183 STCEES 09 E rev 1 - THE NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE
MARIO TAGARINSKI (BULGARIA)
II. CURRENT STATUS AND TRENDS
III. NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY: EXISTING CAPABILITIES AND NEW DEVELOPMENTS
IV. ECONOMIC FACTORS
V. ENERGY SECURITY
VI. ENVIRONMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS
VII. PROLIFERATION CONCERNS
VIII. NUCLEAR SAFETY
1. Like many scientific innovations, nuclear technology was firstly harnessed by the military for use in weapons, submarines and aircraft carriers. The commercial use of nuclear energy originated in the early 1950s in the United States, USSR and the United Kingdom. After a period of remarkable growth in the 1960s and 1970s, the further development of nuclear power generation slowed in the subsequent two decades, partly due to the low cost of traditional fossil fuel, and as a result of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. However, the 21st century has witnessed a renewed interest in nuclear power in response to two grand new challenges: climate change and energy security. This trend has often been referred to as the “Nuclear Renaissance”.
2. The division of opinion on this subject is remarkable. Proponents and critics of the “Nuclear Renaissance” depict the same issue – nuclear energy – in completely contradictory terms: while proponents claim it is cheap, clean and safe, opponents maintain it is too costly, potentially disastrous for the environment and perilous in terms of national security.
3. Nuclear power is a legitimate subject for NATO Parliamentary Assembly due to its evident links with national security. Apart from being a potentially dual-use technology, nuclear power can also have an indirect impact on national security through its economic, energy security and environmental implications. This report aims to explore these facets of nuclear power and to assess its merits as well as the perils it might cause.
4. Currently, 438 nuclear power plants (NPPs) are in operation in 31 countries, capable of generating 372 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. The most advanced countries in this regard include the United States (104 reactors), France (59), Japan (53) and Russia (31). Fifteen NATO countries have nuclear power generation capacity (although Lithuania will be closing its only NPP by December 2009). In France, Lithuania, Belgium and Slovakia, nuclear power accounts for more than 50% of their electricity generation.
5. A standard reactor has an installed capacity of between 500-1,200 megawatts, roughly sufficient to power 0.5-1.2 million households. Most of the existing reactors are light water reactors that use low enriched uranium (LEU) as fuel. Thirty-four heavy water reactors of the Canadian CANDU technology are fuelled by natural uranium. Other, less widespread types of reactors include the Russian graphite-moderated water-cooled RBMK (the Chernobyl type), British graphitemoderated gas-cooled reactors and fast neutron reactors that run on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU).
6. The rising interest in developing nuclear power is indicated by the increased number of countries that applied for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical assistance in exploring the nuclear option. According to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, 29 IAEA member states are looking into this option.1 Asia is at the forefront of new nuclear power initiatives: six Asian countries (Japan, China, India, Pakistan, South Korean and Taiwan) account for ten out of the 14 most recently built reactors, and 19 out of the 35 reactors that are currently under construction worldwide.2 A renewed interest in nuclear energy is clearly evident in the United States, the United Kingdom (particularly under Gordon Brown), France, Finland and Russia, while the support for this type of energy is traditionally strong in most Central and East European countries. A debate has revived in several European nations that previously decided to phase out their nuclear sectors by 2020-2025 – particularly Germany and Sweden – and it is not implausible that the phase-out decisions will be revisited. The European authorities are also becoming advocates of nuclear energy. Whereas the closure of nuclear power plants was a principal precondition for the EU membership for some Central and East European countries just a few years ago, Mr Barroso has recently been praising the benefits of nuclear power, believing it would help to address climate change and energy security challenges.
7. Since the year 2000, the global installed capacity of nuclear power has been increasing at the rate of 2-3 gigawatts per year. However, most of this increase was due to improved performance of US reactors. The number of operating reactors worldwide in 2007 was in fact lower than its historical peak in 2002. Moreover, other energy sectors are growing even faster, and therefore the overall share of nuclear power in global electricity generation is actually decreasing (from 16% in 2005 to 14% in 2006). Although the OECD’s nuclear branch – the Nuclear Energy Agency – predicts that, by 2050, global nuclear capacity will increase by a factor of between 1.5 and 3.8, there are little grounds for such optimism. According to IAEA data, worldwide only 35 reactors were under construction, and 1/3 of them are under construction for more than 20 years. Even in the 1990s, before the launch of the “Nuclear Renaissance”, more reactors were being built.3 Just to maintain its current nuclear energy levels, the US will have to build 2-3 NPPs annually for the next 40 years to replace existing ones as they age.4 According to Moody’s report of October 2007, the US nuclear industry is unlikely to “bring more than one or two nuclear plans online by 2015”.5 Also, simply to replace the existing reactor fleet which is aging will require a major industrial undertaking.
