Solutions for mitigating climate change, advances in nuclear energy, and US leadership in high-performance computing discussed in two key House Science Committee hearings
Climate solutions and nuclear energy
The full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee discussed climate hurdles and solutions in a January 15 hearing titled, “An update on the climate crisis: From science to solutions.” Interestingly, the main point of debate during this hearing was not whether climate change was occurring, but rather the economic impacts of climate change mitigation. As predicted, the debate was split down party lines.
While the Democrats emphasized the negative consequences of climate change and the need to act, several Republican members insisted that China and India rein in their greenhouse gas emissions first.
Congressman Mo Brooks (R, AL-05) asked the most heated series of questions during the hearing, related to India and China’s carbon emissions. He asked if there was a way to force both to reduce their emissions, which, according to a report by the European Union, have seen increases of 305% and 354%, respectively, between 1990 and 2017.
Democrats focused their questions to highlight the science behind climate change. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D, TX-30) asked each witness about the biggest hurdles in their fields. Richard Murray, Deputy Director and Vice President for Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said that more investments in large-scale ocean observations and data are needed. Pamela McElwee, Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers, said that a lot of advances in land conservation can be made with existing technology, but that investments in genetic modification of crops to restore nutrients to the soil, for example, could be developed. Heidi Steltzer, Professor of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College, encouraged the inclusion of diverse perspectives in climate research to develop the most creative solutions. Congressman Paul Tonko (D, NY-20) summed up the Democrats’ views on climate change by stating that the climate science performed by researchers like the witnesses should inform federal action and that inaction on this issue is costly.
While committee Republicans expressed concerns over the impact of climate regulations on business, members of the committee did emphasize the importance of renewing U.S. leadership in nuclear power, pointing to competition from Russia and China. Nuclear power continues to be the largest source of carbon free electricity in the country.
One of the witnesses, Michael Shellenberger, Founder and President of Environmental Progress noted that the US’ ability to compete internationally in nuclear energy was declining as Russia and China rush to complete new power plants. Losing ground in this area, he added, negatively impacts the U.S.’ reputation as a developer of cutting edge energy technology and dissuades developing countries interested in building nuclear power plants from contracting with the U.S.
As the impacts of climate change take their toll in California, the Caribbean, Australia, and elsewhere, the U.S. Congress remains divided on how to address it.
We thank our community of experts for helping us create an informative resource and questions for the committee.
Supercomputing a high priority for DOE Office of Science
While last week’s House Science Subcommittee on Energy hearing about research supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science touched on a range of issues, competition with China on high-performance computing took center stage.
The big milestone that world powers are competing to reach in the high-performance computing field is the development of the first-ever exascale computer. An exascale computer would greatly enhance research areas like materials development for next-generation batteries, seismic analysis, weather and climate modeling, and even clinical health studies like “identifying risk factors for suicide and best practices for intervention.” It would be about a million times faster than a consumer desktop computer, operating at a quintillion calculations per second. The U.S., China, Japan, and European Union are all working to complete the first exascale system.
In the competition to develop faster and faster supercomputers, China has made rapid progress. In 2001, none of the 500 fastest supercomputers were made in China. As of June 2019, 219 of the 500 fastest supercomputers had been developed by China, and the US had 116. Notably, when the computational power of all these systems is totaled up for each country, China controls 30 percent of the world’s high-performance computing resources, while the U.S. controls 38 percent. In the past, China had asserted that it would complete an exascale computing system this year; however, it is unclear if the country will meet its goal.
A U.S. exascale system due in 2021 – Aurora – is being built at Argonne National Lab in Illinois, and hopes are high that it will be the world’s first completed exascale computer. During the hearing, Representatives Dan Lipinski (D, IL-03) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11) both raised the issue of progress on the project. According to DOE Office of Science director Dr. Christopher Fall, the Aurora project is meeting its benchmarks, with headway being made not only on the hardware, but also on a “once-in-a-generation” reworking and modernization of the software stack that will run on the system, as well as developing high-speed internet for linking generated data with the computation of that data. DOE believes that the U.S. is in a strong position to complete the first-ever exascale computing system, and that our holistic approach to high-performance computing is something that is missing from competitors’ strategies, giving the U.S. even more of an edge.
In addition to the Aurora project, two more exascale computing projects are underway at U.S. National Labs. Frontier, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is also projected to deploy in 2021, while El Capitan, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, should launch in 2022. El Capitan will only be used by individuals in the national security field.
In addition to research in high-performance computing, the diverse and impactful science supported by the DOE Office of Science is truly something to protect and promote. To review the full hearing, click here.
France’s Choice for Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Why Low-Enriched Uranium Was Chosen
This special report is a result of an FAS task force on French naval nuclear propulsion and explores France’s decision to switch from highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU). By detailing the French Navy’s choice to switch to LEU fuel, author Alain Tournyol du Clos — a lead architect of France’s nuclear propulsion program — explores whether France’s choice is fit for other nations.
