Nuclear waste is the duty of governments

John Ritch, Director General at the World Nuclear Association and  former adviser to US President Bill Clinton, spoke to an audience of graduates at the Sixth Annual Summer Institute of the World Nuclear University at Christ Church, Oxford last week. Here by permission of World Nuclear University we publish some excerpts from his remarks, which include a few chosen responses that he believes can be used to defend the industry with convinction and clarity in the current economic and geopolitical climate.

When it comes to nuclear waste, “It is the duty of governments – following the lead of Finland, Sweden, Russia and others – to summon the political will to implement this crucial component of the nuclear fuel cycle,” said John Ritch, Director General at the World Nuclear Association and  former adviser to US President Bill Clinton to an audience of graduates at the Sixth Annual Summer Institute of the World Nuclear University at Christ Church, Oxford. 

His speech, A Responsibility of Leadership: Presenting and Defending the Global Imperative of Nuclear Power, provides some interesting insights into which issues and which people will ultimately shape the future of nuclear energy across the globe.

We have published some excerpts:

“…Even amidst the dawning of a nuclear renaissance, you know that it is not always easy to make this case, for our world has absorbed much mythology about nuclear energy – mythology that has often been fostered and spread, ironically, by groups that think of themselves as speaking in the interest of the environment.

“As custodians of nuclear energy, it is our responsibility to break through those myths with persuasive facts and argumentation.

“I simply wish to mention some of the most commonly voiced public concerns, and quickly highlight points you might make when those concerns are raised.”

“Answering Public Concerns with Clarity and Conviction
“As a premise, it bears emphasis that we must welcome the right and the responsibility of our fellow citizens to express and act on legitimate concerns about the public interest.
“But what is notable about the “public concerns” we so often hear about in the media is that, upon fair and balanced examination, not one poses a reasonable obstacle to a global expansion of nuclear power.

“Indeed, several of these concerns are associated with myths that are very close to the opposite of the truth.”

“Number One: Proliferation. On the topic of nuclear proliferation, I believe our starting point should be a recognition of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as nothing less than one of the great achievements in the history of international diplomacy.

“The NPT has created a widely accepted norm – adhered to by virtually every country in the world – built on the premise that the interests of international security will be served by maintaining a line against any further expansion in the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons.

“The NPT is not perfect; nothing is.

“The nuclear “have’s” – including my own country – have been too slow to disarm, as the treaty calls upon them to do.

“Three countries have not joined the NPT.

“And there are occasional departures from adherence to the treaty, as we have seen in the cases of North Korea, Iraq, and now – in a story still unfolding – Iran.

“But what is remarkable, I believe, is the positive side: that NPT participation is almost universal, that the nuclear weapons situation has remained generally stable for a very long time, and that long-term adherence to the NPT norm now serves to generate a collective international concern targeted directly at those few countries that flout the norm.

“…But, as custodians of the peaceful and valuable use of nuclear energy, the essential truths we must emphasize are these:

“Fundamentally, nuclear proliferation danger comes not from the mere existence of nuclear facilities, but from the intentions of those who possess them. The intent of an Iran or a North Korea is a geopolitical variable that is entirely independent of whether countries like Brazil, Canada, South Africa, South Korea or Australia develop additional nuclear fuel-cycle facilities.

“Where specific problems arise, the international community must develop specific responses. And that has occurred.

“The questions of Iranian or North Korean nuclear intentions have been front and center on the international agenda since the early 1990’s – indeed, I worked on exactly those two issues when I was President’s Clinton’s nuclear ambassador 15 years ago.

“But these issues would exist with or without the global renaissance in peaceful nuclear power.

“What we must further emphasize to our fellow citizens is the positive connection between nuclear energy and international security.

“Given the environmental dangers that beset our world today, there is in fact no global security measure more urgent or important than the nuclear renaissance itself.

“ Thus, the expansion of nuclear power must proceed in parallel with, and not be delayed by, ongoing efforts to strengthen the IAEA-led framework within which peaceful nuclear technology is employed.

“Number Two: Operational Safety. When safety concerns are raised, we must emphasize that our industry has met this challenge through technological advance and responsible professional management. This progress has built a global nuclear safety culture that now draws on over 14,100 reactor-years of practical experience.

“As a matter of mathematics, there are 440 reactors in the world and 365 days in a year, so this number inches upward by one reactor-year every 20 hours.

“You can follow this steady growth on the homepage of the WNA website.

