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Future Perspectives on Nuclear Issues

The United States needs to take a fresh look at nuclear technologies in order to tap their potential more effectively.

In the United States, we've traditionally optimized new advanced technologies to serve our nation's needs; this has helped us craft an impressive economy and quality of life. With nuclear technologies, we have not followed this pattern. With only a few exceptions such as nuclear medicine, we have done a poor job of evaluating nuclear technologies, addressing real risks, and optimizing benefits. Instead, we worry about our dependence on fossil fuels and increasing oil imports, but we don't use advanced nuclear energy systems that we've licensed and are selling overseas. Many environmentalists who want to reduce carbon emissions don't want to consider nuclear power. We may worry about excessive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but as we dismantle our own weapons, we store the complex classified components that would allow us to rapidly rebuild weapons. Some who are concerned about the dangers of nuclear waste oppose efforts to move the waste from power plants to a more remote and secure location or to explore systems that enable far better management of waste issues. We have consumer groups concerned about food safety that accept bacterial contamination of food instead of supporting irradiation of food supplies.

In a world of increasing global competition, we can't afford to accept these contradictions. We can't afford to abandon the broad suite of nuclear technologies when they hold real promise for further national benefits in many areas.

Although at first sight these issues appear to be distinct, they are tied together by their dependence on nuclear science and by strong public concerns about nuclear technologies in general. These public concerns have frequently been molded by an antinuclear movement focusing only on risks, both real and perceived, in ways that have been tremendously appealing to the mass media. Actions to address risks have rarely received equal attention and have suffered from lack of national leadership in key cases. In many cases, decisions and policies crafted in one policy arena are limiting our options in other arenas. We need a dialogue focused on benefits and risks of nuclear technologies. Where real risks exist, we need research focused on quantifying and mitigating them, followed by solid progress in addressing them. Where past programs have lacked leadership to achieve success, we need to energize that leadership. The time has come for a careful scientifically based reexamination of nuclear issues in the United States.

Energy issues

The United States-like the rest of the industrialized world - is aging rapidly. Between 1995 and 2030, the number of people in the United States over age 65 will double from 34 million to 68 million. Just to maintain our standard of living, we need dramatic increases in productivity as a larger fraction of our population retires from the workforce. Increased productivity requires abundant sources of economical energy. By 2030, almost a third of the population of the industrialized nations will be over 60. The rest of the world-today's "underindustrialized" countries-will have only 16 percent of their population over age 60 and will be ready to boom. As those developing nations build economies modeled after ours, there will be intense competition for the resources that underpin modern economies. Competition for energy resources may be a key driver of future global instability.

Consider just a few facts about this future competition. In 1995, the United States, with 4.6 percent of the world's population, consumed 22 percent of the world's energy production and 28 percent of the world's electricity. Of the 420 quads of energy used around the globe, the United States consumed about 91 quads, and 85 percent of that was derived from fossil fuels. By 2030, it is estimated that world energy use will be more than 800 quads, with the United States then using around 130 quads. This means that between 1995 and 2030, the United States will need to have additional energy resources of about 40 quads, but it will need to find these new resources at the same time when the rest of the world is finding another 400 quads. That will be real competition. Furthermore, the influence of the Persian Gulf on the world's oil supplies is projected to sharply intensify during this period. The Gulf, which now accounts for about half of the world's oil exports, is projected to account for about three-quarters by 2015. These simple facts should represent a national concern of the greatest magnitude.

The economic impact of the energy business in the United States is very large. We currently produce and import raw energy resources worth over $150 billion per year. Approximately $60 billion of that is imported oil or natural gas. We then process that material into energy feedstocks such as gasoline. Those feedstocks - the energy we consume in our cars, factories, and electric plants-are worth more than $500 billion per year.

We debate defense policy every year, as we should. But we don't debate energy policy, even though it costs twice as much as our defense, other countries' consumption is growing dramatically, and energy shortages are likely to be a prime driver of future military challenges.

And even when we have discussed energy independence, we've largely ignored public debate on the role of nuclear energy in achieving this independence.

