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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
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First, it assumes that proven reserves represent all the usable resource. That clearly is not the case as shown here. There are less than three years' proven reserves of oil in the world and no one believes the world will run out of oil in three years. Projected resources of uranium, based on geological surveys, extend to more than 500 years. With advanced fuel cycles, nuclear energy could provide all the world's electricity for over a thousand years even if electricity consumption tripled.
The second false premise is that advanced fuel cycles pose a proliferation threat. This betrays a basic unfamiliarity with nuclear physics. In short, power plants produce the wrong isotopes for weapons. Making weapons material from spent fuel requires isotope separation and enrichment. Any country with the resources for that could make a bomb easier and surer from natural uranium. Hans Blix is the former head of IAEA, the UN agency responsible for preventing proliferation. Here's what he has to say about the subject [source]:
"A phasing out of nuclear power in some or all states would not lead to the scrapping of a single nuclear bomb.
"States can have nuclear weapons without nuclear power though it is not common today. Israel is a case in point. It has no nuclear power but is assessed to have some 200 nuclear warheads. For a long time China had only the weapons. Indeed, most nuclear weapons states, including the US, had weapons before they had power. "
It's discouraging that the Storm/Smith paper is included. There's a reason why that paper never has been published in a peer-reviewed journal; the reason is that it's based on false assumptions and faulty analysis and thus doesn't meet even rudimentary scholarship standards. It only is referenced when authors can't otherwise reach their intended conclusions.
See also Roberto Dones
David Bradish has described Storm van Leeuwen's math errors as egregious.
For Frenk Barnaby to cite only Storm van Leeuwen in discussions of uranium resources is cherry picking of the worst sort. For Barnaby to hide from his readers the controversy surrounding Storm van Leeuwen claims is worse that cherry picking, it is outright dishonest. Dr. Barnaby must be aware of the controversy about Storm van Leeuwen, and he hides it from his readers.
Secondly, Barnaby ignores the controveresy between Carson Marks and Alexander DiVolpi about the claim that nuclear weapons can be easily built from reactor grade plutonium. DiVolpi argued that the American test of a "fuel grade" plutonium device had been been a failure and that the failure of the test had been covered up by the Carter Administration.
In his responce to diVolpi's position, Carson Mark and colleagues stated, "We are in sympathy with DeVolpi's skepticism about the implication of the 1962 U.S. nuclear test for the usability of reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons. The information disclosed about this test in 1977 represented a compromise between policy makers in the Carter Administration who wished to high-light the proliferation risks of of civilian plutonium use and those responsible for protecting classified weapons-design information. We have been briefed on the details, and do not believe that, even if design and yield of the device had been made public, that the issue would have been settled." This can be taken as a very broad hint that Mark who knew the score was willing to acknowledge that the 1962 test was a failure.
It would appear that there has never been a successful test of a reactor grade plutonium device. In May, 1998, India tested a series of nuclear devices. At least one of those devices was believed to use reactor grade plutonium. The yield was reported to be between 0.2 and 0.6 kilotons, but some Indian scientists speculated that it was much smaller. 2006 North Korean nuclear test, which probably used "fuel grade plutonium from their Magnox type reactor. Prior to the test, the North Koreans told the chinese that they intended to set off a 4 kt nuclear device. Estimates of the actual size of the North Korean device varied widely with estimates running as low as 0.1 kts and as high 1.0 kt. Since the seismic reading fell into to the range of a large conventional explosion, some experts suggested that the North Koreans had not used a nuclear device at all. The Wall Street Journal suggested that the blast was equivalent to the explosive force of about $100,000 worth of ammonium nitrate.
Carson Marks has suggested, no nation has chosen to build nuclear weapons from using "reactor grade plutonium". Even when they had access to it. In fact the South Africans chose to develop a Uranium enrichment technology in their sucessful effort to produce nuclear weapons. Carson Mark acknowledges "a proliferator would not prefer weapon-grade plutonium or highly-enriched uranium to reactor-grade uranium". The case histories of Pakistan and South Arfica suggest that in fact would be proliferators are willing to invest a lot of money in efforts to avoid using reactor grade plutonium in nuclear weapons. Were Dr. Barnaby more honest he would tell us this.
It's odd that you cite the 2005 Red Book, when the new edition is available.
"Uranium resources sufficient to meet projected nuclear energy requirements long into the future"