We spent a weekend considering how to deal with the results of past civil and military nuclear policies which had produced great quantities of radioactive debris for which there was at present no agreed long-term disposal plan. Without publicly understood and accepted policies, the difficulties of maintaining, let alone developing, the civil nuclear industry appeared to us to be problematic. From time to time, the temptation to veer away from our strict conference theme and discuss the future of nuclear power, proved irresistible, but we returned faithfully after a brief excursion.
In a short survey of the world energy market we were told that nuclear energy accounted for 17% of electricity generation. In Europe the overall figure was 35% with 20% in the USA, the world’s biggest generator of nuclear power. If nuclear generation were cut back rapidly, as planned in Sweden and in Germany, then the chances of meeting the CO2 emission targets agreed at Kyoto would be slight.
Mention of global warming took us off on a debate which resurfaced throughout the conference. One line of argument was that the need to meet global warming targets would inexorably drive governments to approve increases in nuclear power generation. Public perception of the dangers of global warming would build support for such policies. This view was contested on a number of counts. Although most scientists agreed that activity on the globe was affecting world weather patterns it was not clear what the long-term effects would turn out to be. It might not be sensible to base our policies on unproven science.
In the debate about global warming, US policies came in for a fair amount of criticism – 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Without an American lead, other countries would not make the necessary efforts to meet their own Kyoto targets. US participants commented that no US administration in an election year would be likely to take unpopular action over energy. Nor were the pressures of global warming, or external criticism, likely to be sufficiently strong to move the next US administration in this direction. We concluded rather gloomily that disagreement between the US, its partners in the developed world and industrialising countries in the developing world, was likely to grow in the years ahead. We were told, however, that the US was likely to renew perhaps up to 60% of the licences of its existing nuclear power generators when they came up for renewal in 10-20 years time. And this notwithstanding the fact that no long term policy had been agreed for dealing with the waste they continued to produce. Deep storage plans had been made for the Yucca Mountain but there was still no agreement on their use as the possible effects on the local environment had not yet been satisfactorily addressed.
We asked ourselves whether agreement on waste disposal was a precondition for public consent to future use of nuclear generation. Most agreed that this was a critical issue. Accidents like Chernobyl or more recently in Japan, although not directly connected with nuclear waste, gave the whole industry a bad name. Others argued that nuclear waste – there was about 130,000 tonnes globally of which 1% was plutonium – had been successfully stored for over forty years. This should give some grounds for confidence that the problem could be managed. We looked at the cost of renewing the present “temporary” storage facilities when they come to the end of their operational life of 50 or so years but acknowledged that surface storage was unlikely to be acceptable as a long term solution. Some questions also remained over deep storage, which was the most widely endorsed method of long-term disposal. Although many natural uranium seams appeared to be stable, with little or no seepage into eg the water table, environmentalists argued that the process of depositing nuclear waste could in itself cause the geological nature of the surrounding rock to change.
This led us back to the question of perception and reality. It was argued that unless the nuclear industry embarked on a more aggressive public information campaign, its future would remain uncertain. It was not enough to hope that public opinion would move in favour of nuclear power because of global warming or the effects on public health of increased coal generated power. (We were given the striking statistic that there had been a 40% deterioration in the quality of air in Toronto over two years following a switch from nuclear to coal generation.) Some maintained, it would not be enough for the nuclear industry to talk to the public. It would need to listen too. The public’s fears might be unsound from a scientific point of view, but they were nonetheless real.
We examined the future demand curve for electricity which showed a steep rise in the forecast demand for developing countries. Might nuclear power be needed to help meet this? The pressures would be particularly strong in those countries where alternative indigenous sources of carbon based fuel were not available. In the developed world France had shown that it was possible to build a consensus around a policy of extensive nuclear power generation (which now meets 80% of their electricity requirement).
This caused us to look at alternatives. The possibility of meeting a large part of the increasing demand through increasing efficiency should, it was argued, not be underestimated. Alternative sources could also change the equation. Photovoltaic cells, Methane Hydrates and Hydrogen were mentioned. Renewables could play a more important part. Some commentators had gone so far as to predict that, in the next century the nuclear industry might not be an inescapable element in the power equation. We owed it to future generations to ensure that the technical knowledge and ability to build new nuclear power-stations was maintained. We should not foreclose their options.
We considered the question of subsidies, described by some as “perverse”. Some countries had introduced carbon taxes to reduce CO2 emissions. Illogically, these taxes also applied to nuclear energy. We concluded that it had always been difficult to establish the true cost of one form of energy as compared with another because of hidden and other subsidies. Almost uniquely, the nuclear industry had been obliged to account for its through life costs. If other forms of carbon based energy were obliged to pay their true social costs the picture could look quite different.
Inevitably we returned time and again to the question of nuclear-waste disposal (the predominant question in the nuclear debate in the UK). The Russians hoped that their new generations of fast breeder reactor would prove a break-through but critics claimed that the technology was still uncertain. Indeed, given the abundance of uranium, many in the industry now claimed that single-cycle production was preferable. We discussed the merits of reprocessing and Mox conversion without agreement between those who disliked the danger of long-distance transportation and those who considered it worthwhile on the grounds that it made use of a valuable energy source as well as providing a useful way of helping to deal with nuclear waste.
