Nuclear Renaissance Poses Threat

More and more nations could take the known and proven civil-to-military route for building nuclear weapons.

By Andrew McKillop
Published August 11, 2010

Political deciders, corporate elites and mainstream media, almost everywhere, have swung to virtually total support for nuclear power. Major agencies and entities promoting nuclear power, such as the OECD's NEA and the WNA announce the industry's 2010-2020 potential for rivalling its previous highwater mark, in the 1975-1985 period, when it averaged one new reactor on line every 17 days, for 10 years.

In a dramatic turnaround from the nuclear industry's "near death experience" of the later 1980s and all through the 1990s, when reactor completions fell to zero some years, dozens of large new power reactors are under construction at this moment, in what industry promoters call "The Nuclear Renaissance". This renaissance however threatens to be as complex, ambiguous and murky as the Medieval renaissance. Intensifying what are nearly open-ended global security implications, environment risks, economic risks and human hazards of today's proliferating reactor numbers, growth is now mainly focused in the Emerging and developing countries.

Industry growth in the Emerging economies often features massive, multi-reactor complexes with multi-billion dollar price tags, that are projected or planned for completion in the shortest possible time. The string of "new nuclear" developing countries with absolutely no previous experience of large-scale nuclear power now include Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, the Philippines and others.

In the North and as we know from a recent but receding past, countries with plans to become "environment friendly and nuclear free", notably Germany, have made an about face and are now back in favour of nuclear power. Other countries, which experienced an effective moratorium on nuclear power for nearly 20 years from the late 1980s, especially the USA, have relaxed their regulatory and legislative brakes on nuclear power plant expansion, have dusted off plans for new reactors, or have already started building reactors again. Both in OECD countries and the Emerging economies, governments are now providing huge loans, grants or aid and subsidies to nuclear power.

Underlying the constant threat of "Peak Uranium", or an easily predictable and critical undersupply of fresh-mined uranium, the Obama pro-nuclear policy is both an economic initiative, and an attempt to solve the gap in uranium fuel supplies. This twin thrust to avert "Peak Uranium" and also sell nuclear power drives the Obama call for scrapping nuclear arsenals while stepping up the US-Russian "Megatons to Megawatts" programme for recycling atomic bomb material as reactor fuels. This programme, however, can at most cover about 12.5% of the world's current reactor fleet fuel need of around 68 000 tons in 2010, and will likely end in 2013. Trends for reactor growth will likely drive up annual uranium fuel demand to 125 000 tons by 2020.

Africa south of the Sahara is the "sweet spot" zone of prediliction for quickly finding new reserves of uranium, to prevent or limit very predictable price explosions such as those of 1976-1978 and 2005-2007, but the outlook is negative: uranium shortage is endemic to nuclear power and a constant weak point since its earliest days.

Due to this and from the start of the civil nuclear age, 50 years ago, the unworkable but appealing and dangerous Sorceror's Apprentice solution of plutonium breeding fast reactors is back on the drawing boards of nuclear dreamers, dangling the lure of reactors which "yield more fuel than they consume". Other hazardous concepts for beating fuel shortage include further developing MOX fuel production using civil reactor-source plutonium and high level radioactive wastes to stretch tight supplies of fresh mined uranium. World stocks of "civil source plutonium" are probably above 850 tons, growing at around 20 - 22.5 tons a year: in plutonium equivalent, the Hiroshima A-bomb needed around 10 kilograms.

Environmental risks are effectively unlimited with nuclear power, as major environmental NGOs underline by sometimes dramatic actions, but the security issue, which straddles the uncertain civil-military borderline in nuclear power, presents even more extreme hazards. This has a single word title: proliferation. Note that the world's worst-possible nuclear disaster to date, Chernobyle in 1986, caused military-level damage to the Ukrainian economy and massive death tolls in affected regions, and was purely caused by human error.

To be sure, proliferation is no-no word for the nuclear industry. Civil and military nuclear power are each day described by world leaders like President Obama as different and separate, as the day and night and before and after of a global transition from military dominated nuclear power, to a global quick fix technology solution for power shortages thanks to cheap, clean and safe nuclear electricity.

Unfortunately this vision has no relation to the real world. Nuclear power, today, supplies at most 15% of world electricity (down from 18.5% in the late 1980s) and is far from cheap, clean or safe. Very different energy solutions will be needed for the real and serious Energy Transition that is predicated by declining fossil energy resources, environment issues, and energy infrastructure spending needs. These real alternatives will be needed in a short number of years.

The reality bundle inside which nuclear proliferation hides, but which the nuclear industry and leading politicians tirelessly deny, distort or confuse, especially applies in the Emerging economies. As we have noted above, the developing South is now the prime focus of the nuclear industry's hopes for ever bigger contracts. In these countries, the civil-to-military route for developing nuclear weapons using supposedly civil-only nuclear technology has however already been resoundingly proven, up to 20 or 25 years ago by India and Pakistan, South Africa and the "special case" of Israel.

In the next decade, at least 12 - 15 "new nuclear" countries, and up to 18 or more, will have opened the civil-military option, and Pandora's Box for their leaderships. More and more nations could take the known and proven civil-to-military route for building nuclear weapons, acquiring the political clout these weapons are supposed to confer, and equipping themselves with doomsday weapons in the event of military invasion by hostile powers.

