Nuclear Power Program Boosts Proliferation Threat, Experts Argue
By Chris Schneidmiller
Article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire
WASHINGTON — A U.S. program to promote nuclear energy around the world without increasing the threat of proliferation would instead raise the likelihood that additional nations or terrorists might acquire a devastating weapon, three experts argued yesterday (see GSN, Feb. 26).
The Energy Department unveiled the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in 2006. It now has 21 members, including all five recognized nuclear weapon states and nations such as Australia, Hungary, Jordan and Ukraine.
The intent is to provide participants with resources to meet their energy needs without giving them the tools to create nuclear weapons. Supplier nations would provide other states with reactor fuel and then collect spent material for reprocessing so that it could be reused. That, theoretically, would discourage customer countries from developing the fuel cycle that could power nuclear weapons or reprocessing technology to extract bomb-usable plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
Partnering nations would also conduct research on new fuel-recycling technology that proponents believe would eliminate the need to separate pure plutonium and ultimately help draw down existing stocks of spent fuel and surplus plutonium.
The program has found support from the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (see GSN, Sept. 17, 2007). There are, however, a number of problems with this plan, critics said during a discussion on Capitol Hill.
Three-fourths of nations with nuclear energy programs now store spent fuel rather than separating plutonium from the material for reuse, said Princeton University nonproliferation and arms control expert Frank von Hippel. The GNEP program would promote separating material that could be diverted for weapons purposes far more easily than the highly radioactive, “self-protecting” spent material, he argued.
The partnership’s technologies are also more expensive and dangerous than simply storing nuclear waste and could allow nations to lay the groundwork for a nuclear weapon program under the guise of cooperation, von Hippel said.
“Aside from that it’s a great idea,” he said.
Speakers found fault with the idea of reprocessing technology that would combine other chemical elements with plutonium to prevent its use in nuclear weapons. Mixing plutonium with an element such as neptunium — also a fissile material — “does not significantly increase [the] barrier to theft or use in a nuclear bomb,” Allison Macfarlane, an environmental science and policy professor at George Mason University near Washington, D.C., said in her presentation.
Plutonium combined with other transuranic elements would be only moderately more self-protecting than separated plutonium, von Hippel said.
“The mix is more radioactive by almost a factor of 100 than the pure plutonium but it’s more than 100 times less radioactive than what the [International Atomic Energy Agency] considers self-protecting,” he said. “You could separate the plutonium from this mix in a glove box.”
The Energy Department said today in a statement that the program “seeks to develop worldwide consensus on enabling expanded use of economical, carbon-free nuclear energy to meet growing electricity demand. This will use a nuclear fuel cycle that enhances energy security, while promoting nonproliferation. It would achieve its goal by having nations with secure, advanced nuclear capabilities provide fuel services — fresh fuel and recovery of used fuel — to other nations who agree to employ nuclear energy for power generation purposes only.”
Selling reprocessing capabilities has already proven something of a bust on the global stage, von Hippel said. Thirteen nations that hold one-third of the world’s nuclear energy capacity chose not to renew reprocessing contracts for services provided by France, Russia or the United Kingdom. Some nations, he said, are simply unlikely to forgo having their own advanced technology.
The existing nuclear proliferation situation — assuming North Korea gives up its weapons and Iran never produces nuclear armaments — is manageable, said Henry Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. He argued that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership could contribute to a more dangerous arrangement.
No fewer than 18 nations already intend by 2020 to join the ranks of the 31 nuclear-energy-producing nations, many of which at least considered developing weapons, Sokolski said. Adding so many nations to the nuclear mix significantly increases the chances for a “strategic miscalculation” that could lead to what he termed a “Nuclear 1914” — referring to the year that World War I began.
Even light-water power reactors, considered the least useful in producing weapon-grade plutonium, cannot be considered harmless and have been used as cover for weapons programs, Sokolski said. Light-water reactors must be shut down and disassembled for access to spent fuel, which contains plutonium that is not “super optimal” for weapons. However, the large facilities also produce massive amounts of material.
“As Stalin would say, quantity has a quality all of its own,” Sokolski said. Also, “these things can be operated to make very good material. They don’t just make poor reactor-grade material.”
A nation seeking a nuclear arsenal could use a small, hidden reprocessing plant to extract enough plutonium from spent light-water reactor fuel to produce 20 or more weapons each month, he said. “You could build these facilities inside other facilities.”
Sokolski dismissed the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency or U.S. intelligence agencies to identify known or possible military nuclear efforts in a timely fashion. Programs in Iran, Iraq, Libya North Korea and Taiwan all went undetected for some time, he said, also questioning the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s chances of preventing diversion of nuclear fuel.
He offered several recommendations to offset this danger. Reforms are necessary at the International Atomic Energy Agency, including mandatory near real-time surveillance at nuclear facilities and automatic penalties for nations that violate agency rules or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He also argued against subsidizing “money losing [nuclear energy] endeavors” that move states toward weapons capabilities.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences have also weighed in with concerns about the nuclear energy partnership, Macfarlane said. A panel from the science organization found last year there was insufficient need to justify “rapid commercial-scale deployment” of GNEP technology, which in any case was expensive and not yet ready for use, she said.
Macfarlane and another panel member took an even stronger view, arguing that the program would not solve nuclear proliferation and waste issues and that the Energy Department itself was the “wrong agent for developing commercial technologies.”
“There’s just no need for it right now,” she told Global Security Newswire.
The panel’s report was “based on faulty premises that are inconsistent with the fuel cycle research and development (R&D) program actually being implemented by DOE,” the agency responded last year.
“The report errantly assumes that DOE has preselected the separations technologies to be deployed and the scale of the facilities to be built. A series of critical findings are based on these incorrect premises,” according to an Energy Department statement from October 2007.
Congress has aired its own doubts during the funding process. The Bush administration sought $405 million in this fiscal year but received only $179 million. Lawmakers have already indicated they are prepared to make significant cuts to the more than $300 million request for fiscal 2009.