Fmr. U.S. Assistant Sec. of State for Political-Military Affairs
January 5, 2023
Bret Kugelmass [00:00:29] You're here today with Bob Gallucci, who is the Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs. Bob, thanks for joining us today.
Bob Gallucci [00:01:18] My pleasure, Bret.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:20] Well, I'd love to... You know, obviously, it'd be great to capture your perspectives. I mean, with having such a career, it's a real honor to have you on the show, but I'd first love to learn a little bit about you as a person if that's okay. Can we start off with where were you born?
Bob Gallucci [00:01:35] I, like a lot of people, I was born in Brooklyn, but I actually admit it. And I grew up mostly on Long Island, went to a local public high school and schools, and then went to the local university, Stony Brook State University.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:52] That's also my alma mater. Yeah, I grew up in Baldwin. Where town did you grow up?
Bob Gallucci [00:01:55] In Brentwood.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:57] Okay, great.
Bob Gallucci [00:01:59] Lifeguarded at Heckscher State Park for three or four years. And did graduate work at Brandeis, M.A. and Ph.D., and then had a start on an academic career, teaching.
Bret Kugelmass [00:02:14] And were there any formative experiences that you can relate to us that put you on that career path specifically?
Bob Gallucci [00:02:22] Yeah, I think it relevant to the conversation. I watched another of your podcasts. I think you were at Johns Hopkins Lab and you were focused on the fallacy of the safety issues with nuclear energy. And I thought there was a parallel to the security issues... international security issues. There are some fallacies there. And interestingly, it seems like nuclear engineers are at the heart of both problems, and maybe we can get to that. But let me say that I was smitten very early on with a kind of nuclear bug. I was, as a high schooler in the early 1960s, I was taken with the concept of nuclear war, which was not common for my colleagues. But I think I was the first person to take a book out of the high school library by Herman Kahn entitled On Thermonuclear War. And it, in a way, guided me through my undergraduate focus on foreign policy, international relations. And when I got to graduate school... And by that time, the Vietnam War was well underway and War and Peace was in the air. As you may have read, you wouldn't remember, but you may have read. It was much protest over the war. Much conversation. And I ended up doing my Ph.D. thesis on the conduct of the war, the ground strategy and the air war... Less than on the philosophical questions of whether this was in the national interest or not. I thought it was not. But that was not the point of the book. But the nuclear issue has remained with me so that when I began teaching, I focused on that. When I was teaching something other than general survey courses, I focused on nuclear deterrence and and the theory of deterrence. I got very interested in the way nuclear weapons work, particularly simple ones. And I ultimately ended up doing something I'm still doing, which is consulting at Lawrence Livermore Labs with something called Z-Division, which some people know about. It's the intelligence portion of Lawrence Livermore and focuses on nuclear issues of other countries. And that, through my career, after I left academia and went into government service, I went into the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And there I focused particularly on nuclear energy issues, particularly nuclear proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. And so that led me sort of naturally at the time this was the mid seventies, 1970s. It led me to focus on the nuclear fuel cycle, which was not common for people in security affairs unless they were in the nonproliferation world. It turned out that after the original five states acquired nuclear weapons, nobody else was announcing that they were pursuing nuclear weapons. They were all pursuing nuclear energy for nuclear power purposes. And so if you think of the next four or five countries, first think about Israel and think about India, think about Pakistan, think about North Korea, think about South Africa. None of their nuclear programs were nuclear weapons programs in a sort of de jure or announced fashion. They all were nuclear research or nuclear power programs. And so understanding the peaceful nuclear fuel cycle seemed like a natural thing to do. And the arms control agency was, in a way, set up in a sort of checks and balances way to balance what was then ERDA, became Department of Energy, where we had the home of those who were enthusiastic about a full fuel cycle. I mean, that phrase "fuel cycle" for some people doesn't mean terribly a lot. But to those of us interested in the weapons danger, the security danger, if you embraced a cycle and you were insistent that we not waste that wonderful material plutonium, then you were in deep trouble. And if you could avoid that, you could be in no trouble at all...
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:18] I just want to take a pause there so everyone understands what you're saying. What you're saying is... if you're not trying to eke every little bit of economics out of the fuel, it's not that hard to make it proliferation resistant.
Bob Gallucci [00:07:37] Let me put it... The answer's yes. You said it much better than I did.
