Taking the Long View
Vic Reis and Sig Hecker Talk about GNEP
Victor Reis, senior advisor to the Department of Energy, visited Los Alamos to interest the technical staff in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a framework proposed by the United States to facilitate the safe, secure, and economic expansion of nuclear energy around the globe. Reis and former Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, now a visiting professor at Stanford University and an advisor on cooperative threat reduction, sat down with 1663 and shared their vision.
1663: What does the United States want to accomplish with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership?
Reis: There's a growing consensus around the world that nuclear power can solve concerns about greenhouse gases. At the same time, we need a nuclear nonproliferation regime that is rigorous and will stand the test of time. The GNEP initiative hopes to address both concerns by leading the world toward a new type of nuclear fuel cycle, one in which we recycle and burn almost all the nuclear fuel. The current practice in the United States is to simply store spent fuel after it has passed once through a reactor in order to avoid the proliferation risk of separating out plutonium during recycling. The advanced fuel cycle promoted by GNEP has ways around that risk.
Hecker: With GNEP, you are talking about long-term goals that must be sustained through many administrations. One approach is to build strong international partnerships. We did that with the Russians in the nuclear nonproliferation business. We developed close working relationships on the technical problems of safeguarding nuclear materials.
Reis: Interestingly enough, President Bush came at the GNEP initiative from the partnership perspective. Nuclear issues come up regularly in discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other heads of state, and in some sense we're using nuclear energy as a way of fostering international partnerships.
1663: How do you get other nations interested in GNEP?
Reis: First you have to understand each country's needs. Japan, for example, imports all but 3 or 4 percent of its fuel and is concerned about continuing supplies. Nuclear is attractive to them because you have to import relatively little fuel.
Hecker: Pound for pound, nuclear is a factor of a million higher in energy content than fossil fuel. That's the real beauty of nuclear. A little goes a long way.
Reis: Right. And once you understand a country's needs, you can ask, "How do all countries who need nuclear energy get to the same place in terms of energy sustainability and security in 50 years, even though we are starting from different places?" A nuclear reactor lasts for 50 years, so that is the relevant time frame. The idea is you don't force anybody to join GNEP by any treaty. You try to make it economically and politically in their best interests.
1663: How would you characterize the U.S. perspective in this?
Reis: We are the biggest producer of nuclear power in the world. We have over 100 reactors providing 20 percent of our energy, but we haven't ordered any new reactors for 30 years. We also have a very heavy political problem with respect to burying the waste at the Yucca Mountain site. On the other hand, the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is making plans to license up to 30 new nuclear reactors over the next 4 or 5 years.
1663: Given that our nuclear industry has been relatively dormant, and we don't recycle our spent fuel, what does the United States bring to this partnership?
Reis: We bring a lot of intellectual capability, particularly in our national laboratories and universities. We have an extraordinary ability to do computer modeling and simulation, and a number of folks believe that modeling can help us develop advanced technologies for recycling nuclear fuel and modernizing the whole way we do nuclear power. The national laboratories can play a major role in the modeling effort.
We also have in place a major research program that fits right in with GNEP. It supports research in advanced chemical separations, the design of advanced burner reactors that can burn plutonium and other transuranics [elements heavier than uranium], and the development of the new fuels that would go into those burners. In addition, we are working with France and Japan on fuel development, safeguards technology, and reactor design and plan to extend those collaborations to Russia and others.
Hecker: Another key factor is the leadership the United States brings in the nonproliferation arena. Our example can either limit the acceptance of nuclear power worldwide or enhance it. The mere fact that the United States is heading towards recycling, and the fact that we believe nuclear power to be important, not just for us but globally, makes it easier for advanced nuclear countries to work with us and helps non-nuclear countries to participate.
1663: Are the non-nuclear countries interested in participating?
Reis: We're working on it. I see three stages to building partnership. The first is to understand what you get by being a partner. The second is what Sig understands so well, cooperating on the technical level, and there we have to realize that different countries really do bring something to the table. Again the laboratories can play a very strong role here because intellectual property rights are not their primary motivator.
