Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation - Are You Kidding?

Obama has called for a "world without nuclear weapons" but the world will continue to develop nuclear energy. This means that risks from accident and error - rather than terror - are the biggest threat from nuclear power.

By Andrew McKillop
Published May 04, 2010

US President Barack Obama launched a diplomatic initiative for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament on 24 Sept 2009 at the UN Security Council, calling for "a world without nuclear weapons", but strictly excluded from his nice idea are the world's approximately 640 nuclear reactors.

That number is approximate because we can add, or not include research reactors and military reactors, often one and the same thing, to the world's civil electric power reactors. It is also approximate because the power rating definition of "research reactor", and whether it produces electricity or not varies from country to country: some research reactors having sizes well below 20 MW, thermal or electric, but some have power ratings far above 250 MW.

Some research reactors are even bigger, and in many cases are "military friendly", designed for producing plutonium as well as medical or science research isotopes of other metals.

The UN IAEA definition of world research reactors is laconic: The IAEA lists several categories of research reactors. They include 60 critical assemblies (usually zero power), 23 test reactors, 37 training facilities, two prototypes and even one producing electricity. But most (160) are largely for research, although some also produce radioisotopes. As expensive scientific facilities, they tend to be multipurpose, and many have been operating for more than 30 years.

Its site gives a long list of research reactor types by country, with decommissioned or "out of use" reactors listed for each country.

Unsurprisingly, the older nuclear nations, especially the Big 5 UN Security Council members, have the largest number of "shut down" and "decommissioned" research reactors. For Russia this totals 48 non-operational for 47 still in operation as of May 2010. These various types of research reactors, including shut down but not decommissioned reactors, have a hard-to-calculate, but large inventory of sometimes extreme deadly nuclear materials.

This makes their decommissioning so expensive and slow that many countries simply keep them operating: at least 50% of the world's reactors in the category "research" have been operating more than 30 years.

Added to these research reactors, whether operating or not we have "pure civil" electricity generating reactors. Their number as of 1 May 2010, using World Nuclear Association data was 438 with a combined power capacity of 374 127 MW electric (MWe). Other estimates give a range of around 435 to 440 civil reactors currently in operation, worldwide.

Brewing Plutonium

The Federation of American Scientists primer on WMD gives an estimate for annual plutonium production of civil nuclear reactors worldwide, on a basis of less than 425 civil reactors, and excluding all research reactors.

On this basis, current annual plutonium production of civil reactors is about 20 tons a year, with a total inventory that as early as 1982 was estimated at over 300 tons, growing to 500 tons in the 1990s. Present day total plutonium "stock", in fact a dangerous thermal and mechanical pollutant of nuclear power plant operations, is likely above 800 tons. Some estimates go beyond 1000 tons.

Obama, and any other leader proclaiming nice sentiments on turning Megatons to Megawatts, should rest assured: the world has much more than enough plutonium and other high level radioactive materials in its research and civil reactors to wipe out all human life on the planet, several times over. And as long as nuclear reactors operate, they will produce more plutonium.

As the FAS noted in its WMD primer, one kilogram of plutonium when fully detonated has an explosive power equivalent to about 20 000 tons of TNT. This is the potential of 1 kilogram, to compare with the 1000 tons stock. As a poisonous chemical and radiological agent, plutonium has extreme toxicity and extreme carcinogenic capabilities, able to kill at microgram doses. This also can be compared with the 1000 tons stock.

This makes it almost certainly the most lethal substance on Earth - and entirely man made. Nuclear weapons-equivalent and weapons-capable proliferation, if we used weight of plutonium as the true measure, shows a vastly higher number of nuclear weapons states than the present 7 or 9, depending on how we count Israel and North Korea.

We can say that any country with a nuclear reactor above about 100 MWe is weapons capable or weapons equivalent, bringing the true number of "nuclear equivalent weapons states" to well above 20.

We Don't Need Bombs

The concept of nuclear weapons being exclusively of the explosive type, needing expensive delivery vehicles, are a hangover from the Second World War and Cold War. Total plutonium inventories of Russian, US, Chinese, French and British "declared" nuclear weapons is calculable, based on estimates of their megatonnage, but is dwarfed to insignificance by plutonium inventories, increasing all the time, of the world's research and civil electric power reactors.