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:42] No, I still need to, like, say it two or three more times just to make sure I even fully... I just want to make sure everyone's getting what we're saying. Yeah.
Bob Gallucci [00:07:48] If I fast forward from the 1970s to the 1990s, I was part of a team that negotiated with... led the team that negotiated with North Korea. And as we proceeded in those discussions which occurred in Geneva, the North Koreans at some point, somewhat to my amazement, the head of their delegation... We were just having lunch, the two of us and our interpreters, said that, you know, "This whole problem that we're talking about could go away if you could help us get light water reactors." And, you know, and I was stunned even to hear him use the phrase because they had a small graphite moderated reactor that was a plutonium producer, as many of them were. And that's what we were focused on in terms of where they would get the plutonium for their first weapons. And here he was saying that he had a problem. And that is that there was a nuclear establishment in North Korea and you can't just shut it down. I mean, I felt like I was talking to a colleague about the Atomic Energy Commission. It was interesting to me...
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:00] That's so incredible. Can actually I just pull on the sociological aspect of that for one quick second before we get back to the technical? This is going to sound so naive. I almost like regret saying it out loud... But like, how do North Koreans know anything about the outside world and like how stuff works given how closed off they are?
Bob Gallucci [00:09:23] Here's the problem with me answering that question. You may have noticed already that I'm bold and my information is dated. So I'm talking about an exchange that happened 30 years ago.
Bret Kugelmass [00:09:39] I see. So the closed-off-ness of North Korea that I've always grown up with was not always the case, is what you're saying.
Bob Gallucci [00:09:43] I mean, it was closed off at the time, and the team that we negotiated with, the North Korean side, had very ill fitting suits. And, you know, it looked... They looked very kind of Eastern European Asians. I mean, in a funny sort of way, that's not true anymore. They have been around and they are... Kim Jong un, the grandson, the son of the guy who was running actually when I started the negotiations, it was the current leader's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who ran North Korea. This is not the same country. It's a different country now and it's not a country I know terribly well. But there are a lot of people around who do know it well. It's not the hermit kingdom anymore. Lots of people have been there. I have never been to North Korea. I negotiated with them for two years, pretty hand to hand contact. But I don't know the modern North Korean state terribly well. I read a lot. I know what I can do from that, but I don't have the contact I did at the time. At the time, your image would have fit fine, but you would have to revise it to capture the current reality of North Korea, as I've come to understand it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:10:54] But you're saying even back then they knew enough and had enough contact with the outside world to understand and communicate that a light water reactor was inherently proliferation-proof?
Bob Gallucci [00:11:06] Here's what Kang Sok-ju... Kang Sok-ju was the deputy foreign minister, and he was my negotiating partner. He led the North Korean delegation. What he said, this is not... I can't say this is a quote, but it's something like, "Look, we know that you have the most modern technology." I mean, he didn't say that Westinghouse licensed Framatome for the French and GE did Siemens for the Germans. I mean, he didn't do that, but he knew that the designs that were American designs back in the day when we were building reactors, as you well know, that we had the technology. And it became an issue of... After, I mean, it was very much of a struggle for me to send the reporting cable back that night and get on the telephone with a couple of undersecretaries, one an Undersecretary of Defense, the other, an Undersecretary of State, two very smart guys whom I had known for a long time, but they were really worried that I had lost it somehow and had something bad to drink because they said, "Wait a minute, you want to help the North Koreans get nuclear power reactors?" They said, "You got to be kidding." I said, "No, you don't understand. And with all due respect, you guys, you don't know about nuclear energy and you don't know that nuclear power, if you're just talking about the reactor, is not risky from a security perspective."
Bret Kugelmass [00:12:29] Yeah. So though, like Eisenhower kind of knew that because he was the one who was like, "Let's give everyone little reactors, too." I understand the reactors he gave them actually could have different uses. But at least the philosophy of "we want to give people nuclear technology so it becomes a peaceful technology, not a weapons technology" had that been floating around for a while, right?
Bob Gallucci [00:12:51] Yeah. You got the phrase Atoms for Peace and all. But you got to remember when you do this, because I got to worry a little bit here because I fought against what was first the Atomic Energy Commission, then ERDA, and then the Department of Energy, because of their continuing enthusiasm for a full fuel cycle, for recovering the plutonium and for using it in the current generation of reactors, and much worse, a new generation that weren't thermal reactors, they're going to be fast reactors.
