Congressional Quarterly: Proliferation Threat Seen in Nuclear Power Expansion

CQ Green Sheets – Proliferation Threat Seen in Nuclear Power Expansion

June 15, 2007 – 6:50 a.m.
Proliferation Threat Seen in Nuclear Power Expansion
By William Scally

Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and mounting stockpiles of plutonium pose a significant risk of nuclear proliferation and diversion of materials to terrorists, a nuclear power fact-finding group said Thursday.

In a report released by the Colorado-based Keystone Center public policy organization, the group said expansion of nuclear power in ways that substantially increased the likelihood of the spread of nuclear weapons “is not acceptable.”

The report emerged from analysis and deliberations by the Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding (NJFF) panel of 27 experts in the environmental, utility, nuclear power, academic and other fields over the past year.

Four of the participants discussed the findings at a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the non-profit Foundation for Nuclear Studies and Sens. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, and Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

Besides proliferation and other concerns, the report looked at the number of new nuclear power plants that would be needed worldwide to achieve significant reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases and long-term nuclear storage. Concerns about climate change are bringing a new focus to nuclear power as an alternative to the use of fossil fuels.

But the report said nuclear proliferation challenges increased with growth of the industry.

If growth in commercial nuclear power plants also resulted in construction of fuel cycle facilities in countries that do not now possess nuclear weapons, the risk of proliferation would increase, a report summary said.

It said proliferation could occur by the actions of national governments and non-state, possibly terrorist, organizations.

NJFF participants agreed that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards had “critical shortcomings” and were currently insufficient to provide timely detection when weapon quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium were diverted.

The summary said the Bush administration’s nuclear energy initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), is not a strategy for resolving either the radioactive waste problem or the weapons proliferation problem.

The program was unlikely to succeed because it required deployment of commercial-scale reprocessing plants, and a large fraction the U.S. and global commercial reactors would have to be fast reactors, the report said.

It said that to date deployment of commercial reprocessing plants had proven uneconomical and fast reactors had proven to be uneconomical and less reliable than light-water reactors.

The GNEP program could encourage developments in non-weapons states and training of plutonium experts that could pose a grave proliferation risk, the report said.

The report said the NJFF members reached no consensus on the likely rate of expansion of nuclear power in the world or in the United States over the next 50 years.

To achieve meaningful emission reductions equal to 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2050, they said, would require the industry to return to the most rapid period of growth — 1981 to 1990 — and sustain this rate of growth for 50 years.

About 21 new 1,000-megawatt reactors would have to be built each year for 50 years, including about five in the United States, the report said.

The NJFF participants agreed that spent nuclear fuel would ultimately have to be placed in long-term disposal facilities, with the best option being a deep underground geologic repository.

They said delivery of the first nuclear waste to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, a decade behind schedule because of political, technical and legal challenges, would likely not take place until beyond 2020.

Because of the Yucca experience, the report said, the search for a second or alternative site would benefit from a different approach.

Older spent nuclear fuel that must be stored on an interim basis could be stored safely in either spent fuel pools or in dry casks, the NJFF group said.
Source: CQ Green Sheets
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