Civil nuclear power too risky, says think tank

A global security think tank argues that a global expansion of nuclear power would be too risky a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Not enough reactors could be built in time and the chances of nuclear conflict and terrorism would multiply.

Atomic energy is incapable of making a significant contribution to reducing global carbon dioxide emissions this century. If more nations embarked on civil nuclear programmes - adding to the 429 reactors already operating around the world - the risks of nuclear conflict and terrorism would be dangerously high.

So argues a report by the Oxford Research Group, a UK think tank specialising in global security issues.1 One of the document’s two authors is veteran anti-proliferation campaigner Dr Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston, between 1951 and 1957.

The report concludes the UK would set a bad example if it relied on nuclear power to reduce its relatively high carbon dioxide emissions - a course the government continues to pursue with its recent Energy White Paper (ENDS Report, 389, pp 40-42 ).

"If a decision to go with nuclear power is taken then the UK will implement a flawed and dangerously counter-productive energy policy - one from which the blowback may be a lot worse than higher heating bills," it says.

The authors estimate that if a global population of 10 billion relied on nuclear power to generate 33% of its electricity by 2075 (compared with 16% today), 2,500 plants would have to be built between 2022 and then. Their estimate assumes an average plant capacity of 1,000 megawatts and that nations have a total electricity-generating capacity of 1 kilowatt per capita.

These figures imply one new nuclear power station opening somewhere in the world each week over nearly 50 years. This, say the authors, "is a pipedream… no previous civil nuclear power programme has got anywhere near [this] kind of new build rate". Even France, which ran the world’s biggest nuclear power programme, only managed to open 3.4 reactors a year between 1977 and 1993.

The report says there is still too much uncertainty over how much CO2 nuclear power can save to justify a global expansion. Taking into account emissions from uranium ore processing and plant building and decommissioning, it cites estimates from 10 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour to 130 grams. The latter is about one third of the emissions from gas-fired power stations.

But most of the document considers the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation which flow from civilian atomic energy programmes and the terrorism risks from a ‘dirty bomb’, a crude nuclear weapon or a terrorist attack on a nuclear installation.

"Even a small expansion in the use of nuclear power for electricity generation would have serious consequences for the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that do not have them, and for nuclear terrorism," it argues.

The report criticises proposals from the International Atomic Energy Agency and US President George Bush’s administration for promoting a global expansion of civil nuclear power while containing the risks of proliferation.

The authors particularly oppose the US idea of a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, in which nuclear weapon states would take spent nuclear fuel rods back from reactors in other countries. These would be reprocessed into waste and new fuel, eventually including plutonium fuel for a new generation of fast reactors.

"The normal operation of these reactors will, as a matter of course, multiply the amount of weapons useable plutonium available across the world," says the report. "Any country operating new reactors… will have relatively easy access to plutonium useable in effective nuclear weapons and will have competent nuclear physicists and engineers who could design and fabricate them.

"Because they could produce a nuclear force in a short time - months rather than years - these countries will be latent nuclear weapon powers."

The authors say any state pursuing a civilian reactor programme will be looked upon as a threat by its neighbours - who may in turn pursue their own civilian programme with a view to eventually acquiring nuclear weapons.

Their report concludes: "In short, the plutonium economy will inevitably increase the risk that the capability to fabricate nuclear weapons will spread and that fissile materials will be used by terrorists to make nuclear explosives."

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