Facing up to this reality is one of the world's biggest "Never say - Never admit" themes that exist, but it transforms the nuclear weapons proliferation debate.

Taking Iran for example, its February 2010 boast (see Iran Watch Feb 23) that it could now enrich uranium to "weapons grade" from "reactor grade" has little meaning. Its Bushehr-1 civil power facility, coming up to "steam" of full capacity, from 500 MW in 2009 to 1000 MW in 2010, contains all the nuclear materials needed to produce a very large dirty bomb with long-lived effects.

Local effects on GCC country oil producing regions would have the same extreme impact on oil prices as Iran mining or blocking the straits of Hormuz. This is certainly one factor inciting "discretion" by leaders of the US and European states seeking to intensify sanctions on Iran, while their press and media threaten military invasion, Iraq-style.

There are a string of nuclear accidents documented since the very start of the nuclear age, but none to date has had the impact of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Some 24 years later, its released radiation inventory continues to kill across Europe. If not equivalent to Chernobyl because of the more than 10 years of service the 1000 MW Chernobyl-4 operated before exploding, attacking Iran's Bushehr-1 with bombs or missile warheads, whether "nuclear enhanced" or not would very efficiently release and spread its nuclear inventory.

The same applies to any other large nuclear reactor anywhere else on earth. These are large and mostly easy-to-"acquire" targets, that is easy to attack and destroy, providing nuclear weapon equivalent radiation release inside an enemy country.

For defensive-only purposes also, large nuclear reactors are highly dissuasive: invading Iran, today, would likely result in it military deliberately sabotaging and exploding its nuclear facilities - making the invaders' victory pyrrhic and short-lived.

This applies to all other countries with large nuclear facilities, returning us to Obama's call for a "world without nuclear weapons". The US, with its 104 civil reactors with a total power capacity of 101 100 MWe is very well "armed" with nuclear equivalent weapons, in the form of the approximate 7.5 tons of plutonium produced each year, and many times that in plutonium stocks accumulated in its civil reactors.

Civil and research reactors provide real world mass dissuasion. The US can easily resist any invader, without a single offensive nuclear weapon, trooper, fighter jet, missile, or aircraft carrier, but like Iran at present, this would only be dissuasion of invaders through national suicide.

We Don't Need Terrorists

Obama rightly called nuclear weapons a dangerous relic of the period from 1945 to 1989, from the Second World War's end to the Cold War's end. Today's focus for ending nuclear weapons proliferation is terrorism, completely ignoring the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986, which had a "zero terror" component, and was 100% accidental, whether human error only or combined technology failure-and-human error.

Obama's call also ignores the entire "back end" of nuclear power, whether civil or not: wastes have to be stored, separated by re-treatment or destroyed, and reactors have to be decommissioned. Ensuring 100% security against technology failure and human error is a pipe dream, assiduously preached by the World Nuclear Association and all other interested parties.

Due to accumulated stocks, aging reactors and storage facilities, aging fuel re-treatment capacities (only in France and UK), and other weak links across the spectrum from "front end" uranium and thorium mining, to planned but not built "final repositories" the potential for accident can only increase.

This is intensified by factors as wide ranging as the quest for national energy security, the role of high oil prices, calls for "low carbon" energy in the fight against climate change, the perception that nuclear electricity is cheap, non-electricity uses of nuclear power, and others.

Today there are great plans for expanding nuclear power's role in world energy, to be sure well distanced from facts on the ground, but growing all the same. The pro-nuclear World Nuclear Association claims 50 civil reactors were under construction in 13 countries as of February 2010, while other sources give as few as 45 under construction in early 2010, the difference again including research reactors and their definition, for example reactors under construction for both research-and-power production, as in several countries.

When we move up to the category of "planned or proposed" civil reactors, numbers can extend to over 100 for the period 2010-2020.

