Is proliferation a real barrier to new build?

14 December 2005

Those opposed to significant growth in nuclear power, to satisfy rising electricity demand, national security of supply objectives and the global need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, employ a number of arguments to make their case. The majority of these can easily be shown to rest on faulty understanding of the real situation or just plain bad analysis – for example the claim that the uranium will soon run out or, even more ridiculously, that the move to ‘lower grade’ mines, requiring heavy energy inputs to process the ore, may actually result in nuclear power consuming more energy that it produces.

There are, however, more respectable arguments the antis can employ. Waste management is clearly one of these – it is fine for the industry to say that ‘we have the technical solutions but just lack the political will to employ them’, but this isn’t really good enough. We need something better than this. There is, however, another important issue that has crept up and the industry must confront before it builds lots of new reactors. This is the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons, with a source in the civil nuclear fuel cycle.

A few years ago, this didn’t seem to be such a major concern. The Cold War was over, leaving just one superpower and a small number of other countries with nuclear weapons. The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) could be regarded as a significant success, indeed one of the few international treaties that had achieved much of what it set out to do. India, Pakistan and Israel (assumed but not admitted) had acquired nuclear weapons outside the NPT but, given the general fears about nuclear proliferation expressed in the 1950s and 1960s, this was not a bad result. Many countries had built civil nuclear power reactors without any thought of ever getting involved in nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry could claim that the civil and military sides of nuclear could, indeed, be separated and the proliferation risk, although always present, could be put to the back of most peoples’ minds.

Things have now unfortunately changed. The upsurge in global terrorism, combined with the fears over developments in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya, have refocused peoples’ minds on the risk of mass proliferation of nuclear weapons sourced from ‘civil’ nuclear power or, at the very least, expropriation of civil nuclear material by terrorist organisations to make a ‘dirty bomb’, which would cause a significant amount of disruption and possibly some loss of life.

The industry may continue to emphasise the strength of the safeguards system and the effective separation of the civil and military industries, but it is clear that new nuclear build must satisfy public fears. This is not helped by clear hypocrisy shown by some nations, notably the kid gloves treatment the USA granted Brazil when its uranium enrichment plans became public, at the same time as its castigation of Iraq – yet both nations had signed the NPT and were willing to discuss additional safeguarding of sites. International geopolitics has much to do with this, but it is difficult to get this over to the ‘man on the street’.

There are, however, some very positive developments in this difficult area. The new challenges and the variability of political will when confronted with situations such as Iran suggest that moving to some kinds of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle is timely. There are a number of ideas, previously floated many years ago but then seen as too difficult and not really necessary, which have been dug out and revamped. One key principle is that the assurance of non-proliferation must be linked with assurance of supply and services within the nuclear fuel cycle to any country embracing nuclear power. This raises the question of whether multilateral initiatives should be under IAEA control or co-ordination so that the IAEA might guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel and services for bona fide uses, thereby removing the incentive for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities.

Impetus has been given to this by the leadership of Mohammed ElBaradei, IAEA director general, who has pointed to the need for better control of both uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. "We should be clear," he said, "that there is no incompatibility between tightening controls over the nuclear fuel cycle and expanding the use of peaceful nuclear technology. In fact, by reducing the risks of proliferation, we could pave the way for more widespread use of peaceful nuclear applications." This echoes the rationale of the NPT itself, and he brought these matters to the attention of the UN General Assembly at the end of October. As well as constraining the 'do-it-yourself' inclinations of individual countries, "multilateral approaches could offer additional advantages in terms of safety, security and economics," he said.


Simply categorising the second most populous nation in the world as a nuclear outlaw was never helpful and, if anything, hardened attitudes

There are several approaches under discussion by an expert group convened by the IAEA, including developing and implementing international supply guarantees with IAEA participation, for example with the IAEA as administrator of a fuel bank; promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities into multinational control, including the non-signatory countries to the NPT (such as India and Pakistan) and creating new multinational, possibly regional, fuel cycle facilities for enrichment, reprocessing and used fuel management, based on joint ownership. A further idea is to reinforce existing commercial market mechanisms of long term fuel supply contracts, possibly involving fuel leasing and the take-back of used fuel, so obviating the need for fuel cycle facilities in most countries.

Such arrangements are very much for the current period but there are realistic hopes that the problem as it’s identified today may eventually largely go away. Generation IV reactor systems with full actinide recycling as part of a closed fuel cycle will produce very small volumes of fission product wastes without the long-life characteristics of today's used fuel, and will have high proliferation resistance. The classic closed fuel cycle with aqueous (Purex) reprocessing and recycling of plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel is not intrinsically proliferation resistant. Yet there are clearly substantial difficulties in diverting the materials for illicit uses – IAEA safeguards have indeed successfully prevented any diversion and commercial (reactor-grade) plutonium is thankfully most unattractive for weapons.

One barrier to the creation of multinational fuel cycle facilities, with attendant guarantees of supply in exchange for strict adherence to safeguards, is the view held by some countries that they ought to develop the full fuel cycle for security of supply or import-saving reasons. Transport of nuclear fuels has become a difficult issue, to add to concerns about the reliability of various suppliers, while countries possessing significant uranium resources are inclined to develop them and then think about developing other areas of the fuel cycle too. Hence Brazil’s involvement in uranium and enrichment, to fuel its own reactors and, less obviously, the regular views expressed in Australia that it should add value to its uranium sales by converting and enriching too.

Apart from the non-proliferation advantages of multinational fuel banks and fuel cycle facilities, it may also be argued that the economies of scale in uranium mines, enrichment and reprocessing plants and eventually waste repositories, suggest that there should be only a small number of facilities worldwide. Although developing small uranium mines and enrichment plants may appear to meet some immediate national objectives, in the long run it would be better from the economic standpoint to re-deploy the resources elsewhere and buy, with guarantees, from abroad. Getting this point agreed by some countries may prove rather difficult but is perhaps best made with repositories (less an issue for proliferation than enrichment and reprocessing facilities). The current national solutions make little sense either economically or politically, yet moving to an international regime requires substantial changes to the rules of nuclear commerce.

It is clear that re-jigging the rules on the movement of nuclear materials, mostly drafted many years ago to cope with markedly different circumstances, is now long overdue and very worthwhile. One stimulus may be the new arrangements on nuclear trade the USA is now seeking with India, so many years out in the cold owing to its weapons programme. This doesn’t mean throwing away all the arrangements built up by the Nuclear Suppliers Group but they must now be made more flexible to cope with a changed world. The United States has undoubtedly ‘jumped the gun’ a little and put other nations quickly ‘on the spot’ but the overall impact is very favourable. Simply categorising the second most populous nation in the world as a nuclear outlaw was never helpful and, if anything, hardened attitudes.

One important matter is now to ensure full and effective verification of the NPT safeguards regime, through universal implementation of the Additional Protocol to each country's safeguards agreement with the IAEA. This gives the IAEA broader rights of inspection and is now firmly established as the contemporary standard for NPT safeguards. In those instances where a confidence and credibility deficit has arisen, additional ad hoc measures may also be required.

In conclusion, it can be seen that a lot is happening at present to lessen the general public’s reasonable concerns about the proliferation risk from civil nuclear power. Similar to the safety issue, the best advertisement is many years of sound operation of nuclear power plants without anything going wrong. The superb safety record of nuclear reactors and the attendant fuel cycle is now very well documented and the concerns of the public have definitely been reduced. On the proliferation side, a lot remains to be done, but the correct seeds have been sown.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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