A NEW NUCLEAR PARADIGM:
ONE YEAR OF PROGRESS

by

SENATOR PETE V. DOMENICI

1998 David J. Rose Lecture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts
November 13, 1998

Senator Pete V. Domenici
1998 David J. Rose Lecture

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
November 13, 1998

Summary

National policies impacting our utilization of nuclear technologies need significant revitalization and integration. Nuclear energy is a critical component of our national energy supply. Maintaining and even expanding our reliance on nuclear energy will be essential to maintain progress in clean air and is the only possible way that the Administration could even approach the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. Low emission technologies, like nuclear energy, should be encouraged by a revised EPA system for allocating emission allowances that rewards such performance.

Nuclear waste issues are the most serious roadblock to near term progress on nuclear energy. Interim storage is the only near term solution. In the longer term, the nation should join with an international group of partners to explore approaches to reducing the toxicity of high level wastes. Improvement in the regulatory climate provided by the NRC is the second essential step in revitalizing the nuclear energy industry. In the longer term, the nation needs to move towards advanced nuclear energy concepts that offer significant benefits over existing power plant designs.

The nation has a unique opportunity to reduce global stocks of nuclear weapons materialsthrough agreements to dispose of 500 tons of Russian HEU and 50 tons of Russian plutonium. We must not fail to seize this chance. Unfortunately, actions of the Administration seriously undermined the HEU agreement last year, and only Congressional action to provide additional funding rescued that agreement. On the plutonium agreement, the Administration has failed to appoint a high level Presidential envoy to oversee the entire effort -- this is urgently needed to achieve success. Civilian nuclear energy is now and will be playing an essential role in reducing the global stocks of nuclear weapons materials.


Thank you for the invitation to present this year's David J. Rose Lecture.

In preparing this talk, I heard from a several former students of Dr. Rose; I was struck by the impact he had on their lives.

Based on what I heard from his former students, I'm confident that Dr. Rose would have been a strong participant in the national dialogue on nuclear policies that I started in my Harvard speech one year ago. In that speech, I expressed my concern that many of our policies have limited the benefits we are gaining from nuclear technologies.

In the first year of this dialogue, two key points have emerged: First, we cannot come close to the Administration's goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear power. In fact, nuclear power should be viewed as an environmentally-preferred electricity source. Second, for years nuclear power was linked in the public's mind with buildup of nuclear weapons. Now, it is most appropriately linked with permanent destruction of nuclear weapons material.

At Harvard, I discussed challenges that the United States will face in the next decades as we strive to maintain global leadership. Nuclear policies impact many aspects of our security -- including its energy, environmental, economic and military dimensions.

Cheap, reliable, clean energy is critical to our nation. We consume about one quarter of the world's energy, even though we number less than 5 percent of the world's population. Furthermore, our economy and life styles are becoming increasingly more energy intensive. By 2030, we need to increase our total energy use by 40 per cent.

As other nations modernize, their energy usage will climb dramatically. By 2030, the rest of the world will need far more new energy resources, about ten times the new resources that we will need. There will be intense global competition for energy.

This competition could impact our military posture. As examples, the Persian Gulf now accounts for half of the world's oil exports, and will account for three-quarters by 2015. China, is projected to import as much oil by 2015 as we do now. And global oil reserves are predicted to be depleted around the middle of the next century.

Yesterday, the Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol in Buenos Aires as their solution to global climate change. That Protocol, if ratified, would bind us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from the levels projected for 2010. That is an immense cut.

In the meantime, developing nations like China are forecast to more than triple their 1990 emissions. That led the Senate to express great concern that the Protocol does not address these nations' emissions. The recent announcement that Argentina will be the first developing country to accept voluntary guidelines is useful, but until nations like China also agree, the Senate's concerns will not be addressed.

There remains substantial debate about the impacts on climate of increased gas concentrations and about impacts of the Protocol itself. If the predictions of some scientists are proven to be correct, and significant global warming is a reality, then the recent weather anomalies we've experienced may be small compared to future upsets. But, in addition, many studies show major negative impacts on our economy if the Protocol is implemented.

Now let's consider nuclear energy in light of these concerns about clean energy sources. Nuclear energy supplies 20 per cent of our electricity. We can not afford to lose this power, yet many of our policies are seriously jeopardizing it.

