In This Issue
The Future of Nuclear Energy
September 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 3

Nuclear Power for the 21st Century

Saturday, September 1, 2001

Author: Pete V. Domenici

The subject of this symposium, "Nuclear Power: The Option for the 21st Century?" is very much like the subject of the national dialogue I called for in a speech I delivered at Harvard in October 1997. In that talk, I called for a national evaluation of the role of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies. I hoped to stimulate an informed discussion on the vast benefits of nuclear technologies--benefits that too few Americans understand or appreciate. Above all, I stated that the nation must preserve the option of using nuclear energy to meet the energy demands of future generations. Since the Harvard speech, I’ve participated in countless interactions with government, industry, and university groups on these subjects, and a number of successful legislative initiatives have been undertaken that offer real hope for a solid future for nuclear power.

The number of my colleagues in the Senate who appreciate the benefits of nuclear technologies is growing steadily and significantly. Perhaps the best indication of this is the large margin of approval for a bill introduced in 2000 to establish an early receipt facility in Nevada for spent nuclear fuel. President Clinton vetoed the bill, and the Senate subsequently tried to override the veto but failed by a margin of one vote.

Your selection of California for the site of this meeting is interesting. Californians are often in national headlines, but I’m sure the latest headlines have not been welcome there or anywhere else. The whole nation has watched with fascination and despair as California’s splendid economic engine, which represents the sixth largest economy in the world, is sputtering, with no relief in sight. Many experts are now analyzing California’s energy woes, and the crisis is already sparking a congressional debate on national energy policy, or our past lack of one. It’s become evident that in a number of ways California’s so-called "deregulation" was designed to fail spectacularly, which indeed it has done. There are many reasons for this failure, including ultrastrict environmental restrictions that severely undercut California’s ability to develop new generating capacity.

Even before President Bush was sworn in, I suggested to him that he create a cabinet-level energy policy board, and I’m very pleased that he quickly announced the creation of this entity. I noted to him that the assumption that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) controls energy policy is out of touch with reality. In fact, other agencies play major roles. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is involved in setting standards for everything from emissions of radiation to particulates and can block progress on energy resources regardless of the economic imperatives. The U.S. Department of Interior has demonstrated its ability to block exploration for new fossil fuel resources with policies that have contributed to sky-high and climbing prices for natural gas. I look to the new Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Vice President Cheney, to evaluate the policies of each agency for their impact on national energy security.

The California energy crisis may encourage Congress to move ahead with improved energy policies, and I’m optimistic that nuclear energy will be one area of emphasis. Senator Murkowski (R., Alaska) is now working on a National Energy Strategy Bill that includes a number of provisions supportive of nuclear energy; I’m working on a major bill focused exclusively on nuclear energy issues. Later in this talk I’l1 give you a brief overview of my legislation.

But first, I’d like to discuss the progress we’ve made in the three years since the Harvard speech, which was given around the time of the Kyoto meeting. At that conference, the Clinton administration talked about the risks of global warming but did not note that present nuclear plants do not increase those risks or that increasing the use of nuclear energy could reduce them. I’ve said many times that we will not be able to meet the Kyoto goals without maintaining nuclear energy as a strong option for meeting our energy needs. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration was determined to undermine support for nuclear technologies. There was no enthusiasm for a rebirth of the nuclear industry, and nuclear engineering programs across the nation were allowed to deteriorate.

Real progress has been made in these three years, mostly by Congress. The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative was established to encourage serious studies of nuclear topics. Funding for this initiative increased by more than 50 percent this year (2000). A nuclear energy plant optimization program has also been initiated to explore ways to extend the lifetimes of existing plants.

This year also marks the start of the Nuclear Energy Technology Program, a $7.5 million effort to explore specific areas of technology that can impact the market for new nuclear power plants. Most of the funds are dedicated to studying Generation IV reactors, which would:

  • be cost competitive with other energy sources
  • have no possibility of core meltdown
  • minimize concerns about proliferation
  • reduce the production of high-level waste

Building on this Generation IV program, I’m very optimistic that in the next few years we will witness the construction of a new reactor, perhaps to serve as a demonstration testbed for new technologies. I’ve been watching with great interest the progress in South Africa on a pebble-bed reactor project. Not too many years ago, the thought of a new reactor in the United States would have been a pipe dream--but today many people believe it isn’t impossible.

Changes at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have led to renewed interest in nuclear plants, which has dramatically increased optimism about the future of the industry. The NRC has changed from an agency that took forever to study an issue to one that is committed to focused action. The NRC has extended the licenses of five reactors, and done so on tough schedules. Both the NRC and Congress deserve credit for these changes.

