Remarks at a Panel Discussion: The Use of Civil Nuclear Energy

Thomas M. Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
April 21, 2016

(As Prepared)

Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. My name is Tom Countryman, and I am the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss civil nuclear energy with you today. I intend to focus my remarks on the benefits of civil nuclear energy and how we maintain a vigilant eye on these programs for any proliferation concerns.

Nuclear energy is an important source of power in many large economies, including China, the United States, and India. It is an attractive energy source because it does not emit carbon pollution. Nuclear power also supports President Obama’s clean energy strategy for reducing carbon emissions, which has three key elements:

  • Supporting economic growth and job creation,
  • Enhancing energy security, and
  • Deploying all possible low-carbon energy technologies to lay the foundation for a clean energy future.

Earlier this month at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, Secretary Kerry noted that transitioning toward low-carbon alternatives is crucial to preserving infrastructure, food production, water supplies, ecosystems and health: “When we talk about the future of energy, we are actually talking about the future of everything.”

The United States is not only a pioneer and technical leader in the field of civil nuclear energy, but we are also a leader in promoting safety and security of nuclear power programs.

We strongly believe that states should only enter the business of civil nuclear power once they have established the necessary infrastructure to sustain such a program. Among other things, this includes an independent civil regulatory authority, legal framework, nuclear safety programs, and a workforce with the technical skills necessary to operate the equipment.

The U.S. supports the development of both through global programs from the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The State Department also supports nuclear capacity-building through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network and regional groups such as the Asian Nuclear Safety and Security Network. And our universities, colleges and technical schools perform a major role in developing the necessary human resources not only for the United States but for many other countries as well.

Second, safety has always been our highest priority for a very long time; its importance was underscored by the Fukushiki Dai-ichi accident that occurred five years ago. The United States worked diligently with the IAEA and with other IAEA Member States to improve global nuclear safety in view of the lessons learned from that accident. The United States plays a lead in the implementation of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which commits nations operating nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety. We further have a major role within the IAEA in the strengthening of the Agency’s Safety Standards. I believe that the NRC and the DOE have worked with U.S. industry to achieve the safest nuclear operating fleet in the world.

And third, as highlighted at the Nuclear Security Summit a few weeks ago, the Obama administration’s commitment to nuclear security has focused global attention on the importance of nations shoring up the security of their nuclear materials. With the gains made through the Summit process, the chances of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials has diminished. President Obama’s commitment to an international summit process to discuss a single topic added urgency and enabled the global community to highlight specific, concrete improvements in nuclear security issues.

Yet while civil nuclear energy is important to carbon-free energy goals, we recognize the spread of civil nuclear power can come with an increased risk of proliferation and diversion into nuclear weapons programs.

Let me explain why this need not be the case. As many of you know, the United States has a long-standing policy of limiting the spread of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies, including enrichment and reprocessing, to the greatest extent possible. These technologies can be used to produce and separate weapons usable material – which is distinct from the non-weapons grade nuclear fuel used in commercial nuclear power plants that produce electricity. There is no contradiction between limiting the spread of these technologies and the expansion of peaceful uses of civil nuclear energy.

In our view, there are no credible economic or commercial reasons for countries not already doing so to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel. The international nuclear fuel market offers reliable, competitively priced services that make the cost of developing a domestic enrichment capability uneconomical in comparison. Furthermore, the world now has such a surplus in nuclear fuel production capacity that if all nuclear power plants under consideration are built, we would still have enough fuel to power them. Under these conditions, it is almost certain economic lunacy for new countries to enter the enrichment and reprocessing business.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about reprocessing. The issues here are similar. Thirty or 40 years ago, when the world’s confirmed supply of uranium was much lower than it is now, there was a plausible economic argument for separating plutonium via reprocessing.