Nuclear plants are essential in lowering our emissions. If the power generated by our nuclear plants was derived from coal-fired plants, 2 billion metric tons of carbon would have been added to the atmosphere. I'm told that Professor Rose emphasized this same perspective in the early 1970's.

I've been surprised that no environmental group has championed nuclear energy, despite its role in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As a nation, we really have not done a good job of highlighting the emission performance of various energy sources. This would change fast if EPA altered the way it allocates emission allowances.

Now, EPA allocates allowances based on a plant's fossil-fuel consumption; effectively this gives big allowances to big polluters. A new coalition is championing a vastly superior approach wherein allocations are based only on the output of a plant; this makes great sense to me. Every plant would then get an allowance, and a market in these allowances would effectively reward clean producers. This new allocation approach would help both renewable and nuclear energy.

Currently, 40 percent of our nuclear plant licenses expire before 2015. We should be seeking opportunities to keep those plants functioning safely and reliably. Instead, our failure to address high level waste or to reevaluate the regulatory climate created by the NRC is driving these plants toward early shutdown.

The 1977 decision of President Carter that forced us into an open fuel cycle and subsequent decisions to only consider a permanent repository for spent fuel were extremely bad choices. Other nations, like France, have better policies that enable significant utilization of nuclear energy with good public acceptance.

France already operates a closed fuel cycle with waste toxicity far less than our spent fuel. They support further reductions in the toxicity of their waste, plus they encourage reclaiming the energy potential of spent fuel in reactors that burn mixed oxide fuel.

Reprocessing would not make economic sense now in the United States, but I believe that we should have an R&D program to enable us to evaluate that route as well as other future options for our spent fuel. There is strong French, Japanese, and Russian interest in working with us to explore reductions in the toxicity of high level wastes.

In the short term, we have an immense problem with spent fuel piling up at our reactor sites. Indeed, anti-nuclear groups hope to exploit this storage limitation to force shutdown of many reactors. The only near term solution is interim storage.

The failure of the interim storage bill in the 105th Congress was a disappointment. However, one recent event may change its future prospects. In late October, the U.S. Court of Claims ruled that the government is liable for additional fuel storage costs incurred by utilities as they store fuel that the government has failed to remove. This is important, because the absence of such costs may have encouraged the Administration's delay of progress toward interim storage.

Let me share another observation about that failed interim storage bill. Interim storage was then a stand-alone bill. That allowed opponents of nuclear energy to focus on this single risk area and muster enough support to prevent a veto-proof majority.

Over the past year, I've constantly been reminded that discussions of nuclear energy need to be balanced, with careful consideration of both risks and benefits. I'll be exploring comprehensive legislation in the next Session that would provide a balanced treatment for all low-emission sources of energy. Interim storage might be part of that legislation.

Spent fuel storage is not the only issue stopping further development of nuclear energy. Other risk areas should also be addressed in new plants. For example, any new plant should be extremely safe. It should be proliferation resistant, especially if we are going to sell the design abroad. It must be highly efficient and economically competitive with other energy sources.

Some of these risk areas are partially addressed in advanced reactor designs that we've licensed and sold overseas. But all the risk areas could be addressed with the newest gas-cooled or liquid metal-cooled design concepts. Unfortunately, every one of our commercial reactors uses 30 year- old technology and does not incorporate our own licensed, advanced designs, much less any of the newest concepts.

I held a hearing on Advanced Nuclear Technologies last May. There were excellent presentations from major corporations and national experts. One MIT presentation was unique.

I invited your Nuclear Engineering Department to provide testimony about a program you've developed in concert with the American Nuclear Society. This program challenges students to design a plant that meets every requirement for a future reactor system. Alan Smith, a graduate student working with Professor Andy Kadak, summarized your work. His presentation was extremely impressive.

Your team took an integrated view of the risks and benefits of their system. They designed a small, simple, modular reactor. They estimated construction times of less than 3 years. This is exactly the kind of fresh thinking that the nation needs.

I now want to shift from commercial nuclear energy considerations to mention two major challenges with military perspectives that have been recently addressed. Both involve opportunities to secure large stocks of Russian weapons-grade materials so that they cannot be available for future weapons use.

A few years ago, I helped develop an agreement on Highly Enriched Uranium when the Russians were willing to release 500 tons of this material. That's enough material for perhaps 20,000 weapons. An agreement was developed by which this uranium would be blended with natural uranium for use in civilian reactors.

