Sandia LabNews

Global Nuclear Future would see systemic management of 'all things nuclear'

"A new nuclear culture will arise. The question is, ‘How much do we [the US] want to influence it?’ "

That’s the issue and the question as framed by Sandia nuclear energy expert Tom Sanders (6411).

Sandia Senior VP for Nonproliferation Roger Hagengruber (5000), Senior VP for Nuclear Weapons Tom Hunter (9000), and VP for Energy programs Bob Eagan (6000) have an answer. The US, they argue, should seek a seat at the nuclear energy table, a seat it vacated in a de facto sense more than 20 years ago.

And the three Sandia leaders have a very good idea of the form this new nuclear culture should assume. They call their vision the Global Nuclear Future. It’s a conceptual framework they’ve developed over the past three years or so to look at nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and nuclear repository management — "all things nuclear," as Bob puts it — as a systemic whole.

The Global Nuclear Future, the VPs say, is not a defined, packaged solution; it’s a way of thinking about the shape of things to come. And while the shape may not be sharply defined, its broad outlines can be traced. It’s an extension and elaboration of the concept of Global Nuclear Materials Management, championed by Tom Hunter. That was a concept of responsibly managing global weapons-grade nuclear materials in a way that is environmentally sound and profoundly proliferation-resistant.

The Global Nuclear Future vision takes the materials management concept a step further by incorporating a nuclear energy component into the equation. The vision recognizes that nuclear deterrence will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future, but also recognizes that America’s Cold War-scale stockpile is far larger than 21st century geopolitics demands. It recognizes that nonproliferation will remain a key national security goal. It sees global climate change as a legitimate area for concern. It sees that nuclear energy can be a component of America’s energy supply mix. It holds that nuclear wastes can be minimized and managed through the proper application of technology. And — most critically — it sees all of these issues as synergistically related.

The key to the Global Nuclear Future, says Tom Sanders, is what he calls the holistic nuclear fuel cycle, which is transparent, totally open for all to see. Using the most sophisticated technologies — many developed at Sandia — nuclear fuels would be tracked and managed throughout their life cycles. The transparency would alleviate proliferation concerns (more on that later), while the holistic nature of the cycle would maximize the benefit from every atom of fissionable material.

As Tom Hunter puts it: "The nation has taken pieces of what should be an integral puzzle and isolated them in a way that we can’t get a coherent overall policy." DOE, he says, should "step up to its rightful role and champion this as a major mission element, this integration of all things nuclear."

A look at the nuclear past

To understand the drivers behind Roger, Tom, and Bob’s vision for the future, it’s useful to understand the nuclear past.

The atom’s awesome power, unleashed over Japan, ended a long and bloody war. In the heady postwar days, it was asserted that that same incredible energy would be harnessed and put to work for the greater good of humankind. Thus President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace. Thus, power "too cheap to meter." A new day, charged with can-do American optimism, would bring light to the far corners of the world.

A bright and shining promise indeed. And a seductive and alluring one, too. In the US alone, more than 100 nuclear power plants were brought on line.

But the electricity wasn’t too cheap to meter. It cost dearly to bring a power plant on stream. Huge amounts of capital (which had itself become very costly by the 1970s) could be tied up for years as utilities negotiated the regulatory/ environmental labyrinth required to get a plant up and running. Environmental concerns mounted: What do you do with the wastes? Safety concerns mounted: Would a "China Syndrome" core meltdown let slip an Armageddon of destruction? While the damage from Three Mile Island might have been exaggerated in the public mind, there was no doubt whatsoever that Chernobyl was a disaster of huge proportions. Public support went south and stayed there.

Then there was the public policy issue.

A technology called fuel reprocessing allowed engineers to take advantage of an interesting characteristic of controlled nuclear fission. After being "burned" in a reactor, the used uranium fuel rods could be reprocessed — that is, recycled — and more fissionable material could be recovered. In the right kind of reactor, that fuel could be used to generate more electricity. Along with reprocessing technology, there was also another technology, the breeder reactor. It was the nearest thing you can imagine to a perpetual motion machine. The breeder reactor could actually produce — via irradiation — more fuel than it consumed.

These were exciting technologies, to be sure. But in the 1970s, reprocessing wasn’t cost-effective. Far from it. It was expensive. Even so, the prospect of virtually unlimited fuel supply still tantalized, and it might have made sense for US industry to invest in R&D to develop and refine reprocessing techniques and breeder reactor designs.

Except for one big concern: All this reprocessing and fuel breeding would result in tons of new weapons-grade nuclear material. Very dangerous stuff could be diverted down some very unsavory avenues. An adversary using the technology could churn out bomb-grade fissionables by the cart-load. Sell it to the highest bidder. Imagine Idi Amin with a couple of nukes.

