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  • Acknowledgements - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    ultimate outcome of the Fukushima Daiichi accident will in uence public opinion and government decisions about the future development of nuclear power worldwide And the lessons we learn from the crisis will inform future decisions about nuclear fuel storage appropriate safety standards and accountability measures and emergency preparedness However our ability to respond effectively to the challenges presented by the Fukushima Daiichi accident has been in large part predicated on research practices and policies developed over the last three decades What additional events or developments might surprise us in the future that could affect the spread of nuclear energy How can we better anticipate such surprises so that we can more effectively mitigate the impacts of negative developments and maximize the impact of positive developments Toward this end in August 2010 the American Academy as part of its Global Nuclear Future Initiative cosponsored a meeting with the Center for International Security and Cooperation CISAC at Stanford University on Game Changers for Nuclear Energy The conference brought together a small group of representatives from diverse energy backgrounds including government industry NGOs national laboratories and academia for an in depth discussion of variables that could affect the future of nuclear power These include reactor and fuel cycle technology and regulation accidents and security incidents climate change and relevant politics The purpose of the workshop was to explore what events foreseen or not could change the presently foreseen nuclear power game What follows is the resulting paper from this meeting This Occasional Paper is part of the American Academy s Global Nuclear Future Initiative which examines the safety security and nonproliferation implications of the global spread of nuclear energy and is developing pragmatic recommendations for managing the emerging nuclear order The Global Nuclear Future Initiative is supported by generous grants from Carnegie Corporation

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  • Introduction - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    forecast the situation today a nuclear industry that is not dominant but is far from dead Indeed the history of long range planning for nuclear power serves as a caution for anyone wishing to make predictions about the state of the industry over the next half century Nonetheless it is critical to assess its role in the future energy mix decisions taken now will impact the energy sector for many years This assessment requires both a review of past planning strategies and a new approach that considers alternate scenarios that may differ radically from business as usual While a number of studies have explored the future of nuclear power under various circumstances 2 the purpose of this paper is to consider game changing events for nuclear energy We take the game to be the current no surprise scenario for the next fifty years that is a slow and uneven growth in nuclear power worldwide Growth will be very strong in China and India significant in Japan South Korea and Russia and sluggish in the United States and Western Europe where current plans call for replacing but not significantly expanding the existing large fleets This course of events will be the result of planned investments and government decisions coupled with anticipated changes implemented over known horizons Several variations on this scenario are accepted possibilities In this paper we first devote a brief section to the ongoing Fukushima disaster We then revisit and discuss some of the difficulties inherent in forecasting nuclear energy supply and usage We will also attempt to determine the reasonable boundaries of global nuclear energy supply and demand over the next fifty years based on an assessment of the most likely nuclear scenarios in major nuclear countries as well as smaller nations We consider the resulting range of

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  • The Nuclear Accident at Fukushima: A Game Changer? - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    design has been criticized over the years on several counts including possible rupture of the reactor containment vessel if all cooling failed and lack of containment for the highly radioactive spent fuel rods that had been removed from the reactor core and were cooling in the water pool Some of those concerns are accentuated by the reactor s age and the attendant material degradation In addition Japan s nuclear safety agency has criticized TEPCO the owner of the reactors for failing to carry out required inspections of equipment including essential elements of the cooling systems It is not clear how much this failure affected the disaster Thirty two reactors of the same type as those at Fukushima are in use in several countries including twenty three in the United States A number have received or are currently being considered for license extensions beyond their original planned lifetime 3 Spent Fuel Storage While it is not clear at this writing how dangerous the situation inside the reactor core containment vessel remains some of the most severe consequences of the Fukushima accident may result from a loss of coolant failure in the spent fuel pools This possibility will focus attention on the storage and disposal of reactor spent fuel There are three relevant timescales to consider short term storage where spent fuel must be cooled following its removal from the reactor medium term storage where spent fuel is stored in dry casks usually on