We've certainly done little to encourage the use of nuclear energy. The public, with ample assistance from the antinuclear movement, was frightened by the Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl events. Unfortunately, they were not effectively informed that TMI, though certainly a major accident, led to no loss of life, because the plant was well engineered to contain any accident. Chernobyl was not. We have not completed actions to address the real risks of nuclear waste, but we place extremely stringent radiation exposure limits on all nuclear energy plants.

The future growing global competition for carbon-based energy resources strongly argues for a careful reevaluation of nuclear energy and a reassessment of the barriers to its current use in this country. For this reason, I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States to maximize our use of economical nonfossil energy sources wherever possible. With nuclear power already providing 20 percent of our electrical energy, it makes solid business sense to ask how we can best use this significant resource in the future.

The administration should be adding another reason to revisit nuclear energy. The president has outlined a program to stabilize the U.S. production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by some time between 2008 and 2012, and the administration is strongly supporting a policy to control greenhouse gas emissions to avoid potential future climate changes. Unfortunately, I fear that the president's goals are not achievable without seriously affecting our economy. A recent report from several of our national laboratories studied the issue and evaluated the impact of different carbon tax levels. They found that a $50/ton carbon tax would be needed to reach the president's goals. But that would result in an increase of 12.5 cents per gallon in the price of gas and of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in the price of electricity-almost a doubling of the current cost of coal- or natural gas-generated electricity.

I have yet to hear the administration state that we need nuclear energy to meet the president's goal, in spite of the fact that in 1996 nuclear power plants prevented the emission of 147 million metric tons of carbon, 2.5 million metric tons of nitrogen oxides, and 5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide. Our electric utilities' emissions of those greenhouse gases were 25 percent lower than they would have been if fossil fuels had been used instead of nuclear energy.

The United States developed a new generation of nuclear power plants, which are now being sold overseas and have been certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Although they are even safer than our current models, they aren't being used in this country. Looking ahead, we are developing technologies such as passively safe reactors, lead-bismuth reactors, and advanced liquid metal reactors that generate less waste and are proliferation-resistant. Will they be used?

No new reactors have been ordered in this country for almost a quarter of a century, due at least in part to extensive regulation and endless construction delays, plus our national failure to address high-level waste disposal. These problems drive costs up, and nuclear power is now more expensive than power from fossil-fueled plants. The average price of nuclear power nationwide is close to 7 cents per kWh, which is almost double the current cost of electricity from a combined-cycle natural gas plant. But over time, increasing global demand will drive fossil fuel prices higher. At the same time, we need to seriously study and implement approaches to minimize the costs of nuclear plant construction. It should be noted that when the capital cost of a nuclear plant is excluded, the economics look much different. Operating costs of nuclear plants have improved every year and are now estimated to be 1.9 cents per kWh, which is quite competitive with other options.

We should consider stepping back further from the nuclear cliff by "de-alerting" weapons.

The effect of the lack of orders for new nuclear plants is that the nuclear energy technology now operating in the United States is over 20 years old. As our nuclear energy industry atrophies and our premier educational programs in nuclear energy wither, we are less and less able to influence the development of global nuclear energy policies. Yet the global development of nuclear energy can fundamentally affect our national security. If other nations develop this energy source without adequate safeguards, proliferation of fissile materials can enable acquisition of nuclear weapons by new nations and by rogue states, with serious consequences for global stability. Furthermore, if other major nations such as China do not use nuclear energy effectively, we may all be affected by environmental degradation resulting from their extensive use of fossil fuels. In fact, China is projected to be the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases by 2015.

The United States has created a regulatory environment in which nuclear energy is not seen as a sound investment, but nuclear plants are being planned in most of the rest of the world. We need absolute safety, that's a given. But could we have that safety through approaches that don't drive nuclear energy out of consideration for new U.S. plants? Deregulation of electric utilities will put additional pressure on optimizing costs for electric power sources, and nuclear energy may become temporarily even less attractive unless steps are taken during deregulation to favor technologies that avoid fossil fuels.

A recent report, Federal Energy Research and Development for the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century, done at the administration's request by the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and chaired by Harvard University's John Holdren, calls for a sharply enhanced national effort in nuclear energy. It urges a "properly focused R&D effort to see if the problems plaguing fission energy can be overcome-economics, safety, waste, and proliferation." I strongly endorse the conclusion of this report that we dramatically increase spending in these areas, for reasons ranging from reactor safety to nonproliferation.