Look to Texas Rather Than Nevada for a Site Selection Process on Nuclear Waste Disposal
Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections have refocused attention on a number of policy areas–including nuclear waste storage. Although President Obama has consistently championed nuclear power by providing federal loan guarantees for new reactors and placing nuclear power among the “clean energy” sources targeted for an 80 percent share of the nation’s electricity production by 2035, he has also placed the viability of nuclear power in doubt by thwarting efforts to build a high level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Several newspapers around the country have run editorials arguing that the Yucca Mountain ought to be revived or even, as the Chicago Tribune suggested, “fast-tracked.” Arguments like these emphasize the risks associated with our current interim storage of spent fuel at more than one hundred power plants in close proximity to population centers throughout the country, commitments for disposal capacity the federal government owes utilities and contaminated legacy sites like those in South Carolina and Washington State, and the amount of research and spending that has already been devoted to investigating the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site.
However, it is unlikely that Yucca Mountain will ever receive shipments of nuclear waste. Nevada’s persistent and successful efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 are likely to continue as they demonstrate the futility of a policy that forces disposal on an unwilling host state. Three years ago the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said as much, recommending instead a “consent-based” approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. How would such an approach work?
For the past three years, Texas has been accepting what so many other states and localities have rejected in past decades- radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. A newly opened private facility operated by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas has been receiving shipments of low-level radioactive waste from multiple states. This year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has amended the license for the Andrews County site to more than triple its capacity and it can begin accepting “Greater Than Class C Waste”- the most highly radioactive materials in the low-level radioactive waste stream, as well as depleted uranium. Residents and elected officials in Andrews County are now considering whether or not to support a proposal for a high-level radioactive waste disposal facility.
We should take a closer look at past developments in Nevada and more recent decisions in Texas to guide our future nuclear waste policy. These two states are engaging with different aspects of the nuclear waste stream, governed by very different policy approaches. Nevada’s efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project are rooted in the coercive approach codified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In contrast, the willingness of Texas to establish new disposal capacity stems from the Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980—a law that expanded the authority of states hosting disposal sites in an effort to overcome state opposition to waste sites in the midst of an urgent shortage of disposal capacity.
First, let’s consider the troublesome politics that has infused the Nevada case. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a scientific site selection process for an eastern and western waste repository. However, President Reagan abandoned this process in 1986 by halting the search for an eastern site amid fears of midterm election losses in potential host states of Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina. In 1987, Congress abandoned the search for a western site when House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), and House Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-WA), amended the law to remove Texas and Washington from consideration. The amended law became known as the “Screw Nevada” plan because it designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for the waste repository.
While politics effectively trumped science in the selection of Yucca Mountain, opponents- led by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada- have employed politics to effectively thwart the project. In 2005, Reid placed 175 holds on President Bush’s nominations for various executive appointments until Bush finally nominated Reid’s own science advisor, Gregory Jaczko, to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 2006 Reid persuaded the Democratic National Committee to move the Nevada caucuses to the front of the 2008 presidential primary calendar, prompting each candidate to oppose Yucca Mountain. President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise by tapping Jaczko to chair the NRC and dismantling Yucca Mountain. Each year the President’s budget proposals zeroed out funding for the facility, the NRC defunded the license review process and the Department of Energy has continued to mothball the project. Although court decisions have forced the administration to begin reviewing the project, progress has been slow and in the meantime the Yucca facility offices have been shuttered, workforce eliminated, and computers, equipment and vehicles have been surplused. Jaczko was forced to resign amidst concern from other NRC members that his management style thwarted decision making processes. However, Jaczko’s chief counsel, Stephen Burns was sworn in as the commissioner of the NRC on November 5, 2014.
We should expect, accept, and plan for such political maneuvering. Our system of locally accountable representatives empowers individual office holders with a wealth of substantive and procedural tools that make all nuclear politics local. Any decision making on this issue will be a political contest to locate or avoid the waste. Consequently, if there is to be a politically feasible nuclear waste repository, it will require a willing host. Money and the promise of jobs alone have not proven alluring enough for acceptance of such a project. We would do better to embrace our decentralized politics and offer the host significant authority over the waste stream.
This is the current situation that Texas enjoys: Congress gave states responsibility for establishing low-level radioactive waste sites and, as an incentive, enabled states to join interstate compacts. Once approved by Congress, a compact has the authority to accept or decline waste imports from other states, which is a power that is normally not extended to states because it violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Texas is in a compact with Vermont, and as host state, Texas shapes the waste market by determining disposal availability for other states. Texas also has authority to set fees, taxes, and regulations for disposal in collaboration with federal agencies. Compacts can dissolve and host states can cease accepting waste altogether at a future date. While even under these provisions most states will refuse to host radioactive waste, the extension of state authority at least courts the possibility (as in Texas) of the rare case that combines an enthusiastic local host community in a relatively suitable location, a supportive state government, and a lack of opposition from neighboring communities and states. This approach better meets our democratic expectations because it confronts the local, state and national politics openly and directly, courting agreement at each level and extending authority over the waste stream to the unit of government bearing responsibility for long term disposal within its borders.
