Nuclear Power: Benefits and ResponsibilitiesAmb. Jackie Wolcott, U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation
Special Address at the MENA Nuclear Energy Forum
November 10, 2008
In my capacity as Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation, I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world and discussing civil nuclear cooperation with many countries considering the development of nuclear power. This is my 3rd trip to the Middle East in 9 months, including a warm reception in Doha this past June. Next week, I will be travelling to North Africa for consultations there.
During these visits, I have the opportunity to discuss the great benefits nuclear power has to offer, for countries that have indicated a commitment to its pursuit along a responsible path. Today, I’m particularly pleased to address so many decision makers in a key region which has so much promise for significant nuclear energy development.
Around the world, nuclear energy is enjoying a potential reemergence. Concerns over electricity demand, energy security, and climate change have given rise to renewed global interest in nuclear power. Most experts now agree that this will be a vital component to helping us meet our growing energy demands over the next few decades.
As a result, numerous countries have expressed serious interest in new nuclear power plants. Although the majority of these will be sited in countries with existing programs, an ever-growing number of states have announced plans to develop their first nuclear plant.
Interest is clearly percolating in all corners of the globe, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa – the MENA region.
Causes for Concern
This is not the first time we’ve witnessed great expectations for nuclear power. In 1947, the American journal Business Week predicted that “all central power will be drawn from atomic sources” within a few decades.
In 1954, the New York Times quoted a U.S. official predict that Americans would one day “enjoy electrical energy in their homes too cheap to meter” thanks to nuclear energy.
While this initial enthusiasm would eventually prove overly optimistic, nuclear energy did enjoy a period of rapid early growth, and by the mid-1970’s there were 55 nuclear plants operating in the United States alone.
The growth of nuclear power in my country suffered a more serious setback in 1979 with the world’s first major nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Seven years later, nuclear power suffered another blow with the accident at Chernobyl, a combined result of design flaw and human error.
I mention these incidents because many lessons have been learned from them. Although today’s new reactor designs are much safer than yesterday’s, the possibility of accidents still exists. And as we say with all seriousness, an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.
As nuclear power gears up to expand, all eyes will be on the ability to safely operate these new plants, particularly those in states with new nuclear power programs.
On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Although the phenomenon of global terrorism was not new, these attacks unmistakably raised the stakes of the threat we now face.
Many steps have since been taken to heighten security at nuclear plants and to prevent the illicit trafficking of materials which could be used for a radiological dispersion device – a dirty bomb – or worse, a nuclear weapon.
In the face of “nuclear terrorism,” the importance of nuclear security, especially in states now just turning to nuclear power, has never been so great.
The proliferation risks associated with the nuclear fuel cycle must be managed. Everyone in this forum is well aware that – in addition to producing reactor-grade fuel – a uranium enrichment plant can be used to produce weapons-usable material. A relatively simple reconfiguration of an enrichment cascade could enable the production of highly enriched uranium.
Because of this risk, these facilities must be operated in an open and transparent manner, and full-scope international safeguards must be applied to ensure their peaceful applications.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. As we all know, Iran developed in secret a substantial nuclear infrastructure – including a uranium enrichment program that it continues to operate in violation of United Nations Security Council obligations. This is not only unacceptable; it also risks undermining the sincere intentions by neighboring states to enlist the atom for peaceful uses.
Iran has claimed that its nuclear program is in complete conformity with its nuclear obligations, and has asserted that concerns expressed with its nuclear activities are politically motivated and imagined. This is simply not the case.
As the latest report by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei describes, Iran has failed to take the steps necessary to “build confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.” Instead, serious concerns and outstanding questions remain regarding this program, particularly aspects of Iran’s past activities that suggest a “military nuclear dimension” to this nuclear program.
The net result is that the IAEA is unable to “provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” It was because of concerns such as these – and Iran’s longstanding noncompliance with its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, and thereby the NPT – that Iran’s nuclear program was reported to the UN Security Council in 2006.
And so, by contrast, Iran’s current policies represent the opposite approach and a fundamentally different model from how we would want countries in this region and globally to develop nuclear energy.
The intrinsic dual-use nature of certain nuclear fuel cycle technologies underscores the importance of strict transparency with the international community. As more and more States make the commitment to develop nuclear power, particular care must be taken to ensure that these programs are not diverted towards malicious ends.