Before leaving energy issues, I need to note another national decision about nuclear energy that is complicating progress today. In 1977, President Carter halted all U.S. efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and develop mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) for our civilian reactors, on the grounds that plutonium was separated during reprocessing. He feared that the separated plutonium could be diverted and eventually transformed into bombs. He argued that the United States should halt its reprocessing program as an example to other countries, and he expected them to follow our lead. Unfortunately, the premise of that decision was wrong. Rather than simply accepting the U.S. judgment, other countries made their own decisions about what is safe and cost-effective. France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia all now have MOX fuel programs.

Today, reprocessing would not make economic sense in the United States, given the current low price of fresh fuel. But the lack of reprocessing expertise in this country has limited our options for handling spent nuclear fuel and is undermining our efforts to deal with the disposition of excess weapons material as well as our ability to influence international reactor issues. Furthermore, at some point fuel prices are likely to increase again to the point where reprocessing may become economically attractive in the United States.

Controlling nuclear weapons

It is strongly in the interest of global stability to reduce the stockpile of the former Soviet Union (FSU). Many countries in the world would make a similar statement regarding the stockpile of the United States and other nuclear states. We must help ensure the best possible control over all nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials. International control of fissile materials should minimize the potential for diversion into rogue-state weapons. We should seek to configure nuclear weapons around the globe in the most stable manner, with minimum reliance on hair-trigger responses. In both nuclear energy and stockpile issues, the nation is not moving fast enough to address real risks.

Our current stockpile size is being set by bilateral agreements with Russia. Bilateral agreements make sense if we are certain who our future nuclear adversaries will be, and they are particularly useful in forcing a transparent build-down by Russia. But our next nuclear adversary may not be Russia, and we do not want to find ourselves limited by a treaty with Russia in a conflict with another entity.

We need to decide what minimum stockpile levels we really need for our own best interests to deal with any future adversary. For that reason, I suggest that, within the limits imposed by START II, the United States move away from further treaty-imposed limitations to what I call a "threat-based stockpile." Based on the threat I perceive right now, I think our stockpile could be further reduced. We need to challenge our military planners to identify the minimum necessary stockpile size, and that minimum size should count our present "inactive reserve" as well. In fact, our current practice of maintaining a large inactive reserve is not only expensive, it also complicates any attempt to encourage Russia to reduce its total nuclear stockpile.

Reducing stockpiles through a careful process can increase global stability. We should consider other approaches to increasing that stability. As one example, we should consider stepping back further from the nuclear cliff by "de-alerting" weapons, continuing the path started when we stopped flying nuclear-armed bombers on alert status. Furthermore, the necessity for the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad should be reexamined, given its greater vulnerability to a first strike, which encourages shorter response times for this leg under a "use them or lose them" line of reasoning.

At the same time, as our stockpile is reduced and we are precluded from testing, we must still maintain our confidence in the integrity of the remaining stockpile and our ability to reconstitute it if necessary. We are relying on the science-based stockpile stewardship program to improve our knowledge of all aspects of a weapon's performance and to allow us to identify and correct any concerns with stockpiled weapons. This program deserves strong national support. Although cost certainly isn't the primary driver of our stockpile's size and composition, the actions that I recommend would make it possible to save some of the $30 billion we spend each year on the nuclear triad.

The dismantlement of thousands of nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States has left both countries with large inventories of perfectly machined classified components that could allow each country to rapidly rebuild its nuclear arsenals. As the first step in an integrated materials disposition process, both countries should set a goal of converting those excess inventories into nonweapon shapes as quickly as possible. The more permanent those transformations and the more international the verification that can accompany the conversion and control of that material, the better. Current appropriations legislation developed in the U.S. Senate's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, which I chair, clearly sets out the importance of converting those shapes as part of an integrated plutonium disposition program.