site and long term disposal which will likely require a geologic repository Initial reviews will probably focus on the immediate hazards of cooling spent fuel once it is removed from the reactor with special attention paid not only to protecting and containing the spent fuel that is cooling in ponds but also to large amounts of older but still radioactive spent fuel stored in casks as is the case in the United States where no longer term storage or disposal has been approved A renewed conversation about long term storage has already begun 4 Where are the Effects Likely to be Felt More than the Usual Suspects The accident at Fukushima will have implications worldwide but the effects are likely to differ from country to country and region to region Development in the United States and the European Union has been slow with the vast majority of added nuclear capacity taking the form of license extensions and renewals The future of nuclear power will be determined largely by the countries with the most ambitious nuclear development plans China India Russia South Korea and to a lesser extent Brazil Argentina and perhaps South Africa This realignment of the global nuclear future is significant possibly diminishing the influence of the traditional nuclear powers The policies of the United States and the European Union may have less influence on the development plans of the rest of the world The Fukushima disaster may impact the future of nuclear power more so than either the Three Mile Island or Chernobyl accidents did The

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  • Game Changers: A Definition - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    of illicit enrichment or reprocessing centers on the global picture for nuclear energy as well as the likelihood severity and probable consequences of an accident or a deliberate attack on a nuclear facility through terrorism or war Within the second category of game changers those motivated by changing external circumstances we examine nuclear energy in a wider context Nuclear power makes up only part of the energy mix and factors that increase or decrease the attractiveness of one generating technology have consequences for the others We focus in particular on the most likely game changer for the entire energy sector including nuclear power climate change and the possibility of a price on greenhouse gas emissions We also explore related developments that may change the scope or composition of the electricity sector including the implementation of a smart grid and the development of competitive new generating technology Game changers may be absent from planning horizons for many reasons First an event may be considered unlikely and therefore left out of planning considerations despite lack of knowledge about its actual probability of occurrence Second an event may be a so called normal accident the culmination of several undetected failures in a complex system 5 Unlike black swans 6 defined as low frequency high risk events normal accidents are not low probability and in certain systems of high complexity may even be considered inevitable Finally an event may be widely acknowledged as highly likely but be left out of planning assumptions nonetheless This outcome may be because the consequences of the event are too unpleasant to consider or because the short term action required to prevent long term damage is judged too costly The consequences of these game changers are often difficult to envisage Though some are easy to foresee a reactor accident would negatively impact the future of nuclear power while increased subsidies from governments seeking low emission electricity sources may improve prospects for the industry others such as changes in the electric grid in order to adjust to intermittent sources have more complex consequences Planning for game changing events is not simply a matter of preventing unpleasant surprises or capitalizing on unanticipated opportunities rather it requires flexibility and adaptability Events become game changers and game changers become catastrophes in part because of the inability of forecasters to anticipate and plan for them Underlying this problem is the tendency of large organizations to make plans with the wrong mindset selectively picking data and events that confirm what the consensus wants to believe and to diminish the likelihood of events that do not fit that belief set As a result organizations governments utilities and corporations are often overly confident about the plans they decide to believe and the value of the strategies they pursue This paper and other related work are efforts to overcome this institutionalized inertia and serve as catalysts for careful consideration of the possible effect of game changers on nuclear energy Together these efforts represent an attempt to think about

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  • Forecasts - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    not the only one who proved overconfident about the potential of nuclear power The Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy DOE anticipated that the United States would have 1 200 GWe 8 of installed nuclear capacity by 2000 the actual capacity was 98 GWe The forecasts failed not only to predict the magnitude of nuclear energy but also to capture the prevailing trend While the DOE anticipated a growth in nuclear capacity of almost 700 GWe between 1990 and 2000 in reality the industry saw a slight decline as reactors were taken out of commission Such problems are not limited to the nuclear industry but are found in many long range energy models Figure 1 shows the total U S energy demand in the year 2000 as predicted by