U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group Report: A Q&A with Charles Ferguson

Ferguson photo

Dr. Charles Ferguson, Co-Chairman of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working group

In May 2013, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group released a report examining the broader implications of the Fukushima nuclear accident. The report, Statement on Shared Strategic Priorities in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, outlines pressing Japanese energy policy decisions and the broader strategic concerns within Japan’s energy policy debate. It also offers strategic recommendations for industry and government policymakers.

The Forum on Energy recently sat down with Dr. Charles Ferguson, Co-Chairman of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working group and one of the key drivers of the report, to discuss its conclusions, implications and possible next steps.

> > Read more about the report, Statement on Shared Strategic Priorities in the Aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, in a Q&A with L. Gordon Flake, Chairman of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group.

Forum on Energy: What do you believe were the seminal findings of the report?

Dr. Charles Ferguson: Re-reading the report, I am struck by two major findings and themes. First, our group purposefully highlighted from the very beginning of the report the importance of ensuring the well-being of the people affected by the Fukushima accident. If they are not properly cared for and their valid concerns addressed, Japan, in my opinion, will not be able to resolve the festering problems stemming from the accident. In particular, the government needs to demonstrate that it is committed to a timely and credible resolution of the decontamination and decommissioning problems, and to the creation of a risk-informed regulatory system that is responsive and has sufficient authority.

Second, our group repeatedly emphasized Japan’s role as a global leader. The report underscored Japan as a leading international actor — what happens in Japan will have global ramifications. Also, the report discussed Japan’s unique position as the only non-nuclear weapon state with the complete nuclear fuel cycle. In addition, it drew attention to Japan’s ability to shape international practices on handling spent fuel and waste storage. This issue will grow in importance as countries without nuclear power begin to acquire it and as countries with nuclear power must make decisions about responsible handing of the used fuel and waste. Finally, on the issue of leadership, the report highlighted Japan as a global economic (the world’s third largest economy) and technological leader. Thus, Japan’s decisions on energy policy have major implications for both the Japanese and global economies.

Forum on Energy: Which of the findings require the most immediate action by the United States and Japan?

Ferguson: I believe that the two countries should immediately work together on the urgent problem of decontamination and decommissioning. Such joint work will be an important step forward to restore public trust and confidence. In this respect, our report recommends building on the Tomodachi initiative to form sister city alliances between Fukushima and U.S. communities in Hanford and the Savannah River Site, in order to share experiences and learn from each other. I think another important immediate action item is to move forward with a joint energy security plan, including shipments of LNG from the United States to Japan and more collaborative work on “research, development, and marketization of innovative clean energy technologies.”

Forum on Energy: The report emphasizes the importance of the nuclear fuel cycle, waste management and advanced technology to non-proliferation. What do Japan and the United States need to do to remain international leaders of non-proliferation?

Ferguson: I think they have to keep investing the appropriate level of resources, including human, monetary, political, and technological capital to meet the challenge of preventing proliferation.

Regarding human resources, both countries need highly trained people to provide the expertise for an effective nuclear safeguards system. The United States has invested in recent years in the Next Generation Safeguards Initiative. Japan needs to make comparable investments.

Ensuring nonproliferation also requires an adequate monetary commitment. While Japan and the United States are two of the most important financial contributors to the International Atomic Energy Agency, they need to continue to exert leadership to encourage other countries to provide the necessary funds for the agency.

As for the political challenge, we are witnessing now with the case of Iran one of the greatest ever tests of the nonproliferation system. Japan and the United States must act in concert to prevent Iran from crossing the threshold to make nuclear weapons. This is a complex issue, and I will not have the space to go into depth here. But I will highlight that Japan’s dependency on fossil fuels from the Persian Gulf region is a huge complicating factor. A U.S. commitment to expediting more LNG exports to Japan could provide Japan more political maneuvering room to work more effectively with the United States in dealing with the Iranian problem.

