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MIT profs, colleagues propose plan for nuclear energy


Team members are former senior energy or security advisors in Democratic and Republican administrations from Carter to Clinton

MIT faculty members and colleagues, all former senior energy or security advisors in Democratic and Republican administrations from Carter to Clinton, have proposed a pragmatic plan that would allow the world to develop nuclear power without increased risk of weapons proliferation.

Under their plan, which appears in the winter 2004-2005 issue of Survival, countries that now have the technology to prepare and dispose of nuclear fuel would provide those services to countries that do not. The latter countries would be well situated to operate and expand their nuclear power capacity--with no need to acquire technology potentially useful in weapons production.

"Global energy demand is going to grow significantly in the coming decades, and nuclear power is one option for generating large amounts of electricity without greenhouse gas emissions," said MIT Institute Professor John Deutch, who was Director of Central Intelligence in the Clinton Administration and Undersecretary of Energy in the Carter Administration. "But one nuclear-weapons incident associated with nuclear power anywhere would devastate the future of nuclear power."

Deutch’s co-authors of the Survival article are Ernest Moniz, Arnold Kanter and Daniel Poneman. Moniz is an MIT Professor of Physics, Director of MIT Energy Studies in the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, and former Undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration.

Kanter and Poneman are both senior fellows at the Forum for International Policy. Kanter was Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the George H.W. Bush Administration. Poneman served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton.

The discovery of secret nuclear-weapons programs in Libya, Iran, and North Korea has led to much discussion of amending the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other approaches to curtailing weapons proliferation. But Deutch and colleagues believe those approaches are politically difficult or impractical to implement. They therefore came up with a more pragmatic plan.

"The first thing to understand is that nuclear power plants are not themselves the principal proliferation threat," said Moniz. "The threat comes from technologies used to prepare the enriched uranium fuel and to reprocess the irradiated fuel."

The plan, called the Assured Nuclear Fuel Services Initiative (ANSFI), would deem countries that now provide uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing services on the international market as "fuel-cycle states" and other countries as "user states." The fuel-cycle states would promise to provide user states with fresh fuel for their nuclear power plants and to take back spent fuel for reprocessing and disposal. In return, the user states would agree not to obtain the enrichment or reprocessing technologies.

Two features make the initiative pragmatic. First, the split between fuel-cycle and user states already exists, so the initiative would simply call for a "stay put" approach. And second, the initiative would last only 10 or perhaps 15 years and then be subject to review.

"Because of the built-in review, the initiative has the potential for a relatively quick start, without tortuous negotiations," said Moniz. "No one has to promise to give up fuel-cycle activities forever. And by 10 or 15 years we’ll have a clearer picture of how nuclear energy is evolving and whether additional fuel-cycle facilities are needed."

The ANSFI "offers something for everyone," Moniz added. User states would not have to incur the technical and political headaches of trying to deal with their spent fuel, and they would receive fresh fuel under economically attractive commercial contracts, backed by government-to-government assurances.

Fuel-cycle states would obtain revenues and increased confidence that demand for their services would not dissolve due to a proliferation incident. There would be no shortage of fuel-supply capacity, and spent fuel returned by the user states would add relatively little to the fuel-cycle states’ disposal task. Activities of all ANSFI states would be subject to safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Perhaps most important, within the period covered by the ANSFI, the individual user states cannot practically develop large enough nuclear power programs to make their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities economic. As a result, a decision by a user state to deploy those technologies rather than join ANFSI would arouse suspicion.

"The goal is to make the political and economic incentives so clearly compelling that refusal by a potential user state would cast a spotlight on its intentions," said Deutch. "The prospects for coordinated international response to avert possible weapons-related activities would be greatly improved."

In arriving at the ANSFI proposal, the authors drew on The Future of Nuclear Power--An Interdisciplinary MIT Study ( That study, co-chaired by Deutch and Moniz, involved analysis of a 2050 scenario assuming dramatically increased worldwide nuclear capacity.

Nancy Stauffer | EurekAlert!
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