August 22, 2011

This Weekend's News: Promoting Nuclear Energy Requires Navigating Proliferation Challenge

The New York Times reported
yesterday that General Electric has successfully tested a new process for
enriching uranium – with
a laser
. The process could make enriching uranium easier and cheaper, and a
double-edged sword. “New
varieties of enrichment are considered potentially dangerous because they can
simplify the hardest part of building a bomb — obtaining the fuel
,” the Times’ William Broad wrote. “Critics
fear that if the work succeeds and the secret gets out, rogue states and
terrorists could make bomb fuel in much smaller plants that are difficult to

The Times’ report
showcases the tensions between nuclear energy advocates and nonproliferation
experts. More importantly, it demonstrates for policymakers that, in grappling
with the future of nuclear energy question, nuclear energy and nonproliferation
cannot be divorced from each other. “President
Obama has a record of supporting nuclear power as well as aggressive efforts to
curtail the bomb’s spread
” Broad wrote. “The
question is whether those goals now conflict

Despite Japan’s and Germany’s recently announced retreat
from nuclear energy, many experts see nuclear power generation on the rise. Indonesia,
Thailand and Vietnam have plans to develop nuclear power reactors in the next
decade, and Burma has previously expressed interest in a research reactor and
is suspected of trying to acquire nuclear technology from North Korea. This
growing trend seems to have been recognized by the private sector. “The
company [Global Laser Enrichment, a subsidiary of G.E.] foresees ‘substantial
demand for nuclear fuel
,’” according to The
New York

Global Laser Enrichment, the GE subsidiary that successfully
tested the laser-enrichment process, plans to build a $1 billion plant to
develop reactor fuel, pending approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
which is expected to rule on the announced development next year. “The
envisioned plant would enrich enough uranium annually to fuel up to 60 large
,” Broad reported. “In
theory, that could power more than 42 million homes — about a third of all
housing units in the United States

U.S. policymakers need to be aware that promoting nuclear
energy portends potential proliferation challenges. Proponents of GE’s
laser-enrichment process “praise
the technology as a windfall for a world increasingly leery of fossil fuels
that produce greenhouse gases
,” according to Broad. Yet there are clear
tradeoffs that have to be dealt with as U.S. policymakers chart a path away from our reliance on fossil fuels and toward a diverse energy portfolio that also helps the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. 

The question of whether the president’s goals to promote
nuclear energy and combat nuclear proliferation are contradictory helps move
the conversation in the right direction. But if nuclear energy is going to be a
part of our national energy portfolio (and adaopted by other countries), perhaps the
natural extension from that question is how can the United States make nuclear
energy promotion and nonproliferation efforts complimentary? It is not an easy question to tackle - and perhaps the two are irreconcilable - but in any policy discussion about nuclear energy it merits discussion.  

This Week’s Events

There aren’t very many events this week. But on Tuesday, our
friends at the Environmental Law Institute will host a conference call at noon, “From Clean Air
Transport to Cross-State Air Pollution: EPA's New Rule.”

We'll keep you updated if any other events pop up on our radar screen.