several models developed in the early 1970s 9 Notably all the models drastically overestimate the actual 2000 figure having failed to take into account the oil price shocks of the late 1970s and subsequent efficiency measures They extrapolate trends from the relatively profligate late 1960s and early 1970s when readily available cheap oil made efficiency and conservation unnecessary Paul Craig Ashok Gadgil and Jonathan Koomey note that only one forecast 10 designed to show the possibility of a future powered by renewables rather than attempt a reasonable forecast from contemporary trends comes close to approximating the actual energy consumption Figure 1 Predicted versus Actual U S Primary Energy Use 1975 to 2005 The figure suppresses the zero baseline Each line represents a different model used to make a prediction Source Paul P Craig Ashok Gadgil and Jonathan G Koomey What Can History Teach Us A Retrospective Examination of Long Term Energy Forecasts for the United States Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 27 November 2002 83 118 Figure reprinted here with permission These problems remain endemic to energy forecasts Long term energy models that aim to track greenhouse gas emissions similarly failed to anticipate the success of shale gas drilling technologies which have helped increase known U S natural gas reserves by 35 percent 11 Because gas fired power plants produce during combustion roughly half the greenhouse gas emissions of traditional coal fired generation many estimates of U S emissions growth have had to be revised downward Further discoveries may lead to the widespread use of natural gas as a transition fuel altering the picture for international climate agreements and domestic policy It may seem that these failures are insignificant after all the inability of energy planners to foresee the oil shocks of the 1970s did not lead to catastrophic energy shortages nor did the United States underestimation of its natural gas reserves significantly affect national security In both cases the market was able to handle the unforeseen changes and devise solutions that did not lead to economic or socio political catastrophe The system it seems has proven to be relatively resilient against prediction failure It does not follow however that the solutions devised were the best of

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  • No-Surprise Scenario - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    URENCO a British Dutch German jointly owned enrichment facility that provides about a quarter of enrichment services in the world Nuclear power provides about a third of total electricity for the European Union amounting to nearly 30 percent of the world s nuclear power Under the no surprise scenario this world share is expected to decline As with the United States upward departures from this scenario are not now considered likely The vulnerability of the nuclear power industry to serious incidents varies by country The same uncertainties that affect the United States concerns about the length of the current recession its impact on demand and the lack of global policy agreement regarding climate change also affect many European states Japan Japan has increased its nuclear power generation opening eight new plants last year The contribution of nuclear to total power production is about 30 percent constituting about 9 percent of total nuclear power generated worldwide Japan has a complete fuel cycle facility and supporting technology Japan s nuclear exports are carried out mainly through two major Japanese Western owned companies the General Electric Hitachi and Toshiba Westinghouse combines The country has very recently decided to support nuclear exports more actively than in the past in particular to India Vietnam and controversially Middle Eastern countries The 30 percent domestic share of total power is slated to increase to 40 percent under present plans These plans are likely to be carried out in part because the cost of nuclear power is expected to decline in Japan relative to hydrocarbon fueled power and in part because an increased competition for those hydrocarbons from developing countries will heighten the strategic value of nuclear electricity Those factors have in the past overridden shorter term economic concerns nuclear investments continued at reduced levels through the long Japanese economic slowdown and they are likely to continue to do so in the future In view of the Fukushima accident however any prediction about the Japanese nuclear future is more than usually uncertain at this time South Korea Nuclear power provides about 40 percent of South Korea s electricity amounting to roughly 6 percent of world nuclear electricity production This share is slated to increase to 60 percent of South Korea s electricity generation under the no surprise scenario Like Japan South Korea has a strong nuclear infrastructure and track record and this projection appears reasonably well assured Many of the same economic and strategic arguments that apply to Japan also apply to South Korea There has been little serious political opposition to the program in the last thirty years and such opposition as exists has been caused by seeming incompetence or carelessness not by fundamentals A major factor in South Korea s plans is positioning the country to become a leader in exporting nuclear technology to this end South Korea recently won an order to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates South Korea has also shown a strong interest in acquiring enrichment and or reprocessing facilities It is currently negotiating on this subject with the United States whose permission is needed under existing arrangements