19 Apr 2010

The Myth Of The Peaceful Atom

By Jim Green
Recent nuclear talk-fests have quietly ignored the fact that even so-called 'peaceful nuclear programs' — like power generation — can be used for proliferation, writes Jim Green
Last week, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington issued a communiqué expressing the resolve of the 47 participating nations to strengthen nuclear security and thus reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

There's a strange caveat in the communiqué. It calls on nations to "support the implementation of strong nuclear security practices that will not infringe upon the rights of States to develop and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes ... " The Nuclear Security Summit seems to have it the wrong way around: surely preventing nuclear terrorism comes first and peaceful nuclear development is a subordinate "right" — assuming it's a right at all.

The caveat reveals the fundamental contradiction that always exists when governments say they are reducing the security threat of nuclear weapons while they ignore the risks that come from promoting the "peaceful" purpose of power generation using almost interchangeable technology.

The same blind-spot is evident with the recent US-Russia agreement for each country to get rid of 34 tonnes of excess plutonium (the total being enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons). The agreement doesn't mention the ongoing production of plutonium in power reactors — amounting to six tonnes in Russian reactors each year and between 25–30 tonnes of plutonium in the US.

In what is presented as a positive move, Russia has also agreed to close its last military plutonium production reactor. But Russia plans to "dispose" of its 34 tonnes of plutonium by using it as fuel in fast breeder reactors that are ideal for producing weapons-grade plutonium and can produce ("breed") more plutonium than they consume. To add to the irony, Russia's fast breeder program is being propped up by US and European largesse under the plutonium disposition program. Meanwhile, the very fact that the now-deactivated Russian military plant was thought to be the last active military reactor in the world reflects just how easily ordinary reactors can do the same job.

The serious proliferation risks associated with peaceful nuclear programs will be studiously ignored at the five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York next month. The NPT has its own version of the NSS's caveat: "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination."

The contradiction is magnified by the fact that the task of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not only to carry out safeguards inspections to assess NPT compliance, but also to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It would make as much sense to ask drug enforcement agencies to promote the cultivation of poppy seeds.

Given the history of actual nuclear proliferation, these contradictions are extremely disturbing. No fewer than five of the 10 countries to have produced nuclear weapons did so with crucial technical support and political cover from "peaceful" nuclear programs. Proliferation risks assume still greater significance in the context of renewed interest in nuclear power to help address climate change. The dilemma has been neatly summarised by former US Vice President Al Gore: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to [substantially reduce coal use] ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

These two bodies aren't the only "non-proliferation" organisations doing their best to ignore a huge part of the proliferation risk that nuclear power presents. Last December, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), co-chaired by Australian Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi from Japan, released its first report. Like other bodies ICNND chooses to skim over the proliferation risks arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel — a process which involves separating plutonium which can then be used directly in weapons. Japan is one of the world's worst offenders in relation to plutonium stockpiling and Australia is also complicit, never once having refused Japan (or any other country) permission to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium.

Japan's plutonium program clearly fans regional tensions and proliferation risks. A March 1993 diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"

Since that 1993 cable, Japan's plutonium stockpile has grown and regional tensions have worsened. The ICNND report advocates new technologies "to avoid current forms of reprocessing altogether". But the obvious question is why wait for new technology when suspending reprocessing would provide an immediate signal that Japan and Australia recognise the need to resolve the problem of plutonium stockpiling?

Suspending reprocessing wouldn't undermine Australia's uranium exports or Japan's nuclear power program — in other words it's the least we should expect. Kevin Rudd could announce tomorrow that he will no longer allow reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel produced from Australian uranium. Instead he waffles on about the fracturing of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime while his actions and inaction contribute more to the problems than to the solutions.

The ICNND's advocacy of new forms of reprocessing is just a throwaway argument to deflect criticism and to give the impression that the problem of plutonium stockpiling is being taken seriously. Such arguments are a dime a dozen. Another example comes from the Nuclear Security Summit communiqué with its promise to work to ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "continues to have the appropriate structure, resources and expertise" to carry out its safeguards role. Yet there is widespread acknowledgement that the IAEA is seriously under-resourced — a problem that has been festering for over a decade with no resolution in sight.

Recently retired IAEA director-general Mohamed El Baradei has summed up the limitations of safeguards with his observations that the agency's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", that efforts to improve it have been "half-hearted" and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department".

Apparently preferring to ignore these problems, the Australian Government continues to set new lows in relation to safeguards. Australia's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has advised the Government against exporting uranium to Russia unless IAEA safeguards inspections take place. The IAEA has not inspected a single nuclear facility in Russia since 2001 and there is no requirement in the 2007 Howard-Putin agreement for any IAEA inspections to take place in future. However, the Government has rejected this advice, arguing that it trusts Russia to do the right thing.

