Nuclear power can address two 'existential threats', says former US official

16 September 2015

The nuclear power industry has a unique role to play in tackling two "existential threats" facing all humanity - climate change and nuclear war, Daniel Poneman, president and CEO of Centrus Energy Corp told delegates at the World Nuclear Association's Annual Symposium in London last week. From 2009 to 2014, Poneman was US deputy secretary of energy and also served as the COO of the US Department of Energy.

History will record 2015 as a pivotal year for both of those existential threats, Poneman said.

"First, when it comes to the most pressing global proliferation threat - the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons - the P5+1 and Iran have concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which will constrain Iran's nuclear program and subject it to enhanced international monitoring. Second, three months from now, negotiators from 190 nations will meet in Paris for historic climate talks aimed at finding a way to limit global warming to 2°C this century - an ambitious target that many scientists say is necessary to avert the worst consequences of the change in climate," he said.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) "has urged with growing insistence", he said, "that the window available to take action to deal with this threat effectively is closing rapidly".

Reading a quote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - "The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to do in the first place" – Poneman said, "If our goal is to address climate change and to reduce the threat of proliferation, then we must have a strong and focused nuclear power policy that supports both things". This means that laws, regulations and public policies "should not pit one carbon-free energy source against the other", he said.

Citing World Nuclear Association data, Poneman said there are at least 60 reactors under construction and at least 500 more that are planned or proposed around the world. At the same time, however, the industry is constrained by competition for alternatives and issues regarding cost, safety, environmental factors and non-proliferation, he said.

Poneman praised World Nuclear Association director general Agneta Rising for her speech at the Symposium, during which she said the industry should aim to add 1000 GWe of new nuclear power by 2050. He said: "Interestingly, the IEA view is largely consistent with that, telling us that we need 930 GWe of new nuclear by 2050 if we are to do our part in meeting the 2 Degree Scenario." He was referring to Paris-based IEA's report Energy Technology Perspectives 2015, which argues that the transformation to clean-energy is progressing at levels well short of those needed to limit the global increase in temperature to no more than 2°C.

Using Centrus Energy as an example, Poneman said that a "robust nuclear growth scenario" will require many things, including reliable fuel supply and strong competition with multiple suppliers. Centrus Energy was formerly known as United States Enrichment Corp.

"While we view ourselves as an important partner in supporting the US national security mission, we are also keenly focused on providing our LEU customers with reliable, on-time deliveries on commercially attractive terms. While current uranium prices will not support investment in global new capacity today, we are also keenly focused on ensuring that our own suppliers can count on us to be reliable counterparties," he said. "Today's market has too much supply but not too many suppliers. We are optimistic about the long term that, eventually, the market will support investment in new enrichment capacity. To be able to commit to that 2 Degree Scenario, we’ll need to more than double our enrichment capacity by 2050."


The issue of Iran's potential to have nuclear weapons has "riveted the world's attention and has great relevance for our industry", he said.

"Iran has justified its activities under the colour of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have responded consistently and forcefully that this program has serious proliferation concerns. Now that a deal has been reached the hard work will continue. Both the supporters and opponents of this deal are intently focused on the need for enforcement and verification of compliance. Much of that work will fall to the IAEA, but there's one aspect where our industry can play a useful role - shaping the environment surrounding the reliable supply of nuclear fuel services in the years ahead," he said.

Poneman put forward the idea of "international consortia" being created between now and that time to provide a "set of guarantees" that Iran, or any NPT compliant nuclear energy program, would have assured access to civilian nuclear fuel.

"Could such a set of assurances be relied upon? I'd say that they could if the following conditions were met - the fuel services provided come from a variety of sources, thus ensuring diverse, secure and competitive supplies; the assurances would always be based on IAEA safeguards or other non-proliferation requirements as determined by the IAEA and/or the UN Security Council; the assurances would be supported by backstopping national commitments which in turn could be backed up by IAEA assurances," he said.

An example of this is the IAEA Fuel Bank that was launched last month in Kazakhstan. This could be reinforced, he said, by other forms of peaceful nuclear cooperation in areas such as advanced technology, the fuel cycle and small modular reactors, in order to underscore the net benefits of participating in this program.

"We are living in critical times. In the 1940s Albert Einstein wrote a letter to fellow scientists calling atomic energy 'the most revolutionary force since pre-historic man discovered fire'. He warned that: 'This basic power of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms. For there is no secret and there is no defence; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world'. Now, almost 70 years later, his words are a poignant reminder of our shared responsibility to unleash this power for constructive rather than destructive ends."

The nuclear power industry has "the understanding, the capabilities and the resources to execute this important mission for the benefit of our citizens, our customers, our stakeholders and the world," he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News