US energy secretary lists priorities at IAEA meeting

22 September 2014

Ernest Moniz, US energy secretary, summarized the five key areas he had already discussed during the first day of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) General Conference - peaceful cooperation, safety, security, non-proliferation and disarmament.

Moniz at IAEA GC 2014 - 460 (US-UN Mission Vienna)
Moniz spoke to reporters during the IAEA General Conference (Image: US-UN Mission Vienna)

The USA "strongly supports" the IAEA's Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI) and is "actively considering the issues of the next steps and the potential for expanding it beyond the five-year period," he said.

Moniz was referring to the $50 million, five-year pledge the USA announced when the IAEA established the PUI in 2010 to raise extra-budgetary funds for its activities that promote the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The PUI supports implementation of Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

On safety, the USA has emphasized at the General Conference "its continuing commitment to developing the small modular reactor option as one that could be very attractive, starting in the next decade, and which certainly has very good safety and security features," Moniz said.

A "new development" regarding security, he said, is that "more than 50 kg of HEU [high-enriched uranium] has just been moved from Poland," Moniz said. "The USA worked with Russia cooperatively to accomplish that – taking one more step in our long-term process of removing and in many cases eliminating HEU and plutonium from various countries."

Concerning non-proliferation, Moniz underlined the "critical importance" of collaboration with the IAEA. "Whether it's Iran, Syria or North Korea, the IAEA is central to what we are trying to accomplish in our non-proliferation programs."

On disarmament, Moniz noted that the USA is "working hard" at its Article VI obligations. "We have eliminated 26,000 strategic warheads, 85% of the Cold War maximum. As the president [Barack Obama] re-emphasized in his Berlin Speech last year, this will all come together in the Nuclear Security Summit that the president will host in 2016."

Article VI of the NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.

The first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington DC in 2010. In June 2013, Obama announced that the USA would host what is presumed will be the final such summit in 2016. "We haven't set a date yet but that will be pretty early in 2016. We hope that our summit will provide a lot of momentum for the IAEA in its second security conference, which it will hold at the end of that year," Moniz said.


Asked about the USA's current plans for development of the American Centrifuge Plant - an advanced uranium enrichment facility in Piketon - Moniz said: "We are maintaining the current centrifuges that have been put into operation at Portsmouth [Ohio]."

The US Department of Energy (DoE) is taking over the American Centrifuge Plant project from bankrupt United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC).

"We are evaluating the path forward, with first an inter-agency re-evaluation of what are our needs in terms of amounts and schedule both for tritium and eventually for any potential need, which we don't anticipate, of enriched uranium for our defence purposes. Clearly, the issue here is that for defence purposes we need American-origin technology, American-origin uranium, American-origin reactors, etc. So we are evaluating again whether or not we move to a full nuclear defence train of centrifuges. And that's a decision we hope to come to over the next several months," he said.

Moniz could not respond to questions about Global Laser Enrichment – General Electric's development of an uranium enrichment services capability – or about ITER - the international project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor – "because I am for two years recused from discussing those issues."


Asked about the DoE's Savannah River Site (SRS) and the potential market price for separated plutonium used from mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, Moniz said: "Our MOX project has got nothing to do with our reprocessing at this stage; this is about disposal of the 34 tonnes and on that we remain in a dialogue within the Administration and with Congress in terms of whether that is in fact going to be the path forward."

In 2000, the United States and Russia signed a bilateral agreement stipulating that each country would commit to eliminating 34 tonnes of surplus military plutonium produced during the Cold War by recycling it as fuel for civil nuclear applications. In 2008, the DoE made an agreement with a joint venture created by the Areva and Shaw groups for the construction of a MOX fuel production plant. The decision was made to build one plant on the Savannah River site, in Aiken, South Carolina, as part of the American plutonium recycling program.

SRS is also home to the Savannah River National Laboratory and the USA's only operating radiochemical separations facility. Its tritium facilities are also the USA's only source of tritium, an essential component in nuclear weapons. The USA's only MOX manufacturing plant is being constructed at SRS overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration. When operational, the MOX facility will convert legacy weapons-grade plutonium into fuel suitable for commercial power reactors.

"The only issue is can we afford it, given the substantial escalation in cost since this was put forward," Moniz said. "We have argued that this would be a good time to evaluate all the pathways in terms of what we can do. That in turn would involve discussions with Russia as well but that’s all in play and when the fiscal year 2015 budget is hopefully, eventually passed by the Congress that will do a lot in terms of congressional intent with regard to that path forward."

In the global arena, commercial reprocessing of MOX is being done in France and potentially in Japan, for example. "Our issue is that first of all, and we've it made pretty clear, we are not interested, or supportive frankly, certainly in the United States, of moving forward with a MOX fuel cycle, quite distinct from disposing of the military sources. On the other hand, we certainly understand Japan's desire to move forward," he said. "A major concern that we have, and the Japanese have this as a policy, is we do not have accumulation of separated plutonium beyond what is in some sense the working amount for MOX. Clearly in Japan, if and when a significant number of nuclear reactors are restarted, well, by definition, there will not be an end use for the MOX until that happens."

China and Russia

Asked for his comment on China, which this year marks its 30th anniversary of membership of the IAEA, Moniz said he had been involved in a number of the nuclear discussions with the Chinese government in the last year and a half as energy secretary. "As far as I can tell, we certainly share the same commitments to seeing nuclear power as an important option going forward, 'emissions-free', both of conventional pollutants and CO2. We both understand completely the issue of needing strong regulation for safety purposes."

"We have cooperated with China in establishing a security centre which is under construction and has regard to work with third countries." Moniz was referring to the Centre of Excellence on Nuclear Safety in the Chanyang science and technology park in Beijing that is expected to be up and running next year. The centre will have laboratories, exhibition areas, classrooms, test sites and response force exercise facilities.

"China is obviously part of the P5+1, and it is very important that all of us keep working together to have these countries comply with international norms - UN security council norms, IAEA norms. I think right now we are short of that standard in terms of compliance by those countries. We look forward to working with all of the P5 and P5+1 in terms of advancing that."

P5 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the USA; +1 is Germany.

Moniz refused "to get into the specifics of ongoing negotiations" between the USA and China, but said that "no agreement has yet been reached with Iran - though there are negotiations going on there this week – and this needs all of the P5+1 to be on the same page."

Asked about the agreement Pakistan and China signed in March 2013 for Chinese National Nuclear Corp to supply two ACP-1000 units on a turnkey basis at the Chashma Nuclear Power Complex in the Punjab region of Pakistan, Moniz said, "Anything done, frankly anywhere, has to be done under the highest standards of safeguards and the appropriateness of technology utilization. There will be some very detailed issues to be explored in terms of the technologies incorporated in any such project. Otherwise that's probably a question for the Department of State."

There is a "substantial strain" in the relationship between the USA and Russia at the moment "for obvious reasons", Moniz said, referring to the unrest in Ukraine. "Nevertheless, on a case-by-case basis, we continue to cooperate with Russia on those areas of mutual nuclear security concern … With regard to science and energy projects that are not in that category … there is not a lot of activity at the moment and we are going to have to see how issues in Ukraine are resolved."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News