The slogan is apt: In December 2006, the Chinese government awarded Westinghouse what was then the most lucrative contract in the history of commercial nuclear energy. The fast-growing, energy-hungry country would pay between $5 and $8 billion for four AP1000 reactors. It was China’s first step toward making good on its pledge to quadruple nuclear power production by 2020.
Thanks to climbing oil prices and concern about carbon emissions’ contribution to global warming, China is not alone in looking to boost nuclear power production. Bob Pierce, the global business development manager for the AP1000, said his company has fielded inquiries about the reactor from more than 40 countries. “The renaissance,” he says, “is bringing lots of new players into the marketplace.”
But nonproliferation experts say that reviving the global nuclear energy industry presents serious security risks that, left unaddressed, far outweigh cuts in carbon emissions.
Worldwide, 439 nuclear reactors are currently producing power. Nuclear energy analyst Alan McDonald of the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that by the year 2030, there will be between 75 and 350 more reactors on line. That includes expansions of existing capacity in countries such as Japan, India and the United Kingdom, and countries entirely new to the technology, including Yemen, Indonesia and Egypt.
The additional reactors aren’t themselves a problem, says Laura Holgate, who previously managed a Department of Defense program to destroy excess nuclear weapons in Russia, and now serves as vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a DC-based nongovernmental organization. “Modern power plants don’t have material on site that can be used for a nuclear weapon directly.”
But each one of those new power plants will need a steady supply of low-enriched uranium to fuel the nuclear reactors. And uranium enrichment is at the heart of the basic atomic dilemma that has plagued nuclear energy since its start: The very same facility that produces low-enriched fuel for a power plant can be used to produce highly-enriched fuel for a bomb.
“No one has figured out a way to break the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons,” says David Albright, physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, DC. “The bomb and nuclear power are joined at the hip.”
Straight out of the earth, raw uranium is composed almost entirely of a relatively heavy isotope called U-238. A nuclear reaction requires a higher proportion of U-235, and increasing the proportion of these light atoms is what’s called enrichment. There are several ways to do it, including gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuges.
Like those lingering networks left behind in South Africa, the knowledge and connections that Khan assembled have not gone away. Building an enrichment plant is complicated and expensive, and requires specialized parts that are subject to multilateral export controls. But once up and running, the same technology that increases the concentration of U-235 atoms from less than one percent to five percent of the total mass—which is what’s needed to fuel a power plant—can be used to increase the concentration to 90 percent, which is what’s needed for a bomb.
“If there is a nuclear renaissance,” says Albright, “then the proliferation risk will go up, because so often countries hide their nuclear ambitions within civil programs.”
The fear is that countries can use nuclear power programs as an excuse to build enrichment plants, saying they need a reliable source of nuclear fuel—and then can use the enrichment plants to create weapons-grade uranium.
Currently, most countries that use nuclear fuel buy it, rather than manufacturing their own. Only six nations—the United States, Russia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—manufacture and sell enriched uranium on the global market.
But some new entrants to nuclear power are concerned that their access to enriched uranium fuel could be shut off due to political tensions.
“In ten years they could say, ‘We need our own enrichment abilities,'” says author and nuclear analyst Joseph Cirincione.
Some countries, such as Iran, are already insisting on developing their own enrichment programs. Brazil and Argentina recently announced plans to set up a joint company to enrich uranium.
To prevent more countries from building their own plants, several national governments and nongovernmental organizations are trying to reassure countries that use nuclear power that they can get a steady supply of fuel without enriching it themselves.
They’re taking steps toward creating a multinational fuel cycle—something like an international gas station.
Russia is building an international nuclear fuel depot on its border with Kazakhstan, and last year the US Congress matched a $50 million donation by Warren Buffett to help pay for a multilateral fuel bank. Most recently, in February 2008, German officials proposed that the IAEA oversee an enrichment plant and fuel bank that would be built on international soil.
“There has to be some way for countries to feel confident about their supply of low enriched uranium,” says Dr. Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist and professor at Princeton who received the MacArthur Award in 1993 for his work on arms control.
The problem is that countries bent on developing nuclear weapons could skip the fuel bank and build their own enrichment plants, a right that’s guaranteed to countries party to the Nonproliferation Treaty. It’s even legal to enrich uranium to 90 percent or above, points out Tariq Rauf, head of Verifications and Security Policy Coordination for the IAEA—”but it has to be used only for a peaceful purpose.”
Detecting whether uranium is being enriched for a peaceful purpose—to fuel a research reactor or a power plant—or for a bomb has been the central challenge since Dwight Eisenhower launched the “Atoms for Peace” initiative. It lies at the core of the current tension with Iran, whose claims about developing nuclear energy run counter to Bush administration claims that the country’s ultimate aim is to build bombs.
Ideally, all enrichment facilities would be under the control of a multinational agency like the IAEA, says Rauf. “That way, if a country has its own facilities, we can ask legitimate questions why,” he says. “But we are still many years away from that situation.”