“ Just as the NPT stands as a great feat in traditional diplomacy, the creation of WANO two decades ago – with its network of safety cooperation encompassing every power reactor worldwide – represents an historic attainment in private-sector diplomacy.

“We must do so because the nuclear industry’s greatest responsibility today is to perpetuate its already impressive record of nuclear safety. It is on this foundation that the nuclear renaissance will be built.

“Number three: Cost / Affordability. When concerns are raised about cost, we have several battles to fight:

“First, we must counter the widespread notion that nuclear power is heavily subsidized. Certainly it is true that governments in a number of countries have, over the years, invested substantially in researching nuclear technology.

“But this is quite distinct from an operational subsidy by which electricity generation is incentivized by direct government payment
“Nor should we accept the allegation that government loan guarantees for new-build constitute a subsidy.

“Guarantees do reduce the cost of borrowing by assuring repayment. And they add further to the incentive to borrow by assuring borrowers that the government is committed to the success of new build and can thus be counted on to remove unwarranted obstacles.

“But the bottom line is that the national treasury will pocket a profitable fee for its guarantee service, which means that the taxpayer will earn rather than spend. Loan guarantees in fact constitute the ultimate win-win deal, in which new-build is facilitated by lower cost, fulfilling a valuable public policy purpose at a gain to the taxpayer.

“In the United States, I predict that you will see expanded nuclear loan guarantees emerge as one of the few major policies on which Democrats and Republicans can agree.

“While loan guarantees reduce the cost of borrowing, they do little to reduce the principal that needs to be borrowed – the capital cost.

“And here our industry has much work left to do.

“Ten years ago, the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington pointed to a target of reducing capital costs to a dollar a watt, or $1 billion per Gigawatt.

“Today, in the early stages of the nuclear renaissance, we find ourselves at three or four times that level.

“Number Four: Waste. As to nuclear waste, which is often alleged to be the industry’s insoluble problem, industry and government have the joint task of building public recognition that, contrary to common perception, waste is nuclear power’s greatest comparative asset – precisely because the volume is minimal and can be safely managed without harm to people or the environment.

“…Where major responsibility lies now is with governments.

“A strong scientific consensus favours deep geological repositories as a safe and affordable means of achieving long-term storage of nuclear waste.

“It is the duty of governments – following the lead of Finland, Sweden, Russia and others – to summon the political will to implement this crucial component of the nuclear fuel cycle.

“For its part, the United States, having begun and then deviated from this path, must eventually return to it; and the sooner the better.”

“Number Five: A New Concern: Terrorism. A new public concern is terrorism, and here we must rely on facts, common sense and public education to overcome exaggerated concern.
“…The use of a radiological device in a modern city – often called a weapon of mass disruption – is clearly a security concern in many countries, and one not to be discounted. But what can be said with some confidence is that, if such a device is ever used, the radiological material will almost surely – for simple reasons of availability – come from a source such as a hospital and not from the nuclear power industry.
“Number six: New Red Herrings: Chronic Shortages of Fuel, People, Key Equipment.
In addition to traditional public concerns about proliferation, safety, cost, and waste – and the new concern about terrorism – a few additional questions have recently been introduced into the energy debate by opponents of nuclear energy purporting to be industry analysts.
“A “red herring” is an idiomatic way of describing a phoney or diversionary issue, and it sometimes seems that nuclear professionals are condemned to swim in a sea of these fish. Three new red herrings have now appeared in our sea.
“Regarding nuclear fuel, the industry has full confidence that a combination of factors – new ore discoveries, new mining techniques, more reprocessing, introduction of the thorium fuel cycle, and employment of breeder reactors – will ensure ample and affordable nuclear fuel supplies into the distant future.
“Regarding people, we need only recall that the education required for those who will operate a reactor can accomplished while a reactor is being built.

“…In today’s real nuclear world, we can be certain that a stream of new reactor builds around the world will register itself strongly in the educational and career choices of top young scientists and engineers everywhere.
“Finally, as to key nuclear reactor equipment, anyone who believes that a demand for engineering and manufacturing services will long go unmet in today’s globalized market, hasn’t recently been to Asia.

“There, major companies are gearing up, indeed working around the clock, to meet the demands they anticipate from a burgeoning global nuclear market.

“Turning to the Positive
“All of these concerns – from proliferation to the new red herrings – are regularly repeated by anti-nuclear organizations and seldom given serious examination by poorly informed journalists, who tend to rely on the easy convention that there are two sides to every story, and also to follow the old principle that alarmism sells newspapers.

“As nuclear leaders, one of your responsibilities is to patiently rebut these falsehoods…”