In the Harvard speech, I noted the close interplay between civilian and military programs. We simply won’t be able to realize the potential of civilian nuclear energy unless the military aspects of nuclear technologies are carefully controlled. Justified public concerns about the military uses of nuclear technologies must be carefully addressed; otherwise, they could completely poison the public perception of the civilian benefits of nuclear energy. Thus, our nonproliferation programs with Russia are critical for the future of nuclear energy, to say nothing of their importance to our national security. These highly challenging cooperative programs with Russia face immense difficulties. Nevertheless, the program for materials protection, control, and accounting, initiatives for the prevention of proliferation, the Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement, and the program to address the disposition of plutonium have all made real progress. Another program, the Nuclear Cities Initiative, received a significant funding boost this year; decisions on future funding will be conditioned on progress against measurable milestones.

I am a strong champion of these nonproliferation programs, which are a critical investment in our national security. I also asked, without success, the past administration to improve its coordination of these programs by appointing a national coordinator. This idea was included in the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation in 1996 and was emphasized again in the current Defense Authorization legislation. Congress would have more confidence in nonproliferation programs and in their cost efficiency if their coordination were dramatically improved. More importantly, the effectiveness of these programs would be enhanced by careful coordination.

The Bush administration has expressed its strong support for these nonproliferation activities. For example, Condoleezza Rice, the new national security advisor, recently noted that "American security is threatened less by Russia’s strength than by its weakness and incoherence. This suggests immediate attention to the safety and security of Moscow’s nuclear forces and stockpile" (
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2000). The recent Baker-Cutler Report also expressed support. "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home" (Baker and Cutler, 2000). I look forward to working with the new administration on these critical issues.

In the civilian area, two overarching issues frame the debate on nuclear energy issues: (1) radiation standards and public fears of radiation; and (2) a credible national strategy for disposing of spent nuclear fuel. These two issues are frequently highlighted by antinuclear groups. Unfortunately, these groups have not invested much, if any, time in finding credible solutions so the benefits of nuclear technologies can remain available to mankind.

Our current radiation standards are based on questionable scientific knowledge. In June, in response to my request, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a study, highlighting the lack of scientific data for the current standards and the immense costs of using highly conservative standards (GAO, 2000). The GAO report also highlighted the serious impact on cost and uncertainty of conflicting guidance for setting radiation standards from the EPA and the NRC; the conflict has become even more frustrating since the National Academies raised serious questions about the scientific credibility of the EPA draft standards for Yucca Mountain (NRC, 1999). This is precisely the type of conflict between agencies I hope can be addressed by the creation of the cabinet-level energy policy group.

To address the issues raised in the GAO report, Congress created a research program focused on the health effects of low doses of radiation. This DOE program is designed to explore, for the first time, the molecular and cellular bases for radiation standards. The program is now entering its third year, but surprisingly did not receive adequate support from the past administration; in addition, EPA has not shown much interest in its progress. Fortunately, Congress stepped in to provide the resources necessary to keep the program moving forward. This study of the effects of low doses of radiation offers our best hope for improving our scientific understanding as a basis for setting better standards. Just recently I became aware of a parallel, even larger program in France, and I have proposed taking steps to ensure that these two major programs are coordinated at the governmental level. I understand that this coordination is taking shape now.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the future use of nuclear energy is our lack of credible strategies for dealing with spent fuel. I’ve stated repeatedly that I believe the barriers to progress in this area are entirely political, not technical. I fear we could doom our nation’s prospects for the future use of nuclear energy if we don’t make progress in this area. We continue to focus on Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, despite the fact that long-term disposal has not been shown to be in the best interests of all our citizens. Depending on our future demands and options for electricity, we may have to recover the tremendous energy that remains in spent fuel. Furthermore, strong public opposition to the disposal of spent fuel, with its long-term radiotoxicity, may preclude the use of repositories that simply accept and permanently store spent fuel rods.

For these reasons, I’ve favored centralized storage for a period of time in a carefully monitored, fully retrievable configuration. At a minimum, centralized storage would concentrate the spent fuel from 70 plus locations around the country into one or more centralized, tightly controlled storage areas. A monitored storage facility could allow future generations to evaluate the need for energy and decide on the appropriate reuse of spent fuel or on its final disposition. In a very real sense, a centralized, monitored, retrievable storage facility for spent nuclear fuel would be a national reserve of nuclear fuel for future generations.