All of these failures reflect a fundamental problem underlying nuclear power, a problem succinctly explained back in 1982 by current South Australian Premier Mike Rann: "Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first."

The Rudd Government needs to break this habit and establish an independent inquiry to identify measures to tighten the safeguards system. It must not be just another gabfest — as the ICNND turned out to be — but rather be a focused inquiry backed by a declaration with real intent to address the problems.

Physicist Victor Gilinsky, previously with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Atomic Energy Commission, noted in the January 2009 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"In international affairs, nuclear energy trumps just about everything. Even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals that grandfather everything that's already in place. ... It's time to take a more serious view. Security should come first — not as an afterthought.

"We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow. At a minimum, that means an end to promoting and subsidising nuclear power all over the world."

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Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 07:47

All the usual emotive nonsense from the anti-nuclear lobby - I sometimes ask myself whether groups like FOE are really friends of our Earth or foes.

Surely the first and most urgent priority is to remove coal from electricity generation in Australia.The cheapest,cleanest and quickest way to do this is to embark on a program to replace all our coal fired generators with Gen 3 nuclear plants and ultimately Gen 4 which can all plug into our existing grid.

This does not mean that renewables like solar and wind should not be pursued as well but they can't realistically provide base load power.
Geothermal can but it is a long way from being a proven commercial technology and also requires a massive build of high voltage transmission capacity from the areas of generation which are mostly remote from markets.

Solar PV is a useful technology to reduce grid load and for stand alone systems in remote areas.It is not a base load generator.

Dr Green and others in this denialist camp should state just what they expect the economic,environmental and social condition of Australia to be if their present disconnect from harsh reality is allowed to dominate the agenda.

Ken Fabos
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 09:45

I think that the almost certainty of climate change and the absolute need to reduce emissions has to trump the possibility of civil nuclear being co-opted to military purposes. I think that this age of big brother's ability to find even the most deeply buried nuclear facility gives some hope that it will get harder. A working global regulatory regime is probably achievable. A world that has no nuclear energy isn't going to happen so we need the ability to track and regulate it, whether or not low emissions energy needs result in mass expansion.

I'd love to see low cost renewables that can provide continuous energy supply and I don't doubt for a nation like Australia it's achievable and probably not be crippling in cost; I'm not so sure that's true for all nations. We won't be any kind of world leaders in nuclear but can be world leaders in renewables but if the hope of renewables fails to be realised we may need new gen nuclear. Sorry but climate change and the ongoing failure to restrain emissions scares me much more than regulated civilian nuclear.

A real carbon price on energy is needed first and foremost; whether nuclear will actually win the energy race isn't as certain as many nuclear proponents appear to believe. Efforts to reduce solar and energy storage costs continue to show significant progress. Large scale energy storage development has barely begun - not needed so far because of continuous coal burning (and Australia's real plans for future energy are to keep burning coal) so not much incentive or funding here, but the world is on notice. Energy storage will be a development priority and it will improve out of sight once real effort is made. During the 2 decades or more time scale developing nuclear in Australia will take the continuing improvements in renewables could still see nukes become the expensive loser. The question is should we be hedging our bets by beginning the development of necessary regulatory frameworks for nuclear just in case?

David Skidmore
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 12:14

If nuclear power is a social and environmental good then there's no problem with Iran developing its nuclear program. After all, the regime says it'll be used for peaceful purposes and it's supposedly cleaner than fossil fuel alternatives. And if its hard to believe the Iranians why are the Russians or Israelis anymore credible?

As far as I'm concerned preventing nuclear weapons proliferation trumps climate change any day. The latter is a relatively slow process. The former can lead to world obliteration in an instant.

David Grayling
Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 13:12

In a way, this article is like talking about closing the door after the horse has bolted.

The world is already drowning in nukes. There is talk of reducing them and Russia and America have already agreed to do so. But for mine, I don't trust either of them to truthfully state how many nukes they have and if I were to guess I'd say that any reductions would be in deteriorating weapons and that they would be replaced surreptitiously.

Uranium trumps coal, that's for sure. Problem is that the madmen who already have nukes and those who are trying to get them will ensure the world continues to teeter on the edge of a nuclear holocaust!

It's just a matter of time!

Posted Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 15:12

If the nuclear industry has it's wish-list granted by the end of this century worldwide nuclear power capacity will have increased from 400 GWe to 11,000 GWe. See: http://www.world-nuclear.org/outlook/nuclear_century_outlook.html

That's a 27 fold increase.

If nuclear energy is intrinsically linked to proliferation then that means perhaps a 27 fold increase in proliferation risk. Any sane person has to be very concerned about such an horrendous prospect.