In this context we discussed the possible links between civil and military waste. In marketing terms, the advocates of civil nuclear power were strongly against any link with military programmes. The words “nuclear” and “plutonium” had the worst possible connotations in the public’s mind. In practical terms, however, it was argued that this could be portrayed as a serious contribution by the civil nuclear industry to dealing eg with former Soviet nuclear weapons which were being dismantled as a result of arms control treaties and whose safety and storage were of concern to the West.
The question of managing existing military nuclear stockpiles was examined and gave rise to some gloomy conclusions. US/Russian arms control talks were stalled. The Russians’ economic weakness, and the political instability of their leadership, made them suspicious of the West. This mood was heightened by NATO expansion eastward and, of particular relevance to the nuclear question, US determination to develop a National Missile Defence System had effectively stalled ratification of START II. In the short term it seemed unlikely that the situation would change.
Dealing with the radioactive propulsion systems in the Russian submarine fleets was considered a serious problem. The costs involved were enormous and even though there was some Western technical assistance over, for example, the design of flasks to help with dry storage, it was proceeding very slowly. And it was argued that the west had its priorities wrong. An open lake in Russia was currently being used to store spent fuel. The level of radiation was very high with the added risk that high winds could disperse the radiation over a large area causing even more severe problems. $30m spent on dealing with this would be better spent than billions on the submarines. Perhaps the only mildly encouraging area on the military side had been that the West’s concerns about wide-spread proliferation of Soviet weapons or weapons or weapons grade material had turned out so far to be less dangerous than had been feared. The recovery of highly enriched uranium from research reactors was, however, a worry and the Russians should be assisted in this. Of the international instruments of control, the NPT had, we agreed, been by far the most successful. Its future efficacy could, however, be put at risk by the debate in the US over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and US plans for a missile defence system.
The conference concluded by agreeing that given the increasing level of global interdependence, and the centrality of energy in all our economies, solutions could only be found through international debate leading, it was to be hoped, to internationally agreed guidelines. If our goal was sustainable development and we wished to avoid leaving a heavy inheritance to succeeding generations, then funds would have to be devoted to thinking through the best ways of utilising nuclear fuel, including its waste disposal. What was needed was a long-term strategy which established safety and other goals internationally and gave us a means of measuring success or failure. Only then might is be possible to gain public consent for an energy source which had many advantages but which still remained highly controversial.
This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Chairman: The Rt Hon John Gummer MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative); formerly Secretary of State for the Environment
Dr Romney Duffey
Principal Scientist, Research and Product Development, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd
Professor Franklyn Griffiths
Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Toronto
Dr William T Hancox
Vice-President, Marketing and Sales, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd
Mr Bernard M Michel
Chair, President and Chief Executive Officer, Cameco Corporation
Mr Ronald W Osborne
President and Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation Inc
M Jean-Marie Lavie
Radiological Safety and Radioactive Waste Management Consultant
M Christian Stoffaës
Director, International Prospects Unit, Electricité de France
Professor Atsuyuki Suzuki
Department of Quantum Engineering and Systems Science, University of Tokyo
M Philippe Savelli
Deputy Director, Science, Computing and Development, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency
Dr Mary Archer
Chairman, National Energy Foundation
Mr Mark Baker CBE
Formerly Chairman, Magnox Electric plc
Mr Peter Beck
Associate Fellow, Royal Institute of Industrial Affairs
Mr Gerald Clark CMG
Secretary-General, The Uranium Institute
The Lord Craig of Radley GCB OBE
Member, House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology
Professor Ian Fells
Principal, Fells Associates (Consultants in energy and environment)
Sir John Guinness CB
Formerly Chairman, British Nuclear Fuels plc
Mr Ray Hall
Chairman, British Nuclear Industry Forum
The Rt Hon the Lord Jenkin of Roding PC
Member, House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology
Mr Doug Kirk
Head, Design Process Development, Corporate Engineering, BNFL plc
Ms Helen Leiser
Director, Nuclear Industries Directorate, Department of Trade and Industry
Dr Gordon Mackerron
Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex University
Professor Norman Myers CMG
Consultant in Environment and Development
Mr Paul Roper
Assistant Chief Scientific Adviser (Nuclear), Ministry of Defence
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding
Dr Rachel Western
Nuclear Researcher, Friends of the Earth
Mr Laurence Williams
Director, Nuclear Safety Director Health and Safety Executive
Professor Valery Kukhar
National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Dr Thomas Cochran
Director, Nuclear Program and Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy, The Natural Resources Defense Council
Mr Joe F Colvin
President and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington
Mr Thomas G Dignan Jr
Litigation Partner, Ropes & Gray (specialists i.a. in nuclear energy law)
Dr Donald L Guertin
Director, Program on Energy and the Environment, The Atlantic Council
Dr Joerg H Menzel
Executive Vice President, Edlow International Company
Professor Richard Wilson
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, Harvard University