Wednesday, November 24, 2010

OECD Nuclear Energy Agency:

At a New Crossroads?

A recent news item has reported that the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) just gained a new member country, Poland, but at the same time, has been informed that one of its earliest and most active member countries, the United Kingdom, intends to leave the agency as a budget-tightening measure within their government. As a former Deputy Director-General of the NEA, I felt that I might be able to shed some light on what these membership changes might mean.

First, the loss of one member and the gain of another is not a zero-sum game. Poland is just starting its nuclear power program while the UK has had a long and active history in nuclear power. The UK has contributed greatly to NEA over the years through its membership in the NEA's standing technical committees and in important positions on the NEA staff. Perhaps most important, the funding for the NEA is provided by its member countries roughly in proportion to the sizes of their economies. Since the UK is a bigger economy than Poland, the financial contribution of Poland will not be equal to that lost from the UK. Rather, the budget for the Agency will have to be reallocated among all the remaining members, resulting in a slightly higher cost for each of the other member countries.

I should emphasize that UK's decision has so far not been formally confirmed. Countries usually have to give international agencies significant notice of intent to withdraw membership, so this announcement could be viewed as a way of keeping options open as the UK budget evolves. The announcement was made verbally by UK representatives at a recent NEA meeting, and NEA was told that a formal letter would follow. So far, the letter has not been received. In the meantime, those from the UK who have been involved with the NEA are trying desperately to find alternatives to continue their membership in the Agency. These measures could include support from a different UK agency or agencies. Other measures are also being discussed.

There have been previous cases where member governments have questioned the value of their NEA memberships or encountered budgetary problems supporting the NEA. In at least one case, the member country that questioned the role of NEA was persuaded of its value to them and retained its support; in another case, the country's budget obligation for the NEA was indeed transferred from one agency to other agencies within the member country. Therefore, it is too soon to write off the UK as a member of NEA.

However, there may be some differences in the environment this time that may make it more difficult for the NEA to survive unscathed. The first issue, obviously, is that we are in the middle of a world-wide economic recession. Several of NEA's member countries, including Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, are in worse financial shape than than is the UK. If they see the UK questioning their membership in the NEA, surely that will raise questions within their capitols. Furthermore, the fact that all the member countries will see a budget increase at a time when even a constant budget may be a strain may set off alarm bells among the remaining members.

Secondly, one of the values of the NEA has always been that it included almost all the major suppliers and users of nuclear power. For many years, Russia was the only major nuclear power country that was not in the NEA. However, with the growth of nuclear power in other countries, especially China, and with a number of new countries poised to begin using nuclear power, NEA will no longer hold that position. While the NEA reaches out to non-member countries by involving them as "observers" on their technical committees, that involvement has generally been limited, and may not be a sufficient solution for the future.

It has always been difficult to explain the different roles played by NEA and IAEA in the nuclear power area. While the two agencies really try hard to exploit the different strengths and advantages they each have, one of the major differences has always been that the NEA is a much smaller organization, but still included the countries operating most of the world's nuclear power plants. As this situation changes, it may be more difficult to convince member governments that both agencies are needed. Since IAEA is the more inclusive organization and has the important non-proliferation role, a choice between the two agencies would always favor IAEA.

In the past, I think having both agencies has been useful. NEA, with its smaller membership, has been able to develop a number of programs that IAEA has adopted and expanded to more countries. I am, of course, hopeful that both agencies will continue to have different and complementary values to their members and to the global nuclear power community. However, I do see significant challenges ahead for the NEA in assuring that outcome.

[For anyone interested in the history of the NEA, I prepared a document, available as a review draft, covering the first 50 years of the agency as background for the celebration of that event several years ago.]


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The ANS Conference:

Talking Nuclear Progress

A lot of the nuclear blogging community was at the recent American Nuclear Society conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, and some of my fellow bloggers are both more prolific and faster publishing news than I am, but now that I am back from the meeting and the dust has more or less settled, I thought it might still be useful to summarize my overall impressions of the meeting.

The first and most obvious observation is that this meeting is far larger than meetings have been for many years. The final registration for the meeting was over 2150! It was not many years ago that meetings were half that size. This alone speaks volumes to me. It suggests that there is renewed interest in, and enthusiasm for, nuclear power. This interest and enthusiasm is consistent with the upbeat theme of the meeting, "Nuclear Progress!"

