Is There Hope for Nuclear Energy After Japan?

UnCommon Ground - Is There Hope for Nuclear Energy After Japan?

Not only did an earthquake and subsequent tsunami deliver widespread damage and death to Japan in March, they also brought the country to the edge of nuclear disaster. In June, Denison Magazine asked David Waller ‘70, deputy director general and head of management at the International Atomic Energy Agency (headquartered in Vienna, Austria), to tell us what it all means for the future of nuclear energy.

You served as legal counsel to President Reagan for most of his two terms in office. What was the biggest challenge you faced in that time?

The “biggest challenge we faced in that time” may actually have been time itself. Back then the Office of Counsel to the President consisted of no more than six to eight lawyers. Our team included some very talented individuals, including Fred Fielding, who headed the office (he thereafter served on the 9/11 Commission, and was called back as Counsel to the President by George W. Bush late in his presidency) and John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Much of the work was fascinating but there was also an awful lot of it, and, of course, it all had to be handled with the utmost care. Fortunately Fred, John, and the others all had a great sense of humor and, in retrospect, that helped us keep our heads above water. It was a wonderful experience, and we’ve all remained close friends. We dubbed ourselves “the White House has-beens” and we gather for a drink or dinner when we’re all in Washington.

An event that sticks in my mind was when Fred Fielding and I—together with the U.S. Attorney who was prosecuting the President’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley—sat with the President in the Oval Office to explore, in detail, his perspective and recollections of the events related to the shootings. I was struck by the President’s absence of any trace of bitterness toward a man who had tried to kill him. Indeed, the President was genuinely concerned about Hinckley’s well being.

You then became Assistant Secretary for International Affairs with the U.S. Department of Energy in 1986. How has nuclear energy changed since then, both in terms of the industry itself and the public perception of it?

I had just undergone my Senate confirmation hearing for the position of Assistant Secretary for International Affairs when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in April of 1986. Even before the Senate had voted on the confirmation, I was on a plane to Vienna, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as U.S. delegate to a conference at which the Soviet Union was called upon to explain the accident sequence, its implications, and what to do going forward. And now, 25 years later, we face the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Needless to say, the public perception of nuclear power has been greatly influenced by these two tragedies.

Growth of nuclear power around the world, which had been quite strong through the mid-1980s, slowed considerably at about the time of Chernobyl. But Chernobyl wasn’t the only reason. Inflation, together with lengthening construction schedules and resulting cost increases, were contributing factors. During the past five or six years, however, both interest and activity have increased significantly. Today, there are 65 new reactors under construction and plans for many more. The looming question now, of course, is the degree to which the Fukushima accident affects these plans.

How has the Fukushima disaster affected nuclear energy production in other countries?

The decision by a country to adopt, expand, or abandon nuclear power is a sovereign one —as in the recent case of Germany, which has decided, post Fukushima, to phase out nuclear power (which currently generates 23 percent of its electricity). On the other hand, France (which derives 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power) and the United Kingdom (28 percent) have no plans to reduce their reliance on this source of electricity. And Poland—in an effort to reduce its heavy dependence on Russian fossil fuels—is determined to move forward in developing a nuclear power programme. Meanwhile, Asia will remain the source of the greatest expansion, particularly India and China.

As for the effect of the Fukushima accident on the situation in the U.S., I’ll defer to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has concluded: “It is highly unlikely that a similar event could occur in the United States.”

What is one myth about nuclear energy you’d like to dispel?

Issues on the IAEA’s agenda related to nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear terrorism and, more recently, safety of nuclear power plants are consistently given front-page media coverage. But there are myriad beneficial or peaceful uses of nuclear technology beyond electricity generation —for example, in medicine, agriculture and water resource management. And the Agency serves as a vehicle to deliver these technologies to the developing world—to reduce misery, improve living conditions, and save lives. This humanitarian component of the Agency’s mandate is largely overlooked by the media, and I’d like to see it, and the related beneficial nuclear technologies, given the attention they deserve.

