Nuclear power supplies a sixth of the world’s electricity. Along with hydropower, which supplies slightly more than a sixth, it is the major source of “carbon-free” energy today. The technology suffered from stunted growth and its record is blighted by the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents. Though, recently, nuclear power plants have demonstrated remarkable reliability and efficiency. (M Deutch, John et al, 2006) The ample availability of uranium in the world could fuel a larger fleet of reactors than it exists today. A few more plausible reasons in favor of nuclear energy are not too hard to find. The exhaustible nature of fossil fuels and the amount of carbon dioxide that they release are obvious indicators for us to find alternative sources of energy. Global electricity consumption is projected to increase 160 percent by 2050. To meet this demand without compromising on sustainability, we may need hundreds to nuclear power plants. This scenario also requires more economical plants with better waste management and prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation.
With growing worries about global warming (Refer Chart) and associated greenhouse gas emissions, governments of developing countries are increasingly vying for adding nuclear power to meet their rising energy needs. (Socolow, Robert H, 2005) Growing energy demand through nuclear technology can be measured by the fact that more than 20,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity have come online globally since 2000 and most of them in Asia. Despite this evident interest, no firm orders have been placed with the major nuclear operators based in USA. Key impediments to new nuclear plant construction are high capital costs, uncertainty surrounding nuclear waste and underlying concern that nuclear weapons ambitions in certain countries may inadvertently be advanced.
The broad term used for the spread of nuclear weapon production technology to the nations that do not have it already is nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation has been opposed by many nations with and without nuclear weapons, who fear that more countries with nuclear weapons may increase the possibility of nuclear warfare, de-stabilize international or regional relations, or infringe upon the national sovereignty of individual nation-states. Other nations have pursued their own independent nuclear weapons development, calling into question the authority of some countries being able to specify who can or cannot have their own defensive nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power plants run on reactors that are fed with enriched uranium as fuel. The naturally occurring uranium needs to be enriched or in other words, improved in concentration of active radioactive material, to be used as fuel for reactors. This enriched uranium is termed as fuel-grade uranium and is inadequate to be used in manufacturing destructive weapons. Hence, nuclear reactors themselves are not the primary proliferation risk. The principal proliferation concern among the various elements of a nuclear power system are the enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which can produce materials directly usable in weapons. (Felicity Hill, 2006)
There is a distinct possibility of proliferation through theft and transfer to another country or terrorist group. The challenges to the non-proliferation regime are evident worldwide. Negotiations are under way to persuade Iran to abandon a uranium enrichment program; heavy water production plant and high-power research reactor that Iran claims are for civilian use but could easily be used to produce high-enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons. In North Korea, negotiations continue on termination of its nuclear weapons program and the associated reprocessing and enrichment activities. Much of Russia’s approximately 2 million pounds of weapons usable uranium and plutonium from both military and civilian nuclear energy programs may not be satisfactorily secured. Also, the smuggling network run by AQ Khan, who in the 1970s diverted uranium enrichment technology from a European consortium for use in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, reportedly sold enrichment technology to several countries, including Libya. (NTI Org, 2005)
Recent exploits of few countries leaves little doubt that nuclear technology and materials can be misused, sold, stolen, or used as a cover for development of a nuclear weapons production capability.
REFERENCES AND CITATIONS
Deutch, John M and Moniz, Ernest J. “The Nuclear Option” Scientific American, September 2006 issue. Page 76
Socolow, Robert H. “Can We Bury Global Warming?” Scientific American. July 2005.
Hill, Felicity. Political Advisor, Nuclear and Disarmament Issues Greenpeace. Greenpeace letter to UN Secretary General, 23rd May 2006.
NTI Org. “Securing the Bomb 2006”, President and Fellows of Harvard College. 2006.