The research of our group focuses on the technical aspects of nuclear-fuel-cycle technologies and policy questions related to nuclear energy and nuclear-weapon proliferation.

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

Research on nuclear nonproliferation is critical independent of the future of nuclear energy, as even small national nuclear programs can become a major source of international concern. If nuclear energy, however, were to make a significant contribution to the global effort of mitigating climate change, it would have to grow substantially compared to today’s installed capacity. New nuclear reactor concepts and fundamentally different approaches for the management of nuclear energy may be necessary to deliver and manage such a large and diverse global nuclear energy sector.

A panoply of new reactor types is being considered today for deployment as next-generation nuclear technologies to replace existing reactor-types in the medium term. These proposals include plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors—a technology that was first attempted in the 1970s and 1980s but proved too complex, costly, and controversial for large scale commercial application; small reactors (“nuclear batteries”) designed for unattended operation in countries foregoing domestic R&D programs; and other fuel and reactor types that have long been explored by nuclear engineers, such as thorium-fueled or high-temperature reactors. In addition, nuclear fusion reactors promise carbon-emission-free energy without directly involving nuclear materials with the potential for weapons use. Outside the technical communities pursuing each of these technologies, however, little independent analysis has been available to examine the broader questions posed by these reactor types, including resources, economics, waste, safety, and proliferation risks.

Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and one of the Planck twins, c. 1910

Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

The goal of nuclear disarmament has lately received unprecedented attention in U.S. and international security debates. Along with questions about the possible impacts of nuclear disarmament on national security and military policy for the major and emerging powers there are some largely unexplored issues of managing the fissile materials that will be recovered from nuclear weapon arsenals as they are dismantled and of civilian stocks of such materials, as well as the longer term question of the role of nuclear energy programs in a disarming world.

Fissile Material Stocks: Huge stockpiles of weapon-usable fissile materials were produced for the Cold-War nuclear arsenals. More recently, comparably large inventories of separated plutonium have also accumulated in the civilian nuclear cycle due to a mismatch between plutonium separation and use. It will be important to verifiably eliminate all these materials, even if some smaller stockpiles are retained (e.g. as working stocks for civilian applications). A unique and particularly important challenge is posed by the use of highly enriched uranium for naval fuel by the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and India. Besides the problem of verifying the non-weapon use of such material, the existence of such stockpiles could also become a destabilizing element in a disarming world. The research of our group investigates these key issues related to fissile-material stockpiles and examines how weapon states could downsize their fissile material stocks and manage their production facilities on the way to nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear energy use in a disarming world: A civilian nuclear energy program can provide the essential basis to produce fissile material for civilian or military purposes. Even though the timing depends on the available infrastructure, virtually any nuclear energy program would clearly shorten the period to “breakout” from a disarmament agreement. In principle, nuclear energy could be both destabilizing (if the likely response to a suspected breakout is quick rearmament using civilian nuclear infrastructure) or stabilizing (if countries view their nuclear energy programs as bargaining chips that could be used for rearmament in case another country breaks out, making them more willing to participate in the disarmament process in the first place). Our research examines this new territory and develops strategies that would most effectively support a deep-cuts disarmament process.

Verification: Secrecy has been a defining aspect of most nuclear-weapon programs. After the end of the Cold War, however, the United States and the United Kingdom declassified significant information about their Cold War nuclear-material production programs. France seems to be considering a similar approach today, but the other nuclear weapon states still maintain great secrecy about the their respective nuclear weapons production complexes. In a world preparing for nuclear disarmament, however, much more transparency would be needed in order to adequately verify the reduction and elimination of nuclear arsenals. Our research evaluates the necessary requirements and proposes specific approaches for how to pursue them. We are developing detailed computer models of the different kinds of plutonium production reactors used in nuclear weapons programs. This work contributes to the emerging field of “Nuclear Archaeology,” a proposal for a suite of techniques to validate country-declarations of their fissile materials holdings.