South Korea has been less affected by the current economic downturn than most of its fellow advanced economies India India currently has nineteen nuclear power plants two of which began commercial operation in 2010 and more than 3 GWe of nuclear capacity under construction As part of a major development push involving the entire energy sector India plans nearly to double this nuclear capacity in the next twenty years Under present plans this increase will comprise indigenously developed pressurized heavy water reactors light water reactors from France Russia and other suppliers advanced heavy water reactors based on the thorium cycle and fast breeder reactors the first of which is anticipated to come online in 2012 Therefore the official scenario for India is one of rapid development but there is considerable uncertainty regarding these ambitious plans Given four different reactor technologies a new fuel cycle based on thorium and an R D and industrial infrastructure still being developed many view these government plans as an upper limit for the expansion of the nuclear sector in India If the plans are realized India would produce more than 1 percent of the world s nuclear electricity India has also continued to grow during the current recession and is increasingly participating in the international nuclear market The Fukushima disaster has raised India s concerns about regulatory effectiveness and tsunamis in particular and may result in reform of the regulatory structure China China s nuclear power plans are both larger in scope and more assured based on past performance than India s plans The 12th Five Year Plan anticipates growth from the present 13 GWe to about 40 GWe from eleven to twenty five plants by 2015 18 and plans thereafter are much more ambitious 19 Financing and approval exist for at least the initial stages of this growth and the necessary infrastructure is developing and keeping pace with the construction Nuclear expansion is part of both a move away from the dominance of coal and an emphasis on strategic industries which include new energy technologies such as nuclear power as well as contributing industries such as materials R D Nevertheless the pace of development has raised flags of caution not least from the State Council Research Office SCRO which makes independent policy recommendations to the State Council on strategic matters Going too fast could threaten the long term healthy development of nuclear power the SCRO has said 20 The SCRO also noted that introducing a safety culture takes longer than technical training that China has fewer nuclear regulators per reactor than other countries and that regulators in China are less well paid than others in the industry 21 In partial response some Chinese organizations notably the Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation are extending and standardizing the training of nuclear reactor operators Because of the ambitious scope of China s plans China s 2030 target of 200 GWe

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  • Game Changers from Nuclear Technology - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    power are relatively insensitive to the costs of raw uranium likewise the enrichment process adds relatively little to the cost per kilowatt hour At present enrichment services are provided to the international market by a few dominant players France the United States and Russia along with URENCO are the major international providers of enrichment services In addition a number of other countries have or have had enrichment facilities for domestic purposes more have either indicated their interest in acquiring this capability or are in the process of acquiring it Current world enrichment capacity exceeds current world demand making for a competitive market albeit one heavily constrained by suppliers agreements While the vast majority of power reactors use low enriched near or below 5 percent uranium which cannot be used directly for nuclear weapons once a country acquires the capability to enrich to this level it is comparatively simple to achieve the high enrichment required for weapons grade uranium Enough highly enriched at or exceeding 90 percent uranium for a nuclear weapons requires only a small percentage of the separative work needed to provide fuel for a standard power reactor for a year Thus enrichment facilities are considered sensitive from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation Currently a large proportion two thirds and growing of enrichment is accomplished by cascades of centrifuges which separate isotopes by means of the centrifugal force Global Laser Enrichment a joint venture of General Electric Hitachi and Cameco has recently met with some initial success in an enrichment plant that would rely on the separation of isotopes by selective laser excitation of the electrons of isotopes a process known as SILEX If a laser enrichment plant is successfully developed to full scale this method could provide cheaper and in some ways less technically demanding enrichment services than the currently dominant centrifuge based enrichment plants Some argue that this process unlike large centrifuge projects can be more easily concealed and therefore poses a new proliferation threat However clandestine enrichment is not necessarily a game changer per se Technologies that are easy to hide already exist Iraq s clandestine enrichment program for example involved a calutron mass spectrometer one of the oldest enrichment technologies in existence In order to constitute a true game changer from the standpoint of proliferation a new enrichment technology must be not only concealable but also smaller in scale and simpler