But there are people who fervently believe that emerging new nuclear technology can de-link nuclear power from proliferation. The most pertinent advocacy group in Australia is the Brave New Climate group.

Now that <em>climate</em> and <em>nuclear proliferation</em> vie for each other in their shared capacity to destroy the world-as-we-know-it, this potential de-linking is possibly one of the most important issues that need to be resolved.

Those who believe such a de-linking is possible have an awful lot of work to do, to overcome the (very justified) fears of a population that has always assumed that the nuclear fuel cycle is a dangerous loop - as soon as we engage in it we increase proliferation risk.

As an older person I am also aware that the nuclear industry from right back in the 1950s has had an unreal belief in itself, once even pronouncing that nuclear energy would soon be too cheap to even bother metering it. So I retain a lot of scepticism about prospective emerging technologies (gen iv reactors) that are excitedly talked about but not yet in commercial production.

The almost certain catastrophic climate change confronting the world changes everything. We face risk versus risk, both of them potentially catastrophic. That being the case, we can no longer afford to ignore potential avenues to de-carbonize world energy supplies. We can no longer afford to give a blanked NO to nuclear energy if there is a real prospect that emerging proliferation-free nuclear power can be commercially proven up.

As for feeding endless growth, forget it. We are facing <em>peak everything</em>, not just energy. Energy supply has to be subordinated to real need.

Posted Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - 01:54

AS usual all these treaties are window dressing. The fact that America and Russia have enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy each other and the world, several times over.

The argument by the nuclear energy proponent, is fallacious and lamentable. To build nuclear reactor is no great problem but hazards arise when a plant is decommissioned. Where is nuclear waste going to go? Probably to aborigine land. To poison and pollute their land.

There are many alternatives, probably costly, but in long term safe and economical. But most Governments are under pressure from oil and utilities not to have long term view. The warning signs were on the wall for more than twenty years ago. If at the time actions were taken the problem would have been short term. There is another buzz word "mix" of potentials.

Till we find a safe way to decommission nuclear reactor and dispose off waste safely till then - it is no, no.

It is wishful thinking on my part. But most countries will go on building nuclear reactor and feed their programmes avoiding the scrutiny of the regulatory bodies.

Posted Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - 02:43

Jim, Jim, Jim, thankyou for a slightly convoluted but as always concerned in the right places and cutting through the bull article. I obtained a copy of the Safeguards Office director´s yearly report some years ago and what obfuscating reading it turned out to be. Saying only what needed to be revealed to the public and crapping on about how the distribution of Australian nuclear material was saved from entering the hands of `rogue states´, by the treaties used by the Office.

Of course the United States and all the other big nuke boys never get a mention when talkin quantities. Who in their right mind would believe that the US big stick wouldn´t be envied by `rogue states´ regularly, conventionally bombed by the US. It looks like the wonderboy Obama is going to trump them on the NNPT again.

What are we going to have to do to get rid of the nuclear industry and its resultant nukes?


Posted Saturday, April 24, 2010 - 06:02

"And proliferation resistance also depends on safeguards" As far as safe guards go with Nuclear we have to be dispicably safe because there is no such thing as safeguards in a country which mines and sells Uranium - preferentially to political friends (reads Nuclear Wingnuts) but virtually anyone. Already so soon after the recently convened, exclusive Summit we hear the US pointing the finger at States havin negligable numbers of nukes. The summit obviously had nothing to do with Nukes and every thing to do with politics of USA, M East and N Korea. All this while the Safeguards Office is permanently out to lunch.

"Fusion Power" I´d like to see someone (who doesnt need counselling) stake their life/career/next hamburger on Fusion Power being Proliferation free.

The pro-nuclear power lobby can go back to holidaying in Dubai if the alternative lobby just shuts up and accepts Nuclear Power as the choice of the people for Climate Change. But unfortunately for them there are some words in the debate eg Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the fears of ordinary people who might have to live next to one of those "emission free" monoliths.


Posted Saturday, April 24, 2010 - 07:12

And Mr Thirra, I live on a community with individual Solar and wind in the Adelaide hills and haven´t been connected to har! har! "baseload power" for 25 years.

"the first and most urgent priority is to remove coal from electricity generation in Australia". I say The cheapest,cleanest and quickest way to do this is to embark on a program to replace all our coal fired generators with Individual Solar power on ya roof. But if you want the government to do your thinking for you, dont be surprised if they are too busy holidaying in Dubai to get it right, and "Gen 3 nuclear plants and ultimately Gen 4 which can all plug into our existing grid" all backfire on generations to come. Would you like some horrendous examples of bad Government thinking, in a 'Democracy'?