Bret Kugelmass [00:13:22] Yeah, I'm against all of this, too, by the way. I think you and I probably on the exact same page. I'm like, I just don't see the economic... Given our, especially today, how cheap it is to mine your normal uranium. Get it to 5%. I just don't... Nobody can argue to me the case for completing the fuel cycle with a mathematical model. I don't see... I don't see... I'm sorry, I don't see it.
Bob Gallucci [00:13:47] Well, you shouldn't see it. It's not there. But it also hasn't been. And you know, as the costs rise of a full fuel cycle and of reprocessing, which is you know... We know countries are... Russia is still reprocessing, still trying thermo recycle. I don't know exactly where the Japanese are now after their Fukushima experience. But there's still some enthusiasm out there and there's still a worry that I have that we're going to rediscover the recovery of plutonium. And I don't... I think that is the risky part. And if we could stick to thermal reactors... store spent fuel. You got... You know the way you were arguing about the safety? You know in my mind of course the loss of cooling accident, the China syndrome, all of that is what informed us back in the day. And it all came from the nuclear engineers. Well, where does the full fuel cycle come from and the need to recover plutonium? It comes from those engineers who see the elegance of a closed fuel cycle. Well, forgive me, but its elegance is overcome by the risks that are associated with it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:15:02] Yeah. And well, I mean, I think... Not to like bash on engineers too much because I come from that cloth also... And also, by the way, I find like I'm actually quite sympathetic because I fall, I find myself falling victim to the exact same mentality of this, like "drive towards optimization for optimization sake..." Here's the problem, it's actually bad engineering because good engineering actually is a more complex optimization. It's not an optimization across a single variable, which is fuel economics. It's optimization across multiple variables with your desired outcome probably being lowest cost of energy. At least that's my desired outcome. And if you were to look at it from that perspective, you would not over-optimize your reactor. You would optimize on things like constructability or availability of supply chain or availability of material or de-risking investment through standardization. Like those are things... You can still be a good engineer and optimize across different variables, but it's just very tempting and alluring to pick one and just drive towards perfection on that. So I'm sympathetic, but it is a problem.
Bob Gallucci [00:16:11] It is a problem. It is. It is a problem. And when I have visited other schools with, that have engineering schools... Where I teach now, Georgetown University does not have an engineering school, but I've been to engineering schools elsewhere in other universities. And that instinct to recover plutonium is still there. I mean, it is still there. And even the urge to design reactors that would require highly enriched uranium is still there. And none of this is necessary. I mean, you can settle at 3.5% enrichment level and the enrichment services can be had on the open market. There's no reason to spread the technology around any further than already is. So you can... I was prepared for the battle, which I had to fight for the deal that I cut with the North Koreans and we ultimately accepted with the North Koreans. I was prepared for the attack from the right that, you know, "You're naive, you're trying to do a deal with North Korea..."
Bret Kugelmass [00:17:20] So what was the outcome of that battle? Can you explain that battle and what the outcome was?
Bob Gallucci [00:17:22] Yeah, well, that I mean... There were those who when I went up to the Hill, particularly both in the Senate and the House, to defend what was called the "agreed framework" with North Korea. And I explained that, you know, "We are crushing their plutonium program. It's going to end. We're going to shut down their one site." And at that time, there was one site, Yongbyon, and it will be no more. And we'll be replacing them with safe, proliferation resistant. You know, like the wristwatch isn't waterproof, it's water resistant. Well, that light water reactors are proliferation resistant. If there is no reprocessing plant, there's no recovery of the plutonium. There is no proliferation risk from the light water reactor. And indeed, the requirement for enrichment means that if you don't permit enrichment in the country, they are forever dependent upon an international market. So this is a good deal from proliferation perspective. However, if you start from well, "Wait a minute, I don't like deals to deal with a problem like North Korea. I'd much rather a military solution." I said, "Actually, you wouldn't. You do not want to go to war with North Korea. We've done that." You know...
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:33] Have you ever been to a subway in South Korea? Something that stood out to me was they have gas masks at every subway stop because they are on alert for a war with North Korea. That does not seem pleasant.
