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Deputy Secretary Poneman's Remarks at the Third Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit - As Prepared for Delivery

February 17, 2011 - 3:49pm

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Third Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arlington, Virginia

“Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation”

“We face a choice between the quick and the dead.”   These are the words that Bernard Baruch used to introduce his plan to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, at the opening session of the UN Atomic Energy Commission, at Hunter College in NYC, in June 1946.

Fortunately, throughout the intervening decades, we have been quick, or at least quick enough.   Indeed, sometimes we seemed to be just a step or two ahead of the dangerous threats or, to shift the different metaphor, two minutes to midnight according to the Doomsday Clock that has graced the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist since 1947.

I’ve spent a lot of time working on North Korea.  Some people forget that during the Korean War both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower at various times considered the use of nuclear weapons, at least to deter Chinese entry into the war.

A little later, President Eisenhower, facing tough budgetary circumstances not unlike today’s, embraced nuclear weapons, in part, to deter Soviet aggression in Europe.  It was seen as a way to reduce the heavy costs imposed by fielding large conventional armies. And they adopted the doctrine of massive retaliation that was so forcefully expounded by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to give a doctrinal basis to some degree to that budgetary approach.

I don’t think there is much question but the closest we came to Armageddon occurred in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK estimated the odds of nuclear war at “between one in three and even.”  Or, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk memorably put it: "We stood eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

And that searing experience gave rise to a different approach and a different threat. By June of the next year we had the Hot Line Agreement - remember Teletype? And that Hotline was in fact used on several occasions including during 1973.  President Kennedy spoke eloquently in June 1963 at an address at American University calling for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  He got as far as a limited test ban treaty, but the theme continued.

President Johnson took the lead on what became the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We had the strategic arms negotiations, the first SALT talks with President Nixon. President Ford contributed the bilateral Vladivostok agreement..Carter contributed SALT II and saw it through ratification. And the beat goes on…

But there was another dimension to Baruch’s choice between the quick and the dead, which spawned another thread of American nuclear policy.  This became the subsequent focus of President Eisenhower’s approach to the inherent duality of nuclear fission expressed in his famous Atoms for Peace speech in December 1953.  In the speech, he proposed to encourage the use of fission for peaceful uses around the world with the understanding that the states that would be benefitting from our assistance would not use this assistance to develop military nuclear weapons.  

The Atoms for Peace idea was codified in IAEA and the NPT, negotiated under LBJ.  Various aspects of the idea were expressed through 123 agreements, NSG, and the UN Security Resolution 1540.

I haven’t mentioned yet, but I’m coming to President Reagan. In some ways his proposal at Ryekjavik was the boldest of all: to eliminate all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. 

As a civil servant and a student of history, the striking thing about this is the great river of consistency of American approaches to matters nuclear: Truman,   Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41. President Bush 41 negotiated the START treaty and President Bush 43 negotiated the Moscow treaty, both of which were ratified. And between them, President Clinton negotiated the Test Ban Treaty.

But why dwell on this history?

I would argue to you that it is just an important and just as relevant today as when these events occurred.  I think Arthur Vandenberg – Michigan senator and architect of the post-War policy that said that politics should stop at the water’s edge – was particularly right when it came to American nuclear policy.  And I believe that that level of bipartisan support is within reach today.

And I used that term – American nuclear policy – advisedly.  I do not just mean strategic nuclear policy, or nuclear energy policy, or nuclear warfighting doctrine, nuclear export controls, or nuclear defenses.  We need as a nation a nuclear policy that integrates all elements of our interests – domestic and international, deterrence and defense, energy and nonproliferation. 

Indeed, we have no choice.

We have no choice because of the inherent duality of atomic fission, where the same reaction can unleash heat to boil water and drive a steam turbine can also unleash the force of a nuclear weapon.

We have no choice, because the growing number of states that are building nuclear power stations to fuel a low-carbon future could lead to a proliferation of dangerous materials and technologies that, left unchecked, could fall into the hands of terrorists or other adversaries. 

We have no choice, because most nations have settled on a coherent, focused approach to nuclear energy, and so must the United States if we are to compete successfully to be as significant to the world’s nuclear future as we have been in the world’s nuclear past.

President Barack Obama has firmly seized the baton passed on by his predecessors.  And he has embraced the challenge that this generation faces.  He responded with a pivotal speech in Prague, in April 2009.  There he set forth a clear, focused, integrated vision of our nuclear future:

 

  • He called for a world without nuclear weapons, while recognizing that this goal may not be reached in our lifetime.