As these leaderships know, the powerful and rich nations of the UN Security Council - the world's earliest atomic weapons powers - owe their Security Council status in major part to nuclear weapons. Outside the still costly and technologically demanding civil-to-military route to atomic weapons, the "new nuclear South" may be content with cheaper, quicker produced DU (Depleted Uranium) weapons, and of course the almost instant Dirty Bomb potential of large civil reactors in the national territories of their regional rivals and enemies.

The friendly atom can never be friendly. Facing this reality is one of our most urgent tasks. The real world factors and realities that make this conclusion the only one possible must be the basis for urgent but robust, and tough but workable energy policy and programme changes.

Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. These include the Canada Science Council, the ILO, European Commission, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and South Pacific, and the World Bank. He is a founding member of the Asian chapter of the International Association of Energy Economics. He is also the editor, with Sheila Newman, of The Final Energy Crisis (Pluto Press, 2005).


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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted August 12, 2010 at 12:02:31

I found this video via BoingBoing. Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto animated on a world map the detonation of every nuclear bomb from 1945 to 1998. It's a little on the long side but its both hypnotic and terrifying.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 12, 2010 at 13:42:13

Canada has been dealing with nuclear states like China, India and Pakistan for decades, as well as many more. Canadian taxpayers directly subsidized the creation of the first reactors in the latter two. India's first bomb was built with plutonium created in a reactor built with Canadian aid, based on the infamous Chalk River reactor.

If India and Pakistan ended up in a nuclear exchange over disputed territories, millions would have died and the Canadian Government would have been directly responsible. If this money had been spent on wind farms, both countries would be well on their way to providing cheap and sustainable energy to nearly a billion people.

Nuclear technology isn't a "natural historical development" (if such things even exist), it's well-funded set of government programs bent on developing ridiculously complex toxic energy sources. It isn't safe, it isn't cheap, and it doesn't have to happen.

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By Oh please (anonymous) | Posted August 12, 2010 at 17:12:50

The anti-nuclear fear-mongers are really grasping at straws now. 30 years on and none of their world-ending predictions have come true. In the mean time nuclear energy has gotten better - safer, more efficient, and its waste cleaner and more manageable than ever.

Had we embraced nuclear energy back then when we should have, we probably wouldn't be stuck with such a huge legacy of coal and gas generation which is still out there polluting our planet.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 12, 2010 at 21:48:03

More people die in traffic accidents every year than were killed by the entire history of nuclear power. Yes, Chernobyl was a terrible disaster, but it was a single worst-case scenario that occurred only because of gross negligence and outright brinkmanship and is no longer even possible with modern reactors.

Nuclear power is _not_ perfect. It eases access to nuclear weapons for those that use it, and it carries the risks of radiation. However, it is the only proven, large-scale technology available to fight global warming, since wind power is still in its infancy.

Don't let the better be the enemy of the good.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 12, 2010 at 22:36:52

The CANDU design reactor themselves do not produce weapon grade plutonium unless used specifically for that purpose.

That is not a very reassuring statement. Kinda like saying "guns don't kill people unless someone uses one to kill people".

Nuclear reactors don't burn a lot of carbon, but the nuclear life cycle does. Mining and refining uranium takes a lot of land, energy and lives, and we still don't have any idea what the eventual price tag for disposal will be.

To say that both countries would have been able to rely on wind farms for a similar purpose and that doing so would have avoided all out war is purely speculative and unsubstantiated. The disputes between India and Pakistan are about land and ideology, this does not disappear due to a choice of power source! It is equally likely that both nation having nuclear capabilities has prevented major conflicts and a large number of casualties simply out of fear of retaliation.

I'm not saying that wind power would prevent a war, but it would be money much better spent. Wind farms don't require uranium fuel and don't produce nuclear weapons. And using nuclear weapons to deter conflict is a dangerous gamble - it's like carrying a gun for self defence. Or in this case, giving them out to feuding neighbours.

12-18 new nuclear nations? No thank you.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted August 12, 2010 at 23:10:47

Why are people focusing so intensely on nuclear proliferation as an international relations issue? As we have discovered with other types of weapons, the potential for public damage and destruction is far more serious if non-state actors engage themselves with them.

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By waterboy (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2010 at 21:09:31

WEll. just in... though it was always an eventuality following controlled fission reactions back in the day, the Americans have quietly set up the worlds biggest laser array and hope to sustain a tiny sun in a magnetic bottle (of sorts).

I suspect fusion power is still away down the road, but when I was in school back in the late 80's they said it was 25 years away. 30 years later they are now definitely going for it. If they get for one millisecond a rate of input that equals the rate of output they will be pushing that energy source into reality within ten years.

Now what. A world energy solution? Or something way under the radar that will rock the world - for better or worse, once realised that it is on our doorstep.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 14, 2010 at 12:10:00

So far, the entirety of all fuels every consumed by the nuclear station is still located on-site and is not anywhere close to full capacity, that is how very little fuel a nuclear reactors requires.

A truly terrifying point. We still have no real plan for dealing with this waste. And one plane crash or cruise missle would turn a waste pile like this into a cancer epidemic. You cannot say the same of any part of a windmill.

And as for mining Uranium, there really isn't a single kind of extractive industry I'd be more hesitant to live by, including Tar Sands. Yes a wind farm requires Iron and Copper, but so does a Nuclear Reactor (and probably more of them), so that's a moot point. Windfarms do not require fuel, reactors do.

I have a lot of friends and family who live around Elliot Lake, so don't tell me there's no harm from Uranium mining. The cancers, the contamination - it's not something any of us would want to be anywhere near. And these sites have disasters all the time, with tailings ponds full of toxic, radioactive water bursting into nearby waterways.

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