Event recap

On Thursday, October 29, 2020, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and Third Way co-hosted a virtual event on the global market for advanced nuclear technologies and the important role of safeguards and security in ensuring the competitiveness of US reactors. Dr. Brent Park, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, delivered keynote remarks. The event featured Amb. Laura Holgate, vice president of materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative; Allison Johnston, director of the Office of International Security at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA); Christine King, director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation (GAIN) in Nuclear at Idaho National Laboratory (INL); and Kevin Veal, director of the NNSA Office of International Nuclear Safeguards. Dr. Jennifer Gordon, managing editor and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, gave opening remarks, and Jackie Kempfer, senior policy adviser for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, moderated the discussion.

Dr. Park began the discussion with an overview of the partnerships his office maintains to ensure that nonproliferation standards, safeguards, and security of nuclear technologies and facilities are upheld. These partnerships include those with the US Department of State, other departments and laboratories within the US Department of Energy (DOE), and international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to Park, NNSA is not an agency that seeks to restrict the expansion of civilian nuclear energy; rather, he noted that NNSA is “all for peaceful use of nuclear technologies” and wants to help reactor developers understand the US government and IAEA requirements. In addition to educating developers on international treaty and nonproliferation requirements, NNSA also works with over one hundred countries to share technological expertise, conduct trainings in order to facilitate research and development, and improve methods for handling nuclear technologies. On the front end of the fuel cycle, NNSA has collaborated with national laboratories, including the Oregon National Lab (ONL) and INL, to convert highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium for use in research reactors, the development of proliferation-resistant fuels (through the Pro-X program), and work with reactor developers to bake nonproliferation safeguards “into the DNA of reactor designs.”

Following Dr. Park’s comments, Jackie Kempfer delivered a presentation on Third Way’s advanced reactor map, an interactive visual tool that assesses nuclear readiness and electricity demand in 148 countries based on data from the International Monetary Fund, United Nations, World Bank, and International Energy Agency. The map uses key metrics to determine the readiness of different countries for nuclear power and to estimate expected growth in electricity demand between 2030 and 2050. Key takeaways include: global electricity demand could more than double by 2050, with 90 percent of new electricity demand coming from emerging markets, and the global market for nuclear power could triple by 2050 with an additional 600 gigawatts (GW) or more of nuclear power added to the global energy mix. You can explore the reactor map on Third Way’s website here.

The panel discussion began with a brief presentation from Kevin Veal and Allison Johnston highlighting the responsibilities and collaborative efforts of NNSA’s Offices of International Nuclear Safeguards and International Security. Veal discussed the safeguards-by-design process for new reactors and the associated fuel cycle activities—in other words, the “process of including international safeguards considerations into all phases of a nuclear facility project, from initial planning through design, construction, operation, modification, and decommissioning.” Since around 2010, DOE and NNSA have published a range of documents specifically to encourage good practices for baking safeguards into reactor designs; ensuring material accountability; and following proper declaration, containment, and surveillance requirements. NNSA is working closely with other federal and international bodies, such as GAIN and the IAEA, to evaluate new advanced reactor designs, determine practices to account for new materials, and prepare the regulatory foundations for new companies (and countries looking to build out nuclear capabilities). As of August 2020, reactor developers can find recommendations and resources that cover definitions, guidelines, best practices, export controls, and proliferation resistance requirements relevant to nuclear reactors on the GAIN website.

Allison Johnston followed on Veal’s presentation with an overview of the NNSA Office of International Nuclear Safety, which leads international efforts to prevent the theft and sabotage of nuclear materials and facilities worldwide. The primary goals of the office are the restoration of US leadership in nuclear energy; the advancement of peaceful uses; and the maintenance of the global nuclear security regime. The office is currently developing tools for reactor developers to estimate economic costs, benefits, and security for certain reactor designs; identify weak links in the security of advanced reactors; and implement physical protection systems in their designs. Addressing a question about countries that import nuclear technology from Russia and China, Johnston noted that NNSA still works with these countries to provide education. Veal added that although NNSA prefers facilities in other countries from a proliferation perspective, the US government can work to ensure the establishment and maintenance of strong regulatory frameworks and the detection of undeclared activities at nuclear sites. Veal asserted that there is no nuclear design so worrisome that safeguards cannot be met.

The final two speakers—Christine King of GAIN and Amb. Laura Holgate of NTI—discussed opportunities and projects underway to help reactor developers implement safeguards during the design process. King noted that programs underway with GAIN, the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, and NNSA aim to connect developers with relevant resources, technical expertise, and lab facilities to help move them toward commercialization and deployment. In particular, GAIN is currently offering workshops for developers and working with NNSA to publish a primer on safeguards and security to ensure that proper standards are met while also maintaining cost competitiveness. Holgate meanwhile discussed new safety and security challenges that may arise as a result of new, smaller, modular reactor designs, as well as the recommendations NTI and the World Institute for Nuclear Security in Vienna suggest for ensuring safety and security of these new designs. In particular, many new reactors are designed to be small, which may make it more difficult for watchdog organizations to monitor. Likewise, many advanced reactors are modular and mobile, which may make it easier for individuals or groups to steal critical reactor technology. Furthermore, federal and international bodies like the IAEA need to be aligned on fuel standards, as new reactor fuel is often different from traditional (Generation III) reactors. Finally, because new reactors have the potential to be operated remotely, cyber security will grow increasingly important. Holgate relayed the need for regulators, international bodies, and reactor developers to better communicate international guidelines around safeguards for advanced reactors, share best practices for advanced reactor licensing, and develop skills around safety and security.


Welcome and introduction

Dr. Jennifer Gordon
Managing Editor and Senior Fellow, Global Energy Center
Atlantic Council

Keynote remarks

Dr. Brent Park
Deputy Administrator, Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation
National Nuclear Security Administration

Panel discussion

Laura Holgate, Ambassador (ret.)
Vice President, Materials Risk Management
Nuclear Threat Initiative

Allison Johnston
Director, Office of International Nuclear Security
National Nuclear Security Administration

Christine King
Director, Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear
Idaho National Laboratory

Kevin Veal
Director, Office of International Nuclear Safeguards
National Nuclear Security Administration

Moderated by
Jackie Kempfer
Senior Policy Adviser, Climate and Energy Program; Senior Fellow, Global Energy Center
Third Way; Atlantic Council

Closing remarks

Dr. Jennifer Gordon
Managing Editor and Senior Fellow, Global Energy Center
Atlantic Council

The Global Energy Center develops and promotes pragmatic and nonpartisan policy solutions designed to advance global energy security, enhance economic opportunity, and accelerate pathways to net-zero emissions.