to implement Current enrichment technologies are available only on large scales therefore proliferation requires active involvement at the state level It is not clear whether SILEX would lead to changes in this respect An enrichment process that makes enrichment available to sub state actors potentially posing unacceptable terrorism risks could have a profound impact on how nuclear power is regulated and exported in the future Even without a new technology if some current trends continue the nuclear fuel enrichment market could look very different in a few years than it does now At least two such trends are evident One is the attempt by countries rich in uranium ore such as Australia Mongolia and Kazakhstan to add value to their uranium exports by building the conversion and enrichment facilities needed to export enriched nuclear fuel The other is the reactivating or upgrading of enrichment facilities outside the major exporting countries For instance Argentina Brazil India Iran Pakistan South Africa and South Korea all are either reactivating facilities upgrading ongoing facilities experimenting with separation technologies or negotiating the necessary agreements to enable them to start an enrichment process None of these countries except perhaps South Africa and eventually South Korea is likely to be able to compete on price with existing large scale suppliers of enrichment services in the short or medium term but the efforts may continue for strategic and developmental reasons Moreover the loss of the present oligopoly could make the enforcement of nuclear exports guidelines difficult or irrelevant or alternatively lead to more multinational perhaps regional facilities The latter course is more desirable from the standpoint of inhibiting proliferation and terrorism but it requires the states involved to accept some internationally agreed constraints Such acceptance will hinge on a variety of local circumstances but in our view one factor is likely to be generally important the international agreement must retain the competitiveness that characterizes the present enrichment market where the United States URENCO France and Russia are competing with China and others as possible suppliers in the future A number of proposals have been put forward to lessen the risk associated with the spread of enrichment technology 26 The proposals range from internationalization or further multinationalization of the facilities to a freeze on the number of states that have such facilities Little agreement has been reached States have been reluctant to give up their ability either to buy enrichment services in a competitive market or to overcome any present or future opposition to their fueling nuclear reactors Acceptance will therefore depend on both economic and political dimensions of any proposal On the economic side clients of multinational or regional facilities must be satisfied that they could not buy enrichment services more inexpensively or otherwise on better economic terms elsewhere By the same token the international agreement must not constitute a barrier to entry for other potentially more competitive suppliers or for new technologies On the political side clients must be satisfied that their political relations with the sponsors of some facilities will not interfere with their ability to purchase enrichment services from other facilities assuming that the constraints related to preventing proliferation or terrorism are met in all cases In other words disputes on grounds having nothing to do with the utilization of nuclear energy such as those concerning commercial arrangements territory or human rights must not result in curtailed access to enrichment facilities Some of the solutions presented to date freezing the number of states that can provide enrichment services or relying on a single international authority do not meet these minimum criteria but there is no a priori reason why other solutions could not meet them Reactors For nuclear reactors meaningful game changers stemming from technological developments would address three main problems high initial costs generation of spent fuel that contains plutonium and high radiotoxicity of waste products Again it is useful to review the current state of reactor technology and economics Most nuclear power reactors in the world today are variations on a single basic design the light water cooled and moderated reactor LWR LWRs use low enriched uranium LEU typically 4 to 5 percent U 235 With LEU it is impossible to sustain the chain reaction that leads to a nuclear explosion weapons require highly enriched uranium HEU with concentrations up to and exceeding 90 percent U 235 These current power reactors have a thermal efficiency around 33 percent and a capacity factor ranging up to and a little more than 90 percent when operated in base load mode They have excellent safety records in part because the greatest risk to workers and the public comes from mining and transportation and also because even the worst accident for this type of reactor the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979 did not lead to any significant off site damage to people and property Nuclear power can be competitive with other means of generating electricity depending on the cost of capital the length of time for licensing and construction and factors having to do with competing technologies Nuclear reactors emit less than a tenth of the greenhouse gases emitted by coal fired generators of the same size including emissions during construction mining transportation operation and shutdown they emit little or no other pollutants The radioactivity emitted throughout the nuclear fuel cycle in particular including