Honing the new nuclear energy narrative

By Craig Piercy and Corey McDaniel

As a record number of nuclear leaders meet during the American Nuclear Society’s 2010 Winter Conference in Las Vegas (of all places), the men and women of the U.S. nuclear community are all asking a version of the same question:  What now?  Clearly, the election results of November 2 will impact U.S. nuclear policy for the next two years, and probably reverberate much longer than that.

How will Sen. Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) reelection impact Yucca Mountain?

Will a GOP House seek cuts to the Department of Energy’s nuclear energy R&D programs?

Will nuclear be one of the few traction points for bipartisan progress on U.S. energy policy or will it suffer neglect in a legislative environment shaped by inertia and gridlock?

It is too soon to tell, but political terrain has certainly shifted, and as members of the U.S. nuclear community, we must revamp our elevator speeches, our cocktail party conversations, and our PowerPoint presentations with a new narrative that fits the political times.

Previous narrative: Nuclear as a domestic clean energy option

For the past two years, the existing nuclear policy narrative was predicated on Democratic control of Congress and the White House and the eventual passage of meaningful climate change legislation.  While this narrative seemed generally favorable to nuclear’s prospects, it did not yield big results. It went something like this: Despite the controversies over data inaccuracies, there remains a strong consensus that man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are making a tangible and potentially harmful contribution to global warming. As a result, the U.S. must enact legislation curbing U.S. emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. This would require a wholesale reordering of our electric power sector, involving systemic adoption of energy efficiency measures–everything from smart grids and cogeneration to weatherization to solid state lighting, as well as a rapid expansion of renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass.

However, though efficiency and renewables are desirable (and worthy of lavish per/KWh subsidies) for their political popularity, they alone are not likely to achieve the expected level of CO2 reductions needed to meet proposed international targets without significantly raising energy costs and thus depressing U.S. economic growth and standards of living. Therefore, under any plausible scenario, the U.S. would need to significantly expand clean baseload energy generation capacity.

While nuclear energy is the only truly proven baseload technology that can provide non-emitting electricity at scale today, clean coal with large-scale carbon sequestration is a promising concept, and, while not carbon free, natural gas generation appears to be an attractive lower-carbon option at low fuel prices.

The old narrative concluded that a combination of federal assistance and a market-based mechanism—i.e., cap-and-trade—was necessary to incentivize the development of clean energy broadly, while ultimately leaving it to the private sector to make technology specific choices. In short, the nuclear power narrative in the old environment could be defined in a phrase as domestic clean energy option—an important one to be sure, but an option nonetheless.

New policy narrative: Nuclear as a national security imperative

Of course, the mid-term elections have resulted in a changed political landscape in Washington as control of the U.S. House has shifted to a GOP House and the U.S. Senate is closely divided. Soon, more than 90 new U.S. House members will be sworn in as the 112th Congress convenes. Many of them have run on a platform of fiscal responsibility and have committed to seeking deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending.

It is critically important up front that these new members see nuclear not just as a domestic clean energy option, but also a national security imperative.

The nuclear-as-national-security-imperative cocktail party speech goes something like this:

The world is embarking on a nuclear expansion with all the opportunities and risks associated with it. While the U.S. general public tends to hear about the nuclear escapades of countries like Iran and North Korea, most nations interested in nuclear energy are motivated by a sincere desire to improve standards of living for their inhabitants. And, in general, a world with plentiful clean energy will be more peaceful, more prosperous, and more environmentally sustainable over time.

Currently, approximately 50 power reactors are being constructed in 14 countries, notably China, South Korea and Russia. The International Atomic Energy Agency now anticipates that at least 73 GWe in new nuclear capacity will be added by 2020, and 511 GWe to 807 GWe will be in place in 2030, effectively doubling the global nuclear generation capacity. What’s more, many of these plants will be built in historically non-nuclear countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Vietnam, and Jordan. In total, some 65 nations have expressed interest in adding new nuclear generation capacity.

