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Friday, 27 March 2009

Should nuclear fuels be taken out of national hands?

Should nuclear fuels be taken out of national hands?

HOW do you manage a global boom in nuclear power while discouraging weapons proliferation? Uranium and plutonium are most likely to find their way into weapons via the enrichment and reprocessing of fuel for nuclear power plants. If all of the countries now planning to go nuclear also handle their own fuel cycles, the proliferation risk could skyrocket.

The answer may be to put the fuel cycle entirely under international control. Many governments, international agencies and arms control experts are calling for the establishment of international fuel banks, and eventually fuel production plants, that would pledge to supply nuclear materials to any country so long as it meets non-proliferation rules. The US already supports the idea, at least for new nuclear powers, and last month the European Union (EU) pledged €25 million towards the first fuel bank. Yet this means countries with new nuclear programmes would have to place control of their fuel supply at least partly in foreign hands. Could it actually work?

Last year saw fresh predictions of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the politically explosive Middle East. The most critical situation is Iran, which has rejected international demands to stop enriching uranium. In a reportreleased last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that Iran's uranium enrichment is expanding, and the agency could not exclude military use. Analysts at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC, an anti-proliferation think tank, say the country could have enough for a nuclear weaponthis year. With some nations in the region already nuclear, neighbouring countries could feel pressure to follow suit (see "Nuclear Middle East"). At the same time, many are looking to acquire their own nuclear industries, meaning there will soon be far more weapons-grade material around (see graph at http://www.newscientist.com/articleimages/mg20126903.100/1-should-nuclear-fuels-be-taken-out-of-national-hands.html).

For most nuclear newcomers in the region and elsewhere, the move to nuclear power is largely independent of military concerns. Nuclear power capacity worldwide could almost double by 2030, says Vilmos Cserveny, head of external relations at the IAEA, mainly because poor countries face climbing oil prices and crippling electricity shortages. The problem is that countries that may not have the infrastructure needed to enforce stringent controls will be managing nuclear materials for the first time. Of the nuclear power plants now under construction, says Cserveny, around half are in developing countries, especially in Asia (see chart).

The world does not need more enrichment plants to fuel this expansion; there are plenty, especially in Russia. Of the 30 countries already with nuclear power, only 14 enrich their own fuel - the rest buy it in. However, some countries may be wary of depending on foreign powers for their energy and might want to make and reprocess their own fuel. Every new fuel plant increases the risk that fissile material will find its way into weapons, so the challenge is to find ways to guarantee fuel supplies without countries building their own facilities, says Cserveny.

According to a growing number of analysts, agencies and governments, the solution is internationally managed reprocessing plants. The idea was first proposed in 1946, but no plan has ever been agreed on. In 2003, though, it resurfaced when IAEA chief Mohammed El-Baradei began promotingso-called multilateral nuclear arrangements (MNAs).In recent months, interest from countries that already have nuclear power has increased steeply. "Multilateral mechanisms should offer a real alternative to countries to forego developing their own national enrichment and reprocessing capabilities," Javier Solana, EU high representative, said in Brussels in December.

In a first step towards MNAs, the EU last month granted €25 million towards the creation of an IAEA emergency nuclear fuel stockpile that any country can tap should its commercial supply be cut off due to political disputes. It's not the only proposal to ensure an international fuel supply. In a report for the European Parliament published in December, Ian Anthony of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) documents nine separate proposals from experts and governments. Along with the IAEA fuel bank, there are four for putting existing enrichment plants under international control and four more to build new, super-safe enrichment plants that would be international from the start.

Newcomers to nuclear power could be reluctant to put their fuel cycles in international hands if existing nuclear powers, such as the US, Russia and the UK, continue to control their own. Several proposals call for every nuclear country to join in.
In fact, long-standing resentments over the rich world's monopolisation of nuclear technology have made developing countries wary of any effort to ask them to rely on the nuclear powers for their energy security, says Oliver Meier of the Arms Control Association, a think tank based in Washington DC.

Why would they place themselves at the mercy of foreigners for their energy? "Partly because it is very expensive to make and reprocess nuclear fuel," Meier suggests. Spiralling costs are already leading to consolidation in the nuclear fuel industry, so a multilateral future may not be so unlikely, says Anthony. And for nations like Egypt and Iran, for example, a shared fuel source and stringent inspections would mean each could be sure that the other is not quietly proliferating - at least in theory.

To further assuage concerns over shared fuel, Germany has suggested that some countries should cede sovereignty over a piece of territory where fuel cycle companies could build facilities that would then be run by the IAEA. It could even be at Natanz, Iran's enrichment plant, says Meier. This might seem unpalatable to some western governments, but "the alternative, Iran going it alone without inspections, is worse", he says.

Some countries could cede sovereignty over a piece of territory where internationally run facilities could be built. Geoffrey Forden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinksthat Iran should set up a commercial partnership with western and regional governments to put Natanz under joint control. Iran would have to promise not to enrich anywhere else, and accept inspections; the IAEA-operated plant would then make enough fuel for Iranian reactors and those in the rest of the region. Staff would be multinational and chances for subterfuge would be limited. "The plan meets the bottom line on both sides," he says.


Nuclear middle east


Iranisn't the only Middle Eastern nation that has observers worried about nuclear proliferation. Nine other countries in the region plan to build around 12 nuclear power plants over the next decade. This will produce enough plutonium in spent fuel for 1700 nuclear weapons, says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC, an anti-proliferation think tank. With nuclear weapons already in Israel, Pakistan, India and potentially Iran, there is motivation to acquire them.

If the newcomers acquire fuel production and reprocessing facilities then the risk of material finding its way into weapons will rise sharply. Inspections might prevent this, but only eight countries in the region - including Iran - have signed the International Atomic Energy Agency's most stringent inspections agreement, known as the Additional Protocol. Only four countries enforce it. Egypt says it will never sign. Both it and Turkey reject a proposed moratorium on enrichment and reprocessing in the region put forward by, among others, Sweden's Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.

Meanwhile, Gulf states have decided it makes business sense to sell their ever-scarcer oil and buy nuclear power for themselves. In December, the US agreed to sell a nuclear reactor to the United Arab Emirates. Both sides say the UAE will forego enrichment and sign the protocol. Yet it's unclear whether the signed deal stipulates this, says Henry Sokolski, who serves on the US Congress's anti-proliferation commission.

07 January 2009 by Debora Mackenzie

From issue 2690of New Scientist magazine, page 6-7. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
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