8. A number of international frameworks were established to address various transnational implications of the spread of nuclear technology. The renowned 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) divided the world into five official nuclear weapon states and granted the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear power to the rest. The IAEA – often referred to as a body overseeing the implementation of the NPT, although it was founded much earlier than the Treaty - was established to ensure that the right to develop civilian nuclear programmes is not abused to create nuclear weapons. The 1997 IAEA Additional Protocol significantly amplifies IAEA inspectors’ ability to carry out effective verification activities. However, the Protocol is voluntary and has yet to be ratified by all NPT members. Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group of 45 nuclear supplier countries that agree to regulate international trade of nuclear materials according to the NSG Guidelines. The Guidelines do not have a direct effect: it is up to member states to implement its principles as they see fit. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) unites all nuclear power plant operators in the world. WANO, established as a response to the Chernobyl accident, focuses on nuclear safety issues. Its highly experienced teams of experts provide assistance to those operators seeking to improve safety and reliability of their power plants.
9. Under the aegis of the United Nations and IAEA, a number of international conventions and regulations were developed, setting safety standards for the cross-border transportation of nuclear materials, nuclear power plants and spent nuclear fuel. The agreements impose early notification obligations in the event of a nuclear accident and define international liability and compensation for accidents with transboundary effects. However, most of these conventions and standards rely on nations’ good faith and on “carrots” rather than “sticks”. Regulating nuclear energy sectors remains largely a national responsibility.
10. Most of the reactors in operation today are so-called II Generation reactors (I Generation was largely experimental and not suitable for large-scale electricity generation). They normally operate for up to 30 years and use safety mechanisms that are activated in case of an emergency. Although largely reliable and operational, these reactors often raise concerns in terms of: 1) their high capital cost; 2) nuclear safety; and 3) the issue of nuclear waste. These challenges are addressed by III and IV Generation reactors.
11. III Generation is already a reality. Japan has commissioned the first reactor of this kind in 1996, and the United States, France, Russia, Canada, the UK and several other countries will introduce their fleet of III Generation reactors in the near future. These reactors have several significant advantages: the cost will be driven down owing to more efficient fuel consumption and heat utilisation, more compact plant size and, most importantly, an increased operational life of roughly 60 years. These reactors are also more flexible – and therefore more cost-effective – when it comes to changing its operation capacity in response to fluctuations of electricity consumption by clients during a day. Furthermore, III Generation reactors are believed to be considerably safer than their predecessors due to the introduction of “passive” safety systems. These systems do not require the activation of sophisticated safeguard mechanisms that could theoretically malfunction or be sabotaged, but instead rely on natural phenomena – such as the force of gravity, a natural response to temperature or pressure change or convection – to slow down or terminate the nuclear reaction in a reactor.
12. IV Generation reactors are not expected to be available before 2030. Nuclear physicists are discussing six possible types of IV Generation reactors. Three of them envisage innovative modifications to traditional, “thermal” NPPs, mostly related to new and more efficient types of moderators and coolant systems. However, what makes IV Generation truly revolutionary is the ambition to commercialise “fast neutron” reactors (the remaining three types of IV Generation reactors).
13. Fast neutron reactors are fundamentally different from traditional thermal nuclear ones, in that they do not use a moderator. To ignite a nuclear reaction, nuclear fuel is bombarded with neutrons. In the early stages of nuclear science, it was discovered that these incoming neutrons need to be slowed down by moderators such as water, heavy water or graphite to increase the probability of them neutrons splitting the atom. In the fast neutron reactors, however, the logic is different: although incoming neutrons are not slowed down, their reduced likelihood of splitting the atom is compensated for by the use of HEU (at least 20% of fissionable U-235) or plutonium as a fuel.