The U.S. cannot stop the global nuclear renaissance. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) guarantees that all signing nations have the right to enjoy the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy technology. Other countries are clearly determined to tap the increasingly internationalized nuclear marketplace to expand nuclear generation capabilities with or without U.S. participation.  Unlike 40 years ago, today the U.S. only controls whether there will be a renaissance in the U.S.—not the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, there is a strong national security and nonproliferation case for the U.S. to play a role in the global renaissance. Whereas nuclear weapons were a concern throughout the cold war as a means to wage or deter war between NPT countries, the concern today is whether terrorists or rogue nations can obtain nuclear weapons and jeopardize regional stabilities. While this is one of the most critical diplomacy challenges of our time, it is only tangentially related to civilian nuclear energy. Countries like Iran use the rights granted to them as a signatory of the NPT to pursue proliferation-sensitive technologies like uranium enrichment, even though their underlying economic justification for them is shaky at best.

Less U.S. participation in international civilian nuclear markets will not contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran or North Korea. In fact, the U.S. has a successful history of managing nuclear nonproliferation through the so-called Section 123 Agreements that allow for the export of U.S. civilian nuclear technology. Look no further than the recent 123 agreements with India and the UAE. The U.S. isolated India for 34 years after their first atomic weapon tests in 1974, and then saw post-cold war relations deteriorate again after India’s tests in 1998. Since the October 8, 2008, approval of the civil nuclear agreement, relations between the two nations are at an unprecedented level. The 123 agreement between the U.S. and the UAE effectively removed the entire fuel cycle from their nuclear energy future, serving as a model for other countries to forgo their own enrichment and reprocessing aspirations.

Nuclear diplomacy is different with each country, but India and the UAE serve as two examples. If a country already has or is pursuing nuclear weapons, the U.S. can engage and entice them to give up the weapons program in exchange for civil nuclear support. If a country does not have a weapons or a civil program, we can entice them to pursue the civil option only. Certain countries that might be viewed as “lost causes” (Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan) should serve as examples of what happens when the U.S. is not engaged diplomatically from the beginning.

Particularly now, with the potential for the global renaissance to spread throughout the Middle East, Africa, and further throughout Southeast Asia, the U.S. must be positioned to play a role in the nuclear activities in these countries. Our diplomatic capabilities are directly proportional to the strength of the U.S. nuclear technology portfolio. In short, if we have nothing desirable to sell, partner nations have no incentive to agree to forgoing proliferation sensitive technologies like enrichment and reprocessing.

Fundamental choice facing Congress

It is important for the new Congress to understand that we face a fundamental choice. We can either commit the nation to facilitating the global renaissance as a major supplier of safer, more proliferation-resistant nuclear technology, or we can attempt to extend our leadership in the regulatory and traditional nonproliferation spheres, while letting other nations fill the growing global demand for systems and components (and reap the benefits to job creation and national prestige).

Craig Piercy serves as the Washington Representative for the American Nuclear Society and chair of the ANS Special Committee on American Nuclear Engagement.

Corey McDaniel is a former energy and environment policy advisor to three U.S. Senators and holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in nuclear engineering and a PhD in environmental science and public policy.  He currently resides in Mumbai, India where he advises U.S. nuclear companies on entering the Indian market, and where he is chartering an ANS local section in India.

8 responses to “Honing the new nuclear energy narrative

  1. Craig and Corey – Interesting thoughts. I have my own nuclear narrative that is not terribly popular among the leadership of the energy business.

    My fundamental belief is that competition is good – it strengthens all competitors and helps to enable the best performers to rise to the top. In some competitions around the world, there are lane markers that keep competitors focused on their own performance and do not allow them to win by pulling down other competitors. Unfortunately, the energy industry is not one of those competitions.

    It is a place where the current leaders often recognize their own fundamental weaknesses, but are not willing to allow better fuel sources to take away market share. Since they are financially strong, they have been able to buy plenty of friends – including some of the incoming freshmen.

    Fission, however, has enough natural advantages over all other competitors that it can, and should, successfully battle for market share even though its success upsets some of the establishment. When nuclear fission wins markets, coal, oil and gas lose markets. When people recognize that fission is emission free, affordable and reliable, they rightfully question why they should provide lavish subsidies to handicapped energy providers who cannot make it on their own.