What if we adopt this approach and there is no willing host for spent fuel at a technically suitable site? What if a site is established, but at some future date the host state and compact exercise authority refuse importation or dissolve altogether? We would be left with interim onsite storage- the same result our current predictably failed policy approach has left us in. If there is no willing host, or if long term disposal is less certain due to the host’s authority over the waste stream, we also gain authentic and valuable feedback on societal support for nuclear energy. That is, our willingness to provide for waste disposal in a process compatible with our democratic norms and decentralized political system should influence our decisions on nuclear energy production and waste generation.
Nuclear Power and Nanomaterials: Big Potential for Small Particles
Nuclear power plants are large, complex, and expensive facilities. They provide approximately 19 percent of U.S. electricity power supply,1 and in the process consume enormous quantities of water. However, a class of very small particles may be gearing up to lend a helping hand in making power plants more efficient and less costly to operate. This article will briefly introduce nanomaterials and discuss ways in which some of these particles may make nuclear power plants more efficient.
The race to synthesize, engineer, test, and apply new nanoscale materials for solving difficult problems in energy and defense is in full swing. The past twenty five years have ushered in an era of nanomaterials and nanoparticles – objects with at least one dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers2 – and researchers are now implementing these materials in areas as disparate as neuroscience and environmental remediation. To provide a sense of scale, most viruses are a few hundred nanometers in size, most bacteria are a few thousand nanometers in size, and a period at the end of a sentence is about a million nanometers. This new category of materials has ignited the imaginations of scientists and engineers who envision nanomaterials capable of tackling difficult problems in energy, healthcare, and electronics.
Nanomaterials are not new, and indeed occur naturally all over Earth. This includes viruses, the coatings of a lotus leaf, the bottom of a gecko’s foot, and some finely powdered clays. These objects represent natural materials with significant, and often highly functional, nanoscale features. Some researchers have even discovered signs of nanoscale materials in space.3 One of the oldest documented applications of nanomaterials dates back to the Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman glass which was made out of a glass containing gold and silver particles. The result is a glass that appears green when lit from the outside, but red when lit from the inside.4 The effect results from the glass filtering various wavelengths of light differently depending on the various lighting conditions. Of course, the Romans did not know they were using nanoparticles in the process of making this glass.
But what makes nanoparticles interesting or unique? The answer to this question depends on the specific material and application, but a few themes persist. Because of their small size, the physical principles governing how particles behave and interact with their environments change. Some of these changes are due to how basic properties such as volume and surface area change as an object becomes smaller. As a sphere shrinks, the ratio of the surface area to the volume grows. This has far reaching implications for how particles interact with light, heat, and other particles. Visionary researchers are now looking into ways in which these interesting properties may make nuclear power plants more efficient.
One important implication for our discussion is the flow of thermal energy. Consider the process of transferring the thermal energy of your body from your hands to an ice cube. Clearly, you are (hopefully!) warmer than the ice cube. If you place the ice cube on a chilled dish and touch the ice cube with one finger, the cube will melt, but probably fairly slowly. Placing your entire hand over the top half of the ice cube increases the melting rate, and placing the ice cube in your hand and closing your fist further increases the melting rate. This is an example of thermal energy transfer via conduction. Conductive heat transfer from one object to another depends on the area over which the thermal transfer takes place. A larger contact surface area leads to faster conduction. But how does this relate to nanoparticles? As a particle becomes very small, the ratio of the particle’s surface area to its volume increases very rapidly. Since thermal conduction through volume is a function of surface area, particles with large ratios of surface area to volume are able to change temperature very quickly. If you place a large quantity of small cold particles in a warm body of water, the particles will heat quickly. If you take the same volume of particles, but instead compress it into one large particle, then that large particle will warm slowly. As this surface area to volume ratio increases with decreasing size, a general trend is for smaller particles to transfer heat more effectively than larger particles.
So how does this relate to nuclear power plants? Nuclear power plants are water-intense operations and rely on conductive heat transfer to convert nuclear energy to grid-ready electricity. The most common Western reactors are pressurized water reactors (PWRs) in which water is heated by pumping it through the reactor core, then pumping the hot water to a steam generator. This water flows through piping called the primary system and is kept in the liquid state by applying very high pressure through a device called a pressurizer. In the steam generator this primary system water transfers much of its heat to water in a secondary system. High-strength piping, which is a very effective heat conductor, keeps the water in the two systems from directly contacting each other. The secondary system’s water turns to steam when it absorbs the heat from the primary system. The steam is then directed via piping to drive a turbine, which turns an electric generator, thus completing the cycle of converting nuclear energy to readily usable electricity for the grid. After passing through the turbines, the steam is captured and condensed for recycling. This reclaimed water can then be sent back through the steam generator. However, a significant amount of the energy of this steam is lost to the atmosphere via a third system of cooling water that is used to condense the steam. Large amounts of water (in the form of water vapor) are released to the environment in this process. Think of the water vapor plume at the top of the iconic cooling towers seen in the cartoon TV show The Simpsons. (Not all nuclear power plants use these types of cooling towers, but all must emit heat to the environment through some means of cooling.)