The dream, in short, had a nightmarish dark side. Jekyll and Hyde. So, in the interest of national security and nonproliferation, President Carter signed a directive: There would be no reprocessing, no breeders, in the US.

Anything but nuclear

The bottom line to all these political, economic, regulatory, environmental, safety, and public relations concerns? Utility company bean counters, the no-nonsense cost/benefit guys and gals, said to their bosses: "We can make a lot more money with natural gas (or coal, or whatever. Anything but nuclear)."

Nuclear investment dried up, and with it so did US influence over all (non-weapons) things nuclear.

The rest of the world didn’t follow the US lead. Indeed, nuclear plant construction is surging around the globe — 31 commercial reactors are under construction right now and scores more are anticipated in the years ahead — and several countries are reprocessing fuels.

Roger poses the question: Has the nation’s reprocessing policy produced the desired benefit, or would an alternative policy be more beneficial in controlling proliferation?

"The argument we’re making," he says, "is that an alternative policy about nuclear energy and reprocessing would be more beneficial. The additional element of the energy problem that the US is facing only adds greater urgency."

He adds: "Our whole thesis here at Sandia is that the answer to a world in which it’s possible to have the largest degree of nuclear peace and, to some extent, prosperity is a world in which you have to engage all elements, including a proactive policy for nuclear energy." A big part of that policy, Roger says, is that "we need to fully engage Russia in this."

Tom agrees: "I don’t think you can think about a Global Nuclear Future without recognizing the Russian situation; they are still advocates for a broad spectrum of nuclear activities, including nuclear power. They certainly have the capability [to promote things nuclear], the experience to do that, and they are, of course, a major weapons state. It’s clear that we need to have some cooperation with them in a way that they are at least significant contributors to how this nuclear future shapes up."

As an aside, Bob says, "It’s kind of interesting that in Russia plutonium is viewed as an extremely valuable national asset. In this country it’s viewed as intolerably bad stuff that should be thrown away. We actually think the Russians have it right here."

The global dimension

As interested as he is in Russian-specific interactions, Roger sees the global dimension of the Global Nuclear Future.

"We have to recognize," he says, "that many emerging economies — China and India, for instance — are going to have very substantial needs for energy. They face the problem that the world faces, which is that coal is relatively abundant but it produces a lot of carbon and a lot of pollution. Nuclear energy will be attractive for them. We can’t simply walk away from this. We’re going to have to face this issue whether it’s a brownout in California, a global issue of pollution, or proliferation. Sitting back is not going to be good enough."

Bob notes that the energy crisis that reared its head in California early this year "has teed up the issue of nuclear energy again in a major away. It’s caused a lot of people to look at why the US chose not to continue building nuclear power plants. A lot of folks are concluding that the reasons for doing that were mostly poorly founded."

Thus, Bob says, the time is right for America to revisit nuclear energy, but with a new expanded sense of what that means.

"Sandia is about national security writ large: security related to our main mission of weapons, security related to proliferation, security related to the energy supply, and security related to environmental policy. . . . Within the DOE and within the government in general these things are handled as separate entities, but the reality is that they’re all interrelated and we’ve put together a story around how all those things are related. And our role is, then, to try to stimulate dialogue at the right levels of government to start to manage all things nuclear in an integrated fashion."

Roger, Tom, and Bob stress that only the government can really provide the policy and R&D underpinnings of the Global Nuclear Future.

Says Roger: "Our philosophical view is that . . . the genetic code of nuclear energy has a substantial part of its sequence coming from government investment. . . . Our belief is that the government needs to lead the way in the technology area toward a new generation of nuclear energy, not to the exclusive benefit of the US but in a global way."

Timing is right

And the timing is right, says Bob, for the government to step to the plate.

"I think that in this administration, the [Global Nuclear Future] concept is extremely viable. We certainly have an opportunity to get this played within the Department of Energy, because of [Labs President] Paul Robinson’s leadership position in all things nuclear and his ability to have a dialogue with the Secretary. . . . I think that right now and for the next few years we have an absolutely fantastic opportunity to move all this forward. We have a president who’s not afraid to utter the word nuclear and a vice president who is outspoken on the issue and has expressed support for very pragmatic approaches to solving these sets of problems. Given those factors, I think, yes, there’s a very high chance we’ll get a favorable hearing on the [Global Nuclear Future] concept. . . . Even the strong environmental community has got to look at this issue of balance of greenhouse gas emissions with the issue of nuclear reactors."

The timing may be right, but there are challenges: "The problem is that, with things of this nature, broad in scope like this [Global Nuclear Future] concept, it’s hard to capture the attention of policy makers," says Tom. "I think we [Sandia] should be seen as those who want to engage in the dialogue, support the policy makers, try to provide information that is factual, objective, ethical, and presented with integrity."