14. An interesting feature of fast neutron reactors is that nuclear fission in their core produces a far greater number of new neutrons. These additional neutrons bombard nuclear fuel, composed mostly of relatively stable uranium isotope (U-238). This bombardment eventually converts U-238 into plutonium or another unstable and fissionable substance. Thereby, these reactors might end up producing (‘breeding’) more fuel than they consume. When configured this way, they are called “breeder” reactors. However, if the amount of exposed U-238 is limited, fast neutron reactors operate in “burner” mode.
15. Fast neutron reactors have a number of advantages: they are extremely effective in terms of extracting the maximum amount of energy out of the nuclear fuel. They can use nuclear fuel that has been recycled unlimited number of times (most conventional reactors can only use fuel that has been recycled no more than once). When adjusted to a “burner” mode, they can help solve the problem of nuclear waste. For instance, they can be used to dispose of redundant nuclear and radioactive material which is accumulating in the military complex. On the other hand, there are certain dangers associated with fast neutron reactors: firstly, they use HEU at the time when the international community is trying to phase out the use of HEU in the civilian sector. Secondly, when operating in the “breeder” mode, these reactors can produce immense amounts of weapongrade plutonium. At the moment, several experimental fast neutron reactors are operating worldwide – in Russia, most notably – but they are not commercially viable due to the high cost of construction and operation. IV Generation reactors are expected to introduce innovations that would render them economically competitive.
16. “Nuclear fusion” is another technological option, although hardly feasible in a short- or even mid-term perspective. It is based on a fundamentally different approach to harnessing nuclear energy: instead of splitting heavy nuclei, nuclear fusion merges light atoms, such as hydrogen isotopes, to form a heavier element (helium). A colossal amount of energy is released in this process which replicates the processes that take place in the sun. Nuclear fusion offers significant advantages over traditional ‘fission’ technologies. Fusion produces relatively little radioactive waste and does not produce weapon-grade plutonium. The supply of raw fuel is virtually unlimited, while the potential energy output is enormous. Fusion reactors are also much safer because if a reactor was breached, any leakage of plasma would instantly terminate the reaction. However, fusion poses tremendous technological challenges because merging nuclei can only take place in an extraordinarily hot environment of hundreds of millions degrees. In addition, one needs sophisticated electromagnetic systems to contain the plasma.
17. Scientists are hoping to overcome these challenges and make nuclear fusion economically competitive. In 2006 China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US launched the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which aims to harness nuclear fusion to generate power. ITER, located 60km from Marseille, could be a breakthrough helping to achieve the goals of the nuclear renaissance. However the technology is still very expensive and requires international collaboration to fund. The cost of ITER rose from 10 to 11.6 billion euros, and it is not expected to be up and running before 2018. The US Congress has shown signs of cold feet over the project, and pulled US$149 million from the 2008 budget. Nevertheless ITER is gaining momentum; it gained its license to begin construction in 2008 and plans to begin building the reactor itself in 2012. The IAEA predicts that it could be 40 years before nuclear fusion makes a contribution to global energy needs.
18. The goal of making nuclear industry economically viable cannot be accomplished without broader use of new digital engineering techniques. The progress in developing new reactor technology has been relatively slow, largely because any novelty in this sensitive area has had to undergo complex examination and testing to prevent any possibility of negative side-effects. In addition to being costly, these scrutiny procedures often delay commissioning of new reactors. However, the emergence of digital simulation and experimentation techniques might enable nuclear industry to achieve a breakthrough similar to that of aircraft industry, which can now test safety and performance of new aircraft models without resorting to experiments with full-scale prototypes. In the same manner, state-of-the-art computing and simulation capabilities are expected to help nuclear engineers to inexpensively test new reactor designs and thus to facilitate rapid technological progress. The problem is that even in the United States R&D in this area suffers from the lack of adequate funding.6
19. The emergence of new, more efficient reactors is a critical factor influencing the economic viability of nuclear industry, but it is not the only one. The feature that distinguishes NPPs from conventional types of power plants is that nuclear installations are more expensive to construct and to close down, but much less expensive to sustain throughout their lifetime. Around 60% of total nuclear electricity generation cost derives from funding construction (55-59%) and decommissioning (1-5%) of a NPP, while nuclear fuel accounts for only 10-20% (the remaining 2030% are necessary for daily operation and management). In gas-powered plants, for instance, fuel alone accounts for more than 60% for generation cost.7 This means that nuclear plants are much less sensitive to primary fuel price volatility. Between 2001 and 2004, the price of uranium increased by 200%,8 but it had little effect on the price of electricity generated by NPPs.