Finally, concerning technological resources, Japan has been a leader in developing safeguards for reprocessing plants, but more needs to be done. In particular, with bulk handling reprocessing and enrichment facilities, there are typically relatively large amounts of fissile material unaccounted for every year; thus, more attention and resources should be devoted to providing better warning of when these gaps in accounting occur. While these gaps are almost always due to material stuck in piping or in other pieces of equipment, there remains the possibility that material could be diverted. If and when other countries develop their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities, the world would benefit by having Japan and the United States having already devoted sufficient resources to more effective ways of tracking fissile material in such facilities.

Forum on Energy: What do you think are broader geo-strategic implications of a non-nuclear Japan?

Ferguson: Let me briefly state three implications: nuclear power’s role in countering climate change, standards for nonproliferation, and competitiveness in the nuclear industry.

First, nuclear power is a near-zero source of greenhouse gases. If the world will have any hope of reducing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it will need nuclear power as a viable option. While Japan alone is not a major emitter of greenhouse gases, its phase out of nuclear power could send a message to other countries that nuclear power is too dangerous. While solar and wind may eventually be ramped up to provide enough carbon-free energy, I would want to keep the nuclear option viable. It is better to have as many near-zero carbon energy sources available for countries’ use.

Second, Japan, as mentioned above, has been a leader in nonproliferation and serves a unique role as a non-nuclear weapon state with the nuclear fuel cycle. If Japan opts out of nuclear power, it could greatly diminish Japan’s role in setting stronger nonproliferation standards. Also, if Japan stops using nuclear power, it will have a more difficult struggle to reduce its stockpile of separated plutonium that could fuel hundreds of nuclear explosives.

Third, Japan and the United States are strongly coupled in the nuclear corporate sector. They offer the closest approach to a market-based mechanism among nuclear power providers. Thus, it would be a loss for global competitiveness and choice for client states if Japan opted out of nuclear power and could not continue to partner with U.S. companies. While it may be possible for Japanese companies such as Hitachi and Toshiba to continue to do so absent domestic use of nuclear power, I think it would be more difficult to do so if they could not draw from a large and qualified domestic nuclear workforce.

Forum on Energy: How can Japan ensure the Fukushima decommissioning and decontamination process is transparent and accountable? What is the special role for the United States in this area?

Ferguson: While Japan has been regularly publishing information about this process, I believe a more transparent and accountable process should involve trusted U.S. groups (government and non-governmental) also publishing their independent assessments of this process. Japan has welcomed U.S. experts and companies to advise on decommissioning and decontamination, but I have heard concerns that these experts’ concerns have at times not been taken seriously. One big area of concern is the issue of decontamination standards, as we highlighted in our report. The United States has also struggled with this issue. Both countries could likely find a common path forward if they work more closely together, especially in having citizen groups from both countries meet, share experiences and communicate their needs to government officials.

Forum on Energy: As Japan develops new nuclear safety regulations, what are the benefits of a risk-informed approach? What are the benefits of a peer-review system?

Ferguson: One of the biggest challenges that Japan faces is debunking the nuclear safety myth. Prior to the Fukushima accident, the Japanese public had been told that nuclear power was so safe that no major accidents would happen. Now, the industry and government have to chart a course that provides for strong safety standards but also educates the public that accidents could still occur. That is, there will always be some risk. A regulatory system needs to set the goal to drive the risk of a major accident to a sufficiently low level. Is that risk acceptable to the public? It can be if the public can understand that a risk-informed approach seeks to continually evaluate what could lead to accidents and how to take preventive action to reduce the likelihood of those accidents. A risk-informed regulatory system is also multi-layered. It seeks to reduce risk through continually improving plant designs. This is not to imply that the older designs are unsafe; they need to be evaluated to determine the cost versus benefits of making changes to the plants. But if there are safety concerns that cannot be resolved, then a plant will not be permitted to operate. Moreover, risk-informed systems have vigorous safety cultures. Everyone involved in the operation of a nuclear plant needs to be constantly thinking about and acting on safety.

Another important layer is a peer-review system. In the United States, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations has provided peer review since soon after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. Peer pressure, the companion to peer review, can serve as a powerful motivator for CEOs and their teams to work toward better safety at their plants and in turn better plant performance and better financial returns.