Advanced Nuclear Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Challenge 5: Define the means to promote U.S. interests in the international nuclear power field in an era of diminishing U.S. and Western European influence.
There are over 430 nuclear power plants operating across the globe today in 31 countries. They provide approximately 13.5% of all the electricity generated in the world today (down from a peak of about 17% 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 US – and by the resulting follow-on of the Atoms for Peace program in which the US 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 US 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 US 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 IAEA, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and many other fundamental structures of the nuclear regime were intended to assure nuclear power that was safe, secure, and did not allow civilian program to be used for nuclear weapons purposes.
Over the past 20+ years the US 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 US 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 UAE. The South Koreans are also pressuring the US as part of a new 123 Agreement to allow them to reprocess their spent nuclear fuel. Many additional countries have announced anintent 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 US and Western European influence diminishes? Does it matter and, if so, what needs to be done?
The US 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 United States’ commitment to safety, security, non-proliferation, 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 US 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, 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 US care about and how can it best assure that its interests are served? What role does the US see for the international agencies, particularly the IAEA, and what should it do to assure their effectiveness?
How can the government, industry, and NGO community work together better to optimize U.S. interests?
How should the US determine the right balance of safety, non-proliferation, 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 US 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 US 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 US champion multi-national cooperation on the back end of the fuel cycle, including waste management and disposal? How?
Managing the nuclear fuel cycle: policy implications of expanding global access to nuclear power. Congressional Research Service: October 2012.
Proliferation control regimes: background and status. Congressional Research Service: October 2012.
Miller SE and Sagan SD, eds. On the global nuclear future vol. 1. Daedalus Fall 2009.138(4):1-171.
Miller SE and Sagan SD, eds. On the global nuclear future vol. 2. Daedalus Winter 2010.139(1):1-40.