A new class of nanomaterials called core-shell phase change nanoparticles may help in reducing the water loss. First, let’s parse the name of the nanoparticle. The core-shell nomenclature refers to the fact that the particle has a center made out of one material, and an outer skin made out of another material. The phase change component of the name refers to the fact that the particle center changes from a liquid to a solid under certain conditions. These particles may be mixed into the water used for transporting the thermal energy generated within the reactor. Once mixed into the reactor water, the particle cores melt as the water picks up thermal energy from the reactor. The melted material in the particle core is contained by a shell, which remains solid at reactor temperatures. Thus, as the water leaves the reactor it carries with it tiny particles containing bundles of liquid thermal energy wrapped in a solid core. The notion is that as these particles travel to the cooling tower, they solidify and dissipate their heat into the surrounding water, thus decreasing the amount of water needed to convert the thermal energy created by the reactor to steam for turning turbines. Additionally, since these particles do not vaporize, they are much more easily retained for recycling. The Electric Power Research Institute is currently working with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory to commercialize these particles and has suggested that this technology could decrease power plant water requirements by as much as 20 percent.5
Another nanoparticle-based approach for increasing reactor efficiency seeks to tackle a different problem. Pressurized water reactors place the water in direct contact with the fuel rods of the nuclear reactor. However, bubbles that form on the surfaces of the fuel rods can significantly decrease efficiency by insulating the rods from the water. When this happens, heat transfer efficiency suffers. One lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has implemented alumina nanoparticles that coat the fuel rods and prevent the buildup of bubbles on the heating elements. Alumina, a compound of aluminum and oxygen, is stable and has a high melting temperature. Testing these particles in the MIT reactor, the group found that the alumina nanoparticles coated the fuel rods. The result was an increase in the efficacy of the reactor. The engineers explain the findings by suggesting that the alumina nanoparticles allow for quick removal of the bubbles forming on fuel rod surfaces, thus minimizing the insulating layer of bubbles and maximizing heat transfer efficiency.6 To validate this, the researchers heated identical thin, steel wires a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. One wire was submerged in water, the other in a nanofluid containing alumina particles. The wires were heated to the point of boiling the surrounding fluid. After boiling the wires were examined using a powerful electron microscope. The experimenters observed that the wire heated in the nanofluid was indeed coated with nanoparticles, while the other wire maintained its original smooth surface.
Most importantly, there are also potential safety applications of having nanofluids capable of quickly transporting large quantities of thermal energy. One proposal calls for the use of nanofluids in standby coolant stored in Emergency Core Cooling Systems (ECCS). The ECCS are independent, standby systems designed to safely shut down a reactor in the case of an accident or malfunction. One ECCS component is a set of pumps and backup coolant to be sprayed directly onto reactor rods. Such systems are critical in preventing a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) from spiraling out of control. Because ECCS have backup reservoirs of coolant, technologies that make this backup coolant more effective at removing heat from the reactor could improve the safety of reactors. Because nanofluids can increase the heat transfer efficacy of water by 50 percent or more, some researchers have suggested that they may also be useful in emergency scenarios.7
Steam generators at both nuclear and coal power plants accounts for approximately 3 percent of overall freshwater consumption in the United States. Generally speaking, nuclear power plants consume about 400 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (MWh). Their coal and natural gas counterparts consume approximately 300 and 100 gallons per MWh, respectively.8 Thus, nuclear power plants stand to gain considerably by becoming more water-efficient.
However, there are many hurdles to tackle before nanoparticles can be safely and effectively used in operating power plants. Scaling up particle production to the large volumes of particles necessary for implementation in a power plant is expensive and labor intensive. New synthesis infrastructures may be necessary for large-scale production of these tiny particles. Additionally, broad adoption of this technology will not occur until significant cost savings are proven effective at a functioning plant. As a result, particles must be made available at a cost reasonable for adoption by power plant operators. A rough cost estimate can be made using commercially available alumina nanoparticles, as these particles have been tested extensively in the heat transfer literature. A typical nuclear power plant in the United States supplies enough electricity to power 740,000 homes. To do this, the plant requires between 13 and 23 gallons of water per home per day. Thus, water usages for the plant may range from 10 to 17 million gallons per day. Current vendors of aluminum oxide nanoparticles sell 1kg of nanopowder for around $200. With an expectation that economies of scale would bring that price down to $100/kg and that the particles could be easily recovered and recycled, loading a nuclear power plant with a 0.1% volume fraction of alumina nanoparticles would cost about $14.7 to $25 million per power plant. This is a substantial initial investment. Naturally, if nanoparticles were to cost $10/kg, then particle outfitting costs of $1.5 to $2.5 million per nuclear plant could be achieved. If 100 percent recovery of the particles could be achieved, then this initial cost would be recovered over time by the expected 2 to 4 percent increase in plant efficiency.