Bob Gallucci [00:18:44] If you lived in Seoul, you would be on alert, too. I mean, the rhetoric... It comes out of Pyongyang and it's coming out right now, as a matter of fact, is awful. Right. And it is provocative. And it... When you live as close to the DMZ, to that border with North Korea as you are when you are in Seoul, you don't take these things lightly and you don't dismiss them. So this is a serious security issue. So the idea that we were going to try to solve it by providing North Korea with two 1000 megawatt light water reactors... Initially, the North Koreans would not accept South Korean reactors. And I explained that a lot of countries want to provide these reactors, but nobody wants to pay for them. The South Koreans will do it. South Koreans took on the most of the burden. The Japanese agreed to take on and a part of that that burden. So that's what the deal was for the agreed framework. But the argument that I was referring to before was with both the right and the left. The right... Just simple. "I don't like deals as a method of solving a problem with North Korea. I'd much rather a military solution." My answer is "No, you wouldn't if you knew what you were talking about." Second, the tack from the left came from those who are in the nonproliferation community, for whom I have great affection and respect, but it stops at the water's edge because they turn out to be against nuclear energy, against nuclear power, because of the association for decades with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And I said, "I got it." And I mean, one of my critics who's actually quite a good friend, you know, pointed out that the amount of plutonium produced in 2000 megawatt light water reactor was enormous compared to what that little graphite moderated research reactor could produce. So we'd be giving them huge plutonium production. And I said, "Absolutely true, but no way to separate the plutonium from the spent fuel, no way to enrich their own uranium. So we've got them. It's fine."
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:56] Yeah. I mean, the argument that I always have to clarify to people is, plutonium is not one thing... You have, you know, your fissile plutonium 239, that's we got to worry about. But then the natural build up of plutonium 240 in a light water reactor is essentially a poison that prevents you from using that plutonium 239. So it's like that's what's so great about a light water reactor.
Bob Gallucci [00:21:21] No. Bret, it is with great reservation that I am going to disagree with you.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:26] No... Please. Educate me. Educate me.
Bob Gallucci [00:21:29] Because your argument... I last confronted full blown from someone from Kojima from the French side of this and it was at the first meeting that the Obama administration had on nuclear terrorism and the security issue with nuclear energy. And the French were making the argument that the reprocessing is not a problem because it's a self-limiting thing for for the terrorist concern. That's not true. Now, the reason it's not true cannot be fully explained outside of a classified environment, but it's not true. In other words, when I teach this, I start with where you started. You know, that there are different isotopes of plutonium, which have a different propensity to spontaneously emit neutrons and therefore create different kinds of problems for the nuclear weapons designer. And high quality plutonium, if you're a weapons designer, is in fact, much like highly enriched uranium. It's highly enriched in the... It's not enriched, but it's highly focused on plutonium 239 rather than the even isotopes. And that means low burn up fuel. That does not mean a light water reactor. Got it. Understand? The next thing that should be said, however, is that all plutonium is fissile. All isotopes are fissile. If you ask the question, "Can you design a bomb with any plutonium?" The answer is yes. And you need to understand that. No one can... and no one can go any further than I just did. I don't think. Yeah, I've been around the block on this. I can't explain why. I can't talk about why. But we worry about all plutonium, not just the high quality stuff that the weapons designer would most like to have.
Bret Kugelmass [00:23:28] Okay. That was a little unsatisfying to not get the details. But maybe when we step into a classified environment, I can learn a little bit more on this one. Okay. Fair enough. So then what you're saying is... So then what's the method by which you would secure... Let's say you gave them two gigawatt scale... Actually, first start off with with the conclusion. How did those negotiations end?
