forum at AAAS. That policy challenge also has a direct bearing on counter-proliferation efforts to track and verify nuclear materials worldwide, which was the topic of a high-level, half-day workshop held separately at AAAS.
“Policymakers need to understand the capabilities and limitations of science and technology in this arena, so that when new policies are developed, either regarding nuclear power or nuclear arms control the goals can be met with existing or developable technologies,” said Benn Tannenbaum, program director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. “And the technical community needs to understand the goals of the policy community so that the tools they develop are the tools needed.”
The 18 October event, “Enhancing Nuclear Security,” featured Loewen, the chief nuclear engineer for GE Hitachi; Gary Samore, special assistant to President Barack Obama and White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism; and Larry Satkowiak, the director of global security and nonproliferation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The discussion, moderated by National Public Radio reporter David Kestenbaum, was co-sponsored by the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at AAAS; the American Chemical Society; and the Georgetown University program on Science in the Public Interest.
Throughout the discussion, the speakers made it clear that the balance would not come easily.
Loewen said GE Hitachi’s PRISM reactor design isn’t just a means for recycling nuclear waste; it could be used to help reduce nuclear proliferation as well. “Our reactor design makes it very easy to take weapons-grade material and use it as fuel in this reactor,” he said. “We see it as a tool to get rid of plutonium.”
Samore acknowledged that the PRISM reactor could be useful for burning surplus plutonium from nuclear warheads. On the other hand, he was worried about the reprocessing technology that engineers would have to use to transform either plutonium or nuclear waste into usable fuel for the PRISM reactor. Most policymakers are generally not worried about nuclear power plants, he said, but they are worried that governments such as Iran or North Korea could use the reprocessing techniques at power plants to extract plutonium for weapons.
“The U.S. position for a long time now has been not to encourage the spread of technology to separate plutonium from spent fuel,” Samore said. “We’d like to limit that as much as possible, because the technology has both military and civil applications.”
Samore also noted that even in stable countries that are using the technology for peaceful purposes, there is always the possibility of an insider threat. Many countries have robust physical security for their nuclear materials, he said, but many don’t have provisions to protect against an inside agent who may steal their materials for ideological or financial reasons. Before countries pave the way for new nuclear power plants, Samore said, they need to seriously evaluate the possibility of an inside threat as seriously as they evaluate outside threats.
A possible compromise between security concerns and power production, Satkowiak suggested, would be to use a “cradle-to-the-grave” approach for nuclear fuel. Certain countries, such as the U.S. or Russia, would produce the nuclear fuel and supply it to other countries for use at nuclear power plants. Once the fuel has been burned up, the nuclear waste would be returned so that it couldn’t be enriched for weapons.
“That would help mitigate the temptation to do reprocessing,” said Satkowiak. “But there’s this issue of the sovereign right of these states to have their own nuclear technology.”
Also, for that plan to work, Satkowiak said, there would have to be international agreement about who would produce the fuel. Currently, there a more pressing issues that need to be worked out.
Both Samore and Satkowiak said that there has been some progress in developing an international agreement on nuclear security. President Obama hosted a nuclear security summit in April that was attended by representatives from 47 nations. At the end, the participants issued a communiqué pledging to either secure or dilute vulnerable nuclear materials. Still, Samore pointed out that the definition of vulnerable nuclear materials is not entirely clear. Even though the nations at the summit agreed to cooperate, there are few options for dealing with countries that decide to break the rules.
“We have such limited tools,” Samore says. “We can’t just go occupy countries and hope to secure all their nuclear materials. So, to the extent that we can, we try to work with them.”
All of the panelists made it clear that securing nuclear materials is, ultimately, a complex issue that will require continued diplomacy. As countries around the world work towards balancing their security needs with demands to increase nuclear power technology, a long list of issues will have to be negotiated to make sure that trustworthy and manageable international regulations are developed.
At the second AAAS event on 22 October, a workshop called “Verification for Future Nuclear Arms Reduction” attracted about 30 influential scientists and policymakers to discuss solutions for a key nuclear issue. In order for nations to trust that existing nuclear weapons are secure, there has to be a system for confirming the exact amount of nuclear material that each country has in its possession. This event was co-sponsored by AAAS and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-governmental organization committed to reducing global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
“If we are going to reach agreements with Russia and other countries about the future of nuclear weapons, we want to make sure that we have a process in place so that we can show we are living up to our end of the commitment and we can assure ourselves that other countries are living up to their end of the commitment,” said Corey Hinderstein, vice-president of NTI. “Without verification, every agreement is just a piece of paper.”
The half-day workshop included presentations from Hinderstein and Tannenbaum, along with presentations from other top experts on nuclear policy: Patricia Falcone, a senior policy analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Andreas Persbo, executive director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Center, a British nongovernmental organization dedicated to developing nuclear disarmament policy; James Fuller, an associate professor at the University of Washington; and Richard Wallace, group leader of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
During the first half of the workshop, the speakers went over various policy initiatives for nuclear verification. They stated that individual nations should be taking steps to increase the transparency of their nuclear programs and talked about the need for international consensus in developing a verification system and enforcing compliance with that system. Falcone also discussed President Obama’s initiative to form a national research program to develop better verification technologies and to improve nuclear forensics, which is a collection of methods that inspectors could use to detect nuclear materials.
In the second half of the meeting, scientists examined the technology that will be needed to build a verification system. Fuller and Wallace spoke about existing technology as well as more futuristic technology for verifying nuclear weapons. One of the most ambitious projects in the works is a satellite system that can detect nuclear weapons from space, allowing nations to independently monitor the locations of the weapons. Since building a satellite system is a long-term project, scientists are also working to develop tamper-proof identifier devices that could be attached to individual warheads. Overall, the scientists stressed that developing verification devices should be an international project so that nations have no reason to suspect hidden tricks in the technology.
At the end of the day, it was clear that much needs to be done to secure nuclear weapons while building channels for peaceful nuclear projects such as Loewen’s PRISM reactor.
To make progress on these issues, Tannenbaum said, it is important that scientists and policymakers continue to talk to each other.
“There are some people in the policy community that think they can just tell scientists what to do, but some of the technology they’re asking for is just not physically possible,” he said. “And there are people in the science community who say they know what the policymakers need, so they start building these shiny new tools, but that might not be the right thing to do because we have to have technology that other countries can get their hands on.”
Tannenbaum said that AAAS will continue to make connections between the two communities by hosting additional discussions on nuclear issues.
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
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Learn more about the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is committed to reducing threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.