In addition to cost-benefit analysis, extensive testing must be performed to ensure long-term application of these particles does not threaten the operational safety of the plant. To accomplish this, smaller scale reactors (like those housed at research facilities and universities) may test these particles over the course of years to track the impacts of long-term use. Potential pitfalls include increased corrosion, system clogging, and nanoparticle leakage into wastewater. Corrosion engineers will be needed to validate the degree to which nanoparticles contribute to the overall aging of reactors in which they are used. Nanoparticle designers and hydrodynamicists will be needed to ensure that system clogging is manageable. Additionally, filtration experts and the Environmental Protection Agency will be needed to establish best practices for minimizing the amount of nanomaterial that exits the facility, as well as understanding and quantifying the environmental impacts of that emitted material. None of these potential roadblocks are trivial. However, while the challenges seem large, it is encouraging to see potential applications of nanotechnology in power plants.
A Looming Crisis of Confidence in Japan’s Nuclear Intentions
Nearly two years into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second stint at governing Japan, his tenure has been characterized by three primary themes. The first two themes include his major legislative priorities: enabling Japan’s economic revival and bringing Japan closer to the status of a “normal” country that takes on a greater share of its own security needs. Both of these priorities are largely celebrated in the United States, which longs to see Japan become a more able and active partner in the region. A third theme has not been well received in Washington: the prime minister’s apparent efforts to whitewash Japan’s wartime past. Through personal expressions of admiration for convicted war-criminals, an official reinvestigation of past apologies for war-time atrocities, and appointments of hardline nationalists to prominent posts (such as the NHK board of governors), the prime minister’s actions have raised the spectre among wary neighbors of a Japanese return to militarism and begun raising eyebrows even among friends in Washington.
It is against this backdrop that Japan is now attempting to reinstate its nuclear energy program. Japan, which, not long ago, had planned to generate half of its electricity from nuclear power by 2030, has watched its nuclear reactors sit largely idle since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Abe’s government views nuclear restarts as a critical pillar of his first legislative priority—Japan’s economic recovery. However, observers both outside and inside Japan note that, in addition to providing Japan the baseload electricity that its economy craves, the country’s sophisticated nuclear energy program effectively serves a dual purpose, providing Japan a latent nuclear weapons capability as well.
Citing Abe’s particular treatment of historical issues, some have begun to question whether reinstatement of Japan’s nuclear program is really more about the prime minister’s security goals than his economic agenda. China, for one, has hinted at allegations of a Japanese nuclear weapons program—after a recent incident in which Japan negotiated to repatriate an aging store of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to the United States, Chinese media propagated a narrative that twisted the event into evidence of Japan’s militaristic intentions.1 Koreans have begun expressing similar concerns.2
In fact, Japan’s current movement towards a more normal military posture is not entirely unrelated to the push to restart the country’s nuclear energy program—it was the Fukushima nuclear disaster that both idled Japan’s nuclear fleet and helped enable the return of the more hawkish LDP government. But the relationship likely ends there. As a legacy of World War II, Japanese society’s discomfort with the idea of a “normal” Japan has restricted Abe’s normalization efforts to steps that are only modest by any comparable measure.3 Events that have conspired to suggest the possibility of Japanese nuclear weapons are reflective of awkward timing and, perhaps, less than acute politics, but not likely of some new militant spirit in Japanese society. Unfortunately, as Japan pushes to restart its nuclear energy program in the months and years ahead, circumstances are aligning that will amplify—not mitigate—alarm over Japan’s nuclear intentions.
Japan’s Plutonium Economy
For a tangle of social and legal reasons, the restart of Japanese reactors is tied together with operation of Japan’s nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho Village in Aomori Prefecture. Under agreements with reactor host communities, utilities cannot operate reactors unless there is somewhere for nuclear fuel to go once it has been used. Because Japan lacks a geological repository and nearly all plant sites lack dry cask storage facilities,4 Rokkasho is currently the only viable destination for spent fuel from Japan’s reactors. Unless this situation changes, Japan is effectively unable to operate reactors without Rokkasho.
Rokkasho itself is, in turn, effectively dependent on Japan’s operating reactors. According to a sort of public-private arrangement that has been in place since before Fukushima, Japanese utilities send spent nuclear fuel to Rokkasho, where it is separated into waste and fissionable MOX (mixed uranium and plutonium oxides) powder. MOX is processed into fresh reactor fuel and sent back to Japan’s reactors. High-level waste is ultimately sent to a geological repository that is to be built in a different prefecture (one of Aomori Prefecture’s conditions for originally agreeing to host the reprocessing plant). Of Japan’s reactors, 16 to 18 of the 54 that were operating prior to the Fukushima accident would, after receiving local government consent, consume MOX in an effort to maximize use of Japan’s limited energy resources. That was the plan—prior to the Fukushima disaster, anyway.