However since then, proven reserves of uranium have grown, and we know that low-enriched uranium will remain less expensive than MOX fuel made with reprocessed plutonium for the foreseeable future. Dry cask storage technology has proven to be a safe way to store spent fuel. In light of this, it makes sense to avoid the economic drawbacks and proliferation concerns that come with reprocessing and separating plutonium. The choice is so clear that most countries—including the United States and the United Kingdom are getting out of the business, or have already exited.

Finally, there are the geopolitical implications of enrichment and reprocessing. Positive energy relationships contribute to positive diplomatic relationships; these relationships rely on and reinforce existing nuclear fuel markets. Transparent energy relationships contribute to transparent business interactions, which are also positive for political relations.

Conversely, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in the nuclear business in several countries. And I’m equally concerned about situations where energy dependency is leading to political dependency.

For example, Ukraine depends on Russia for natural gas, and we have seen Ukraine’s dependency exploited as a political tool. This should be a cautionary tale for us in the nuclear field. To the extent that nuclear energy becomes associated with undue political leverage or corrupt business practices, a nuclear renaissance will contain the seeds of its own downfall.

So, how is the United States using its bilateral and multilateral relationships to limit the spread of ENR technologies and advance clean nuclear energy, in every sense of the word?

For starters, our civil nuclear cooperation agreements—also called 123 Agreements—require partner countries to adhere to stringent, legally binding nonproliferation conditions, including full-scope IAEA nuclear safeguards in non-nuclear weapons states; effective physical protection measures, an assurance that all cooperation will be used for peaceful uses; and U.S. consent rights over any retransfers, reprocessing, or enrichment of materials and technologies covered by the agreement.

Because our 123 agreements contain the highest global nonproliferation standards, it is in our interest to maximize the number of states that adhere to these conditions. And since these controls only apply through our nuclear exports, it is also in our nonproliferation interest to maintain our leadership in the global market for nuclear fuel, equipment and technology. In doing so, we support our goals of exporting U.S. norms and minimizing the number of sensitive fuel cycle facilities worldwide. And to reiterate the point I made earlier, this is one of the ways in which we manage nonproliferation as civil nuclear power increases worldwide.

If we don’t execute 123 agreements with other countries, we run the risk that they will move forward without us, partnering instead with countries that are less transparent and have fewer stringent nonproliferation controls. It is therefore in our interest to find ways through these agreements to encourage partners to sign up to the high standards we promote.

Multilaterally, the IAEA plays a critical role in the verification of peaceful nuclear programs through its ability to detect the diversion of declared nuclear material, the misuse of declared nuclear facilities, and clandestine nuclear activities. The Additional Protocol is an essential foundation for IAEA’s ability to detect these activities—especially those related to enrichment and reprocessing—at early stages. The AP is increasingly accepted not only as the standard for international safeguards and transparency, but also as a basis for nuclear cooperation. The Additional Protocol facilitates such cooperation by providing stronger assurances that it will not contribute to clandestine nuclear programs, even as it helps deter states from pursuing such programs.

For example, let’s turn to the case of Iran. The JCPOA constrains Iran’s enrichment capacity, codifies Iran’s intent never to pursue reprocessing activities, and imposes unprecedented verification measures on its entire nuclear supply chain. That the IAEA has greater insight into Iran’s supply chain makes it nearly impossible for Iran to keep clandestine activities under wraps.

The JCPOA also requires Iran to implement the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites in Iran.

Even as we ensure that the IAEA has what it needs to carry out its critical monitoring role under the JCPOA, we are working to further strengthen the IAEA, and the safeguards regime in particular, so that both are ready for future challenges.

So, let me sum up. Civil nuclear power is critical to meeting the energy demands and environmental obligations in many countries. Yet as the use of civil nuclear energy become more ubiquitous, we must maintain our focus on the safety, security, and safeguarding of nuclear materials to ensure the global community will benefit from the peaceful uses of this important, carbon free source of energy.

And with that, I look forward to your questions and our discussion. Thank you.