Congress has worked very hard to make progress on the issue of spent fuel. As I mentioned earlier, last year, a bill was passed by large margins in the House and the Senate creating an early-receipt facility in Nevada; the bill would also have created a DOE office to evaluate strategies for spent fuel. The vote was 253-167, a veto-proof majority, in the House and 64-34 in the Senate, both impressive margins. Unfortunately, President Clinton vetoed this bill, and the veto override vote failed in the Senate by a single vote.

Despite the veto, Congress has created other opportunities for making progress on spent fuel strategies by funding research on transmutation. This year, $34 million has been set aside for an advanced accelerator applications (AAA) program, which includes waste transmutation. As part of an integrated national or international strategy for spent fuel, transmutation could dramatically alter the radiotoxicity of spent fuel and allow much of the residual energy to be recovered. International interest in transmutation is tremendous, and the new AAA program will encourage cooperation. I’ve been assured that transmutation is technically feasible, but we need solid research and engineering results to provide a basis for assessing the economic, environmental, and proliferation impacts of transmutation. I’m very hopeful that the new administration will encourage serious work on spent fuel strategies, including transmutation. The future of nuclear energy requires that we demonstrate scientifically sound solutions for spent fuel to the public. We need research today to enable tomorrow’s leaders to decide whether some forms of reprocessing and transmutation can reduce the risks and enhance the benefits of nuclear energy.

As I mentioned earlier, several major legislative packages are under development. The National Energy Strategy Bill of Senator Murkowski is a very broad piece of legislation encompassing all forms of energy; his bill will contribute to the development of a coherent national energy policy. In addition, I’m hard at work on a bill focused specifically on nuclear energy. Both bills would establish a DOE office that would develop and coordinate strategies for spent nuclear fuel.It’s too early to discuss the specifics of my bill, but it will address nuclear energy issues in five broad areas:

  • ensuring a continued supply of nuclear energy
  • encouraging the construction of new nuclear power plants
  • treating nuclear energy on a level playing field with other energy sources
  • identifying solutions for spent fuel
  • further streamlining the NRC

I’d like to mention one additional subject that should be included in discussions about energy policy--the increasing globalization of the world’s economies. I don’t believe the world can develop in the peace and harmony we all want unless the large differences between the "have" and "have-not" nations are addressed. The standard of living for billions of people lags far behind the standard of living in the Western world. The economies of the developed world rest on reliable sources of electricity, which is a prerequisite for modernization. As you are well aware, there is now a vast gulf in per capita energy use between Western nations, especially the United States, and the nations of the developing world. I firmly believe that globalization offers immense benefits to the American people. We benefit from a network of global trading partners that help create markets for our high technology products. But we can only realize this benefit if the rest of the world increases its standard of living to a level that closely matches our own. And that won’t happen unless they have access to clean, reliable, low-cost electrical power. Nuclear energy, appropriately designed to avoid proliferation and to operate in absolute safety, can play a major role in energizing the rest of the world. It can be one of the solutions to meeting global energy needs and helping to bring many poorer economies into the 21st century.

In closing, let me emphasize that all of us need to remind the public that the standard of living we enjoy today depends on reliable, clean, cost-effective electricity, which enables countless technologies, from the computers to the washing machines we use today. Two words must be part of every discussion on energy alternatives--risks and benefits. Every energy source entails both. Antinuclear groups have focused only on the risks of using nuclear energy. They haven’t discussed its benefits or the solid technical solutions for addressing the risks. Therefore, they haven’t presented a balanced assessment of this complex issue. The National Academy of Engineering is well positioned to encourage balanced discussions that include both the risks and benefits of nuclear energy.

We need to clarify for the public that energy production, by any technology, represents a trade-off between risks and benefits. The public must have the information to judge fairly both sides of this equation for each type of energy source. Based on that kind of comparison, which you and your colleagues can help to frame, nuclear energy would fare very well. With serious debate and continued progress on many fronts, I believe that nuclear energy will play an increasing role in providing future domestic and global supplies of electricity.

Baker, H., and L. Cutler. 2000. Report Card on the Department of Energy’s Nonproliferation Programs with Russia. Washington, D.C.: Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, U.S. Department of Energy.
GAO (U.S. General Accounting Office). 2000. Radiation Standards: Scientific Basis Inconclusive, and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues. GAO/RCED-00--152. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office.
NRC (National Research Council). 1999. Alternative High-Level Waste Treatments at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
About the Author:Pete V. Domenici is U.S. senator from New Mexico.