As a legacy of the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s nuclear reactors currently sit idle. The six at Fukushima Daiichi will never operate again, nor will a number of others that are older, particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, or for other reasons not worth the trouble and expense of restarting. While impossible to predict for certain, a consensus seems to be emerging among experts and industry watchers that post-Fukushima, somewhere in the order of half of Japan’s original 54 reactors will return to service under Japan’s new regulatory regime. Currently, two reactors (Sendai 1 and 2 in southwestern Japan) have cleared safety reviews from Japan’s new regulator, the Japan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (JNRA), and now appear headed towards restart this winter. Eighteen more reactors await review from the JNRA. Of those 20 reactors, only five5 have received consent to use MOX, but that was prior to Fukushima. All 20 reactor restarts depend on the promise of a functioning Rokkasho. But if Rokkasho were to restart on a similar timeframe as the reactors, one thing is certain—there will be far fewer than the originally envisioned 16 to 18 reactors available to consume the MOX when the plant starts up.6
Reactor Restart X-Factors
As with Rokkasho, the question of when the JNRA will conclude its reviews of the next eighteen reactors remains quite murky. However, it stands to reason that ultimately most, if not all, of the reactors that have applied for restart will ultimately pass safety inspections. Japan’s electric power companies are unlikely to have invested the time and resources in plant upgrades and regulatory application had they less than a high degree of confidence that they would qualify under Japan’s new regime. Likewise, there is little question that Japan’s LDP government (assuming an LDP government at the time of restart) would stand in the way of restarts. But the JNRA and national government are only two of the three main factors in restarting Japan’s reactors—leaders of the towns and prefectures that host nuclear power plants have a de facto say in the matter as well.
The conventional wisdom is that local leaders have strong financial incentives to restart the nuclear power plants that they host: government and industry have historically lavished incentives on host communities and prefectures in order to overcome any inclination toward local resistance. In one sense, local governments have over time become dependent on plants and can ill afford to forego not only the government and utility incentives, but also the base of jobs and tax revenues they represent. On the other hand, communities need now only look to the example of the towns that have been rendered uninhabitable by the Fukushima disaster to see a terrifyingly clear picture of their tradeoff.
In some cases, apparently including the Sendai reactors, it is unlikely that local government would stand in the way of restarts. Earthquakes are less common in Kyushu,7 the geography on the west coast is less prone to large tsunamis, and local residents may take comfort in the fact that Sendai reactors are pressurized water reactors—not the boiling water rector type used at Fukushima Daiichi. But in other cases, local approvals may not be as certain. Take for example TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Nagano prefecture, where Governor Izumida has very publicly challenged TEPCO. He has insisted that, irrespective of the findings of the JNRA, with the Fukushima Daiichi reactor cores still too highly radioactive to investigate and verify the true nature of the accident, he will be unwilling to allow the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors to restart.
In addition to the local government factor, an X-factor may be emerging—preemptive lawsuits against reactor restarts. Earlier this year, in Fukui prefecture where political leadership otherwise favors nuclear power, a citizens group brought a lawsuit alleging an inadequate basis for confidence in the restart of the Oi plant.8 More recently, a second lawsuit has been brought by the city of Hakodate (Hokkaido prefecture) against the yet-to-be completed Ohma plant in nearby Aomori prefecture.9 In the case of Oi, a local judge sided with the plaintiffs, but the decision has been appealed by Kansai Electric Power Company, and the case is all but certain to drag out until long past the serviceable lifetime of the Oi reactors. The Hakodate case is ongoing.
It is possible that Governor Izumida is an outlier and that the Fukui and Hakodate challenges will prove to be ineffective and isolated. However, it is equally possible that there are more Governor Izumidas and lawsuits yet to come. Furthermore, what is undeniable is that these cases have set a precedent and raised public pressure on local officials to seriously consider opposing restart of local reactors even if they do pass JNRA safety inspections. In any case, it is premature to presume that once the JNRA has rendered a safety verdict, reactor restart is imminent.
The MOX Question
Within the concurrent push to open Rokkasho and restart reactors, the availability of MOX-burning reactors seems to be assumed. But, notwithstanding all of the other hurdles facing nuclear reactor restarts in Japan, MOX fuel itself has been a subject of controversy and public discomfort since even before the Fukushima disaster. As utilities received approvals to burn MOX fuel and subsequently began receiving shipments of MOX from Europe (where it had been processed on behalf of Japan’s utilities), they were met with consistent and passionate public protests. These protests were typically confined to a cohort of smaller national-level interest groups that argue that using MOX elevates risk in transportation and regular reactor operation.10 On a national scale, prior to Fukushima the fuel cycle has been a relatively fringe issue—MOX had been a largely unfamiliar acronym to the public. Post-Fukushima, as utilities push for restarts amidst an atmosphere of heightened public scrutiny, there will be no free pass for MOX. For nuclear energy opponents, the prospect of MOX usage would provide one more narrative with which to hammer against proposed reactor restarts.