 

  • He called for concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, beginning with an historic Nuclear Posture Review that reduced the role of nuclear weapons and elevated nuclear terrorism and proliferation to the top tier of nuclear threats we face.

 

  • Among these concrete steps was the President’s firm commitment to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years, a commitment that led him to host the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010.  This was the largest gathering of foreign heads of state invited by an American president to our shores since Harry Truman hosted the San Francisco Conference on the United Nations just two weeks after the death of President Roosevelt. 

 

  • At the Summit, the leaders agreed to support the President’s commitment and to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, and to undertake concrete steps such as seeking universal adherence to important international instruments like the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.  The leaders pledged to reduce, where possible, the use of highly enriched uranium in commercial use.  Some pledged to eliminate their excess HEU.  Others committed to develop “Centers of Excellence” to support training and education of nuclear materials security, along with many other steps.  I could go on but I know you are hearing from my dear friend and colleague Laura Holgate, who will speak to these accomplishments in more detail later today.

 

  • Also in Prague, the President made clear that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.  I am very proud that the Department of Energy has now put in place, under strong leadership of the President, the Vice President and Secretary Chu, and in close cooperation with the Department of Defense, a comprehensive program to achieve that aim.

 

  • The President promised to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians.  And he did, AND secured the ratification of that treaty with a broad bipartisan majority. 

 

  • He called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a challenge that still remains before us.  And he called for a fissile material cut-off treaty, and for strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the international inspections that support it.

 

And then the President turned to the subject that will consume the balance of my remarks.  His words warrant quoting in full. So I quote:

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.

Why is this so important?

In recent years, governments around the world have increasingly turned to nuclear energy  as a source of low-carbon power generation to fuel future economic growth in a manner that reduces air pollution and could head off the worst effects of climate change.  To be sure, there are many other approaches to build that clean energy future, and the Department of Energy is committed to the full portfolio – beginning with energy efficiency, extending to all forms of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass, smart grids and advanced batteries, electric vehicles, and much more, including carbon capture and sequestration. 

But we do see nuclear as a vital part of this portfolio.  That is why the President announced loan guarantees for the Vogtle nuclear power station, the first new nuclear project to be built in this country in three decades, as well as for the uranium enrichment facility in Idaho.  And that is why the Department is investing in small modular nuclear reactors, which could hold economic, environmental, and nonproliferation benefits, as well as in developing the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers to support our future endeavors.

In this, the United States is part of a global trend.  In fact, the 2003 MIT study on “The Future of Nuclear Power,” concluded that in order for nuclear energy to make a meaningful contribution to climate change remediation, it would at least need to maintain its current share of nuclear power generation in the overall global energy mix, which would be  about 16-17 percent of total power generation. 

When you take into account the projections for rising electricity demand -- driven principally by growth in the developing world -- maintaining that market share would require approximately tripling the global fleet of nuclear reactors, increasing global nuclear capacity to about 1000 GW by mid century.

Facing that reality, countries around the world have been increasingly turning to peaceful nuclear energy to help meet their growing electricity demand without increasing carbon emissions.  Currently, over 60 reactors are being built in over a dozen countries worldwide. 

In practice, the capacity of nuclear power to play this kind of role in building a low-carbon future that many envisage will depend on a number of important factors.  Obviously, nuclear reactors must be operated safely, according to the highest standards, and we need to come to terms with what to do with the used fuel coming out of the reactors.  Moreover, while loan guarantees can help restart the U.S. industry after a long hiatus, the long-term viability of nuclear power will ultimately depend on whether it can compete commercially with other sources of power.  In the United States, this is a particularly challenging issue for merchant utilities today, given low natural gas prices, sluggish demand growth, and the absence of a legislated price on carbon.

Lastly, and of critical importance, nuclear power cannot succeed if the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation cannot be contained.  In particular, if the increased number of power plants is matched in a linear fashion by a similar increase in the number of plants to enrich uranium and separate plutonium, then the world will end up with too many of these plants, too much material, and too much technology that could be vulnerable to theft or diversion and fall into the hands of nuclear terrorists. 

Why is that?  Because even though nuclear fuel services represent only a small percentage of the total cost of electricity generated by nuclear power plants, if those services are cut off, then the multibillion dollar investment in a nuclear power station can all be for naught.  In other words, it may be economically rational to make an otherwise irrational investment in nuclear fuel cycle facilities in order to avoid allowing your nation’s energy supplies to be held hostage to the vagaries of political or other relations with your suppliers. There’s nothing new about this.

