A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto Star published an opinion piece whose author accused Canada of facilitating nuclear proliferation through international sales of uranium and CANDU reactors. It drew a couple of rebuttals: a short, pithy one from Jeremy Whitlock of AECL, a longer one from me. I’ll let readers judge for themselves whether the rebuttals were effective.
When anti-nuclear activists play the proliferation card, their tactic is to conflate nuclear-generated electricity with nuclear weapons. Their arguments pretty much rest on that conflation. How valid is it? Not valid at all. It is like opposing gasoline-powered cars because napalm is made from gasoline.
The main point of my rebuttal was that nuclear power reactors, far from creating a proliferation problem, are actually the best solution to proliferation. By far the biggest current proliferation threat is the nuclear bomb material that already exists in poor and unstable countries. Russia, for example, has many tons of surplus bomb-grade uranium and plutonium.
There is only one way to destroy that material. That is to burn it in nuclear power reactors. As I have mentioned in several posts, the Megatons to Megawatts program focuses on destroying the highly enriched uranium that used to be on Russian warheads. Under Megatons to Megwatts, nearly 15,000 Russian weapons have been dismantled and their nuclear explosive turned into fuel for power reactors. U.S. electric utilities are, right this minute, generating huge amounts of carbon-free electricity using this material.
Soon American power reactors will be doing the same with military plutonium, 34 tons of which will be turned into reactor fuel at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility.
Many anti-proliferation activists say the spent fuel from power reactors is a source of plutonium that can be used to make bombs. This sounds plausible, but only if you don’t think about it too closely. When you do think about how exactly it could be turned into bomb material, you realize this scenario is so far-fetched as to be almost comical.
For example, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, an anti-nuclear organization, said in a recent report that the proliferation problems related to reprocessing spent fuel cannot be overcome. If you read between the lines, you realize they refer to two scenarios: clandestine diversion and reprocessing; and “breakout.”
Clandestine diversion is the more far-fetched of the two. In this scenario, a country hosting a nuclear power reactor secretly diverts spent fuel, extracts the plutonium, and builds a bomb. In practice, such diversion would be detected more or less immediately, thereby turning on the diplomatic pressure from the international community. That proliferators want above all to avoid such confrontation is evidenced by the fact that all of the current and recent proliferators—Iran, Syria, Saddam’s Iraq, Libya, and North Korea—pursued weapons outside of civilian programs. These programs were undeclared, i.e. the host countries did not notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the programs existed. The IAEA could not inspect programs that it did not know existed; therefore these countries, all signatories of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), were, on the surface, squeaky clean under the treaty.
“Breakout” refers to a scenario in which a country that has signed the NPT uses that treaty as a cover to develop a weapons program, then withdraws from the NPT. North Korea is often cited as an example of breakout, though technically North Korea, for excellent reasons I’ll get to in a minute, withdrew from the treaty in 2003—before it tested its first bomb.
In such a scenario the country breaking out would first accumulate spent fuel under a legitimate civilian program, then extract the plutonium while simultaneously withdrawing from the NPT so as to avoid becoming an international outlaw.
This has actually never happened with a civilian power program. The IEER, on page 25 of its report, tries to make it look like North Korea did exactly that. But nobody, perhaps not even the IEER if it were honest, believes the reactor in question was ever intended for power. It was built and operated solely to produce plutonium (see this article by the Federation of American Scientists).
That is precisely the reason civilian programs are such a powerful barrier to proliferation. They assume the country purchasing a reactor wants it for electricity or some other benign purpuse. If that is true, the country accedes to verification activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. When the country buys a reactor, it negotiates a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. That agreement could, depending on the circumstances, include the so-called Additional Protocol, under which inspectors have greater access to the country’s nuclear installations. Inspections can happen at any time, on short notice.
When North Korea joined the NPT in 1985, it refused to sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Had it allowed inspections, North Korea would of course have been immediately found to be already in breach of the treaty it had just signed. Refusal of the safeguards agreement was therefore a stalling tactic. But a fairly obvious question is why, then, did North Korea sign the NPT in the first place?
Believe it or not, because a country’s standing in the world does matter. North Korea is poor, and needs all the goods and services it can get from other countries. If it is outright declared by the international community to be an outlaw state, the country has no hope of any but the most basic positive contact with the outside world. Those who believe North Korea does not care about its international standing need to consider why the country goes to such lengths to preserve its shell of legitimacy.
The IEER’s campaign against civilian reprocessing is therefore just another effort by the anti-nuclear crowd to kill the civilian nuclear industry. The group has taken its case to the so-called Blue Ribbon Panel, struck by president Obama to evaluate alternatives to the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage repository. Hopefully the panel members will recognize the IEER report for what it is.