    Nuclear advocates have been well behaved and meek for too long. Our power source has fundamental advantages. Those advantages – like extremely concentrated fuel that enables operation for as long as 33 years without new fuel in some systems – require careful design, careful maintenance and careful operation to prevent undesirable consequences. The effort is worthwhile.

    I am fully aware that others have good reasons for believing that their favorite energy source is better. I say bring it on – that is what competition is all about. We can duke it out in the market, but I hope the established leaders do not expect a quiet struggle against a polite competitor that just wants to be allowed into the race. As I used to tell my Little League team when I was a coach – “We are all here to have fun. Winning is a lot more fun than losing.”

    In my view, the real winners from a competitive energy supply market are the customers – there will be losers in the business of providing energy. Some of those losers are current stalwarts of the ANS because they operate companies that also sell dirty power or sell clean power at inflated costs.

  2. To me, this narrative was a little difficult to follow. My one-sentence rephrase would be: If we expand the nuclear presence in the U.S., we will be in a better position to influence the nuclear choices of other countries toward peaceful uses.

    I have two problems with this approach. First of all, we are playing catch-up. No matter how fast we go, we won’t have the French history of reprocessing on our side, or the world-wide history of MOx fuels. Or the many-year run of the pebble bed in South Africa or the Phenix run etc. Many others will have their centrifuges whirling before we will. It’s not clear why other countries would look to us.

    The second problem was expressed by an anti-Vermont Yankee letter to the editor a few weeks ago. “Just because other countries are jumping off the fission cliff, why should we follow?” When I answered this, I ended up basically with nuclear narrative number one: We need the reliable clean energy. We need the low carbon footprint. We need jobs: at the plant and encouraged within Vermont by inexpensive energy. Etc.

    I truly wish I were in Las Vegas to talk with people about these issues! Have a great time, everyone!

  3. Craig Piercy:
    All, thanks for the comments.

    Rod, I agree that our current energy marketplace is imperfect at best – a disjointed amalgam of incentives, regulations, and subsidies that too often values expediency over quality. I think we need to make “energy density” a household term.

    Meredith, I am more optimistic about US industry especially as it relates to Small Modular Reactors. Yes, we have ceded leadership in heavy manufacturing, but SMRs offer us an attractive leapfrog technology that, if we can get our act together, can help us regain our international nuclear competiveness.

  4. I would have liked to follow the discussion but the website is unreadable to me because of the overlying website (double printing on the screen). I guess others including Meredith have different browsers?

    • James.
      Sorry it took me so long to check back, I should have checked “notify me of follow-up comments” !
      I use Safari browser on a Mac. It has been very reliable for most websites.

  5. The biggest issues facing atomic energy at the beginning of the twenty-first century (and the previous thirty years) are not technical, but informational. Marketing is what turns a flavored, carbonated sugar-water concoction into “Coca-Cola”. Marketing is what turns the fossil emissions from decaying oil pools and coal seams into “natural gas”. Effective public relations is the one area of human endeavor in which the typically left-brained engineering types that rise to the top of nuclear power organizations do not particularly excel.

    Fortunately, a medium has arisen that bypasses the restrictive, and often technically uninformed, grip of the media empires – the internet. But this is a sword that cuts both ways. Sometimes well-meaning, but usually fear-mongering, bloggers and commenters can also use the media to advance their own prejudices.

    The legacy of WWII bomb work has unfortunately become intertwined with the power plants that later utilized a portion of this technology. A clean break must be irrevocably forged.

    First of all, we must start calling things by their real names.

    “Spent fuel” is not truly spent, as 97% of the energy contained in the uranium is still present after being cycled through a light water reactor. We start off with “new fuel” and then after use should call it “once-used fuel”, or maybe “secondary fuel”, emphasizing that it can be subsequently used in heavy-water moderated or fast-neutron reactors.

    A fast reactor burning “spent fuel nuclear waste” should be built at the Yucca Mountain depository to power Las Vegas and to demonstrate the usefulness of this material. A Waste-to-Power facility on steroids!

    The term “nuclear waste” should actually be reserved for the fission product fragment that is not reusable as fuel or extractable for medical, gamma-sterilization, or research isotopes. After reprocessing (“recycling”) and vitrified, it could be called the “glassitopes” or something that would remove the media-inflicted stigma of dangerous, unmanageable atomic debris.

