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Deputy Secretary Poneman's Remarks at a Conference Hosted by Center for Transatlantic Relations & the Atlantic Council Conference - As Prepared for Delivery

May 31, 2011 - 6:07pm


Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman

Remarks – As Prepared for Delivery

“After Fukushima: The Future of Nuclear Energy in the United States and Europe”

Conference Hosted by the Center on Transatlantic Relations & the Atlantic Council

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Washington, DC

Good morning.  Thank you, Ambassador Volker, for the introduction, and thank you for the invitation to speak here today.

As you heard from the President throughout his European visit last week, the deep and enduring partnership between the U.S. and Europe remains strong today.  We are committed to working together with our allies from across the Atlantic to confront the global challenges of the 21st century and to advance our shared values in energy and across a broad range of issues.

This includes, among many other topics, promoting sustainable economic growth, supporting democratic reforms around the world, fostering innovation through research and education, assuring nuclear safety, and strengthening the global nonproliferation regime.

Appropriately, the goals of this global cooperation expand on the efforts we are undertaking domestically.  Specifically in the energy arena, the development of America’s clean energy economy has been a top priority of President Obama and this Administration from the outset.

Why is that? 

First, it’s because the President recognizes that advancing clean energy innovation and diversifying our energy portfolio is essential for our economic, environmental and national security.

Second, as the global market for low-carbon energy technologies continues to grow dramatically, investments in next generation technologies will be critical to maintain and to expand U.S. leadership in the global economy.

And third, clean energy offers tremendous opportunities to create new industries and new jobs here in America and to strengthen our economic prosperity for generations to come.

Building on the Administration’s initial investments laying the groundwork for a clean energy economy, in his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama set the bold but achievable goal of doubling the amount of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources – from 40 percent to 80 percent – by 2035.

Clearly that goal can only be met if we use all the low-carbon tools at our disposal, and in this spirit the President has consistently made it clear that he continues to see nuclear energy as an important part of America’s diverse energy portfolio.

Just as clearly, however, the President has consistently made it clear that we put safety first, when it comes to nuclear and indeed all sources of energy.  We did not need the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting nuclear accident at the Fukushima reactor to remind us of this fundamental point, but Fukushima does serve to bring safety back to the forefront of the public discussion on nuclear energy.  And that is a good thing.

We have known for years that a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. 

So it is really not surprising that the international community rallied as one to support Japan in their moment of need. 

I had a number of calls in the early days from my colleagues in other governments with significant nuclear programs, including many of our European colleagues, and the question was always the same: what can we do to help?

As we examine the path forward for nuclear energy following the accident, it is essential that we reflect upon our commitment to safety -- as individuals, as governments, and as a global community. 

At the same time, we must renew our dedication to assuring our nuclear energy facilities can operate safely and securely.

Here in the U.S., safety has always been – and will continue to remain – essential to how we build and operate nuclear reactors.

That is why, over the past decades, we have continued to improve the safety and security of each of our facilities.

In addition, President Obama asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet of 104 operating reactors in light of the Fukushima accident.

As an independent regulator, the NRC is entrusted with the vital task of overseeing our nuclear facilities, and to establish and enforce whatever rules “the Commission may deem necessary or desirable in order to protect health and safety and minimize danger to life or property.”

And as we move forward to continue developing next generation nuclear reactors, we will continue to incorporate the lessons learned from Fukushima into our approach to nuclear safety.

Regardless of what the U.S. does, the world is increasingly turning to nuclear energy as a low-carbon electricity source. 

In fact, there are already over 60 new reactors under construction in more than a dozen countries around the world, including in European countries like Finland, France, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

As countries around the world look to expand their domestic energy production from nuclear energy, we must do so in a way that minimizes the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.

The stakes could not be higher.  Indeed, in his Nuclear Posture Review, President Obama made clear that the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism have become the pre-eminent nuclear security threat we face.

Just as a safety accident anywhere is an accident everywhere so, too, an incident anywhere involving weapons proliferation or nuclear terrorism would be an incident everywhere -- a global event with broad impacts across the international community.

Already, we have taken a number of critical steps to reduce the threat of weapons proliferation.

In his Prague speech in April 2009, the President articulated the path ahead; 

He spoke about building a world free of nuclear weapons. 

He spoke about maintaining a safe and effective deterrent until that day is possible.

He spoke about the need to advance the New START Treaty and other critical arms control objectives – and led the effort to obtain bipartisan Senate support for ratification of New START. 

And he laid out a vision for a new international framework for peaceful nuclear cooperation that could assure all nations that live up to international nonproliferation norms that they can rely on the commercial marketplace reliably to provide them with the fuel services they need to operate their nuclear power plants. 

In his words:

“… we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. And no approach will succeed if it's based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules. We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance peace opportunity for all people.”

If we do this right, this new international framework can provide a mechanism to strengthen our national security, reduce proliferation and nuclear terrorism threats, and enhance economic growth. 

Discussions are already under way about what the elements of such a framework could be.

The organization known as the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation – or IFNEC – includes 29 partner countries that are examining what options could be made available to assure partner countries that they will have access to reliable fuel cycle services through the commercial marketplace, thereby reducing the demand for more of the most sensitive fuel cycle facilities.

Under this type of framework we would be able to harness our security and nonproliferation objectives to the power of the commercial marketplace.

Instead of every operator of a nuclear reactor investing vast sums to build new enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which create the greatest risks of nuclear proliferation, a reliable fuel service would allow countries looking to expand their electricity production from nuclear energy to access fuel leasing services for both the front and the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Companies or consortia operating under appropriate governmental regulations could lease nuclear fuel to customers, just as companies now lease cars or airplanes to customers.

As we move forward developing the elements of such a framework and expanding global nuclear energy cooperation, it is very important that our efforts are guided by a number of general principles.

First, as we discussed earlier, assuring nuclear safety and security are essential elements of the global nuclear energy industry.

Second, we must also work to make sure that any commercial transactions and agreements reflect international free and fair trade practices, including equal access to markets.

Third, companies working within the global nuclear energy community must have access to effective and uniform liability protections, which is why we continue to urge nations across the globe to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage – also known as the CSC.

Upon entering into force, the CSC would establish a uniform global legal regime for the compensation of victims in the unlikely event of a nuclear accident.  As custodians for the safety of citizens the world over, it is our solemn responsibility to bring the CSC into force.

So, nuclear energy has an important role to play in the global energy portfolio as a low-carbon source of electricity and a way for countries to continue to diversify their energy mix.

Nuclear power can only succeed, however, if it can be utilized safely while minimizing the risks of nuclear proliferation or terrorism.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in Europe and internationally in the months and years ahead as we lay the groundwork for an expanding nuclear energy industry worldwide that will reduce air pollution, create new jobs and protect our national security.

Thank you and with that I am happy to take some questions.