That is precisely why President Obama called for this “new framework for civil nuclear cooperation”, one that will provide assured nuclear fuel services for both the front-end and back-end needs of operators of nuclear power plants, in other words to both provide the fuel that they need and remove the used fuel that they do not.  In addition to allowing new owners of nuclear power plants to avoid the tens of billions of dollars of investment entailed in building those facilities, it also spares them the decades and further tens of billions of dollars to decommission and decontaminate them at the end of their useful lives.

What then could be the elements of this kind of framework that the President called for?  That is a question that is being examined widely in places such as this and also under the auspices of an organization now known as the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, formally known as GNEP.  The 28 partner countries within this organization are examining what options are 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 nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

For example, if one or more consortia of commercial nuclear companies could join together – of course under appropriate governmental regulations and conditions – to provide front- and back-end fuel services, they could effectively offer nuclear fuel leases to any country with nuclear reactors, provided that it lives up to its nonproliferation obligations.

Of course, one element of this web of reassurance are international fuel banks. In late 2009, the IAEA approved the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank hosted by Russia at Angarsk meant to ensure the supply of low-enriched uranium to participating states in the event of a political disruption in the international uranium enrichment services market.  In the same vein, last year, we were very gratified by the strong support shown when the IAEA Board of Governors unanimously approved the establishment of an IAEA-administered Low-Enriched Uranium bank and a Model Supply Agreement.  This is something that had been a very high priority for the President and involved tremendous effort from our colleagues across the government

One of the most powerful aspects of President Obama’s Prague vision for this new framework is that it aligns economic and national security interests.  In this, it offers a more sustainable, more robust model for civil nuclear cooperation that minimizes proliferation risks compared to many of the alternatives that have been offered.

Let me explain.  I would submit to you that when it comes to motivating human behavior that self interest is a more important engine than virtue.  This is the model that we followed successfully with the US-Russian HEU deal, in which we harnessed the national security imperative to get rid of the highly-enriched uranium that was fueling the Soviet arsenal targeted on American cities to become the driver of the low-enriched uranium fuel for the fleet of reactors in this country. The net effect of this landmark agreement is that half of the fuel requirements for America’s 104 reactors were supplied by Russian nuclear materials.  We get 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear power and half of that is fueled by HEU that used to be in weapons sitting on top of Soviet missiles.  That means that one in every ten light bulbs in America is fueled by nuclear material that used to be targeted at American citizens in nuclear warheads.  That’s the kind of system that we’re looking for.

Nuclear fuel leasing, like the US-Russian HEU deal, would harness the power of the commercial market in nuclear fuel, to the national security imperative of minimizing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities.  Therefore it is strongly in the  national security interest of the United States, as well as in the global security interest of all nations, to assure a robust global presence of responsible providers of nuclear fuel services. 

And it is strongly in the interest of the United States to participate actively in that international market.  Not only would doing so strengthen global nonproliferation norms, but it would also help drive the demand for US nuclear fuel, services, and reactors in a way that will help this Nation achieve its long term energy goals, to drive this nation’s prosperity, reduce our carbon footprint, and create thousands of good, well-paying jobs.  It is a win for our prosperity, a win for our environment, and a win for our national security.

The time to act is now.  Decisions being made this year and next will shape the marketplace for nuclear fuel for decades to come.  President Obama has set forth a vision that can seize the opportunity so many people in this room have worked so hard to achieve, to create the kind of world that we can be proud to leave to our children.  As the old Native American proverb goes, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

The kind of framework that President Obama has proposed will not create itself.  It will take a lot of hard work, by many people, from industry, Congress, governments, non-governmental organizations, and, indeed, with the widespread support of the citizens of all of our nations.  And, I’d like to particularly note the close cooperative relationship we’ve always had and will continue to have with the U.S. Congress and Senator Graham, who has shown extraordinary leadership on energy issues and nuclear issues for so many years.

Frankly, I cannot think of a better place to issue a call to arms to create this new framework than a conference like this one, because so many of the people – from countries around the world – who are in a position to bring it about are here.  And so I ask you, not just for our sake, but for the sake of our children and their children, to join in this effort to create a world where we can safely tap the benefits of nuclear power secure in the knowledge that we have done all that we can to minimize the dangers of the nuclear Armageddon we have so far managed to avoid.

Thank you.

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