Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cons to nuclear power, part deux

So, I discussed waste and cost in the previous post. In this post I'll discuss proliferation.

3) Proliferation.
This basic argument against developing new nuclear energy technologies or power plants is based on the idea that somehow this nuclear technology can be used by rogues to develop nuclear weapons. The basic information on how to enrich uranium is already out there. I just discussed it in my previous posts. Gas diffusion is not difficult to accomplish. Centrifuge diffusion is not difficult to accomplish. Sure, it's expensive, but anyone who wants to and has the money can do it. So, why is the state department afraid of proliferation?

A) Nuclear enrichment abused; Iran as an example: Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which basically says that only the P-5 (US, Russia, UK, France, and China), who have declared that they are nuclear weapons states, may produce or stockpile nuclear weapons. All signatories commit to collaborate on developing peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Iran is an NPT signatory. Russia has been helping Iran with nuclear fuel technologies, including enrichment. So far, that's all kosher according to the NPT... Enriching past the nuclear fuel to nuclear weapons grade uranium or plutonium basically just requires more diffusion cycles and more energy. Iran has more than enough oil and natural gas reserves to supply itself with energy for many many decades. Thus, the US is concerned that Iran is using the Russian technologies to build nuclear weapons rather than nuclear fuel. Considering Iran's wacked stance on some things, it's a valid concern, IMO.

Note that India and Pakistan, both of whom have had nuclear weapons since 1998 are not NPT signatories. North Korea is a signatory, as is South Africa.

So, we have several rogues who have or want to have nuclear weapons technologies. What does this have to do with nuclear power generation (specifically in the US)? Well, IMO, it has nothing to do with it. You cannot stop knowledge from proliferating. Just because Iran may be working toward having "The Bomb" doesn't mean we should necessarily hobble ourselves w.r.t. energy generation. Once a person or state has the knowledge of enrichment, they can go as far as they desire (and can afford) with that enrichment, so the only way we can stop them is to either destroy them or convince them it's not in their self-interest to build a bomb. The former isn't a reasoned option, so what can our state deptartment do to stop Iran from building a bomb? I dunno; I'm just a scientist, not a statesman, but I suspect our current path hasn't been working so well.

B) Redirection of already enriched nuclear fuel: This is theft or direct purchase of enriched fuel by a state or sub-state or group of wackos. Obviously the more states that have nuclear enrichment capabilities, the more opportunities to acquire enriched fuel that can then be made weapons-grade relatively easily. MIT estimates that there is enough enriched plutonium, produced from nuclear energy fuel generation, in Europe, Russia, and Japan to produce about 25,000 nuclear weapons, assuming 8kg/weapon. Obviously, only a few weapons are needed to greatly destabalize any given region.

Proliferation summary:
The means (knowledge and technology) of acquiring a nuclear weapon (via advanced enrichment) is not something we can easily control (see North Korea and Iran). The motive to acquire and use a nuclear weapon is something we (the US in particular) have not recently been very good at mitigating (see Iran). The opportunity to acquire a nuclear weapon or the fuel needed to make one is something we (the US) can stop within our borders and sphere of influence relatively easily. Stopping theft or purchase of Russian (for example) nuclear technology or fuel is not something we seem to have any hand in. The NPT has been fairly effective, but it only takes one state to feel threatened by another before it'll do what it feels it has to...

So, the expansion of today's nuclear power plants to non-nuclear (powered but not weaponed) states does pose some risks. Obviously the detonation of a nuclear weapon anywhere is cause for concern, and would likely be answered with a nuclear weapon. The cascade of responses could go all the way to WWIII. I do not know. I do not think it would take a nuclear weapon to start another world war, but I suspect the use of one would probably guarantee another large, if not world-wide war. This is obviously undesireable.

So, how can we mitigate the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation while still expanding nuclear power generation (or is it even possible)?

For one, the current fuel cycle is a pathway to weapons technology. There are other fuel cycles that do not lead to enriched, weapons-grade plutonium or uranium. These are not in wide-spread use, but they can be developed more aggressively and then spread to those countries that are looking to move to nuclear energy technologies.

For another, diffusing many of the tensions throughout the world is probably a good idea, regardless of the state of nuclear power proliferation. We do not need nuclear weapons to kill a lot of people...

Anyone who wants to can work out how to build a basic reactor. Such things are not difficult to do. The difficulty lies in ensuring that people don't want to move on to nuclear weapons...

I promised to say something about downblending in this topic's post. Downblending is the process of mixing weapons-grade and weapons-usable enriched fuels with depleted fuels to decrease the concentration of the fissible materials, in the process making nuclear power-grade fuels. This is a "new" way of more safely decreasing nuclear weapons stockpiles. In some ways this decreases proliferation risks by decreasing the ready availability of weapons-usable HEU that can be used in crude weapons, which can be made by relatively poor countries or groups (crude being similar in destructive scale to those used in WWII...).

Anyway, proliferation is a concern, but... The knowledge necessary for enriching materials to weapons-usable or weapons-grade form is easily obtainable, the technology isn't much more difficult to obtain, there is no need for nuclear weapons to kill many people or destabilize a region, and decreasing the desire to kill many people seems (to me) to be a more prudent approach than attempting to retroactively close Pandora's Box...

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