1663: Right, the laboratories focus more on scientific exchange.
Reis: Yes, and it's more than just sharing the science. It's the political benefit of working together and getting to know each other. Many nuclear scientists and engineers become leaders in their countries, especially in the less-developed countries, and having grown up with technical peers in other nations, they trust the value of cooperation.
The third stage is this whole idea of international fuel leasing, where certain states supply the fuel and other states use it and return the spent fuel. That's going to be a little longer in coming, but a start on that is setting up fuel banks. Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman has suggested that we have 17 tons of excess weapons-grade uranium that we could donate to a fuel bank as a guarantee to the IAEA member countries. It would be a global bank, like a strategic petroleum reserve.
Hecker: It's interesting that in the nonproliferation treaty, all the countries could build whatever part of the fuel cycle they wanted as long as they submitted to international inspections and played by the rules. In GNEP, the deal is different.
Reis: Right. GNEP will try to develop both a political approach (international fuel leasing) and a technical approach to the proliferation problem. For example, GNEP proposes to integrate materials safeguards and nonproliferation measures right into the design of each new power plant so that it will become obvious if a GNEP partner state breaks its agreements.
We recently tested our ideas in a pilot study with the University of Chicago. We asked them to consider how they would respond to a call from the Energy Ministry of Poland asking, "We've heard about GNEP. What should we do?" There are a lot of Poles and a lot of cultural sympathy at University of Chicago, so I thought they would answer from the Polish perspective.
What they did was to hold a conference in Poland on that very question. And subsequently, the president of Poland said, "We're going to go into the nuclear business." They want to become a partner state in GNEP and buy a nuclear reactor. They don't want to be dependent on Russia for their energy. They want a certain degree of independence.
Hecker: So Poland was a test case for the idea of user states, who get a reactor but are glad they don't have to bother with the rest of the fuel cycle—they can leave that to the advanced nuclear states.
1663: What about countries like Iran and North Korea? What would be their incentive to participate?
Reis: Well, we didn't propose GNEP to solve the North Korean and Iranian problems. The idea was to avoid future situations.
But it's important to realize that GNEP is not saying "no." We want everybody to have nuclear power, but we want them to play by the rules. Nuclear power is for nuclear power. It's not a way of getting into the nuclear weapons business. Along those lines, the Russians are now offering to help Iran build reactors and provide them with fuel as long as the Iranians agree not to build a uranium enrichment plant.
1663: Are all the advanced nuclear countries on board with GNEP?
Reis: They are coming around. French President Jacques Chirac had originally said that France was going into fast reactors, primarily for breeding plutonium from uranium fuel, in the 2050 time frame. Now they [the French] are saying, "Let's start on a fast reactor that we could use either for a breeder or a burner by the year 2020." That is about the time the United States plans to have its first advanced burner reactor go online.
1663: Bright young people might be reluctant to enter these areas if they have to wait 20 years to see a product.
Reis: Right, this is a slow process, but your perspective changes as you get older. I got interested in this problem at age 65 or so, and by then I could remember 50 years back [laughter]. In my case I also have a lot of grandchildren, and I often project forward 50 years to what they might have to face in terms of climate and energy.
1663: So you've really personalized this issue.
Reis: Absolutely. But almost everybody who gets involved responds to GNEP personally—as a way to make an impact around the world.
Title: Taking the Long View: DOE Senior Advisor Vic Reis and Former Los Alamos Director Sig Hecker talk about GNEP
Keywords: nuclear nonproliferation, global nuclear energy partnership, greenhouse gases, advanced fuel cycle, safeguarding nuclear materials, Russians, Japan, France, Yucca Mountain, recycling, transuranics, plutonium, modeling and simulation, fuels development, reactor design, safeguards technology, scientific exchange, fuel leasing, uranium enrichment, fast reactors, burner
Abstract: Global partnerships among supplier states and user states is seen as a way to expand the use of nuclear energy in a climate-friendly way while inhibiting the risk of nuclear proliferation.