How should the international community address security concerns associated with the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle? During today's OnPoint, Robert Rosner, senior adviser to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' project on the Global Nuclear Future discusses a new AAAS report that makes recommendations on fuel cycle safety concerns.
Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Robert Rosner, senior adviser to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on the Global Nuclear Future. Bob, thanks for coming back on the show.
Robert Rosner: My pleasure, Monica. It's great to be here.
Monica Trauzzi: Bob, you're co-author of a new report "Managing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: The Back-End." How would you qualify the state of discussions on nuclear energy in the United States right now?
Robert Rosner: I think the simplest word to use is difficult. We are facing a world in which we know that things didn't go well in Japan, in things nuclear, and I think it's raised, once again, the question of nuclear safety as a major, major issue. And part and parcel of that, of course, is the perception of what do you do with the material once you've used it in a nuclear reactor? And that's the part that we focused on in our paper, in particular, in the international context. One of the interesting things is that while we're taking a deep breath about nuclear here in the United States and rethinking what we will do, internationally that's not true everywhere. So, there are countries, Germany is a good example, where they have re-thought and they've decided, OK, we're going to close the existing reactors. But in other countries, South Korea, China, India, Vietnam, Abu Dhabi, they are moving ahead. And one of the questions that the project that the American Academy is looking at very closely is the question of how do you see the progress of nuclear energy, which is high-tech and potentially quite dangerous in a world in which some of the players may not be either technologically or, from the human capital point of view, ready to really deal with the technology? And that's been the focus of what we've been looking at.
Monica Trauzzi: And so the discussion here in the U.S. has really focused on cost, safety, waste. Do you think that those are the right things to be focusing the discussion on or are there some other key factors that we haven't really talked about?
Robert Rosner: I think in the United States those are the factors. The question in the United States really comes down to no energy technology truly will take hold here unless it can be justified on business reasons, that it has to be something that economically justifiable. And the question in the case of nuclear is, certainly for existing nuclear plants, the economic case is relatively easy to make because the cost of the construction of those plants has already been amortized and the folks that are running these plants are doing quite well, thank you. The cost of electricity produced by nuclear plants is actually quite low. When we've come to new nuclear plants it's a different story, especially for the large nuclear plants that have been the tradition in the field. And today, in the United States, given the constraints that we have from the environmental point of view, from the regulatory point of view, safety and security, it's quite difficult to justify the economic costs of a new build. And, for that reason, the hoped -- for nuclear renaissance in the United States, based on large nuclear plants, is not happening and it's not likely to happen in my opinion.
Monica Trauzzi: So, is there a way to expand nuclear in a way that it sort of manages the international security issues related to nuclear? I mean can it be done in a smart way?
Robert Rosner: So, we think the answer is yes. In fact, the paper that you alluded to at the beginning is about that. The question really is, internationally, we're operating in a regime where every country that is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that is a member in good standing of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has the, now to quote, "the inalienable right to nuclear technology." That means that if they have followed the rules, they are supposed to have access to the technology and, if they want to, to basically go nuclear. And the question really is are nations really, that are not technologically ready, what do you say to them about going forward? And basically what we've been proposing is to argue that in those cases they do need help. One of the key issues is the backend. The backend means once the fuel is used up and comes out, it's now actually material that contains stuff, if you like, plutonium for example, that's fissile and can be used for making bombs. And so the backend is one of the key elements to safeguard and the question is how do you convince folks, for example in Vietnam, for example in South Korea, the countries that are the aspirants, to take care of this material properly? And we have a proposal to do that that basically revolves around making a business case that is an economic case for disposal of the material on a site that's hosted by a country that's actually going to make some money. That is, they can actually see benefits from being host to a repository.
Monica Trauzzi: What about countries that may have perhaps more sinister motives and actually want to use the material to create explosive devices?
Robert Rosner: So, that is the obvious challenge and, you know, we read every day about what is going on in Iran and one of the real challenges that we have internationally is that as long as a country does, quote, behave itself, that is it follows the rules according to the conventions of the non-proliferation treaties and the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, then, in fact, they have every right to proceed. The question is simply do they really follow the rules? That is, for example, do they really allow, for example, the inspection regime that's mandated? And in the case of Iran, of course, that's been the sticking point. What do you do about this? Well, we found this a challenge. We don't really have very strong enforcement powers at this point other than what we're doing right now, which is basically trying to, for example, embargo trade. But that's -- it's turning out to be not a particularly effective tool unfortunately.
Monica Trauzzi: Why is the Academy uniquely positioned to help answer some of these challenges that we're seeing relating to nuclear?
Robert Rosner: So, the Academy has a long history of doing things like this. The Academy was founded roughly at the same time as this nation was founded. It really goes back to the founders of this country and it has always been non-partisan from the get-go. It's always been focused on intellectual content, that is important. There's an entry like in academic component to it, there is a degree of rigor of asking questions and trying to ask them and I think, by and large, it's not viewed as a proponent of one view or the other. It's really a place where there's a meeting ground of different opinions and we try to sort them out as best they can.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show, very interesting stuff.
Robert Rosner: It's a pleasure, a pleasure to be here.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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