20. On the other hand, high upfront investment costs and uncertainty over revenues in the longrun require long-term loans and guarantees that business conditions will not worsen in the future. Along with safety and security considerations, this factor explains why nuclear power is and will remain subject to state control and shelter. The decision to embark upon such an extremely expensive venture as building a nuclear installation would be too risky for any businessman without strong backing from the government. As John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the US premier nuclear power company, has put it, “Exelon has taken a very clear position that unless we get the federal loan guarantees or equivalent financing, we will not go forward.”9
21. The current global financial and economic crisis might have serious repercussions for the nuclear industry. For instance, the stock price of one of the biggest US nuclear energy companies Constellation Energy fell from US$102 per share to the mid-US$20 range.10 The problems within the banking system can tangibly delay the growth of the nuclear sector due to its extraordinary dependency on financial resources needed for costly upfront investments.
22. Back in the 1950s, the then head of the US Atomic Energy Commission famously announced that within a few decades electrical energy generated by nuclear power plants would be “too cheap to meter”. This statement has proved to be notoriously far from the truth. However, according to the European Commission data, even including high capital costs nuclear energy can be economically competitive with other types of electricity generation: as calculated in prices of 1990, the cost of one kWh in the nuclear industry was between 3.4-5.9 euro cents, compared with coal’s 3.2-5.0, gas’ 2.6-3.5, wind’s 6.7-7.2 and solar 51.2-85.3. It goes without saying that nuclear energy becomes more competitive as prices of natural gas increase, and vice versa. Improvements in efficiency and simpler designs of new nuclear plants should drive the cost down even further. New Japanese reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa were built in less than six years, comparing with standard ten years in the past.11 The III Generation 1,500-megawatt reactors cost roughly US$6 billion.12
23. However, so far such positive trends have been rather the exception than the rule. Up until recently, the global nuclear industry has been plagued with cost overruns and construction delays. For instance, back in 1978, the cost of the Darlington NPP in Canada was initially estimated at US$5 billion and its four reactors were supposed to come online between 1985 and 1988. Yet the actual cost eventually rose to US$14.3 billion, and the reactors were commissioned only between 1990 and 1993.13 Two-thirds of all NPPs currently under construction are encountering tangible delays.14 For a standard two-unit 3,000-megawatt NPP, a two-year delay means an additional US$1 billion in interest alone.15 Delays are sometimes caused by cumbersome regulatory and licensing policies.
24. It has to be noted, however, that many existing NPPs, particularly light water reactors, have proved to be much more robust than originally envisaged. Present technology allows modernisation, efficiency improvements and the extension of the lifetime of a number of light water reactors. Therefore, the decrease in the number of plants in operation does not automatically imply the reduction of global nuclear power generation capacity. Thanks to these up-rates, the US nuclear sector capacity increase was equivalent to construction of 20 new 1,000-megawatt NPPs.16 France’s nuclear sector also does not need to physically grow for a long time, because currently France has considerable generating overcapacity, even though an average Frenchman consumes 15% more electricity than an average European.17
25. The number of nuclear technology suppliers is shrinking: in the US alone, the number of nuclear suppliers dropped from about 400 in 1980s to less than 80 now. Japan Steel Works is the only company in the world capable of manufacturing special ingots for the III Generation reactors (the most popular type of modern reactors). Yet another serious problem for nuclear industry is the growing shortage of qualified workforce. Nuclear science has apparently lost a part of its appeal to the younger generation, which can explain the fact that in the US only 8 percent of nuclear plant staff is under the age of 32, while around 40% are approaching retirement.18
26. The competitiveness of nuclear power could considerably improve if governments were to adopt more vigorous climate change mitigation policies and widely impose ‘carbon taxes’ on greenhouse gas emissions. According to Australian and British government reports, imposing such taxes (15-40 Australian dollars or 25 euros per ton of CO2) on fossil-fuel-burning plants would make nuclear power the cheapest option. MIT analysts have a different opinion, however, estimating that nuclear sector would not be commercially competitive even with the carbon tax rate at US$100 per ton, unless substantial nuclear cost reductions are achieved.19
27. Nuclear power is increasingly being seen as a viable means of enhancing the energy security situation, particularly in countries that rely greatly on imports of fossil fuels. For nuclear power plants, the question of fuel supply is of very little relevance. It takes only a negligible volume of uranium fuel to produce vast amounts of energy: 1 kg produces as much energy as 45,000 kg of wood, 22,000 kg of coal and 15,000 kg of oil.20 This also means that uranium can be stored and transported more easily.