Bob Gallucci [00:23:57] I mean we concluded the negotiations. I signed for the United States of America, Kang Sok-ju signed for the DPRK, the formal name of North Korea, and that was done in 1994. And for the next seven, eight years into the early Bush administration, nothing happened at Yongbyon. There was no work on plutonium. That's the good news. What they agreed to do there, they did. The bad news is they were hedging. They secretly made a deal with the Pakistanis. You may have heard about the A.Q. Khan network and initially transfer of gas centrifuge technology. Ultimately, the transfer of, we understand, actually gas centrifuge equipment from Pakistan, from that network to North Korea. So that the Clinton administration became aware of this secret activity, but decided not to tell the North Koreans we knew what they were doing. And then the plan was, at the early part of the Gore administration, which you may have noticed we didn't actually reach, the plan was to go and confront the North Koreans. There was something called the Perry Process, led by former Secretary of Defense Perry, in a review of our policy with North Korea. And that endorsed the idea of continuing because at that point in the late nineties, technology had been passed, but we didn't think there was actually any construction. As best I remember, there was any construction of a gas centrifuge plant. Early in the Bush administration, of course, they were briefed by the Clinton folks. They looked at this and they decided to let it go as well until really the... I guess it was the summer of of 2001. The Bush people decided that too much stuff was being transferred and they sent in Assistant Secretary of State Kelly to Pyongyang and he confronted the North Koreans with our knowledge of their... to put it bluntly, their cheating. And the North Koreans denied it. Kind of denied it. And we stopped the construction of the reactors. There was something called KEDO, the Korean Energy Development Organization, that had been created by the South Koreans and the United States and the Japanese to build those reactors that would call for a decade earlier when we did the Agreed Framework, and we stopped that construction. As soon as we stopped the construction, in January of the next year, the North Koreans said, "Fine, you're stopping construction. We're out of the deal. We're going to build nuclear weapons and test them." And indeed, in 2004, they tested... or in 2006... they tested their first nuclear weapon.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:53] And they did this all with the gas centrifuge?
Bob Gallucci [00:26:56] Gas centrifuge.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:57] Gas centrifuge.
Bob Gallucci [00:26:59] Yeah, I mean, they had of course, eventually, as they do now, they have both highly enriched uranium from their gas centrifuge program. And they started up the research reactor again.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:14] They have a research reactor. Right, because Iran has a real power reactor. Right? In addition...
Bob Gallucci [00:27:20] But Iran is an interesting counter case because Iran had a structure and it was to be built by the Germans and in the Iran-Iraq war it was bombed. The Russians came in and said, "We'll finish that reactor." Actually, what they did is build a whole new reactor for the Iranians. And it has been operating, but it is a light water reactor.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:42] And that's why we blow up their centrifuges, because they're not using the light water reactor for weapons production...
Bob Gallucci [00:27:50] We haven't blown up anybody's centrifuges. I mean, what we did is...
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:56] Somebody blew up some... Or not blew them up, but spun out of control or something.
Bob Gallucci [00:28:00] Okay. Yes, yes. You're talking about messing with them. That's a yes. Who exactly did that? The Israelis. The Americans, the Ugandans. You know, who knows? But the point the point is, nobody blew anything up. But our concern about the centrifuges was reflected in the JCPOA. The deal we cut 2015 with the Iranians, which in his wisdom, President Trump pulled us out of. And we have been trying to regenerate that because we'd like to stop that enrichment program.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:32] But I guess what I'm saying is that the real learning here is that they feel like they need to build the centrifuges because they can't use their light water reactor to produce weapons grade material.
Bob Gallucci [00:28:45] Yeah, well, two things are true...
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:47] If they could, they would. And then they wouldn't need the centrifuges.
Bob Gallucci [00:28:49] That's right. Sort of. I mean, I think that's not bad reasoning. But I'm not sure it's the causal connections are as you described them. The reasoning's right. What the Iranians did somewhat to our confusion was they began producing, building a heavy water production facility. Now, this was interesting to us because they had no heavy water reactor. The Russians had built them a light water reactor, a Russian style light water reactor. They had no heavy water reactor, but they were building a reactor. And we were concerned that that reactor would be a source of plutonium. So as part of the JCPOA, they had to redesign that reactor so it produced less plutonium and less of a concern and had to exclude the manufacture of a reprocessing facility that might have extracted the plutonium from any spent fuel that came out of the reactor.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:48] How do you... How do these negotiations happen between our scientists here and their scientists there in terms of communicating enough technical information to stop something from happening? Without that information that's being communicated, teaching them how to do something?
Bob Gallucci [00:30:04] Yeah. I mean, I think what you have to accept is that countries that are serious about a nuclear weapons program, and I would put North Korea and Iran in that category, they both are quite serious about their nuclear weapons program... Both countries have had longstanding nuclear weapons programs. They know a lot. Right. It's not like we're about to teach them something in the negotiation and they understand when we say, "No, you can't do X." They understand why you don't want them to do X. So...
