(Update posted April 20, 2008 – For more information on the NSG policy shift I recommend a visit to Canada drives G8 enrichment shift)
The term “nuclear non-proliferation” is a mouthful that has seen frequent use in public policy discussions for at least four decades. It is a concept that has its own treaty and its own “community” of people who make a career out of studying it, teaching it, creating enforcing policies, attempting to negotiate treaties, and producing quotable commentary about it. It is part of the official foreign policy of the United States and a number of other large, industrialized countries.
I think it is an illogical policy aimed at maintaining an unfair, discriminatory regime that keeps potentially valuable technology and materials out of widespread use. If your nation, by means of historical accident, happened to have tested nuclear weapons before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into effect, you are a full member of the club that is allowed to do pretty much anything it wants with uranium, plutonium and thorium except blow it up. If your nation is not in the club, you have to beg permission from the people in the club to have access to those materials, to develop technologies that use those materials in any way that is not approved by the members of the club, and you have to agree to rather onerous inspection, inventory and monitoring regimes to prove that you have not been lying when you described how you wanted to use the materials and the technology for “peaceful purposes”.
It reminds me very much of my days as a young lad when I spent several years as an outcast, not allowed into the neighborhood club of cool kids because I was a bit on the different side. Instead of playing baseball and football, I was a swimmer. Instead of being able to converse about the latest episode of The Monkeys, Leave it to Beaver, or Happy Days, I wanted to talk about characters in the books that I was reading.
My two hobbies did not leave much time available for hanging out with the rest of the kids, so I guess they thought I did not want to be included in invitations to go to the movies, on boating outings, or on trips to the beach. I didn’t much like being excluded from activities and was often a bit hurt when I heard them after the fact. Eventually a few of kids in the group became my friends; they even joined the swimming team and began including me in their social activities. They still could not figure out why I wanted to spend so much time with “my nose in a book”, but they realized that I was not a complete weirdo.
I have never forgotten what it felt like to be excluded from the club, so I have some strong empathy for the position of nations like India that have always resisted the whole premise of the established nuclear non-proliferation regime. India rightfully believes that they are a fully functioning sovereign nation that should not have to ask permission to use valuable technology from a club that has included a couple of dictatorial nations and at least one that has already demonstrated that it feels free to use nuclear weapons as a means of maintaining its own power. I feel that way even though I am an American, and have thus always lived and worked for a country that is a founding member of The Club.
One of the reasons that I feel pretty strongly that the nuclear non-proliferation “community” has outlived its usefulness is that I will cynically assert that a good part of the motivation for establishing and maintaining the club is to deny non members access to a technology that could very well disrupt the established energy industry. Any student of modern history knows that energy is one of the biggest pillars underlying the economic power of the Group of Eight. A heavy metal economy using uranium, plutonium, and thorium as rapidly growing sources of controllable heat would be an economy with a completely new distribution of power and wealth that would not always reward the skills and capital developed in the fossil fuel economy that we now inhabit.
That is all a long way of introducing some articles that have intrigued me in the past few days. One of them is an article that is appearing in today’s Wall Street Journal titled U.S. Ends Effort to Ban Sale Of Enrichment Technology. That story describes how the US has reluctantly changed its stance on the complete ban of selling machinery that could be used to separate isotopes of uranium – what almost everyone mistakenly calls “enrichment”.
(AsideTime to go off on a tangent that only an English major who likes geometry and physics would take. The word “enrichment” is a misleading term for the process of separating isotopes. Here is how my large Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines the word
enrich: 1. To supply with riches, wealth, abundant or valuable possessions 2. to supply with abundance of anything desirable 3. to add greater value or significance to 4. to adorn or decorate 5. to make finer in quality, as by supplying desirable elements or ingredients 6. to increase the proportion of a valuable mineral or isotope in a substance or material 7a. to restore to a food an ingredient that has been lost during an earlier stage in processing 7b. to add vitamins and minerals to food to enhance its nutritive value
As you may notice, all but one of those definitions is an additive process. It is only when discussing isotopes that the word “enrich” is used when the only real activity is a separation. No “enrichment” plant adds any U-235 that did not already exist in the input stream of natural material. A more appropriate word to describe the process completed by gaseous diffusion, centrifuges or lasers on natural uranium is “refine” where various components of a material are separated to form more specialized products.End Aside)
Apparently, Canada has put some pressure on its fellow members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to admit that producing, using and possibly selling machinery capable of isotope separation is a business that is too lucrative to outlaw. They agree that it should be controlled and there are continuing discussions about the specific rules that will be implemented, but a complete ban is apparently off of the table.
The Bush administration has given up its push for an international ban on sales of uranium-enrichment technology to nonnuclear states, a move that will complicate its nuclear diplomacy toward both Iran and India, and could open the way for a wave of new entrants into the enrichment club.
The concession was made under heavy pressure from Canada, which wants the right to build uranium-enrichment plants to export the lucrative enriched fuel for nuclear-power plants. It marks an about-face for President Bush, who called in February 2004 for a ban on new countries becoming enrichment powers. The U.S. then persuaded Canada and other reluctant members of the Group of Eight top industrialized countries to agree to a nuclear-sales moratorium, a ban the group has renewed every year since.
I completely disagree with the view that is commonly stated by non-proliferation policy types when they claim that the only reason a nation might want to refine its own uranium is to develop the capability to produce weapons. There are numerous uses for refined uranium and numerous reasons for wanting to be able to separate isotopes of other materials using exactly the same kinds of machinery. It is a commercially valuable technique that could form the basis for a substantial industry, especially since there are a number of different ways to successfully implement the process, each of which has a different kind of cost structure that might provide commercial advantages for the co
untries and companies that come up with improved ways to lower their own costs.
Of course, as a student of the established energy industry, it does not surprise me in the least that enrichment technology has always been one of the most carefully protected of the components of the nuclear industry – the oil industry has always kept pretty tight controls on the locations and internal technologies of its refineries to help establish and maintain their market dominance. There is also little doubt that the US used its early monopoly of isotope separation technology (AKA uranium enrichment) to establish the Light Water Reactors (LWR) developed by two large, politically connected US companies as THE dominant nuclear power technology.
As I was Googling around to find more information about this NSG discussion, I ran across an interesting tidbit of information in a short Reuters release dated April 14, 2008 titled Toshiba to exchange technology for Russian uranium. I almost did not bother to click on the link because it seemed irrelevant. There are lots of uranium deals in progress so did not surprise me to find that a company with major building plans would make a deal to ensure a steady supply of uranium. That is especially true when considering the uranium supply squeeze that Westinghouse – a Toshiba subsidiary – experienced in the 1970s.
For some reason, I decided to click to the article and was glad that I did. Here is the key part of that story:
Toshiba signed the agreement on developing civilian nuclear power assets with Atomenergoprom on March 20. The two companies will begin feasibility studies on the possible design and construction of commercial nuclear power plants.
“Toshiba is expected to receive highly enriched uranium, while the Russian side is expected to receive nuclear power plant construction technology from Toshiba,” Kodama said.
Now that is intriguing. If Toshiba is arranging a supply of HEU, perhaps it really does intend to seriously exploit the opportunities in small reactors like the 4S. One of the real advantages of refined uranium is that it allows a much smaller self sustaining nuclear fission reactor and efforts to reduce size often lead to the appropriate technical direction for new markets.