The Future of Nuclear Power…and Proliferation

Dr. Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, has a terrific piece in this current issue of Foreign Policy that explores the future of nuclear energy in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

According to Ferguson, the nuclear renaissance is very much still alive. Though several countries have announced their retreat from nuclear energy since the Fukushima meltdown, Ferguson explains that these states “were the exceptions rather than the rule.” As he notes:

The United States is reviewing its safety procedures for nuclear power, but not changing course on it; overall support for the energy source among Americans has hovered around 50 percent since the early 1990s. In France, which gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, President Nicolas Sarkozy said shutting down reactors was "out of the question." And as for China, India, and South Korea -- countries with a growing appetite for nuclear power that account for the bulk of active plant construction -- only the first has put any of its nuclear plans on pause, and that's just pending a safety review. India and South Korea have vowed to tighten safety standards, but have otherwise forged ahead with plans for nuclear expansion.

According to an August 2011 Congressional Research Service report, the list of states with planned nuclear developments is quite striking (see page 24). The number of planned nuclear facilities in the world – those with approval, funding and that should be operational within the decade – totaled 158. (Note that there are 440 in operation today.) Another 322 nuclear power plants have been proposed, and 61 others are already under construction. Indeed, when experts say that the nuclear renaissance is still alive, they mean it. But how will growth in nuclear energy make nonproliferation more difficult, if at all?

Ferguson takes on the challenge of evaluating the risk of proliferation quite diligently. It is not necessarily true that more nuclear energy production means more nuclear proliferation, he argues. “It's true that the nuclear enrichment and reprocessing facilities used to produce fuel for peaceful reactors can just as easily be used to make fissile material for bombs,” Ferguson acknowledges. “For now, however, this threat starts and ends with Iran. Most of the 30 countries that use nuclear power don't build their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities, instead buying fuel for their nuclear power plants from external suppliers.”

Ferguson goes on to explain that “The only countries with enrichment facilities that don't have nuclear weapons as well are Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Iran, Japan, and the Netherlands -- and only one of those six keeps nonproliferation hawks up at night.” And that may be true. But this left me wondering about states like North Korea that are allegedly trying to deliver nuclear components to states like Burma, which has had a long-time interest in acquiring a nuclear test reactor. North Korea has proven it can enrich plutonium (and has potentially enhanced its uranium processing capabilities), which makes North Korea a potential offender of nonproliferation regimes. It is a state worth worrying about give its rejection of international norms. 

What is worse, Ferguson argues, “the threat of peaceful nukes begetting the destructive kind is going to get worse before it gets better, thanks to technological advances.” In particular, the recent announcement of laser enrichment processing is quite worrying given that it would allow a processing facility to “take up relatively little space -- it could be hidden in a single nondescript warehouse in an otherwise benign industrial park -- and emit few overt signs of activity, making it far more difficult to detect than conventional centrifuge enrichment.”

What I take away from Ferguson’s report is that while more nuclear power does not necessarily mean more nuclear weapons proliferation, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the challenges the United States and others will face in ensuring that peaceful nuclear programs stay that way. The United States is likely to find itself in high demand to help continue to police the world’s nuclear material through agencies like the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as continuing to support international efforts through the International Atomic Energy Agency. Developing the relationships with those states that have planned or proposed nuclear power plants must be done on the outset if we do not already have robust ties with those states. The near-term priorities should be those states that already have plants under construction. The United States may not be the most welcome partner by every single state, but if we frame our cooperation correctly we should be able to help sculpt some lasting partnerships.

Read the rest of Ferguson’s report on the future of nuclear energy at Foreign Policy.com.