Further complicating the outlook, but not in the immediate and short-term (2010-2015) we have increasing likelihood of reactor-equivalent nuclear heat source applications being proposed, and extended from their present few major industrial applications. These include heat sources already used in Russia's metals refining industry, and its nuclear powered icebreaker fleet.

Outside Russia, these reactor-equivalent installations could for example be used as cheap heat supply for tarsand oil production, seawater desalination, large-scale horticulture operations (as operated in Russia), in synthetic hydrocarbon liqfuels processing, the cement industry and other heat-intensive industries.

Reactors for industrial heat supply are already commercial in Russia (for example VK 300 type), but proposed versions include fast or high neutron intensity reactors using (or burning down) MOX-type uranium-plutonium fuels, or thorium-plutonium fuel mixes. This nuclear "proliferation" is increasingly possible or probable as energy prices rise and nuclear waste stockpiles increase, creating rising pressures to "recycle" or destroy it. This further raises the risks of major nuclear accidents.

Error not terror is already, and will likely remain the biggest nuclear risk we face.

Some Conclusions

Civil nuclear power can deliver low cost electricity, but full cycle costs including short and midterm waste storage, long term waste repository development and operation, reactor decommissioning, and the future cost of uranium fuel all set questions on the real cost of nuclear electricity. Uranium fuel costs are certain to rise in the short-term, and may continue to increase under some scenarios.

Nuclear security questions have intensely focused the question of terrorist attacks, but not the use of reactors as potential "dirty bombs", either offensive or defensive. This threat is always understated, often ignored, but plutonium inventories in the world's nuclear reactors, both research reactors and for electricity production, are probably 10 times above the plutonium inventories of the world's nuclear weapons held by the Big Five UN Security Council member countries and the FOUR other nuclear weapons states.

Obama has called for a "world without nuclear weapons" but the world will continue to develop nuclear energy. This means that risks from accident and error - rather than terror - are the biggest threat from nuclear power.

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 canbyte (registered) | Posted May 05, 2010 at 19:20:43

Thanks for a grim but needed overview of this serious problem.

I'm hoping you might comment on how our Candu design fits into all this. We are always told its a relatively safe design - does it also produce plutonium? Should Canada continue or abandon Candu?

Your overview of inactive reactors suggests an overhang in the market - could this (or the waste issue) be a factor in why the Maple reactor was abandoned?

It seems imperative to get going on final repositories. I heard a CBC (?) podcast recently on an effort to get one started in Northern Ontario. How do you see this going vis a vis NIMBY, technology, lifespan etc.? Is reprocessing better/ possible for Canada? Aren't we already reprocessing material from somewhere?

A scorched earth defensive strategy is well known and more or less rational but do you really think that defenders would poison their own land forever? Talk about depravity!

For years, i've wondered why nuclear energy was not being used on the Tar sands - direct nuclear heat seems a lot better than using up nearby reserves of clean natural gas to make a dirty oil. Could the radioactive element be left to decay in situ after the hot oil has been pulled out???

I hope that's not too many questions from this curious cat!!

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By Mike Koning (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2010 at 17:56:59

Thanks, Andrew, for a well-written article.
It's clear that we need to be cautious and realize that reactors are not indefinite power-producers. While we were all worried that nuclear proliferation would mean more and more stockpiled weapons, it turns out that it meant the application of commercial reactors. It seems to me that you're arguing that, while nuclear power seems cheap to produce, the startup, shutdown and waste management costs mean that it's really much more costly than it appears.

However, it seems to me that nuclear power will always be more environmentally and therefore, in the long-run, economically friendly. Perhaps I'm putting too much hope in the future, but I'd like to see a day when vehicles are primarily electric and fossil-fuel power plants are obsolete. Sure, Uranium prices will inevitably increase, but oil will never be cheaper, either.

What I'd like hear from you, then, is this: you conclude that "accidents and errors" are the main source of worry for nuclear power. Do you believe that nuclear power is still the best way to go? I agree that people need to reevaluate their distinctions between ICBM and dirty bomb scares and meltdowns or leaks at nuclear reactors. Are you writing simply to encourage awareness, or do you think that something should be changed?

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