April 12, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Energy and the Nuclear Security Summit

If you are in downtown Washington this morning, you have probably noticed the slight change in tempo as the heads of state and other representatives from 47 nations gather at President Obama’s two-day Nuclear Security Summit. With the issue of nuclear material security a centerpiece on the president’s foreign policy agenda and, at the same time, the prospects of nuclear energy being revisited as the U.S. Senate plans to take up clean energy and climate legislation when it returns to session, it seems only natural to discuss the two together at this week’s summit. But will they be? (You may recall a post I wrote last year where nonproliferation concerns were conspicuously skirted in a hearing that included nuclear energy as a solution to mitigating climate change).

Over the weekend, several news reports addressed nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy together. A fascinating report from National Public Radio (NPR) discussed the prospects of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for further energy generation while alleviating some the angst associated with the long-term radioactivity. “Back in the 1940s, scientists here were reprocessing the waste to get at the plutonium, to use it for nuclear weapons research,” wrote Richard Harris. “These days, technologists like [Sherrell Greene at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee] would like to extract that plutonium, and related elements, from spent fuel. But they want to use it as a nuclear fuel. In the process, that would also keep those long-lasting radioactive materials out of nuclear waste dumps.” According to Greene, Harris continues, “if waste weren't such a hot-button issue, nuclear power would actually look pretty attractive. One person's lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a Coke can — which is tiny, compared with the many tons of carbon dioxide the average American dumps into the atmosphere each and every year.”

Given the benefits to reprocessing spent fuel, why all the hubbub? Well, as Harris reports, in part, reprocessing spent fuel is extremely expensive, and the price of uranium ore would have to increase 10 fold in order for it to be economically sensible. But the other overarching concern is nuclear proliferation. According to Princeton’s Frank von Hippel, “[reprocessing] technology can promote the spread of nuclear weapons. In fact, India used the reprocessing technology we gave it in the 1970s to make a nuclear explosive. And that changed our attitude toward reprocessing.”

In a related piece over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that when February’s magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck Chile, officials from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) were in the process of moving “39.6 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make a nuclear bomb, into a shipping container, ready for a secret evacuation by road to a port and then by sea to the United States.” According to an official with the Department of Energy who spoke to the Post, NNSA officials were moving the uranium as part of “an effort to clean out nuclear materials from reactors and other facilities around the world so that they will not fall into the hands of terrorists.” In fact, “[i]n the past year, the United States has cleaned out highly enriched uranium from Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey and Chile.”

Given the obvious vulnerability in transporting weapons-grade nuclear material, shouldn’t countries be required to have the infrastructure to secure their own material before they pursue nuclear energy generation? The process of transporting others’ nuclear material raises some very interesting and serious security questions that aren’t likely to be discussed at the summit this week. As Spencer Ackerman reported in The Washington Independent, “the assembled world leaders won’t try to create any new joint nuclear-security infrastructure, a move seen as a bridge too far.” But what if more countries adopt nuclear power as an alternative source of energy? Would we still clean out stocks of highly enriched uranium from countries we weren’t so sure could secure their own material? Ackerman suggests that could be the alternative:

Unspecified countries will announce their own steps for nuclear security, they said, and they floated the prospect that some countries will follow Chile’s lead in handing over part or all of their weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to U.S. or international supervision. ‘If we’re able to lock those [materials] down and deny them to nonstate actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism,’ [senior National Security Council aide Gary Samore] said.

Whether or not these related issues are discussed in relation to each other at this week’s summit, nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy are likely to shape part of the agenda for the upcoming Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference in May –that, at the very least, would only seem natural.


Tuesday is packed with Natural Security fun-ness. First, at 100:00am CSIS offers up an event on Progress in the Niger Delta, the oil center of the world’s 15th largest oil producer, Nigeria. Later, the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University will be holding two great events. First at 10:30am, check out The Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 and the Implications for Global Governance, and later at 12:30pm they are holding an event on Responding to Threats of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes, which Daniel will be reviewing for the blog.

Thursday CSIS will be hosting an event on Adapting for Future Resource Challenges: Food, Water, and Energy, featuring Robin Newmark from the Strategic Energy Analysis Center at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, beginning at 9:00am.