28. According to estimates made in 2001, global uranium resources were 16 million tonnes, sufficient for 250 years if world’s nuclear industry were to remain at the current level. In addition, it is not unrealistic to expect that future technologies will be able to exploit 22 million tonnes of unconventional uranium reserves from phosphate deposits that are not currently accessible. It is believed that the spread of fast neutron reactors can make the issue of nuclear fuel supply completely irrelevant. By producing plutonium and other fissionable material as they operate, these reactors can potentially increase global nuclear fuel stockpile up to 50 times. In addition, thorium (a more abundant element in nature than uranium) can be also used as a reactor fuel, and India in particular is looking into this option.21 Furthermore, some 4 trillion tonnes of uranium are deposited in the world oceans, but its extraction is not commercially feasible with today’s technology.22 The bottom-line is that the world will not run out of uranium for centuries to come.
29. Although uranium reserves are concentrated in a handful of countries, most of them are stable and democratic. Currently uranium is mined in 20 countries. NATO member, Canada, is the largest global producer of uranium. As the price of uranium continues to rise, Canada’s uranium mining sector is moving to increase production. At present, Canada’s uranium production represents 25% of global production, and Australia follows with a 19%. Together with the United States (4%) these three countries produce almost half of global uranium output. Other significant uranium producers include Kazakhstan (16%), Niger (8%), Russia (8%) and Namibia (7%).23
30. The direct link between nuclear energy and greater energy security became evident during the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis in January 2009. Slovakia and Bulgaria, some of the biggest victims of this incident, announced that they may reopen their reactors that had been closed in recent years as a pre-condition to their EU membership. Bulgaria considers the construction of the new NPP in Belene as one of the principal means to increase its energy security. During his recent visit to Bulgaria, Pierre Lellouche, former President of the NATO PA and the current France’s State Secretary for European Affairs, confirmed his country’s strong support for the Belene project. The gas crisis has also re-invigorated debates in Lithuania as to whether or not Vilnius should honour its commitment to prematurely close the Ignalina NPP by December 2009 as envisaged in Lithuania’s EU Accession Treaty. Ignalina generates more than 70% of the country’s electricity and it will have to be replaced by conventional power plans fuelled by Russian gas. Currently, Lithuania has no alternative to Russia when it comes to the import of gas and electricity.
31. On the other hand, no country can enjoy complete nuclear energy independence: nuclear energy producing countries depend on imports of either uranium or fabricated nuclear fuel or reactor technology or all these elements. The ability to choose among different suppliers is restricted by the limited number of producers in this field worldwide.
A. THE CLIMATE CHANGE CONTEXT
32. Nuclear industry is virtually carbon free, and only negligible doses of CO2 are emitted during the process of uranium mining and the construction of a plant. It is estimated that if all currently operating NPPs were replaced by modern fossil-fuelled plants, global carbon emissions would increase by 8%. Emissions from the electricity sector would increase by 17%.24 The contribution of nuclear energy is therefore equivalent to removing 96% of all private cars from all roads in the United States.25 In the US, 70% of all emissions-free electricity is generated in the nuclear sector.