Bret Kugelmass [00:30:41] Once you have the enriched material, is there another hard part in terms of making the bomb? Or once you have the enriched material, it's easy from there on out?
Bob Gallucci [00:30:48] Right. If you just made this simple, you got two things to make a bomb. You got to have your fissile material and you got to have a triggering package. The triggering package can look like a ball. It can look like a tube. It depends on what your fissile material is, what the package is going to look like, and how sophisticated it is. But a country like Iran needed to do two things. Any country would, and Iran did need it to have a whole program to build that implosion system, because they were going for the implosion system because it's much more efficient than the gun type device that we first dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb that we dropped on Nagasaki was an implosion system. It looked like a soccer ball kind of in its configuration. So they had a whole program involving high explosives, a lighting system, as they call it, or electrical system and other elements of that implosion system. On the one hand, which you can use a dummy in the... As a replacement for the fissile material. And then you have quite separately, a program to develop fissile material. And if it's going to be gas centrifuge, it's got to go to high levels. And there are other ways of doing it. But right now, that technology of choice, whether it's commercial or whether it's for bombs, is a gas centrifuge. It's not gaseous diffusion anymore for either.
Bret Kugelmass [00:32:12] Yeah. Got it. Got it. Got it. Okay. So... If we could just come back to the light water reactors and how they're proliferation resistant then if not due to the isotopic difference. What is the... Is it just it's hard to remove the plutonium from the rest of the ceramic pellets? Is that the challenge?
Bob Gallucci [00:32:43] Let's think about this for a moment. If you have a small research reactor like the North Koreans do and it's a gas graphite reactor, not only, you know, for your point, do you have low burn up fuel, you can pull that fuel out, you know, whenever you want to. Right. You just move the machine over the top, pull out some rods and and you go and do the chemical separation to pull the plutonium out. Got it. But think, is what I would I was trying to tell the senators and congressmen when I was testifying, defending the deal, think about what a light water reactor, a thousand megawatt reactor looks like. It's a huge bloody thing. And it has fuel assemblies that weigh tons and it has a big fuel machine. The reactor has to shut down in order to pull the fuel assemblies out so no one's going to sneak off with the plutonium.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:35] Right but coudln't they just after the first couple of years, then they've got them sitting in a spent fuel pool. You're saying they're not a risk there? Or they are a risk there, or we would take it...
Bob Gallucci [00:33:45] They are in the pool. But, you know, what do you what do you got? You've got fuel assemblies that are made... I mean, what is the metal they're encased in? It's titanium... Right. Zirconium? And the zirconium has to be chopped up. The material has to be leached out. It's a messy chemical process. You can't build a reprocessing plant to deal with light water reactors' spent fuel without everybody in the universe knowing you're doing it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:17] I see. What you're saying is getting the plutonium out of the pallet in a way that it's usable and chemically distinct, even if it's not isotopically distinct is still an extremely advanced, sophisticated, difficult process.
Bob Gallucci [00:34:30] And it will take years. And everybody will know you're doing it and the international community can respond. And by the way, they can also shut down your reactor by turning off your access to enriched uranium if you don't have an enrichment facility.
Bret Kugelmass [00:34:44] Yeah. Okay. Got it. Got it. Got it. Okay. And then I think we should just... The other thing that I personally just think is the greatest fallacy in terms of these advanced reactors is the thorium based fuel cycle, because there you are intentionally separating U 233, which as far as I know, is even worse than plutonium when it comes to... Is that your understanding as well that this thorium thing is a total nightmare?
Bob Gallucci [00:35:13] I, to my knowledge, the only country that has run with the idea of running a thorium based U 233 recovery is India. And that's because they have, you know, so much thorium. It's not the only country that could, but it's the only country that has, I think, moved very far down the road. But they still haven't moved very far down. I mean, you still have to do lots of things that are different and then you would do it if it was a uranium based system. And I don't think there's much of an angle in it from the Indian perspective eithe for a thermal thorium fuel cycle for recovery of U 233 for their nuclear weapons program, which is really based on plutonium. And they have reactors that are dedicated for plutonium production for their weapons program and separate reactors which are for the generation of electricity and are inspected by the IAEA.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:17] Yeah, yeah. No, I think it's a dead end, too, just from an economic perspective, but a lot of people advocate for it. And then I just am like... It doesn't make any sense to produce a bunch of U 233. Like that doesn't make any sense.