At the macro level, utilities share in the incentive to burn MOX fuel as they depend on Rokkasho, and Rokkasho is hard to rationalize in the absence of a functioning MOX program. However, in a much more tangible and immediate sense, utilities desperately need their reactors up and running again. Most of Japan’s utilities have posted consistent losses since their reactors were relegated to nonperforming assets on their balance sheets and they were forced to substitute expensive fossil fuels for relatively cheaper nuclear power. For Japan’s utilities, restarting nuclear reactors could be a life or death proposition. That being the case, can it be taken for granted that utilities will risk complicating their restart efforts by forging ahead with plans to burn MOX? Will the government create explicit incentive for utilities to do so? Given enhanced public scrutiny, it cannot be assumed that the pre-Fukushima local approvals for MOX usage will be honored anyway.
The Japanese government’s 2014 energy policy (despite reaffirming Japan’s commitment to its beleaguered ‘no surplus plutonium’ policy), gives blessing to proceeding with Rokkasho (recognizing that, among other things, if it didn’t, Aomori threatens to send the spent nuclear fuel right back to the plants of origin). But even assuming that the five MOX reactors under regulatory review do receive restart approval and recommence MOX burning, the original goal of 16 to 18 Japanese reactors burning MOX fuel seems far off.11 There has been some suggestion that Rokkasho could restart slowly, at a throughput commensurate with the ability to consume MOX. However, as Meiji University Professor Tadahiro Katsuta points out, reducing throughput of Rokkasho effectively raises the per-unit cost of MOX, necessitating a reexamination of the cost basis on which the MOX program was justified to Japanese ratepayers.12
Even outside of the MOX capacity question, Rokkasho is not without controversy. Officially, Rokkasho is justified as an investment in energy security for Japan. However, from the standpoint of global nonproliferation concerns, Japan sets an uncomfortable precedent with Rokkasho. While otherwise a leading global champion for peace and nuclear disarmament, Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons country to possess a commercial nuclear fuel recycling program. Whereas global nonproliferation efforts prioritize limiting the spread of reprocessing capabilities, Rokkasho has enabled Iran, for one, to point to Japan in defending the legitimacy of its own fuel cycle activities. South Korea, seeking American consent for a Korean recycling program, also cites Japan’s example in negotiating a replacement for the U.S.-ROK nuclear cooperation agreement that expires in 2016.
Controversial or not, Japan’s leaders feel compelled to push forward with Rokkasho and through an agreement under section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act,13 they enjoy the support of the United States government. American consent to Rokkasho is only guaranteed through 2018, but the United States, which granted consent in 1988 largely out of deference to diplomatic concerns, for the same reason is highly unlikely to withdraw consent in 2018. Given the effective concurrence of the 2018 date with U.S.-ROK negotiations and the looming startup of Rokkasho in the face of low (or no) capacity to consume MOX, timing has become extremely awkward.
As Rokkasho proceeds towards restart, public reaction from Washington has been surprisingly muted. Perhaps this reflects appreciation for the energy conundrum in which Japan finds itself, or tacit consent that bringing Japan’s nuclear industry back onto solid footing after the Fukushima disaster was always going to be awkward—Japan has an inherent chicken or egg dilemma in restarting Rokkasho and its reactors. But the reality is that Japan’s situation puts Washington in a very tough spot. Washington is effectively complicit in what might appear to be Japanese disregard for its own commitments to global nonproliferation. This poses a risk to the global nonproliferation regime and American credibility on the subject.
Global nonproliferation principles undoubtedly remain a high priority for Japan. But it is likely that in the short term, the eyes of Japan’s leaders are focused more intently on bringing nuclear reactors back on line. Particularly in the context of Prime Minister Abe’s provocative views on history, the perception outside of Japan is certain to be one of alarm if Japan is seen to be separating plutonium without a credible pathway for its disposition. While the coincidence of the 2016/2018 Korea and Japan 123 agreements and Japan’s reentry into nuclear energy will shine a spotlight on the American role in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle scheme, it is seen as highly unlikely that the United States will attempt to withdraw from or renegotiate the 123 agreement with Japan irrespective of Japan’s plutonium balance concerns. This will effectively make the United States appear complicit in Japan’s growing inventory of plutonium.
For the United States, this situation has consequences on three fronts. Firstly, Japan’s apparent failure to abide by its plutonium commitments undercuts American interests in limiting fuel cycle capabilities through treaty agreements. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ongoing U.S.-ROK 123 agreement negotiations. Secondly, Japan is a leader, if not the symbolic face of the global nonproliferation regime. For Japan to be separating plutonium for no demonstrable purpose dramatically undercuts its own leadership on nonproliferation and aggravates the already controversial precedent it sets with its fuel cycle program, elevating the risk of proliferation in the region. Thirdly, at just the time when the United States is working to underscore its alliance with Japan as the bedrock of its security presence in East Asia, Japan’s growing plutonium surplus will only exacerbate concerns of Japan’s return to militarism, eroding its legitimacy and efficacy as a partner in regional security.
