October 18, 2011

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:

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
, 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

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