APS News

APS Report Tackles Proliferation Resistance and Nuclear Power

By Ernie Tretkoff

For the first time in several decades, the US is seriously considering building new nuclear power plants. This change in attitude towards nuclear power prompted the APS Panel on Public Affairs to organize a study group to examine steps the US can take to enhance the proliferation resistance of nuclear power systems. The Nuclear Energy Study Group recently released their report, entitled "Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risks."

Global electricity demand is expected to grow by more than 50% by 2025. Nuclear power could meet a substantial portion of that demand, without carbon dioxide emissions. Environmentalists, who in the past had opposed nuclear power, are starting to change their minds because of concerns about global warming, and the US is considering building new nuclear power plants.

"For the last few years there has been increasing positive international and national attitude about the future of nuclear energy," said Roger Hagengruber, chair of the study group.

The APS has long been in favor of nuclear energy, and in 1993 the Council passed a statement supporting the development of nuclear energy as one alternative to fossil fuels.

However, the use of nuclear energy increases the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation, because nuclear power technology overlaps with nuclear weapons technology.

"Nuclear power cannot be made ‘proliferation proof.’ However, numerous steps can be taken–and must be taken–to make it as ‘proliferation-resistant’ as reasonably possible. This is an urgent global security problem," says the report. "No single diplomatic, military, economic, institutional, or technical initiative alone will be able to fully deal with this proliferation challenge."

The study group dealt only with proliferation, not with other concerns about nuclear power, said Hagengruber, "We felt the greatest risk was not cost or safety, but proliferation."

Nuclear reactors now provide about 20% of electric power in the US. Worldwide, 30 new nuclear plants were under construction in March 2005, with 20 of them in Asia. Many countries have expressed interest in nuclear power. "As evidenced by the current situation in Iran, technological advances and institutional changes are required to avoid proliferation by countries taking advantage of a global spread of nuclear power," says the report. It is important to make sure safeguards are in place, whether the US pursues nuclear power or not.

The report therefore recommends, as a high priority in the near term, significantly strengthening the federal Technical Safeguards R&D program. Technical safeguards technology is intended to deter or detect theft or diversion. Environmental sample analysis and surveillance analysis have proved effective, but "for technical safeguards to remain functional at containing theft, diversion, and breakout, they must advance at least as quickly as a proliferator’s techniques and potential opportunities," the report says.

The report recommends increasing resources for safeguards technology development, identifying near-term technology goals, formulating a technology roadmap, and improving interagency coordination. "Revitalizing Safeguards R&D is the most significant technical investment that can enhance the proliferation resistance of nuclear power within the next five years," the report says. The report lists some specific objectives for development of safeguards technology.

In the longer term, as the next generation of nuclear reactors is developed, it is essential to incorporate proliferation-resistance into the design, the report says. "Processes, designs, and initiatives that might be attractive on the basis of cost, performance, and other considerations should not be pursued if they are not proliferation-resistant," states the report. New reactors should be built to continuously monitor for any misuse. It is also essential to develop and strengthen international collaborations on key proliferation-resistant technologies, the report states.

The report also advises against reprocessing spent fuel at the present time, saying there is no urgent need to do so. The US does not currently reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Reprocessing could reduce waste, and would make it possible to produce more energy from the original uranium, but reprocessing spent fuel has inherent proliferation risks because it leads to separated plutonium, which can be used directly for nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if not reprocessed, stored fuel emits intense radiation, which deters theft, says the report. In order to make possible further study, the report recommends delaying any decision on whether to reprocess fuel.

All of the report’s recommendations are intended to be practical suggestions that can realistically be implemented, said Hagengruber. "Our goal was to arrive at a consensus that also had reasonable and executable actions. Otherwise you get great recommendations, but nothing will happen. We were very careful to select executable options," he said. So far, he said, the report has met positive response from policy makers.

Gray arrow Read the full report.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff