Nuclear debate: A dangerous option that won't solve climate change (Jim Green)

Issue 

There are three main problems with the nuclear "solution" to climate change — it is a blunt instrument, a dangerous one, and it is unnecessary.

First, nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for about one-quarter of global greenhouse emissions.

Doubling global nuclear power output by mid-century at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by about 5%.

According to the 2006 Switkowski report, building six nuclear reactors in Australia would reduce Australia's emissions by 4% if they displaced coal, or 2% if they displaced gas.

The second big problem with the nuclear "solution" to climate change is that all nuclear power concepts (including "next generation" concepts) fail to resolve the greatest problem with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Not just any old WMDs, but nuclear weapons — the most destructive, indiscriminate and immoral of all weapons.

Third, nuclear power is unnecessary, as physicist Amory Lovins explained in a recent paper: "Expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection.

"That's because — the empirical cost and installation data show — new nuclear power is so costly and slow that … it will save about 2–20 times less carbon per dollar, and about 20–40 times less carbon per year, than investing instead in the market winners — efficient use of electricity and ... micropower, comprising distributed renewables (renewables with mass-produced units, i.e. those other than big hydro dams) and cogenerating electricity together with useful heat in factories and buildings."

Nuclear weapons

Let's consider the WMD proliferation potential of the "next generation" reactors favoured by Barry Brook — integral fast reactors (IFR).

As with conventional reactors, IFRs can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium in the fuel (using a shorter-than-usual irradiation time) or by irradiating a uranium or depleted uranium "blanket" or targets.

Brook writes on his website: "IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. The integral fast reactor is a systems design with a sodium-cooled reactor with metal fuels and pyroprocessing on-site. To produce weapons-grade plutonium you would have to build an IFR+HSHVHSORF (highly specialised, highly visible, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facility). You would also need to run your IFR on a short cycle."

Or to paraphrase: IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium, IFRs can produce weapons-grade plutonium. Go figure.

Presumably, Brook's point is that IFR-produced plutonium cannot be separated from irradiated materials (fuel/blanket/targets) within the IFR/pyroprocessing plant; it would need to be separated at a conventional PUREX reprocessing plant.

If so, it is a banal point, which also applies to conventional reactors. It remains the case that IFRs can certainly produce weapons-grade plutonium.

George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research and development program in the US, notes that proliferators "could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor — operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material".

Brook has persisted with his claim that IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium even after its fallacy has been pointed out to him. "Next generation" reactors are being promoted with old-style spin.

Brook's "highly specialised, highly visible, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facilities" are conventional PUREX reprocessing plants — technology that is well within the reach of most or all nation states.

As well as several commercial-scale reprocessing plants operating around the world, and military reprocessing plants, about 30 countries (including Australia) have small reprocessing capabilities associated with research reactor programs.

Some of the existing reprocessing plants would suffice to extract plutonium from low burn-up IFR-irradiated materials while more elaborate shielding might be required in the unlikely event a nation wanted to separate plutonium from materials irradiated for a longer period.

IFR advocate Tom Blees notes, "extracting plutonium from [IFRs] would require the same sort of techniques as extracting it from spent fuel from light water reactors".

IFR proponents propose building an initial fleet of IFRs designed with a target/blanket arrangement to produce excess plutonium to supply the initial nuclear cores for other IFRs.

But this is the worst possible design from a non-proliferation standpoint because it would be simple to irradiate, remove and process uranium targets, producing plutonium that is chemically pure and ideal for weapons.

IFR advocates propose using them to draw down global stockpiles of fissile material, from civil or military nuclear programs. However, IFRs have no need for outside sources of fissile material beyond their initial fuel load.

At worst, IFRs would not only justify the ongoing operation of proliferation-sensitive enrichment and reprocessing plants (to provide the initial fissile core) but would also operate as "breeders" not "burners", producing more fissile material than they consume.

There are good, empirical reasons to be concerned about scenarios that increase rather than decrease proliferation risks — conventional reprocessing with the use of separated plutonium as fuel (in breeders or MOX reactors) has the same potential to drawn down fissile material stockpiles, but has demonstrably increased rather than decreased proliferation risks.

IFR advocates generally acknowledge the flaws and limitations of the international nuclear safeguards system, but show no willingness to help with the difficult work of trying to improve safeguards.

Do IFR advocates accept the need for a rigorous safeguards system to be in place before a large-scale IFR rollout? What is their timeframe for the establishment of a rigorous safeguards system?

How do they propose to hasten progress, which so far has been painfully slow? Do they accept that proponents of dual-use nuclear technology have a responsibility to engage in the laborious work of strengthening safeguards? These questions are ignored by IFR advocates.

Another common argument from IFR proponents is that proliferators would be more likely to use research reactors rather than IFRs to produce plutonium for bombs. But depending on the configuration of an IFR, it might be difficult to produce weapons-grade plutonium or it might be dead easy.

It's certainly true that research reactor programs have a rich history of involvement in covert nuclear weapons programs, but there's also a rich and well-documented history of nuclear power facilitating covert weapons programs.

Moreover, one of the most common justifications for building research reactors is research and training in support of a power program.

Former US vice president Al Gore has summed up the problem of heavy reliance on nuclear power for climate change abatement: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program.

"And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings us back to climate change — a connection explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "As recent work ... has shown, we now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade — more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct.

"By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally."

Clean energy solutions

A significant and growing body of scientific literature demonstrates how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency policies and technologies can generate big reductions in greenhouse emissions without recourse to nuclear power.

For Australia, a starting point is the study by the Clean Energy Future Group (CEFG). The CEFG proposes an electricity supply scenario which would reduce greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector by 78% by 2040, comprising solar (5%); hydro (7%); coal/petroleum (10%); wind (20%); bioenergy — mostly from crop residues so it is not competing with other land uses (28%); and gas (30%).

The CEFG study is conservative in that it makes no allowance for technological advancement in important areas like solar-with-storage or geothermal power, even over a timeframe of several decades.

Recently, University of New South Wales academic Mark Diesendorf, who contributed to the CEFG study, has proposed a more ambitious scenario.

He said: "By 2030 it will be technically possible to replace all conventional coal power with the following mixes: wind, bioelectricity and solar thermal each 20 to 30%; solar photovoltaic 10-20%; geothermal 10-20%; and marine (wave, ocean current) 10% … There is an embarrassment of riches in the non-nuclear alternatives to coal."

It is a myth that all renewable energy sources are incapable of providing reliable base-load electricity, though intermittency is a limitation for some renewables and further technological advancement is required.

It is also a myth that the current limitations of renewables leave us with an unpalatable choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power.

As Diesendorf says: "On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does."

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. Email: jim.green@foe.org.au. Visit www.foe.org.au for more information.]