operations is less than what is released from coal mining operations and coal combustion Further improvements in efficiency and safety as well as work toward additional lifetime extensions are either ongoing or planned these incremental developments lie well within planning horizons and cannot be considered game changers Greater efficiency requires materials that can withstand more radiation and higher temperature allowing the nuclear fuel to stay in a reactor longer and burn a higher fraction of its fuel and leading to fewer interruptions for refueling Higher temperatures would increase the ratio of electric power to heat loss The key to improved safety besides better operator training and regulatory compliance which are not technical but are the main contributors to safety lies with more passive safety devices ones that activate when needed without human or electrical intervention In the past the expansion of nuclear power has been accompanied by real and imagined proliferation threats Plutonium in spent fuel while not ideal for weapons can in theory be separated and used to build a bomb Some of the ideas currently considered by reactor builders and governments would reduce but not eliminate these fuel diversion concerns Others would change the nature of the current fuel cycle either by relying more on plutonium separation for their fuel or by using thorium which involves a different fuel cycle These technological changes give rise to political and security challenges which we consider in the next section The impact of very advanced concepts that have been studied only on paper or with computer modeling such as the traveling wave reactor is difficult to envisage however it is unlikely that even spectacular new designs will lead to nuclear dominance in the electricity sector globally unless these designs changed what are seen as the downside factors for nuclear power namely the high front end investment cost the generation and disposal of radioactive materials and popular perceptions of its safety and security Small modular reactors SMRs could alleviate the first of these problems but only at a cost and for much smaller applications than nuclear power plants current designs allow Models close to commercial availability range from 45 to 125 MWe and they cost far less than standard size reactors are more adaptable to less capable grids and lower demand sites do not require as many scarce specialized vendors and require fewer refuelings during their lifetimes On the other hand a number of regulatory issues remain to be settled SMRs cost more on a dollar per megawatt basis than larger reactors and the first models would pose the usual first of a kind issues These reactors may also displace smaller capacity renewables or pose increased security and transportation problems as spent fuel must be stored at or transported to more locations Perhaps the biggest drawback of SMRs is the increased potential for accidents while technology is modular and exportable safety culture seldom is These challenges notwithstanding three utilities have so far committed to getting one such unit approved for commercial use in the United States On a much longer timescale several advanced designs that would alleviate at least one of the problems listed above are under investigation These designs include new versions of ideas abandoned when LWRs were first commercialized such as sodium cooled or lead bismuth cooled reactors with extended fuel cycles gas cooled reactors pebble bed fuel reactors and thorium based reactors as well as new ideas including the traveling wave reactor TWR This design if realized promises to extend fuel life to forty to sixty years with no enrichment other than an initial fuel load or reprocessing and to run on depleted uranium A commercial version of the TWR would likely require further research into new materials capable of withstanding high temperatures and neutron fluence Inexpensive viable and sustained nuclear fusion should it become reality would drastically change the game for nuclear power There are two main approaches to sustained fusion magnetic confinement in which the fusion plasma is held in place by a magnetic field and inertial confinement in which a fuel target is heated and compressed until light elements can fuse Both approaches are the subject of large scale scientific investigations The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor ITER facility in Cadarache France utilizes magnetic confinement and is scheduled to come online in the 2020s The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California investigates laser fusion at its National Ignition Facility NIF and there are other smaller efforts elsewhere in that direction Some of the underlying physics has now been tested notably in the case of magnetic confinement and the NIF may be a year or two away from igniting a small amount of nuclear fuel But in both cases important scientific and materials questions remain outstanding Commercial fusion power of either type even in a best case scenario is probably decades away If successful however this technology would do away with waste and proliferation issues as we know them Viable economical fusion would likely be a game changer not just for nuclear fission but for the entire energy sector The Back End of the Fuel Cycle The back end of the fuel cycle is perhaps the most politically contentious problem in nuclear energy Spent fuel is comprised of about 95 percent unburned natural uranium which is not particularly radioactive and could be handled safely However a further 4 percent is composed of fission fragments most of which remain dangerously radioactive for nearly five hundred years The remaining fraction