Nuclear power is dangerous May 3, 2007Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, rant, Sustainable Living.
In March, the Oxford Research Group released a briefing paper entitled Secure Energy? Civil nuclear power, security and global warming, which summarises detailed evidence to show that a worldwide expansion of civil nuclear energy generation would significantly increase the risk of nuclear terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation.
For some reason, I never thought of this aspect of nuclear energy as a big problem, but reading this report changed my mind.
A greater role for atomic energy would result in many more nuclear research and production facilities as well as transit routes for radioactive materials, providing a growing number of hard-to-secure targets for direct terrorist attack and theft of nuclear weapons-usable materials.
There is not enough sufficiently high-grade uranium ore in the Earth’s crust to sustain the anticipated expansion of nuclear power for very long. The report claims that the “energy cliff” for nuclear power (i.e. the point in time when the system as a whole would consume as much energy as it can generate in usable electricity) based on uranium will be reached between about 2050 and 2075.
As a result, the nuclear industry will be forced to rely increasingly on reprocessing spent uranium fuel into Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) and reactor-grade plutonium. There are several reprocessing plants in operation, for example in the UK, Japan and France, at the moment, but more would have to be built in future to satisfy demand.
The problem is that even with the most sophisticated technical safeguards available today there is always a degree of uncertainty about exactly how much plutonium is produced by such reprocessing plants.
This is inherent to the system and is not a matter of efficiency or competence of operators and safety inspectors. Even based on the most optimistic estimates (more than 99% efficiency), the potential amount of plutonium that may go statistically unaccounted for in one reprocessing plant, and could be diverted by unscrupulous governments or employees without being detected, is enough to manufacture a nuclear weapon each month.
Some atomic energy enthusiasts suggest that so-called “Generation IV” or “breeder” reactors are the answer. These reactors use mostly plutonium and only little uranium, and in theory they produce more nuclear fuel than they use – they “breed” plutonium-239.
After 50 years of very expensive and intense research, no one has so far been able to demonstrate that this technology is actually technically feasible. Two of the current “breeders” have been out of operation for years and one has a long history of serious accidents. None of them have actually ever “bred” any plutonium-239.
If they ever should become viable, “Generation IV” reactors will only add to security worries because they produce super-weapons grade plutonium.
An increase in worldwide nuclear power generation will thus lead to a massive increase in radioactive material that can be used to manufacture atomic bombs.
To build such weapons is easier than most of us imagine. It has been estimated that 19 people with about US$10 million would be able to assemble a nuclear weapon in a year – not out of the question for a terrorist organisation or a rogue government.
If you live in Cape Town and are not yet sufficiently worried about the dangers of nuclear power plants, read this excellent report about Koeberg atomic energy station, written on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.