Bob Gallucci [00:36:28] I don't think... I mean, it's like a lot of ideas that are floating around, you know, that attract the attention of everyone from Bill Gates to to your next door neighbor who, you know, hears about a traveling wave or a molten salt or some other kind of thing, in my own view here, which is not... I'm not a technical person. [00:36:51]My own view is that if we could keep it simple, we will be much better off. We'll be better off in terms of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and we'll be much better off in terms of safety and in every other way. [13.0s] And if we can keep spent fuel as spent fuel and not open it up, we can do what... You know, back in the day when we were still talking enthusiastically about the full fuel cycle, the Canadians, who of course, are running heavy water reactors, the CANDU reactor, they were putting the spent fuel at White Shell in these cylinders, these cement cylinders, the same cement cylinders that we have to make bigger because our fuel assemblies are bigger, that we are putting spent fuel in co-located at the reactor. So we're rediscovering something that's 50 years old, essentially that the Canadians have been doing all along because there's no angle for the Canadians to separate the plutonium. So the question was, what do they do with the spent fuel after they take it out of the pond? They put it in cement. Well, how long will the cement last? A long time.
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:55] Yeah, yeah. I never understood... The whole waste thing is just another thing that makes absolutely no sense. But, you know, it's... I think, I just wanted to add maybe a fine point and I think something we're both saying when we like critique the nuclear engineers' enthusiasm, I think it's... I think it's all incentive based. I don't think people realize they're doing it, but I think like the incentives drive it. So like people who are grant funded at universities to study solutions for nuclear waste, you know, and then develop an expertize in how do you make nuclear waste last a million years? They don't want to say that nuclear waste isn't really a problem or doesn't need to be solved for a million years because that's how they fund their research is making it an ever more difficult problem. And then it goes beyond the academics. Then it goes to industry. When industry wants to collect some of those decommissioning funds that rich, you know, $50 billion pot or to study Yucca mountain for... Why 1 million years? Oh, because it's going to be a really hard problem to solve. That means a lot of money for the people who are going to solve it. And but I don't actually think the individuals realize that they're caught up in this trap. I think it's just all incentive driven. And then they rationalize based on like these incentives that they've been driven towards through their whole career.
Bob Gallucci [00:39:09] I'm prepared to believe that's true. Not being one of those people myself, I don't know what it feels like to them. But I know that it's frustrating, if you're not technical and you look at this and someone tells you... I'm imagining some judge who's being told in a court case what a half life is and the half life of the actinides are 20,000 years and all of a sudden, well, you got to have a 20,000 year solution to this problem. I mean, you end up making it non solvable.
Bret Kugelmass [00:39:40] I know, I know, I know. I know. That's how my... at least my communication strategy has been like radically shift the Overton Window to the point where... Because people... Yeah. A judge or anyone or policymaker is not going to understand. They're not gonna take the time to understand technical arguments. And even if they do, they might not be convinced because like the social aspects are just the fact that more people live close to them or telling them something different might overrule their own, like technical understanding of it, as hard fought as that would be to gain. And so, I mean, my thinking has just been you just have to shift the Overton Window. You just have to, with the most confidence humanly possible, say we need not just 100% nuclear, we need 200% nuclear. The light water reactors are the simplest, easiest, most proven thing that are awesome. Let's just do tens of thousands of gigawatts of them. And then people read that emotionally. And that's a more convincing argument rather than saying, "Here is how a light water reactor works."
Bob Gallucci [00:40:39] So let me ask you... Is it okay for me to ask you a question?
[00:40:42] Yeah, sure.
[00:40:42] So I heard you make the argument for what I think are called SMRs, small modular reactors. Yeah. And this all sounds good to me, but I generally think I want something that's really, really, really easy for the NRC to license. And I... what I wondered about was whether you thought this would be easy to license if you're, if you downscale. And I can understand why.... Capital costs of these large reactors and who's building reactor vessels as you correctly point out these days. So you might end up with something smaller. But is there a licensing issue with with a smaller vanilla light water reactor?