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the United States has appeared somewhat ambivalent in its response to Japan’s efforts to restart its nuclear energy system. However, the American stake in Japan’s road ahead is profound. While it is not the case in all foreign capitals, in Tokyo, opinions and preferences from Washington are meaningful. Washington, particularly the Department of State and Department of Energy, has an opportunity to protect American interests by formulating and articulating an unambiguous American position on Japan’s path forward on nuclear energy to Japan’s leadership.
The critical interest of the United States would be for Japan to demonstrate clear commitment to the no-surplus plutonium policy and to the global nonproliferation regime. As elements of a policy that might be necessary to make that happen, the United States should urge Japan’s leadership and utilities to:
- Articulate a plan for plutonium disposition that provides quantifiable and publicly demonstrable benchmarks for reducing Japan’s plutonium inventory.
- Call for official, temporary suspension of operations at Rokkasho until MOX burners or another credible disposition pathway for Japan’s separated fissile materials, is available.
- Advocate operating Rokkasho (if and when started), at an output rate that is no more than commensurate with plutonium disposition goals and available means for plutonium disposition.
- Encourage utilization of temporary dry-cask storage of spent nuclear fuel in order to enhance safety at reactor sites while expanding nuclear fuel cycle policy options. One of the rare positive stories to emerge from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was the robustness of dry cask storage. Utilities and the government should capitalize on this success story and prioritize arrangements with local communities to allow for expeditious transfer of spent nuclear fuel from wet-storage to on-site dry casks.
There is no nuclear weapons program in Japan’s foreseeable future. However, there is a significant risk of an outward appearance that suggests otherwise to South Korea, China, North Korea, Iran, and the rest of the world. Whether or not appearance differs from reality, the real world consequences would likely be the same. While Japan has serious and immediate energy concerns, it also has a very deep and fundamental commitment to global nonproliferation. With support from friends in Washington, Japan must face its looming nuclear energy challenges head on with eyes fully open. The stakes are too high to allow current circumstances to dictate their own outcomes.
Next year is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The event would provide a fitting platform for Prime Minister Abe to recognize opportunities in Japan’s current crisis and make bold decisions on Japan’s nuclear energy program. The right decisions can help regain global confidence in Japan’s intentions, while reminding the world of Japan’s unwavering commitment to nuclear safety and nonproliferation. The anniversary would make an equally unfortunate occasion to demonstrate otherwise.
Ryan Shaffer is an Associate Director of Programs at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he manages Japan and Northeast Asia policy programs including the Mansfield-FAS U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group. Prior to joining the Mansfield Foundation, Mr. Shaffer served as a research analyst for the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.
New Report Analyzing Iran’s Nuclear Program Costs and Risks
Iran’s quest for the development of nuclear program has been marked by enormous financial costs and risks. It is estimated that the program’s cost is well over $100 billion, with the construction of the Bushehr reactor costing over $11 billion, making it one of the most expensive reactors in the world.
The Federation of American Scientists and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have released a new report, “Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey: Costs and Risks” which analyzes the economic effects of Iran’s nuclear program, and policy implications of sanctions and other actions by the United States and other allies. Co-authored by Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour, the report details the history of the program, beginning with its inception under the Shah in 1957, and how the Iranian government has continue to grow their nuclear capabilities under a shroud of secrecy. Coupled with Iran’s limited supply of uranium and insecure stockpiles of nuclear materials, along with Iran’s desire to invest in nuclear energy to revitalize their energy sector (which is struggling due to international sanctions), the authors examine how these huge costs have led to few benefits.
The report analyzes the policy implications of Iran’s nuclear program for the United States and its allies, concluding that economic sanctions nor military force cannot end this prideful program; it is imperative that a diplomatic solution is reached to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. Finally, efforts need to be made to the Iranians from Washington which clearly state that America and its allies prefer a prosperous and peaceful Iran versus an isolated and weakened Iran. Public diplomacy and nuclear diplomacy must go hand in hand.
Japan’s Role as Leader for Nuclear Nonproliferation
A country with few natural resources, first Japan began to develop nuclear power technologies in 1954. Nuclear energy assisted with Japanese economic development and reconstruction post World War II. However, with the fear of lethal ash and radioactive fallout and the lingering effects from the 2011 accident at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, there are many concerns related to Japanese nonproliferation, security and nuclear policy.
In a FAS issue brief, Ms. Kazuko Goto, Research Fellow of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology of the Government of Japan, writes of Japan’s advancement of nuclear technologies which simultaneously benefits international nonproliferation policies.
The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States
In the wake of the devastating meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, many Americans are now reevaluating the costs and benefits of nuclear energy. If anything, the accident underscores that constant vigilance is needed to ensure nuclear safety.
Policymakers and the public need more guidance about where nuclear power in the United States appears to be headed in light of the economic hurdles confronting construction of nuclear power plants, aging reactors, and a graying workforce, according to a report (PDF) by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Washington and Lee University.