Climate change and nuclear proliferation: how to fix both

A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discussed the urgent issue of climate change and how mankind can act decisively and coherently to deal with it. The article, entitled “Wedges reaffirmed,” argues that mankind has all the tools it needs to reduce the emissions of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) that are causing climate change. According to the author, some of these immediately deployable tools are policy approaches like energy conservation and avoided deforestation. But the bulk of the tools have to do with energy: wind and solar, fossil with carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear.

The energy sources just mentioned are exclusively related to electric power generation. That activity is certainly a significant source of anthropogenic CO2, accounting for more than 41 percent of total U.S. emissions. But there are other sources that combined account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. emissions. For example, nearly a third of these come from motor vehicles. “Wedges reaffirmed” barely mentions these. Its focus is almost entirely on power generation.

The list of power generation sources considered in the article—wind and solar, fossil with carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear—are not equal. Comparing unreliable renewables like wind and solar with fossil and nuclear is like comparing Major League Baseball with Little League. Anybody who has spent even a small amount of time looking at power systems knows renewables are unreliable without massive backup from fossil sources—no one who has ever been stuck in an elevator would ride one if they knew it was powered by wind or solar. They would if they knew it was powered by nuclear; that is because nuclear plants crank out millions of kilowatts of electricity day and night for hundreds of days at a time.

Comparing unreliable renewables like wind and solar with fossil and nuclear is like comparing Major League Baseball with Little League.

And calling carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) an immediately deployable tool is simply inaccurate. Anybody who has investigated CCS beyond the claims of its proponents knows it is nowhere near immediately deployable. The collapse of a current CCS project in Scotland underlines this point. Without major breakthroughs in capture technology and a total rethink of what to do with the captured CO2, other than injecting it into the ground, it probably never will be.

So let’s be clear. The author’s list of immediately deployable low-carbon electricity sources should only include wind and solar, natural gas, and nuclear. And of these, the only viable ones are gas and nuclear.

“Wedges reaffirmed” appears, as I mentioned, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What is the author’s real view of nuclear as an immediately deployable low-carbon electricity source? Here is what he says:

“A global expansion of nuclear power without effective international constraints on uranium and plutonium can make nuclear war more likely… .”
—Robert Socolow, “Wedges reaffirmed,” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 September 2011

This claim rests on another article, co-written by the BAS article author, published in Daedalus in 2009. The Daedalus article alleges that nuclear energy, in its current form, cannot be de-coupled from nuclear weapons. If there is a major expansion of nuclear energy, the authors argue, it will be difficult if not impossible to contain the spread of reprocessing technology, which separates plutonium from other non-explosive components of spent fuel, or enrichment technology, which separates the explosive isotope of natural uranium from the non-explosive one. Both reprocessing and enrichment are, according to the authors, the drivers of proliferation.

This is a rather general claim. It almost gives the impression that that is how nuclear weapons technology actually did proliferate, from the U.S. in 1945 to the eight other nuclear-armed countries in the world today. Is that really how weapons technology spread?

The spread of the Bomb: a brief history
Let us consider the actual record. The first four countries to develop nuclear weapons after 1945 were the U.S.S.R. in 1949, the U.K. in 1953, France in 1960, and China in 1964. In each of these cases, know-how came directly or indirectly from the Manhattan Project. The only focus of the Manhattan Project was to develop nuclear weapons.

The U.S. hosted and ran the Manhattan Project. French and British scientists held prominent positions in that effort; after the war they brought the knowledge they had acquired back to their home countries. Klaus Fuchs and other spies, also close to critical technical details, transferred that knowledge to both the Soviets and Chinese.

Subsequent to 1964, five additional countries joined the weapons club:

  1. Israel went nuclear during the 1960s, with help from France, which makes this another offshoot of the Manhattan Project.
  2. India tested its first bomb in 1974, using plutonium made in a research reactor given by Canada; the reactor ran on heavy water from the U.S. The Indians separated plutonium-239 with an extraction process they claimed they had developed themselves.
  3. South Africa tested a uranium bomb in 1978; uranium was enriched in an isotope separation process invented in South Africa. (The country voluntarily renounced this program and dismantled its weapons in the late-80s.)
  4. Pakistan acquired uranium enrichment expertise partly by way of espionage and theft from a civilian enrichment operation in the Netherlands, and partly through a huge national effort. It tested its uranium bomb in 1987.
  5. North Korea tested bombs in 2006 and 2009; the explosive was plutonium made in an indigenous reactor based on a de-classified British design (MAGNOX), and separated using methods also developed indigenously.