Bret Kugelmass [00:41:26] Okay. Yeah. So maybe let me lay out maybe a few different components to my answer. The first is that I am actually a big fan of big reactors too. I just think that the nuclear industry has lost its way in terms of the institutional knowledge necessary to do things cost effectively. And so in order to build back up that knowledge, you need to do the same thing over and over and over again. And in order to do the same thing over and over and over again, given today's like capital market constraints, the best way to do it is start small, so build 1000 small reactors, and then you can build a thousand big reactors. That's like my general philosophy on why small first. Now I'm coming to license-ability issue. The license-ability issue with the NRC as totally distinct from the license-ability issue globally. The NRC in their entire operating history, 47 years... Or actually I should say 48 years now, has never seen a full application through from start to finish. Ever. Ever. Not a single nuclear installation in this country was licensed by the NRC. Every single one of them are grandfathered in from the Atomic Energy Commission and Vogtle will be the first that has started with the NRC and will come online with the NRC. And so there's a big license-ability issue with the NRC, irrespective of your technology. Let's start with that. When it comes to the global licensing consideration, I believe that small light water reactors are the easiest because it's a technology that they're already intimately familiar with that we have a lot of operating experience with. However, you can vary many of your... Let's say safety margins and ratios to create a better scenario. So for instance, if you have a smaller core but still a bunch of steel in your reactor vessel around it, the amount of energy that is necessary to melt through that vessel proportional to the vessel thickness is much better in an SMR scenario. As such, it's much easier to prove things or have longer time periods to move energy from point A to point B with a small light water reactor to the international licensing community. That's my thesis.
Bob Gallucci [00:43:38] Uh huh. Makes sense. Makes sense. Okay.
Bret Kugelmass [00:43:43] Yeah. But no, I think... Yeah, I think we need tens of thousands of gigawatts. I think that we can make thousands of small reactors on the way to make thousands of medium reactors on the way to make tens of thousands of large reactors. And I think that's the pathway to, like, fully overhaul Earth's energy supply in a couple of decades.
Bob Gallucci [00:44:08] I like the argument that should appeal to anybody concerned about climate change that you can't get whatever you think is really possible with renewables. It's not possible in the next couple of decades. And unless something dramatic happens, the way I have learned about this with batteries, there is no way to provide baseload other than nuclear without a carbon problem.
Bret Kugelmass [00:44:40] Oh, totally. And I think the other component there is, I mean, the renewables industry has done such a good job branding themselves as the only problem is cost. And look at how well we're doing on the cost decline and look at how well batteries will follow in our footsteps. So that's their branding. What they're failing to ignore or they're failing to represent, I should say, what they are ignoring, is that on a per energy delivered basis, you are using a thousand times as much material for this like battery renewable combo as nuclear would. So although you're calling yourselves low carbon, you're not zero carbon. And when you add in the carbon footprint of storage and carbon footprint of renewables, it's not... I mean, it's yeah, it's about four times better than combined cycle natural gas, but it's not nothing. So like you still got a carbon problem. Like, you're not solving the problem that you set out to solve. So... But yeah, nuclear solves all that. Bob, we just have to get over this great stagnation.
Bob Gallucci [00:45:47] I'm for that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:45:49] All right. Any other... You're the guest, so I should get off my podium. What are the thoughts? What do you want to leave our audience with?
Bob Gallucci [00:45:58] If there are reasons why we haven't had reactor starts in the United States over the last bunch of decades... Usually the reasons that people allude to are safety first. Sometimes that spreads to not only the operation of the reactor, but waste and security. And I think what you have been doing is a very good job of addressing the first couple. And [00:46:31]what I would want people to understand is that there is such a thing as, from the perspective of international security, safe nuclear power. [8.6s] One has to be careful about what one does, but that doesn't mean we can't. And we have at least one negotiated agreement that did just that with respect to light water reactors. And that would have been a fine solution had the North Koreans not cheated on the enrichment area. But they did. And so it was not the solution. But I think I would want people to understand that running away from nuclear energy is a mistake. They need to understand a little bit more about it. And it is not as mysterious as people make it out. I mean, I teach this course to undergraduates and to the graduate students. The first half of the course, we don't talk about countries. It's only technology. It's the nuclear fuel cycle. It's the design of nuclear weapons. It's the intersection of those things. And the case I want to make is that you can... You need to be careful with nuclear energy, but you can produce safe and nuclear establishment that will deliver the kind of energy you want without the carbon footprint.
Bret Kugelmass [00:47:56] Bob Gallucci, everybody. Thank you so much.
Bob Gallucci [00:47:58] Thank you.