Non-proliferation Community Working To Hamper Innovation That May Reduce Both Cost and Power Consumption
I often suspect that the raison d’etre for the nuclear weapons non-proliferation community is to add barriers that restrict the beneficial use of nuclear energy. Many prominent spokespeople from that community can be counted on to make proclamations of worry for any innovation in the fuel cycle that improves performance, lowers costs, or reuses material. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor titled Will secret technology help rogue nations get nuclear weapons? illustrates another chapter in the long story of the how the people who claim to be focused on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons often aim their fire at slowing the spread of nuclear energy.
My suspicion is that the real goal for many in the movement really is a “no nukes” world where even beneficial uses of nuclear energy somehow disappear. I hope that most people recognize the futility and stupidity of attempting to achieve that result; the atomic genie is not going back into the bottle. However, even a major slowdown in the spread of nuclear energy can help some of the financial and political supporters of the non-proliferation community achieve what I suspect they really want – continued and increased wealth accumulation for the establishment non-nuclear energy interests.
According to the Monitor article, the technology that we are now supposed to worry about is a development known as SILEX (Separation of Isotopes by Laser Excitation). The basic idea behind the technology has been around for several decades, but there is growing evidence that GLE (global laser enrichment, a partnership between GE, Hitachi and Cameco) is getting close to a commercially useful SILEX refinement that will enable uranium enrichment using less input power in a smaller facility than the centrifuges that are already a substantial technological improvement over the ancient gas diffusion technology developed during World War II.
Enrichment represents approximately one half of the total cost of manufacturing commercial nuclear fuel and it accounts for at least 75% of the energy invested in the fuel manufacturing processes. It seems that the very idea of making enrichment cheaper and more cost efficient causes worried hand wringing by people like Henry Sokolski, who make their living raising concerns about nuclear technology developments.
“The history of keeping dangerous nuclear technology secret is pretty poor,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “An early enrichment approach called ‘gaseous diffusion’ technology got out and, after that, so did centrifuge technology. The question is: How would we handle this when SILEX gets out?”
What prevents a profusion of laser-enrichment plants now is the complexity of the process. But once SILEX is demonstrated, other nations with deep pockets are bound to follow, say Mr. Sokolski and others.
My view of this development is quite different. Lowering the amount of energy required to produce enriched fuel should be encouraged as a terrific development that can improve the already impressive energy return on investment (EROI) for nuclear energy and lower its “carbon footprint” – if the source of the enrichment electricity is still a mixture that includes fossil fuels.
I have no worries that refined SILEX technology would become widely available. GLE is a partnership composed of several large and successful industrial technology conglomerates. GE, in particular, has a long history of fierce protection of its “secret sauce” recipes for a variety of useful chemical, plastic and metal products. When I was in the plastics business, I learned that GE was famous for selling premium products created by combining a variety of commodity plastic materials in a creative way. Their products delivered performance and quality that no one else could match. The GE representatives knew that their materials could demand premium prices, not because of the brand name, but because processors recognized that they were superior to the alternatives.
SILEX is already a classified technology that is protected under the Atomic Energy Act. When it gets implemented with commercially useful machinery and control systems that result in a lower cost enrichment process it is HIGHLY unlikely that the companies who invest in developing that technology will allow it to leak to any competitors. Such leakage would eliminate a competitive advantage that could provide excellent profit margins for decades as GLE sells enrichment services into an already large and established market. If history is any guide, GLE will not use their production cost advantage as a way to compete on the price of the service.
My suspicion is that GLE will use their technology as a way to enable finer control of end product enrichment levels. Creatively applying their proprietary technology could allow nuclear engineers the ability to more flexibly load reactor cores with just the right fuel geometry to enable superior performance that lowers overall electricity production costs.
Anyone who has ever worked with a GE engineer or salesman should understand why I am highly skeptical of pressure groups that assume that technology that the company develops will easily leak out into the market, especially when it is a technology that has a development history similar to that of SILEX. GE people are pretty careful about protecting company intellectual property.
A fiendishly difficult technology, laser isotope separation has worked at the laboratory level but has confounded efforts by at least 20 countries to make it work on a commercial scale, says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, a signatory to the letter to the NRC.
Ferguson goes on to say that it would only be a matter of time before someone else developed commercial capability using the technology. I have less faith in the inevitability of technology developments without the kind of technical skills, experience and leadership that GLE can apply to the task. Fiendishly difficult technology can be solved, but it cannot be solved by just anyone or any group.
Insisting that keeping SILEX out of the market is the only way to protect the world from the risk that some rogue group or outlaw nation might use the process for nefarious uses exposes the real mission – I believe that the non-proliferation community will attempt to stop nuclear energy producers from using any innovation that improves cost and performance. The people who are dedicated to that mission are working to prevent an incredible potential gift to humanity – lower cost, cleaner energy.
