Double Jeopardy: Combating Nuclear Terror and Climate Change

  • Published

Double Jeopardy: Combating Nuclear Terror and Climate Change by Daniel B. Poneman. The MIT Press, 2019, 258 pp.

Between irreversible climate change and nuclear disaster, one might assume Daniel Poneman’s latest work would be a dismal report on these two seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Double Jeopardy: Combating Nuclear Terror and Climate Change, however, Poneman draws on his vast experience in the Department of Energy and National Secu­rity Council to propose an innovative energy policy that could improve the prognosis on both counts. Poneman acknowledges that climate change and nuclear security have be­come divisive issues in the current partisan political landscape but suggests that combin­ing them could yield a wider zone of possible agreement. Development of a modern nuclear power infrastructure in the US and reassertion of our dominance in the interna­tional nuclear energy market could be attractive policies to both climate activists and those more concerned with national security and the strength of the economy. Given this premise, Poneman presents 13 recommendations ranging from “promote market mecha­nisms that reward efficiency” to “eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat.”

Such a broad treatise requires a résumé to match. Poneman’s includes decades of pub­lic service in both Republican and Democratic administrations, leadership positions in private sector enterprises, and posts at prestigious academic institutions. From 1993 to 1996, he served on the National Security Council as a special assistant to the president and as the senior director for nonproliferation and export controls. In this post, Poneman had a central role in negotiations with North Korea. During the Obama administration, Poneman served as deputy secretary of the Department of Energy and acting secretary of energy. Poneman is now the president and CEO of Centrus Energy Corp. and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Given his experience with international relations, Poneman’s recommendations on US nuclear foreign policy stand out as particularly innovative. Double Jeopardy reviews nu­clear foreign policy going back to the dawn of the nuclear age and US successes and failures in controlling nuclear proliferation. Poneman notes that the recent decline in US nuclear leadership has created a void quickly being filled by other powerful actors includ­ing Russia, China, India, and France. Poneman makes a compelling argument that the world would be safer if the US recommitted to leadership in nuclear power plant con­struction and invested heavily in the development of next-generation reactors. He also advocates for the launch of an Assured Nuclear Fuel Services Initiative (ANFSI) whereby the US and other established nuclear countries would promote the development of clean nuclear power plants through a reliable supply of nuclear fuel while eliminating the need for additional countries to develop their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities. En­richment facilities can have, as in the case of Iran, ambiguous purposes. Poneman ob­serves that the US has bungled recent attempts to implement its own gold standard of safety internationally and argues that only active investment in international nuclear enterprises will allow for the adoption of these high safety standards.

While also well developed, Poneman’s domestic recommendations may receive more scrutiny. His initial suggestions include levying a carbon tax, rewarding innovation to im­prove efficiency, and extending incentives provided for renewable energy to all carbon-neutral energy sources, including nuclear. Indeed, nuclear energy already provides the lion’s share of carbon-neutral energy and is more reliable than wind or solar energy. Poneman’s recommendation, however, that communities in the US opt into selection for nuclear waste storage facilities is unlikely to convince those already skeptical that nuclear waste can safely be stored. More emphasis could be placed on the scale of the nuclear waste problem— something widely misunderstood and exaggerated. Poneman later examines technological developments that could reprocess waste into usable fuel, and even how such innovations might facilitate a program like ANFSI. Although this technology could bring nuclear en­ergy a step closer to being both clean and renewable, it receives no mention in Poneman’s main analysis of handling nuclear waste. Poneman also advocates a shift from large reactors to more manageable small modular reactors (SMR). While SMRs could be more afford­able, standardized, and easily protected, many will be concerned that escalating numbers of domestic reactors can only mean more opportunity for nuclear disaster.

This journal’s readers will be particularly interested in Poneman’s advice to the DOD. Every Air Force pilot knows the importance of energy management on a tactical level, but our leaders must also consider the strategic implications of a rapidly changing energy supply chain. California has some of the most ambitious climate goals, and in partner­ship with the Navy, it built the largest photovoltaic plant on DOD land in 2016. Energy from this plant will power multiple Navy bases, and surplus will be sold back to the state. Poneman suggests this power purchase model could be extended to nuclear power plants. Such a venture, while certainly a logistical challenge, could reinvigorate the nuclear mis­sion of the Air Force. Additionally, the Air Force and Navy have entered into multiple large energy-savings performance contracts to begin improving the efficiency of their buildings. Some may argue that these kinds of projects fall beyond the purview of the Air Force or distract from its primary mission. DOD leadership, however, must consider such innovations before falling behind the power curve.

One does not have to agree with all of Poneman’s recommendations to benefit from reading Double Jeopardy. Air Force personnel will gain context for their work from his con­cise review of the history of international nuclear negotiations and a current outlook on nuclear security topics of interest. While adopting all of Poneman’s suggestions to increase nuclear power production may not be practical for the Air Force, Double Jeopardy will, most importantly, spark conversations about taking decisive action to mitigate the effects of cli­mate change and the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Lt Frederick Metzger, USAF



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."