    Even the term “critical” is guaranteed to invoke fear in the minds of the public. Why is the reactor not just “in equilibrium”?

    To make a break from the drumbeat of fears about “nuclear” this and that, perhaps a return to the halcyon and optimistic early days of the technology when the term “atomic” was more in vogue would be appropriate. Although technically not as correct as to the source of the energy, we observe that Coca-Cola is not stuck on calling their product “flavored sugar water”, and they sure sell a lot more of it that way. So I will subsequently help reintroduce the term “atomic” instead of “nuclear” to try to kick-start this.

    To counteract fear-mongering about low levels of radioactivity the concept of hormesis should be widely disseminated and explained.

    The Nuclear Energy Institute (there’s the N-word again) should be more generously funded to the extent that they can target television viewers, and send more trained speakers to events where antinukes are likely to appear.

    Today most atomic energy facilities are brutally industrial-looking structures. Hulking concrete containments and razor-wire fences give an impression of solidity and security, but also extreme danger. If more attention were given to style, emphasizing the clean lines and high-tech aspect of the facility, it would start to subtly change the public perception. Security features could be camouflaged or hidden behind landscaped berms. Cooling towers and containments attract interest and provide giant billboards – use them! Although most hard-nosed nuclear plant managers would consider these ideas frivolous, in the public relations business perception is reality.

    Power plant tours and energy information centers, many of them shut down over security fears after 9/11, need to be reintroduced and relocated off-site if necessary so that the public can be educated about the realities of atomic power production and the naturalness and manageability of radioactive substances. Familiarity is a powerful antidote to fear.

    In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be converted from a clock-punching, politicized bureaucracy into a streamlined, goal-driven enterprise that is charged with a 24/7 work ethic commensurate with supporting the development of a new energy revolution. People on the planet are dying everyday from inadequate, unclean energy sources or polluted drinking water, and in many ways the slow-moving regulators are the bottleneck to getting this corrected. If the people clamor loudly enough to their elected representatives to make this change it can be done. The electorate must first be educated and persuaded.

    New and improved reactor designs that can capture the imagination of the public and make a clean break with the technologies associated with TMI and Chernobyl should be emphasized. The more different the better – for example Thorium-fueled, Small Modular, and Travelling Wave Reactors can only be loosely tied to the unfortunate events of the past and mitigate many of the issues of concern.

    But in a democracy the battle to provide the energy supplies for the twenty-first century will ultimately depend more on the acceptance of the voters and ratepayers than on the designs of engineers. To this end, at least as much attention (and funding) needs to be given to influencing the minds of citizens as to methods of harnessing the atom.

    Only then can this incredible power, which has just recently been wrested from nature by the sustained effort of geniuses, be used wisely to provide hope of a decent standard of living for the billions of humanity here and to come.

  6. Corey has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering? That’s news to me. I’m pretty sure he did his Ph.D. in Environmental Science and policy at George Mason University (his dissertation can be found here – http://magik.gmu.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?SC=Author&SA=McDaniel%2C%20Corey%20K%2E%2C%201969%2D&PID=BI5xJhcyR1elmfgAbmShXaYwovTS&BROWSE=1&HC=1&SID=2).

    If the authors are stretching the truth on basic matters that are so easily disproved, what does it mean for other positions put forward in this article, and the way in which the Indian chapter of the ANS might be run?

  7. Laura Scheele:

    Corey has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering? That’s news to me. I’m pretty sure he did his Ph.D. in Environmental Science and policy at George Mason University (his dissertation can be found here – http://magik.gmu.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?SC=Author&SA=McDaniel%2C%20Corey%20K%2E%2C%201969%2D&PID=BI5xJhcyR1elmfgAbmShXaYwovTS&BROWSE=1&HC=1&SID=2).

    You are correct regarding the field of his Ph.D. He holds an M.S. in nuclear engineering. The biography information has been updated and a photo added.

    If the authors are stretching the truth on basic matters that are so easily disproved, what does it mean for other positions put forward in this article, and the way in which the Indian chapter of the ANS might be run?

    The error was entirely on the posting side and not the fault of the author. Thank you for noting the discrepancy and commenting.

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