Besides the fossil fuel pushers, the other interest group that might be cheering the efforts of the non-proliferation herd are the people who are already investing heavily in centrifuge-based enrichment facilities. URENCO USA, USEC, and Areva will be in direct competition with GEL and have financial motivations for wanting to make their progress a bit more difficult and costly.
The motivations that drive the non-proliferation movement are not always clear, it is true, and no doubt there are those in industries that see nuclear power as a competitor are glad of any help they can get. However there are other forces at work here that should not be ignored.
Traditionally, thinking about proliferation has been dominated by the point of view that in international anarchy the
And now to follow the thread
Rod, I came to the conclusion after some research a few years ago that from the top down, the aim of the NPT community was to stop the spread of civilian nuclear power. If you read the tortured books of “Dr. Strangelove,” Albert Wohlstetter this is very clear. He equates nuclear reactors with bombs. He and his co-thinker Amory Lovins worked together to stop new nuclear reactors in California in the late 1960s. Wohlstetter’s protege Paul Wolfowitz is another example of the anti-nuclear motive behind the NPT political maneuvers. I wrote this up
I can still clearly remember watching a “news” clip for children on Saturday morning (about 1975) during all of the kids shows explaining “Nuclear Power.” In the clip, CBS showed a graphic of the typical atomic bomb explosion and mushroom cloud, the power this bomb produced, and then they reduced the “bomb” picture and added about a thousand more into the graphic of the core for a nuclear reactor, explaining this as to where the heat comes from and why it was so dangerous. One little mistake and the “bomb” could get out of the reactor core. Perhaps this is why young adults are afraid of Nuclear power plants.
I know I’ll likely be in the minority here, but I’m going to come out and say that I take deep exception to the characterization of the entirety of the non-proliferation community as being fundamentally anti-nuclear. I will readily concede that there is a contingent of anti-nukes who use non-proliferation as a cover, but many involved in the effort do so because they reverently believe in the capability of nuclear energy to make a profoundly beneficial impact on society. If anything, those of us with this mindset take the opposite tack; our concern is to make safeguards which are as effective and minimally intrusive as possible.
In that regard, I would argue that any attempt to squelch technology like SILEX is largely futile, much as was Carter’s decision to suspend civilian reprocessing in the vain hope of persuading other nations. The best thing we can hope to do is to come up with systems of reasonable, practical safeguards and vigorously enforce existing policies such as export controls.
As an aside, it is my personal judgement based upon experience that proliferation is, by and large, a political problem, of which technical solutions (which include safeguards) can only act to deter or raise the difficulty of any politically-motivated attempt. Safeguards at their best make proliferation attempts cost-prohibitive, or at the very least slow down an attempt (or bring it out into the open) long enough for other political forces to act. At best technical solutions increase these margins.
That being said, I think you (and others) fail to recognize that there are, at times, two non-proliferation communities – those that are just another cancerous outgrowth from the anti-nuclear industry (as you identify), and those who are genuinely interested in seeing nuclear energy grow and thrive.
Put another way – any connection (however spurious) made in the public’s eye between nuclear energy technology and nuclear weapons proliferation is bad for business. In that light, it is fundamentally in our interest to see the implementation of effective safeguards while making the delineation between that and simple hand-wringing (as evinced in the Nature article above).
SILEX might bring an improvement concerning the costs of enrichment, but what about the risks of a more
The claim that thorium cycles are more proliferation-proof than uranium cycles is based on assumptions that center around the belief that proliferation is a technical problem, that will yield to technical solutions. In fact nothing could be farther from the truth. This perspective is obstreperously held in the face of repeated and consistent evidence from the historical record of the past sixty years that it is invalid. Worse, the people that realize that this is the case are largely in the other camp and continually use this to their advantage to have pronuclear supporters do the work of keeping this discreditable idea alive so that it can be used against nuclear energy.
Proliferation is a political, diplomatic, and ultimately a military issue. It has nothing to do at all with nuclear power, or any other nuclear technology. This is because the total effort needed to carry through from the mine to the bomb, a surreptitious program of atomic armament on a scale sufficient to be a military threat, or to make it a temptation to evasion, so vast, and the number of separate difficult undertakings so great, and the special character of many of these undertakings so hard to conceal, that the fact of this effort is impossible to hide. Those countries that did produce atomic weaponry (post NPT) did so with the help, or the tacit permission of other NPT signatories because it suited them to do so. In some cases, right under the nose of international inspectors. Those countries that mounted programs without this ‘understanding’ from the dominant nuclear states, were swiftly shut down without much fuss. But the bottom line is that at no point did any of this hinge on technological or engineering factors or the type of civil reactors in use anywhere.
There are many good and valid reasons for pursuing a thorium fuel cycle, but proliferation resistance isn’t one of them.
Please have a look at http://www-pub.iaea.org/mtcd/publications/pdf/te_1450_web.pdf for the positive “material barrier” effects of the thorium cycle on nonproliferation that could be (partly) affected by the introduction of SILEX.
You still don’t get it. Nuclear energy is in and of itself, not a proliferation risk. So far none of the countries
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