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A global nuclear boom?

18.03.2008 Lauri Myllyvirta

The ambition of the nuclear industry is to double the world’s nuclear capacity by 2030. This option is also included in the reports of bodies like International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What would such a nuclear boom look like?

The argument is that rapid expansion of nuclear power would contribute to combating climate change and improving security of supply – but not as much as a layman might think. The increase in the share of nuclear power in power generation would be 6-9 percentage points, or less than 4 percentage points in terms of primary energy. The resulting greenhouse gas emission reductions would be 3-4 percent from baseline.

New reactors – fast!
World’s present nuclear capacity was mostly built during the 1970s and 1980s. The plants were designed to operate for less than 40 years but many have been granted lifetime extensions. In any case, almost half of world’s present capacity is likely to retire by 2030. In 2020s, about 10-20 nuclear power plants a year will be taken offline.

In recent years, an average of 2 new nuclear reactors per year have been commissioned. Against this background, the challenge of doubling capacity sounds enormous: during late 2020s, more than one reactor per week would have to be commissioned. Providing for a 10-year project cycle, about one reactor project a week would have to be started by 2015. Severe bottlenecks would have to be overcome – for example there is only one company in the world capable of manufacturing reactor pressure vessels.

More waste
The amount of high level nuclear waste that the world is “committed” to producing, assuming that all reactors operate until the end of their planned lifetimes, would be almost tripled. At 2030s proposed nuclear output, a new Yucca mountain would be needed every 3 years or a new Olkiluoto waste storage site every two months.

New nuclear countries
If you are serious about using nuclear power to combat climate change, you should build in countries where electricity consumption grows fast. In the IEA scenario of doubling nuclear capacity, two thirds of net capacity additions take place outside OECD. The number of nuclear power plants in developing countries would grow 5-fold. Many of these countries are more prone to natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, safety culture is often weak and there is in general more political instability. One example is Pakistan, a country with both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, that has been at the brink of civil war at times.

Climate change also poses new threats to nuclear power plants. Increased frequency of extreme weather events, heat spells, lack of water and sea level rise all aggravate the risks and problems.

All of this highlights the fact that nuclear power requires the stability of the society over absurdly long time periods. The industry is confidently speaking about radioactive waste storage sites that would be closed in 2120. Can we really honestly say we have any idea what will be going on in the world hundred years from now? One of the only things we know is that nuclear waste is going to be around.

More bombs
After 50 years of promises of separating nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, the link is stronger than ever. More countries and organizations than ever before have access to nuclear weapons. E.g. China, South Africa, India, Pakistan and North Korea have, one after another, acquired a nuclear weapon under the guise of a nuclear energy program, while in the first four nuclear states nuclear power was a side product of a nuclear weapons program.

According to Mohammed El Baradei, the head of IAEA, the threat of a nuclear war has never been as great as it is now. In addition to the existing 8 or 9 nuclear weapon states, 30-40 countries are able to manufacture a nuclear weapon in a short period of time. That creates a totally new dynamic if new international tensions develop somewhere in the world.

Finnish nuclear safety expert Tero Varjoranta warns that it is only a matter of time before terrorists manage to acquire a dirty bomb or a nuclear weapon. More reactors are being built, nuclear materials keep piling up and controls are failing.

Smuggling of radioactive materials is on the rise. During 2002-06, more than 300 attempts to smuggle materials suitable for a dirty bombs were discovered, most of which in Europe. Trafficking doubled compared to previous seven years and was growing during the period. Al-Qaeda is said to be among the organizations trying to obtain a dirty bomb.

Uranium mining
What would a nuclear boom mean for uranium requirements? At the moment, only 60 percent of the world’s nuclear fuel consumption is met by uranium mining – the rest is supplied from dismantled nuclear weapons and, to a smaller extent, reprocessed nuclear fuel. Most of this secondary supply is set to dry out, meaning that uranium mines and mills, as well as enrichment facilities would need to be greatly expanded just to keep the present nuclear fleet running. According to Jeff Combs, Ux Consulting, CEO:

“nuclear fuel supply is in a very fragile state, and any greater demands associated with a growth in nuclear power threaten to further expose the deficiencies in the industry’s supply base.”

If the nuclear capacity is doubled at the same time, the speed of expansion will have to be enormous. Mining and milling capacity would have to be more than doubled by 2020 and increased 3.5-fold by 2030. It would mean that new mining areas would have to be opened yearly, and most probably enrichment facilities would need to be built in new countries, giving them access to nuclear weapons.

The limits of uranium production were demonstrated when the price grew 13-fold in 4 years from 2003 to 2007. If demand rises fast, supply constraints would push the price higher, creating huge pressure to start uranium mining in new places, mostly in poor countries and regions.

Plutonium economy?
It is, however, very likely that the supply would not be able to keep up. Price escalation and safety of supply considerations would make large scale reprocessing much more attractive than before. For example, the head of Finland’s nuclear safety authority STUK, Jukka Laaksonen, has been cited as saying:

“The demand for uranium is growing and large scale recycling of spent fuel in reprocessing facilities will start globally. […] Recycling of uranium will start sooner or later in any case. Without recycling, we will run out of uranium but with the help reprocessing, it will last indefinitely.” He does not believe that high level waste will be eventually placed in a final repository but sent to Europe for reprocessing.

To reduce the need for uranium mining in 2030 to 2.5 times present capacity, about 50 Sellafield (UK) or Rokkasho (Japan) size reprocessing facilities, operating at full capacity, would be needed.

So what’s wrong with reprocessing? It involves the separation of plutonium from the highly radioactive spent fuel. Plutonium is arguably one of the most dangerous substances on earth and can be used for nuclear bombs or radioactive dispersal devices. It takes about 3 days for a single nuclear power plant to produce the amount of plutonium needed for a nuclear bomb.

A heavy reliance on reprocessing would lead to explosive growth in the amount of highly radioactive nuclear material usable in bombs that is being transported and handled in all over the world – mostly by private companies. The amount of plutonium needed to create a major nuclear catastrophe could disappear and go undetected just because of measurement errors.

In addition to regular leakages, reprocessing facilities routinely release large amounts of radioactivity into the environment. The radioactive releases from the Rokkasho plant alone have been found to cause up to 15000 cancer deaths globally during its planned operation. The facility is able to reprocess the high level waste from 10-15 reactors. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from new reactors is more problematic than that from older ones, since new reactors are designed to irradiate the fuel more, producing more of the hazardous substances that make nuclear waste so dangerous.

Rapid global expansion of nuclear power would be a global gamble where the bets are high but there is little to win.

What is a dirty bomb?
Dirty bomb (a.k.a. radioactive dispersal device) is an explosive device designed to spread radioactive material using a conventional explosive such as dynamite or plastic explosives. The damages caused by a dirty bomb would fall short of those caused by even a rudimentary nuclear weapon, but the technology is very simple and, as nuclear stockpiles grow, the required materials are increasingly available. According to an article published in Atmospheric Environment in 2005, a dirty bomb containing the amount of radioactive material equivalent to just a matchbox full of high level nuclear waste, could expose people within an area of 4-21 square kilometers to radiation doses ranging from a typical lifetime dose to a typical dose that a person receives in a year. Most importantly, it could force the evacuation and closure for a long period of time of an area of several square kilometers or more. An article on the effects of a dirty bomb attack, published in General Hospital Psychiatry in 2006, concludes that “the economic consequences would be almost unimaginable”.