The Debate

Two Steps Toward Obama’s Nuclear ‘Moral Revolution’

A clear and tangible path is emerging to put meat on the bones of Obama’s call on nuclear weapons.

Two Steps Toward Obama’s Nuclear ‘Moral Revolution’

Landscape at former British nuclear test site, Maralinga, South Australia.

Credit: Wayne England

U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for a “moral revolution” in humanity’s approach to nuclear weapons was the highlight of his poignant recent visit to Hiroshima, while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump similarly agree on the pressing need to secure loose nuclear material.

However, speeches aspiring to a higher morality are only a beginning; morality is made truly meaningful though pragmatic action.

Two such approaches stand out in hardening the soft underbelly of the nuclear energy cycle: significantly upgrading security at civilian nuclear facilities, and the safe permanent storage of nuclear waste.

Upgrading security at civilian nuclear facilities around the world has an influential proponent in Allison Macfarlane, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and now Professor of Science Policy and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Professor Macfarlane has recently called for a series of steps to rapidly improve security standards at civilian nuclear facilities around the world to protect them from terrorists. Here such U.S. leadership and advice could prove decisive.

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Perhaps the most eye catching are NRC regulations that require U.S. nuclear plants to hold regular practice drills in which their security personnel repel an attack from former military units employing up-to-date materials and techniques. The independent NRC observers evaluate these exercises, and facility owners face significant financial penalties for failure.

Increased funding is required to step up for efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to add to the 10,000 personnel, including police and border guards, that it has already trained in nuclear security, as well as improving their ability to track of the movement of illicit materials – the IAEA has recorded nearly 3,000 such events since 1995.

Empowering independent nuclear regulatory agencies to oversee security, in addition to their mandate on safety, by conducting inspections and enforcing standards is another area of governance where the U.S. can help international partners.

To get a sense of scale of the challenge, globally there are 444 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries243 smaller research reactors used to produce isotopes for medical uses and to train nuclear engineers, plus hundreds of plants that enrich uranium and fabricate fuel for reactors.

This brings us to the second pragmatic approach, storing it safely. This has long bedeviled governments, but a new option may change the global equation.

South Australia is a Australian state of 1.6 million people. Its remote “Outback” is home to BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine, the largest deposit of uranium in the world. The mine possesses around a third of the world’s low-cost recoverable reserves and accounts for 6 percent of global production.

That same remote geography is also one of the most geologically stable areas on earth, offering highly suitable sites for the long-term storage of the growing international stockpile of nuclear waste; certainly low-medium but also high-level waste.

The management of this material is a lucrative niche in a growing market. Annually, a total of some 12,000 tons of high-level waste is produced by the world’s nuclear reactors. In fast-growing Asia, 47 reactors are under construction with another 142 forecast to be built by 2030. Japan alone has 17,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in temporary storage in need of a long-term solution, while the United States has around 75,000 metric tons of spent fuel sitting on site at its civilian nuclear reactors.

In 2007 Japan drew up a plan for an underground repository costed at around $29 billion, while the U.S. spent nearly $8 billion developing a site for nuclear refuse in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, only for it to be abandoned.

“Disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in deep geologic repositories is the globally-agreed-upon solution to the problem,” says Macfarlane. “Finland has recently shown that it’s possible to license a site for repository construction, now other countries must move forward,” she said in response to queries about the global need for nuclear waste disposal.

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When South Australia’s favorable remote geology is combined with Australia’s political and economic stability, technical prowess and an excellent nuclear record to date, the state has the ability to become a major player in what is a chronically under-serviced segment of the global energy supply chain.

As with most political decisions, even those of potentially significant international consequence, the final outcome hinges on the local. The same issue has arisen in Australia several times over the past twenty years, only for various governments to abandon their efforts in the face of political pressure from vocal opponents.

Yet this time may be different. A pragmatic bipartisanship has emerged: South Australia’s center-left Labor state government established an independent Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, and has been quietly supported by the center-right federal Coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull.

The Royal Commission delivered its findings May 9, and recommended that South Australia proceed in building a storage facility for the disposal of international used fuel and intermediate level waste, which could spur $100 billion in economic benefit over the 120-year life of the project.

A decision is expected by the end of 2016, and if a facility is built, it could store waste from the myriad international customers to whom Australia exports its uranium, including the United States and European Union, plus Japan, South Korea, China, and soon India and the United Arab Emirates.

As noted by former senior Australian diplomat John Tilemann, multinational and international fuel cycle services can boost proliferation protections, while enhancing confidence in the reliability of the supply of those services.

If Australia is pragmatic in embracing this opportunity, it will reinforce its reputation as a country sensitive to the energy needs of the Asia-Pacific region and alert to the significant international security dimensions of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Between U.S. leadership to improve security at civilian nuclear facilities, and political developments Down Under, a clear and tangible path is emerging to put meat on the bones of Obama’s “moral revolution.”

Henry Lawton is a Sydney-based Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. His work has previously appeared in publications such as The National Interest, The Huffington Post, and The Diplomat.