The National Research Council has recommended that disposition of weapons plutonium be guided by a "spent fuel" standard, under which weapons plutonium is rendered no more attractive for diversion or reconstitution into nuclear weapons than the hundreds of tons of plutonium now residing in civilian spent fuel. This standard leads to the nation's current "dual-track" approach, which includes the use of weapons plutonium in MOX fuel for civilian reactors. (The second track of the dual-track approach involves immobilization of weapons plutonium with high-level waste.) But some critics argue against the use of MOX fuel on the grounds that this would be inconsistent with the earlier policy decision not to reprocess civilian spent fuel into MOX fuel to produce energy. They fear that use of MOX fuel derived from warheads will encourage reprocessing of civilian fuel and again raise concerns about diversion of plutonium into weapons. In reality, use of weapons plutonium as MOX fuel has no bearing on any decision to revisit reprocessing of civilian spent fuel.

I believe that MOX is the best technical solution. The economic performance of MOX, however, needs further study. Ideally, incentives can be developed to speed Russian materials conversion while reducing the cost of the U.S. effort. This is a challenging area for further work, and a solution might parallel aspects of the U.S.-Russian agreement on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), under which Russian HEU is being blended down to enrichment levels suitable for use as reactor fuel and then sold for civilian use.

The United States and Russia should set a goal of converting excess warheads into nonweapon shapes as quickly as possible.

Nonproliferation concerns demand more than attention to existing weapons and materials directly extracted from complete weapons. Large quantities of weapons-quality material are present in a wide range of forms throughout the FSU weapons complex. The Nunn-Lugar program provides resources for the Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) program, which couples our national laboratories with FSU institutions to place these materials under effective controls. The MPC&A program is vital to avoid the movement of weapons material onto the black market. Funding for the MPC&A program is critically important, and Congress needs to carefully and fully fund this effort. The program continues to find new sources of weapons material in the FSU, and the MPC&A program must continue as a robust initiative until we have confidence that all such materials are adequately safeguarded.

A related nonproliferation concern is the possibility of a "brain drain" in which scientists from the FSU with detailed knowledge of weapons of mass destruction would be enticed to provide their services for better and more stable compensation in various rogue countries. Programs like the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) are focused on providing commercial opportunities for those scientists, provided that they stay at their current institutions. Each year in Congress we debate whether programs such as MPC&A and IPP are "foreign aid." To my way of thinking, these programs are vastly different from foreign aid; they directly serve U.S. interests and should be fully funded.

Nuclear waste

The nation's handling of nuclear waste issues is a disgrace that blocks our progress on nuclear energy. The path we've been following toward a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain has not led anywhere to date. It is strongly in the interest of all citizens to dispose of radioactive waste so as to ensure minimal risk to current and future generations. We need to move accumulated wastes out of populated areas into a few well-secured locations.

We're on a course to bury all our spent nuclear fuel, despite the fact that a spent nuclear fuel rod still has 60 to 75 percent of its energy content (if we count only the fissile material; it's higher if we count the uranium content that could be converted into fuel) and despite the fact that Nevadans need to be convinced that the material will not create a hazard for over 100,000 years, which is the period of concern identified by the National Research Council.

Reprocessing the spent fuel could help mitigate the potential hazards in a repository by separating out the long-lived fissile materials from the material destined for the repository, and could help us recover the energy content of the spent fuel, perhaps for a future use. Such reprocessing significantly reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of the resulting waste stream. Economic analysis using current fuel prices argues against the use of reprocessed fuel to produce energy, but our path toward a permanent sealed repository is precluding such analysis using possible future energy prices. Our earlier decision never to reprocess spent fuel has blocked this option.

In the short term, the nation badly needs a well-secured location for interim storage of spent fuel to avoid the current practice wherein spent fuel is stored near nuclear plants scattered across the nation. We can ensure better security and greater protection for the public by using an interim storage facility. The alternative is that some nuclear plants will be forced to shut down as they run out of storage space, a fact that is not lost on some of the antinuclear groups. I propose that we start interim storage now, while we continue the research necessary to move toward a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain. This is hardly an original thought: 65 senators and 307 representatives agreed with the importance of interim storage. So far, the administration has threatened to veto any such progress and has shown no willingness to discuss any alternatives. As we proceed toward the permanent repository, we should also study alternatives to the sealed permanent repository. Those options might lead to attractive alternatives to current ideas in the decades before we seal any permanent repository.