A Serious Commitment
The United States strongly supports the development of safeguarded, well-regulated nuclear power around the world. Because of its inherent risks, however, we must all work hard to ensure that nuclear power is deployed in the most responsible manner possible. At a minimum, this will mean a clear commitment to the highest possible standards of nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation.
This is a not a unique opinion. For the past 3 years, the IAEA has affirmed this view in General Conference resolutions. In addition, the past G-8 summit clearly endorsed the importance of nuclear safety, security, and safeguards – the “3Ss”.
In order to instill confidence in developing nuclear power programs, the United States strongly encourages States to make tangible and transparent commitments to the highest standards, such as through adherence to a broad range of treaties and conventions. For example:
Adherence to these instruments yields several important benefits. First, it helps a State develop the infrastructure needed to deploy civilian nuclear power safely and securely.
Second, it provides a clear signal to the international community that a State is prepared to handle this complex technology.
What’s more, it raises a State’s profile among the many that will be competing for nuclear suppliers. As we’ll learn over the next two days, the global supply chain may soon struggle to keep up with the expansion of global demand. The more a State demonstrates a commitment to the responsible pursuit of nuclear power, the more likely it will attract investors to its nuclear program.
The Case for Cooperation
All nuclear power programs in the world developed through cooperation with others. Developing such a program is a daunting task, and there is much to be gained from the lessons learned and resources accumulated by states already further down the road.
An important avenue of cooperation is bilateral engagement. By working one-on-one, advanced states can provide flexible, dynamic, and expeditious guidance to their partners.
Our commitment to cooperation with countries in the Middle East and North Africa is reflected in our ongoing efforts to stand up cooperation relationships throughout the region.
In the past year alone the United States has signed nuclear cooperation Memoranda of Understanding with Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. These MOUs signal our shared political commitments to pursue cooperation consistent with the highest standards.
Allegations by some of discrimination and bias are belied by such commitments, and instead demonstrate a desire to cloud the issue by those who have been found in noncompliance.
The more well-known cooperation agreement the United States can conclude is the so-called “123 Agreement,” which is required for significant nuclear exports. We now have 123 Agreements in force covering 48 countries, including Egypt and Morocco.
In addition to bilateral engagement, we also encourage emerging nuclear energy states to take advantage of multilateral mechanisms. Certainly, the IAEA is an important resource – through its Technical Cooperation program and its “Milestones” process.
Another very useful forum is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP. Today, 25 states – including Jordan, Morocco, and Oman – have joined as partners in this initiative. GNEP offers a single forum, spanning the full spectrum of nuclear energy experience, to explore mutually beneficial approaches to the expansion of nuclear energy.
Another promising avenue for multilateral cooperation is the development of new ways to ensure reliable access to nuclear fuel. About a dozen “fuel assurances” proposals are now under consideration at the IAEA.
These concepts are not mutually exclusive, and a range of approaches could enhance confidence, allow flexibility, and provide complementary options for countries considering nuclear energy. Diversity of supply offers the strongest assurance.
Some member states have expressed concern that a mechanism for reliable access to nuclear fuel, operating under IAEA auspices, could limit their sovereign right to independently pursue nuclear energy options.
However, to benefit from such a mechanism, no state must give up any of its rights. The purpose of this initiative is to expand, not restrict, access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The mechanisms under consideration are intended to alleviate concerns about access to nuclear fuel from the international market. As such, they create an incentive for states to choose – voluntarily – the international market for nuclear fuel rather than develop enrichment and reprocessing capacity.
Great effort is now being made in Vienna to develop a fuel assurance mechanism that is acceptable to all. We strongly urge all States to play a constructive role in this endeavor.
The demand for clean and reliable sources of electricity has never been so great. The United States believes that nuclear power will be an important component in meeting the energy challenges of tomorrow.
We must be clear from the start that the use of nuclear technology is complex, and carries with it a number of unique risks. The importance of a careful and measured approach to nuclear power cannot be overstated.
A clear and transparent dedication to the highest possible standards will demonstrate a firm commitment to the responsible pursuit of this unique technology.
There is much to gain through civil nuclear cooperation. The United States is actively sharing its experience to help many others build the necessary capacity to deploy nuclear energy. We look forward to identifying new ways we can work with cooperating partners.
The future of nuclear power is bright, if it is pursued responsibly.
Released on November 12, 2008