The second observation is that there were more younger people at the meeting than there have been in the past. A number of them participated in sessions I attended, and provided thoughtful contributions. For many years, the number of under-30 members and meeting participants remained very small, so it is refreshing to see more new and youthful faces in the audience.

A third observation is that there is a growing interest in communications, including the use of social media. There were two sessions on communications presented as part of the technical program, one on "pro-nuclear advocacy" and the other on "credibility in a digital age." In addition, there was an early evening event for bloggers and participants in ANS's social media group to get together to exchange views, and a late afternoon session another day to discuss what messages ANS and its members should try to bring to the new Congress.

Several speakers, including Marv Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Craig Piercy, ANS's Washington Representative, spoke about the recent national election and the new Congress. Both speakers expressed cautious optimism. While many signs bode well for the nuclear industry, the continuing concern about the Federal budget deficit makes predictions difficult.

Technical sessions covered many of the usual topics, but there is a noticeable interest in topics related to the future of nuclear power, such as "infrastructure development in support of the nuclear renaissance," "nuclear energy growth in emerging markets," and regulatory and other issues related to small modular reactors (for example, emergency planning requirements). In addition, the opening plenary highlighted the significant developments taking place in some of the other major nuclear power countries, including Japan, Russia, France and Canada.

The talk in the halls was also interesting. With the meeting in Nevada and the recent activities in Washington on Yucca Mountain, questions about whether Yucca Mountain is dead and what the Blue Ribbon Commission is going to recommend were on everyone's mind. There is continuing interest and concern about China's very ambitious nuclear power development plans--where will they get sufficient trained staff? how strong is their regulatory oversight? The ANS conference participants didn't seem to be a heavy gambling crowd, and I saw very few people I knew when I walked through the casino, but that didn't stop people from making soft bets on how many new reactors there are likely to be in the next 10-20 years, and where they are likely to be built.

In short, it was an exciting meeting with lots of new developments discussed, and all the participants I spoke to seemed happy to be there. And if they stayed away from the gaming tables, they went home richer instead of poorer.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference:

Not Even a Hurricane Could Stop Us

The 17th Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference (PBNC) took place last week in Cancun, Mexico. I had wondered how successful the conference might be, considering the still fragile state of the world economy, the slowing of some nuclear projects in the United States, and the proximity of the meeting to the upcoming American Nuclear Society meeting. To add to that, as I departed for Mexico, I was keeping a wary eye on Hurricane Richard, which was ominously skirting the area south of Cancun. I was also a little worried that the distractions of the sea and surf might detract from the business of the meeting.

Thus, I was pleased to see a very good turnout for the conference when I arrived in Cancun. While I am sure that some people played hooky at one point or another during the conference to take in a round of golf or a dip in one of the conference hotel's many pools, the meeting provided an excellent forum for an updated discussion of nuclear developments and activities in countries around the Pacific Basin, and occasionally elsewhere. About 300 people from 24 or 25 countries attended the conference.

The Korean industry was out in force, with strong sponsorship of the conference and a coordinated display by five companies in the exhibit hall under the banner "Power of Korean Nuclear Industry." The Korean model did not go unnoticed by some of their competitors, and one of the Japanese plenary speeches referred to the new International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Company (JINED) as creating a "Team Japan" like the "Team Korea" we were seeing at the conference.

Several of the plenary sessions focused on the themes of "the role of nuclear energy in addressing environmental concerns," "drivers of nuclear energy," and "challenges of nuclear energy" and featured the views of the countries of the Pacific Basin and international organizations on these important issues. Other plenaries addressed other important themes, such as "regulation security and safety," "new reactor construction," "radioactive waste," and "communications." Technical sessions provided more detail in these and other areas.

It would be too much to identify all the plenary speakers, but (perhaps because I have been involved with all these organizations) I would like to note that plenary speakers from the United States included Joe Colvin from the American Nuclear Society, Shane Johnson from the Department of Energy, and Margaret Doane from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Speakers from Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, and Taiwan made plenary presentations. In addition to the Pacific Basin countries, one plenary session included a regulatory perspective from South Africa, and Latin America was also represented. One disappointment was the lack of reports from some of the countries considering or starting nuclear programs, such as Vietnam and Thailand.

In response to questions, the conference organizers announced that they would be posting presentation materials from some of the PBNC sessions on the conference website. As of the date of this posting, selected talks from both plenary and technical sessions on Monday through Wednesday were posted on a special link for presentations.