Not a single one of these last five countries made a bomb from materials from civilian power reactors obtained under a modern nuclear agreement. Two of them, India and Pakistan, possessed CANDU reactors, which can refuel on-load—a capability that, according to some, allows for the optimization of Pu-239 production. Did either India or Pakistan make weapons plutonium in their CANDUs? No. Both make the stuff in dedicated production reactors; it’s far more efficient that way.

Civilian nuclear energy
How many countries, other than nine of the ten just mentioned, have civilian nuclear power plants? By my count, using this European Nuclear Society article, twenty-two.

The BAS “Wedges reaffirmed” author suggests that spent fuel is a proliferation threat. If that is the case, then why haven’t any of these twenty-two countries developed nuclear weapons from the spent reactor fuel they possess in abundance? After all, the author points to global nuclear disarmament as a sine qua non for a de-coupling of weapons from electricity. None of the major nuclear powers has disarmed, and won’t any time soon. Many countries have even recycled their spent fuel, using reprocessing methods the author claims are the link between energy and weapons. None has developed a weapon. Why not?

It is not because they lack the technical acumen. Germany, Japan, South Korea—not to mention Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Argentina—all have plenty of technical acumen to go along with all that spent fuel. If they really wanted nuclear weapons, they would use this acumen to develop high quality plutonium in dedicated reactors. They wouldn’t waste their time and resources with the low-quality plutonium that is in spent fuel.

The fact that they haven’t done so already is a good indication of their intention. Their peaceful nuclear programs, all subject to international inspections, are further evidence that the civilian nuclear sector is a bulwark against, not a facilitator of, nuclear weapons. A country’s uptake of civilian nuclear power is a sign that it will not develop weapons.

A non sequitur supporting a faulty risk assessment
The BAS author claims that mere existence of an inventory of spent reactor fuel constitutes a proliferation risk. This is based on a simplistic, perspective-challenged analysis that focuses entirely on a narrow technological route to a bomb (and a highly dubious one at that). He assumes this is the only factor determining a country’s decision build a bomb, even though the actual historical record shows that this decision is prompted by political, strategic, and security motives.

I think his dismissal of nuclear energy as a tool to fight climate change betrays a simple anti-nuclear agenda. Given how proliferation has actually occurred in the world, I think we could safely ignore his advice. Nuclear energy is our best hope to fight climate change without bankrupting the economy, and a strong civilian nuclear sector is our best hope for preventing nuclear proliferation.

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11 years ago

I hope it wont take forever for people to realize that carbon dioxide is not the cause of global warming. It is only the by-product of the burning of fossil fuels. The real problem is the heat evolved, that’s why we use the stuff in the first place. If you bake a chicken in the oven, whether gas or electric, it’s the heat that bakes the chicken, carbon dioxide having nothing to do with it. Same thing on a global scale. In 2008 the total energy of 50x10E16 BTUs were emitted into an atmosphere of 5.3x10E18 kilograms. This is twice the amount of heat necessary to match the average measured rise. The actual rise would be even greater were it not for other factors such as glacial melting. Removing CO2 and sequestering it is stupid. Removing it by photosynthesis absorbs energy by endothermic chemical reaction. That’s what cools the earth. Nuclear and geothermal power plants contribute twice the total heat to the environment as their megawatt-hr electrical output. I find it hard to believe that the Kyoto conference overlooked this most obvious fact. It is true that burning of fossil fuels must be reduced by 80% and that trees should be nurtured. A different energy policy should be proposed that exacts a penalty for heat emissions, credits tree nurture, and supports installation of renewable energy like solar, wind, biomass,and probably hydroelectric. Our national energy policy should focus on replacing imported fuels with domestic,as rapidly as possible, while recognizing that these investments will ultimately be so heavily taxed as to become non-competitive with renewable.

11 years ago

Population increases, mineral resources decrease in abundance, farmland and water resources are stressed, fossil fuels are being used up, and ecosystems are being badly altered by climate change and human degradation: unabated, these threats are going to cause major strife and, in all likelihood, be real ultimate causes of future nuclear proliferation. Nuclear energy is much more likely to decrease proliferation risk than to increase it, because it can provide energy to mitigate these growing threats, especially climate change and energy-poverty. Look at the countries that lately developed nuclear weapons: Pakistan and North Korea: energy poor, overpopulated, and environmentally degraded and feeling threatened.

The world is going to need much more energy to replace much fossil use and to meet the requirements of new energy-intensive processes which lessen our current reliance upon stressed natural ecosystems (things like intensive farming, waste recycling, fossil-fuel displacement, mineral extraction from poorer ores, desalination, urbanisation, electrification, and so on).

Giving nuclear energy short-shrift is really dangerously irresponsible, particularly if you’re worried about nuclear-weapons proliferation.