For a series of complicated reasons, this agreement disintegrated this year. The main cause was the privatization of the United States Enrichment Corporation by the Administration in such a way that large stocks of natural uranium were suddenly placed on the market. My strong arguments against the Administration's actions were not heeded. In fact, I considered their actions to be a national security blunder of colossal proportions.

Their action collapsed the worldwide uranium market overnight and scuttled the Agreement because the Russians could no longer obtain contracts for their uranium at agreed-upon prices. In the closing days of the Congressional session, I helped secure $325 million to rescue the deal and keep it on track.

I must admit that I made this move with some reluctance, because appropriate action by the Administration in the first place would have avoided this crisis -- but I'm not about to lose an opportunity to remove 500 tons of weapons uranium from future weapons use.

The second great opportunity involves the agreement between the U. S. and Russia to each declare 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium as surplus. That's enough for at least 6,000 bombs.

During the last year, I've been very critical of the Administration's plan to work through those 50 tons in Russia at a rate of 1.3 tons per year. At that rate, we need 35 years to complete the job. No one would forecast that the current window of opportunity will remain open that long.

Over the last six months I've spoken out repeatedly about my concerns with this national policy. Slow progress here is dangerous, it can feed global proliferation of nuclear weapons. On my trips to Russia, I developed an approach that can dispose of 10 tons per year by converting the material into unclassified forms under international safeguards. And eventually, that material will be used in civilian reactor fuel to change its composition. I secured $200 million to encourage rapid progress on this opportunity.

Funding for both the uranium agreement and plutonium disposition is a superb investment for the our taxpayers. I'd rather put dollars into reducing the global threat that we might face than into responding to threats if these materials are rebuilt into new weapons of mass destruction.

While the funding I secured will rescue the uranium agreement and can jumpstart the plutonium disposition, there is one very major action that I have repeatedly requested of the Administration. The disposition of plutonium is of such global importance and complexity that a special Presidential envoy should be named to coordinate all aspects of this challenge.

No single agency, neither State nor Energy, has all the expertise to succeed with plutonium disposition. An envoy with interagency responsibility and the backing of the President has been needed for months and is urgently needed now as the negotiations shift into high gear. I continue to ask the Administration to take this action.

Let me turn to other actions in the last Congress. When the Energy and Water Development Act for Fiscal Year 1999 was signed, it contained six new nuclear initiatives -- that compares to nonelast year.

Three initiatives were requested by the Administration. The fact that these were in the President's original budget is a refreshing sign that even this Administration is starting to reconsider its opposition to nuclear energy. Two of these initiatives were successful: $19 million for the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative for peer-reviewed nuclear science and engineering research, and $11 million for University Reactor fuel assistance and support to slow the decline of graduates from our nuclear science and engineering programs through grants and fellowships.

One of the Administration's initiatives was supported in the Senate but was lost in the Conference Committee with the House. That initiative was for Nuclear Energy Plant Optimization to develop technologies supporting nuclear plant license renewal. I'll try again on that important program next year.

In my Subcommittee, for the first time in a decade, the Senate added three nuclear programs. Some of them suffered from reductions in the Conference Committee, but they all stayed in the final Bill. These were: $4 million for research on transmutation of waste using an accelerator to reduce the toxicity of materials entering a repository. This program will be a focus for international cooperation. $12 million for research on health effects of low-levels of radiation, so that we can credibly determine low-dose radiation standards, and $5 million to develop gas-cooled reactors, in cooperation with Russia, that can burn plutonium faster than standard reactors.

And finally, the Senate began a serious review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This review is vital, because a predictable regulatory environment is a prerequisite to expansion of the nuclear power industry.

Frankly, the NRC has existed for too long without appropriate Congressional oversight while we've allowed its influence to expand. First, my Appropriations Sub-Committee summarized concerns with the NRC and constrained their budget. Then, the Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing, their first in five years, to review NRC operations. Another hearing is scheduled in January.

In summary, we have an historic opportunity in the next few years to change the way nuclear matters are viewed in the United States. We've made real progress, and we have a long journey ahead of us. I am going to do all I can to seize this opportunity.

Long before the 100th anniversary of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age, my goal is for nuclear technologies to be viewed as a major contributor to global peace and quality of life. That outcome would be a fitting memorial to the pioneers in this field like Professor Rose.