Part of the IAEA’s mission is to prevent the misuse of nuclear material for weapons production. Can you explain the agency’s role in that regard, especially considering the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists?

I’m glad you asked that question because it’s important to distinguish among the IAEA’s roles as regards safeguards, safety, and security.

The first role—safeguards—is the one which results in the media often referring to the Agency as the “world’s nuclear watchdog,” and it includes our widely reported work in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea. Under international treaties—especially the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—signatory countries are legally bound to enter into what are called “safeguards agreements” with the IAEA. These commit the Agency to verifying that nuclear material declared by a country as being for civilian use (usually for nuclear power plants) is not being diverted to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. And we do this by means of teams of highly trained inspectors on the ground, as well as by state-of-the-art laboratory analysis of environmental samples, remote monitoring by means of cameras positioned in facilities, satellite imagery, intelligence, and so on.

In the realm of nuclear safety—broadly speaking, the safety of nuclear power plants and radioactive sources used in industry, medicine and agriculture—our role is more one of persuasion. We gather experts from around the world and develop high-level safety standards, which countries are then urged to adopt and follow. We also offer safety review services to our Member States, sending, upon their request, international teams of specialists to assess the safety of their nuclear facilities or radioactive material, and to make recommendations. But we cannot force our safety standards or services on a country (although we can refuse to give some types of assistance if a country does not meet our standards). I should add that—in the wake of the Fukushima accident—it’s quite possible that countries will call for a further strengthening of our standards and perhaps for making their application mandatory worldwide.

The IAEA’s nuclear security activities were quite modest prior to 9/11. But that horrific event served as a very loud wake-up call to the international community as it quickly recognized that the gravest of the new terrorist threats was nuclear terrorism—that is, terrorists getting hold of nuclear or radioactive material that they could use as a weapon. Within months, working here in Vienna, Member States agreed on a nuclear security plan of action and provided initial funding for its implementation. Since then, the IAEA has, I think it’s fair to say, made a substantial difference. We’ve carried out training for scores of countries, provided radiation detection equipment (particularly for use at international borders and at high-profile events, including the Olympics and the Football World Cup), assessed the preparedness of individual countries to react to the threats, and developed international standards for readiness and response. Once again, however, as with nuclear safety, the primary responsibility for nuclear security rests with the countries themselves. Here the IAEA is a resource facilitator, a hub for information, a source of expertise. It’s only in the safeguards or verification area that we have international legal authority to inspect.

President Obama has talked about expanding nuclear energy in the U.S., but the idea is not without critics. What are the problems such a plan would face? And how could they be overcome?

In the U.S., it’s private companies that decide whether to build new nuclear power plants, and the business case is not an easy one to make at the moment. One reason is that nuclear power’s significant environmental advantage—its extremely low emissions of greenhouse gases—is of no immediate financial benefit to a company building a new plant in the U.S. And that’s because the U.S. has no limits on greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the U.S. has relatively cheap coal and natural gas, and power stations fired by these fossil fuels take less time and money to build than nuclear reactors. Moreover, some investors have expressed concerns that U.S. companies have only limited recent experience in constructing nuclear power stations. How does the U.S. overcome these problems? Limits on greenhouse gas emissions would certainly help, together with financial incentives that recognize the national interest in reducing fossil fuel dependence. President Obama has addressed the latter by expanding the financial incentives, including the loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear power plants initially introduced by President George W. Bush. Limits on greenhouse gases, however, remain problematic.

What do you see in store for the future of nuclear energy?

Certainly growth will be slower than was projected before the Fukushima accident. But, frankly, I expect that nuclear power will continue to grow, and that all or most of those 65 reactors currently under construction worldwide—and many others—will be built and brought into operation. That’s because the underlying reasons for the rise in interest in this form of electricity generation—the unrelenting increase in energy demand, concerns regarding energy security, anxieties relating to global warming and air pollution, and the proven performance record of nuclear power—remain. And they are compelling.

Published July 2011