There may be several options that deserve to be studied. One approach would be to use spent nuclear fuel for electrical generation. A group of researchers from several U.S. companies, using technologies developed at three of our national laboratories and from Russian institutes and their nuclear navy, has proposed using an accelerator instead of a reactor to produce energy because it would eliminate the need for any critical assembly. The technique, known as accelerator transmutation of waste, would entail minimal processing, and that could be done so that weapons-grade materials are never separated or available for potential diversion. Further, this isn't reprocessing in the sense of repeatedly recirculating fissile materials back into new reactor fuel; this is a system that integrates some processing with the final disposition.

At the end of the process, only a little material goes into a repository. What's more, that material consists primarily of isotopes such as cesium-137 that have relatively short half-lives compared to the plutonium and other long-lived isotopes in the initial spent fuel. As a result, this material would be a serious hazard for perhaps 300 years-a far cry from 100,000 years. The developers of this technology believe that the sale of electricity might go a long way toward offsetting the cost of the system, so this process might not be much more expensive than our present repository solution. Furthermore, it would dramatically reduce any real or perceived risks from our present path. This is the type of option that I want to see investigated aggressively.

Nuclear waste issues don't stop with high-level wastes. There is an increasingly desperate need in the country for low-level waste facilities. In California, important medical and research procedures are at risk because the administration continues to block the state government from fulfilling its responsibilities to care for low-level waste at facilities such as Ward Valley.

Understanding hazards

We regulate exposure to low levels of radiation using a so-called "linear no-threshold" model, the premise of which is that there is no safe level of exposure. This model forces us to regulate radiation to levels approaching 1 percent of natural background, despite the fact that natural background varies by more than 75 percent within the United States. Radiation control standards require that we achieve exposures under the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle. That is a very expensive approach that affects every application of nuclear processes in the country.

On the other hand, many scientists think that living cells, after millions of years of exposure to naturally occurring radiation, have adapted so that low levels of radiation cause little if any harm. In fact, there are even some studies that suggest that low doses of radiation may improve health. Today, we simply do not know with confidence where the truth lies. But that truth is very important. We spend over $5 billion each year to clean contaminated Department of Energy sites to levels below 5 percent of background, and radiation exposure regulations governing nuclear power plants significantly increase the cost of construction and operation. In this year's Energy and Water Appropriations Act, we initiated a 10-year program to understand how radiation affects genomes and cells and provided $3 million for the first year's study. From this effort, we should finally be able to understand how radiation affects living organisms. For the first time, we will develop radiation protection standards that are based on fundamental knowledge of actual risk. From this research, we should be able to specify radiation exposure standards that ensure very low risk to the public and radiation workers, and at the same time are defensible on solid scientific foundations.

The nation's handling of nuclear waste issues is a disgrace that blocks our progress on nuclear energy.

As one more example of an area of nuclear technology where we are making questionable decisions driven by public fears, consider food safety. Certainly a responsibility of government is to ensure maximum safety of economical food supplies. Earlier this year, Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of beef, some of which was contaminated by Escherichia coli bacteria. The administration proposed tougher penalties and mandatory recalls that cost millions. But E. coli bacteria can be killed by irradiation. Furthermore, irradiation has virtually no effect on most foods. Nevertheless, irradiation isn't widely used in this country, largely because of opposition from some consumer groups that question its safety.

There is no scientific evidence of danger. In fact, when the decision is left up to scientists, they opt for irradiation; the food that goes into space with our astronauts is irradiated. Therefore, I applaud the Food and Drug Administration's recent decision to approve irradiation of beef products. It remains to be seen now if public acceptance can be gained for this positive step.

We are realizing some of the benefits of nuclear technologies today, but only a fraction of their potential. Nuclear weapons, for all their horror, brought to an end 50 years of worldwide wars in which 60 million people died. Today, they provide our strongest guarantee of national security. Nuclear power is providing about 20 percent of our electricity needs. Many of our citizens enjoy longer and healthier lives through improved medical procedures that depend on nuclear processes. We aren't tapping the full potential of the nucleus for additional benefits. Many ill-conceived fears, policies, and decisions are seriously constraining our use of nuclear technologies. My intention is to lead a new dialogue to reevaluate national policies that affect the full range of nuclear technologies. Although some may continue to lament that the nuclear genie is out of his proverbial bottle, I'm ready to focus on harnessing that genie as effectively and fully as possible to deliver benefits to the greatest number of our citizens.

Pete V. Domenici is a Republican senator from New Mexico.