The right way to defeat nuclear proliferation

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.

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13 years ago

Too bad the Toronto Star allows the misinformation in the opinion piece to stand by not having the rebuttals below it, or links to the rebuttals.

13 years ago

Don, I agree. The Star should publish point-counterpoint opinion pieces as often as possible, especially when one of them is so slanted.

13 years ago

Nuclear proliferation as a result of civilian nuclear power is an asinine argument made by the ignorant. Why? Simple: Uranium is ubiquitous in the earth’s crust. It is already in the bodies of all humans over 40 in measurable quantities simply because we breathe, eat and drink. It is a measurable component of sea water. Uranium sits unguarded on the ground in its natural state in many places of the world and needs little more than a high-speed centrifuge to enrich. It is an alpha-emitter needing no more radiation shielding then our skin. If one was so disposed to make a fissile device, one could spin a bunch of centrifuges for a few years and make the quantity of material needed. No reactor required. Remember “little boy”
As for reducing or eliminating further proliferation risk by making bomb material into MOX fuel: WHAT FOLLY! The result is spent nuclear fuel the scourge of the nuclear industry! Maybe, before fate takes me from this planet, I will witness a government with a modicum of intelligence (I’m not holding my breath) that will finally do nuclear energy the right way: INTERGRAL FAST BREEDER REACTORS! What are these? How about: All the pollution free energy, all of humanity will ever need for all of eternity! Not bad for technology first successfully visited in 1946 eh? GOOGLE IT! You’ll actually learn just how foolish and reckless we have been to date!
Sean Holt.

13 years ago

Sean, thanks for your comment. Fast breeders are indeed integral to the future fuel cycle plans of a number of countries, including France, India, China, and Japan. And you are right: they promise, and will deliver, abundant, clean, concentrated energy.

They are not without controversy, however. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of producing more plutonium. That was the basis of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which envisioned fast BURNERs, not breeders. Burners would forego breeding, i.e., the plutonium that goes in is what is fissioned. Lots of room for debate here.

As for bombs-to-MOX: yes, there is spent fuel involved. But there is spent fuel involved in our current once-through cycle, and spent fuel is envisioned as feed for a fast-breeder cycle.

Besides, what’s safer: having plutonium in pure metallic (i.e., bomb-grade) form, or having it mixed in with other elements in a way that cannot explode? I like the idea of destroying the bomb-grade stuff by turning it into electricity, and MOX is one viable way to do it.