The security consequences of the nuclear renaissance
11 Nov, 2008 11:03 am
On 30 October 2008, the Royal Society, the British academy of science, announced the launch of a major new study looking at whether planetary scale geoengineering schemes could help reduce the effects of global climate change (1). Among the schemes are: placing giant mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the Earth; releasing tiny particles into the upper atmosphere to help cool the climate by reducing the amount of the sun's energy that reaches the Earth's surface; and fertilising the oceans with nutrients, such as iron, to promote blooms of phytoplankton which would soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Today there are some 439 nuclear-power reactors operating in 31 countries, generating a total of about 370 GWe (1 GWe = 1 thousand million watts of electricity), about 16% of the world's electricity. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicts at least 60 new nuclear plants in the next 15 years (3).
But there are serious security issues associated with the nuclear renaissance, including the: shortage of high-quality uranium for use as nuclear fuel; consequences of the use of fast breeder reactors (FBRs) and the widespread use of plutonium to fuel them; increased risk in a plutonium economy of the spread of nuclear weapons to both countries and terrorist groups.
According to the IAEA and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the known recoverable uranium resources are 4.7 million tones (4). The world’s current nuclear-power reactors consume uranium at the rate of 65,000 tonnes a year (5); the uranium will, therefore, last for less than 70 years. At the current rate of consumption, the highest quality uranium ores will get depleted within a decade and the average grade will fall below 0.1%. It is very unlikely that new uranium resources of high quality will be discovered in the next few decades.
According to calculations made by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, an expert on uranium resources, assuming that world nuclear capacity remains constant at 372 GW, the net energy from uranium will fall to zero by about 2070 (6). Assuming that world nuclear share remains constant at 2.2 per cent of world energy supply, given that energy demand will increase to meet the needs of a rapidly growing human population, the net energy benefit will fall to zero by about 2050 (6).
In the world we are moving into, of a shortage of uranium ores rich enough to give a positive net energy, a new generation of reactor is going to be necessary. This will include very advanced reactor designs such as the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) which produces (breeds) more nuclear fuel than it uses (7).
A family of FBRs should, therefore, be eventually self-sufficient in fuel with only a small injection of uranium. The FBR is, therefore, seen as the solution to the coming shortage of high quality uranium.
If the world was using, for example, 3,000 GWe of nuclear electricity in 2075, and if this were generated using light-water reactors, it would be generating, as a by-product, approximately 600 tonnes of plutonium annually (8).
However, if this nuclear capacity were provided by FBRs more than 4,000 tonnes of plutonium will have to be fabricated into fresh reactor fuel each year (8). This is enough plutonium to produce no less than a million nuclear weapons!
Countries that choose to operate FBRs will have relatively easy access to plutonium usable as the fissile material in the most efficient nuclear weapons and will have competent nuclear physicists and engineers who could design and fabricate them. It must be expected that some of them will take the political decision to become actual nuclear-weapon powers. Terrorists will also probably acquire plutonium, fabricate a nuclear weapon and detonate it. Effective nuclear weapons can be fabricated from plutonium produced by civil nuclear-power reactors (9).
One thing we need to do to reduce the plutonium threat is to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by action at the next NPT Review Conference in 2010 (10). Another proposal is to set up a nuclear "fuel bank" or nuclear fuel reserve, administered by the IAEA (11), to supply fuel for nuclear-power reactors on a non-discriminatory, non-political basis, thereby reducing the need for countries to develop their own uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, the technologies that could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
1. Royal Society launches climate geoengineering study www.royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=8085
2. The Independent UK, “Brown sets 'no limit' on number of nuclear reactors to be built”, The Independent, 14 July 2008.
3. International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Power Generation Projections Up, Relative Generation Shares Down. www.energy.ihs.com/News/nuclear-energy/2008/iaea-nuclear-projections-091908.htm
4. OECD and International Atomic Energy Agency, Uranium 2007, Resources, Production and Demand”, Published by : OECD Publishing, 17 Jun 2008.
5. World Nuclear Association, “World Nuclear Power Reactors and Uranium Requirements, 1 September 2008”,
6. Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, “Energy Lifecycle of Nuclear Power”,
Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, “Into the Unknown, fuelling civil nuclear power?”, in Frank Barnaby and James Kemp (eds.) “Secure Energy; Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming”, Oxford Research Group, London, March 2007.
7. W.J.Nuttall, “Nuclear Renaissance; Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power”, Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia, 2005.
8. H.A.Feiveson, “Nuclear Power, Nuclear Proliferation, and Global Warming”, Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society, January 2003.
9. J.Carson Mark, Theodore Taylor, Eugene Eyster, William Maraman, and Jacob Wechsler, “Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?”, in Paul Leventhal and Yonah Alexander (eds), “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism”, Lexington Books, Massachusetts, pp.53-65 (1987).
10. Ken Booth, “New Dimensions of Security and International Organizations”, paper given at an international symposium in June 2007 organised by the Turkish General Staff.
11. International Atomic Energy Agency, International Fuel Bank, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/PressReleases/2006/prn200615.html