Game Changers for Nuclear Energy

Research Directions

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Kate Marvel and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

In this section, we identify four research directions that could usefully build on the work reported in this paper. These are not the only possible directions: a great deal of research has been done and is continuing on the topics discussed in the previous sections. Instead, these suggestions are natural extensions of our work that should, in our judgment, receive study beyond what has been done already.

Are There Better Strategies to Deal with Game Changers?

Early in this study, we pointed out that the record of prediction in the energy sector, in general, and the nuclear energy sector, in particular, is poor. In part, this track record is inevitable, given that some game-changing events cannot be foreseen. Further, it can be ascribed to unfamiliarity with the advantages and disadvantages of an entirely new technology in the early years of the nuclear age. But this deficiency could be partly ascribed to ignorance, bias, or tunnel vision, and may therefore be subject to improvement. This leads to the question of whether there are better strategies to deal with game changers.

In the previous section, we discussed briefly some current strategies, and we noted where individual state strategies were in harmony and where they were not. We also noted that for many game changers, no quantitative risk assessment is possible. We also pointed out some of the factors that make devising a strategy for game changers difficult. We did not, however, systematically examine possible better strategies in terms of their acceptability to planning organizations and their cost effectiveness. For instance, what strategies are available to the United States to prepare for a changing nuclear market, one with new buyers, new sellers, and new sales arrangements? What can the United States and its allies do to prepare for the demand for sensitive facilities, possibly much less expensive ones, in different countries? As they multiply their use of nuclear power by large factors, what can developing countries do to prepare for the near-certainty of a “normal accident”?

Such analyses, combining economic, technical, and political factors, would materially assist the national planning processes. An analysis can be carried out at a general theoretical level, assessing what planning techniques are available for the different varieties of what we have called game changers, or more specialized analyses can be carried out on any of the problems listed above and similar ones.

What International Agreements to Deal with the Possible Spread of Sensitive Nuclear Facilities Could Receive General International Support?

In addition to the nuclear weapons states and some major nuclear power users, states as varied as Brazil, South Korea, and Iran have sought or are seeking to build enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities. Far more so than nuclear reactors, those facilities are dual-purpose, suited equally to make fuel for reactors and for nuclear weapons. Several proposals have been made to prevent the spread of these facilities and the associated risks of nuclear weapon proliferation, actual or latent. Those proposals range from restricting the number of states with such facilities to the present ones, restricting the facilities to internationally owned and managed ones, and having the IAEA or another international organization own and manage a stockpile of enriched uranium for reactors, among others.

Those proposals have not received the near-universal international support that is needed to make them successful. Clearly, states that want to acquire nuclear weapons or be in a position to build them quickly are unlikely to agree willingly to restrictions on any of the key facilities. Thus, no proposal aimed at guaranteeing that sensitive facilities are used only for civilian purposes would have had the support of North Korea, for example, in the past decades. But an international agreement that has the support of the near entirety of parties to the NPT that do not want nuclear weapons would strengthen that treaty, and with it the norm against nuclear weapons proliferation.

To secure that support, an agreement would have to satisfy both the economic and the political criteria of importance to NPT states-parties. Among others, these criteria are likely to include the preservation of a competitive market in enrichment services and the development of a competitive market in reprocessing services, should the demand warrant it; access to those markets that does not depend on the relations of a state with a major power; and continued freedom to innovate on the part of private as well as government organizations. To our knowledge, there has been no systematic study of how effective existing safeguards and other possible safeguards for sensitive facilities would be from the combined economic and political standpoint that we suggest.

What will the International Nuclear Market Look Like in Twenty to Thirty Years?

On a number of occasions in this paper, we have pointed out factors both internal to the nuclear market and external to it that are likely to change that market and its economic and political outlook. Among the factors internal to the market are the possible development of much lower cost suppliers, such as China; the broadening of demand to some developing states now without nuclear experience; a decreased emphasis on the security aspects of the international nuclear trade such as could follow lessened U.S. influence on that trade; and perhaps increased incidence of accidents as countries new to nuclear power expand their nuclear operations. Factors external to the nuclear market include the possible development of much less expensive renewable sources of electricity and electricity storage, changes in the electric grid to accommodate those sources, and changes in climate.

To our knowledge, no systematic study exists of the possible directions of the nuclear power market, evaluating both economic and political consequences of those changes under a variety of assumptions. The study would necessarily be international in scope to reflect the nature of the market. Such studies probably exist examining the market from the standpoint of a particular company, but they are not generally publicly available and do not inform other market participants. A scholarly study or studies such as we outline above would better prepare the various actors in the market to meet eventualities.

What would be the Technical, Economic, and Security Implications of a Decision by the United States to Close Its Nuclear Fuel Cycle?

To date, closing the nuclear fuel cycle has not been deemed economical by the United States; efforts in that direction were ended on both economic grounds and the grounds that a “plutonium economy,” such as could arise from closing the cycle, would increase risks of nuclear weapons proliferation. Other countries (France, Russia, Japan) have made different assessments, and still others (South Korea) are considering their options. The issue has been much studied.

The new study we suggest in this area would look at the problem afresh, taking into consideration three new factors:

  1. The possibility of better technologies for both reprocessing and enrichment, as well as entirely new cycles, such as the India-sponsored thorium-based cycle;
  2. The closing of the Yucca Mountain disposal site and the ongoing study to find new disposal methods and sites; and
  3. The future shape of the international market for both nuclear power and the demand for nuclear facilities.