consists of very heavy elements including plutonium that have been created along with the fission process and the U 235 that has not been fissioned These elements along with certain fission products constitute high level waste and will remain highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years Figure 3 shows how the radiotoxicity of spent fuel elements changes over time To provide some context a few sievert over the human body will cause severe radiation disease or death In 2009 U S nuclear plants generated about 0 7 terawatt years Figure 3 Radiotoxicity Inventory in Sievert per Terawatt Hour Sv TWhe in Spent Nuclear Fuel at Ten Years and Beyond Source Charles Madic et al Futuristic Back End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle with the Partitioning of Minor Actinides Journal of Alloys and Compounds 444 445 2007 23 27 Figure reprinted here with permission from Elsevier Ltd At present there are two methods for handling this spent fuel One strongly advocated and expensively pursued by the United States is the so called once through cycle after the first pass through the reactor spent fuel is not reused for its remaining energy content but after a cooling period of years is sent to an underground depository and buried irreversibly Several other countries notably Finland and Sweden are also pursuing this method The U S policy is now in limbo as a result of the Obama administration s 2009 decision to abandon the chosen repository site of Yucca Mountain in Nevada after some twenty years and 20 billion of investigation and investment This was arguably a purely political decision and it is not inconceivable that it may be reversed In the meantime spent fuel is stored in sealed casks at utility sites after an initial cooling period of several years A variation on this approach has been adopted by Russia which is accepting spent fuel and other high level waste from other countries for long term storage and possible disposal Russia along with France anticipates that spent fuel may acquire commercial value in the future The other approach once pioneered in the United States but now used in France Russia Japan and some other countries 27 is to reuse or recycle the spent fuel in order to utilize its plutonium content Most American observers unlike their French and Russian counterparts consider this method to be more expensive than the once through method given present prices of uranium The comparison is complicated for a number of reasons including different sunk costs and different economic assumptions Furthermore the comparison is not perfect because separating the plutonium and other actinides makes the remaining waste smaller in volume and less radioactive after some time Two factors increase the urgency of the spent fuel debate First because of local political opposition most countries find it difficult to site spent fuel depositories As a result nuclear exporter countries or firms that could offer cradle to grave programs whereby the importing country would buy in one package the reactor fueling services for its lifetime and disposal of spent fuel outside the country are likely to have an advantage in selling reactors and fuel services This issue is discussed further in a subsequent section on the changing nuclear market The other factor stems from the possible utility of the plutonium in spent fuel for weapons As noted in an earlier footnote this reactor grade plutonium is usually not well suited to weapons use because of its high radioactivity but weaponization is theoretically possible Expansion of nuclear power may therefore constitute a diversion danger for countries or groups that have access to a plutonium separation plant Technological game changers at the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle could therefore include new recycling methods that do not separate the plutonium in spent fuel from its radioactive matrix reducing the chance it could be diverted to weapons use While such innovations in reprocessing have been considered in the past none have been commercialized and it is likely that they would require new fuel and reactor designs as well The most likely game changers at the back end include new models of viable storage and disposal or technology that helps facilitate cradle to grave packages These developments while they may be aided by new technology are perhaps more a function of the political and market forces we discuss later Accidents The potential of accidents to alter the no surprise scenario depends on many factors the developmental stage at which they occur their consequences and the public perception of nuclear power at the time they occur Early accidents mainly in developmental facilities did not affect the growth of nuclear power which at the time was popularly supported The Three Mile Island accident which caused no casualties and Chernobyl which did had large political impact However these

