Over the last couple days I have participated in a very interesting discussion on the relevance of proliferation concerns to the renaissance in civilian nuclear energy. This closely preceded the announcement, a few minutes ago, by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the hands of its famous “Doomsday Clock” have been reset from 5 to 6 minutes before midnight. This is supposed to mean the world is safer. The Bulletin announcement juxtaposed the dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, which were called the gravest dangers facing mankind.
The non-proliferation discussion centered around several commenters’ frustration that civil nuclear programs are still regarded by many as proliferation sensitive. No proliferation threat has ever grown out of a civilian nuclear power program, these commenters point out. The reason why this is the case is the matter of great controversy. Some insist that it is simply too difficult and expensive to turn civil nuclear materials into weapons. On that basis, they say, discussions that link civil nuclear power with weapons proliferation are pointless.
To which I pointed out: if impoverished basket-cases like Pakistan and North Korea can pull it off, then the world is right to worry about a link. Nuclear bombs are made with enriched uranium and/or plutonium. Most civilian power reactors run on enriched uranium, and all produce plutonium. Any discussion on the putative nuclear renaissance will inevitably touch on proliferation, and it is naive to carry on as if that shouldn’t happen.
The Bulletin’s juxtaposition of climate change with proliferation unfortunately came with no real recommendation, other than that there should be no reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in which plutonium separation is involved. Does that mean they wouldn’t object to DUPIC (direct use of pressurized water reactor spent fuel in CANDU)? DUPIC is the only spent fuel recycling method that entails no separation of plutonium.
The rationale for resetting the Doomsday clock to a more “relaxed” time was weak and disappointing. It appears based more on the hope that the U.S. president’s rhetoric on proliferation will translate into real action some time in the future than on the actual situation in the world today. In case anybody has forgotten, Iranian centrifuges are enriching uranium, North Korea has successfully tested both bombs and delivery vehicles, and Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, is fighting an existential war against violent extremists while continuing to blame all its problems on (nuclear-armed) India. These developments threaten billions of people in East and South Asia.