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  • Game Changers from Nuclear Politics and Economics - American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    reactor spewing its radioactivity over the surrounding area or a city The consequences of this last kind of attack would reach far beyond the nuclear power area nuclear power would be only one of many areas drastically changed The different modes of attack would pose different degrees of difficulty to a terrorist group Medical and industrial isotopes some of which are highly radioactive are widely distributed and less difficult to acquire than either weapons materials or spent civilian nuclear fuel Fashioning them into a bomb or some other irradiation device without too much risk to the handlers poses some difficulty but a sophisticated group could overcome it Such a device would destroy and contaminate a building and a limited distance beyond it a block or less for most feasible devices but would also cause high cleanup costs and perhaps some panic The effect on life health and environment beyond the building targeted would be minimal A successful attack on a modern power reactor that is one that would breach the containment building and spread radioactivity poses great difficulty even with access to inside personnel and or to aircraft However it would be the most direct way in which terrorism could affect the future of nuclear power Some spent fuel storage facilities are not as well protected as reactors and could pose a greater risk but attack on them would still not be easy and would require a sophisticated well trained and equipped group It is well to recall that any terrorist group intending to carry out an attack on a nuclear facility or with a nuclear weapon would face a number of obstacles each independent of the other securing appropriate equipment and materials enlisting appropriate personnel ensuring enough time and space to train obtaining financing crossing national boundaries possibly with contraband equipment and so on While none of these obstacles is impossible to overcome the chances of overcoming them all in succession could be quite small To be sure terrorist use of some nuclear tool would not surprise intelligence or law enforcement agencies which have considered and have worked to prevent such attacks for decades Al Qaeda planners discussed attacks on a nuclear reactor with airplanes and there have been attempts to acquire nuclear materials Affiliated groups and others have attempted radioactive attacks without success Terrorist groups Al Qaeda in particular have an innovative and adaptive approach should the opportunity to execute a nuclear attack present itself it is likely they will capitalize on it The consequences of nuclear terrorism would vary with the location of the attack the group that perpetrated it the damage to life and property and when directed at nuclear power infrastructure the degree of attachment to and support for nuclear power by the government where an attack occurs For some governments nuclear facilities are symbols of government power and national progress which can have the effect of enhancing their value as terrorist targets For countries where nuclear facilities are simply a part of the electricity supply other targets that are more symbolic easier to attack and that would involve larger numbers of potential casualties may be more attractive Theft of nuclear material remains a terrorist threat As Matthew Bunn notes Theft of potential nuclear bomb materials is not just a hypothetical worry it is an ongoing reality highlighting the inadequacy of the nuclear security measures in place today the IAEA has documented some 18 cases of theft or loss of plutonium or HEU confirmed by the states concerned and there are more cases that the relevant states have so far been unwilling to confirm despite the conviction of some of the participants 34 None of those cases involved enough material to make an explosive but as Bunn notes the full story is not known and the existence of criminal networks devoted to this pursuit is clear Again as with safety the problem has been addressed by what Bunn calls a patchwork quilt of programs and initiatives largely led by the United States Among these are the U S Nunn Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program a multibillion dollar multiyear government effort the UN Security Council resolution 1540 requiring all states to pass and enforce legislation making it a crime to help nonstate actors acquire materials for weapons of mass destruction and the more recent U S Russia led Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism However the main thrust of the efforts is carried by national intelligence and law enforcement agencies which vary widely in quality priorities and degree of cooperation with each other The IAEA performs an essential role here again by tracking reported incidents and sponsoring relevant research for detection but it is not a preventive organization beyond that UN resolution 1540 and similar counterterrorist international resolutions lack effective implementation mechanisms Because this area is so deeply enmeshed with sometimes conflicting national priorities and intelligence methods it is more difficult to obtain international cooperation in implementation than is the case for safety Terrorism thus remains a potential game changer one which many agree has very negative consequences but around which international cooperation remains difficult Given the relative absence of pertinent data terrorism is the least amenable area to any informed speculation about possible game changers for nuclear power Perhaps the only assured prediction is that the consequences of terrorist use of some nuclear tool would depend crucially on the location and circumstances of the attack Nuclear Proliferation The links between the growth and spread of nuclear power on the one hand and the development of nuclear weapons on the other are complex While nuclear power and nuclear weapons involve different technologies some of the underlying physics and some of the underlying technical training and instrumentation for instance in dealing with radiation are common to the two fields Furthermore plutonium one of two nuclear weapons materials is made in nuclear reactors albeit reactors that are much smaller and usually of a different design than those used for nuclear power The other nuclear weapon material uranium that

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