33. In its well-known Fourth Assessment Report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) encouraged nations to pursue nuclear energy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC recommended reducing global emissions to the level of 13 gigatons per year by 2050. According to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s estimates, nuclear energy could significantly contribute to this goal by saving from 4 to 12 gigatons per year in 2050.26 A UN Framework Convention on Climate Change study urged to invest additional US$25 billion in nuclear sector by 2030.27
34. The heat generated by nuclear energy can also be employed as a carbon-free option to produce hydrogen, desalinate seawater, heat houses and power civilian vessels. Since hydrogen production requires high temperatures and electricity, nuclear reactors – especially future high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, expected around 2020 – represent a particularly attractive option because they produce both. With regard to seawater desalination, Japan and Kazakhstan already have experience in harnessing nuclear energy for that purpose, and several countries are showing interest.28 Using nuclear energy for the heating of houses is already being practiced in Bulgaria, Canada, Russia, the US and several other countries. Worldwide, approximately 1% of this heat is used for heating in communities neighbouring NPPs. Russia and China even have plans for small reactors designed specifically for that purpose.29 Nuclear power is already used to propel military submarines but it also holds a potential to power civilian on-surface ships. The USSR has been using nuclear icebreakers since 1959. The USA, Germany and Japan have also built one nuclear merchant ship each, but these experiments did not lead to mass production. Additional research is needed in this area, because currently building these ships is not commercially reasonable.30
B. DEALING WITH NUCLEAR WASTE
35. Radiological waste management is probably the single most acute problem for the nuclear industry. According to public opinion surveys, almost 40% of Europeans who currently oppose nuclear energy would change their position if a permanent and safe solution for radioactive waste was found.31 It has to be noted that, in relative terms, the environmental hazard posed by radioactive waste pales in comparison with overall volume of industrial pollution. Worldwide, industry annually produces roughly 1,000 million cubic meters of waste, including 10 million cubic meters of toxic waste, and 50,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste. Ninety seven per cent of the volume of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power generation is ‘low-level waste’ (LLW) such as slightly-contaminated protective clothing, or ‘intermediate level waste’ (ILW) such as the dismantled internal structures of the reactor core. LLW and ILW can do very little harm and can be handled with minimal protection. This leaves only 500 cubic meters of high-level nuclear waste produced every year.32 Nevertheless, the solution to the nuclear waste issue is of key importance for the future of the whole industry and its acceptance in the eyes of the public.
36. Getting rid of nuclear waste and dismantling nuclear facilities is an expensive business (35% of the total cost of a NPP) but normally funding schemes – such as a percentage of final electricity cost – exist to finance waste management and plant decommissioning activities. Lowlevel waste can be buried in shallow landfill sites (after treatment and incorporation into shielding containers, in the case of most ILW). The disposal of ‘high level waste’ (HLW) such as spent fuel presents more of a problem. Radioactivity levels in high-level waste are so high that it has to remain isolated practically indefinitely. Generally speaking, spent fuel is either disposed of directly or reprocessed. Both solutions involve the eventual incorporation of HLW into solid blocks of glass (vitrification), before being retained in interim storage for a cooling period of about 50 years for observation. Following this, the waste may be placed into final long-term storage (for 10,000 years at least33) in deep geological formations.
37. At the present time, there are no deep geological disposal facilities in operation, and there is no pressing technical need to establish such facilities due to the low total volume of HLW. However, the availability of such “final disposal arrangements” has been seen as important to demonstrate that nuclear power is sustainable and that it does not lead to an unsolved waste problem. Although the Obama Administration has recently scrapped plans for a final repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, Finland and Sweden are well advanced with plans and site selection for direct disposal of spent fuel. In the case of the Onkalo facility in Finland, stringent measures have been taken to account for geological movement, voids in the rock where groundwater can penetrate, and even an ice age. If government agencies grant the necessary licences, operation will begin in around 2021.
38. Over 50 countries currently have spent fuel stored in temporary locations awaiting reprocessing or disposal. But because many smaller countries do not possess suitable sites for the creation of a long-term facility, the IAEA has been urging the consideration of multilateral and international nuclear waste repositories for their considerable advantages in cost, safety, security and non-proliferation.34 In spite of these benefits, progress on the concept has been hamstrung by legal, political and public acceptance challenges in many countries.35
39. The European Commission (EC) announced in 2002 that it “gives priority to geological burial of dangerous material as the safest disposal method to date. Member states will be required to establish national burial sites for the disposal of radioactive waste by 2018.”36 In spite of the EC’s confidence in deep burial facilities, an October 2007 report from the IAEA admits that it is not yet able to model the rate of the radioactive release from deep burial waste storage facilities.37
40. In the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing route, uranium and plutonium are separated from other fission products. The mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides (so-called MOX fuel) can be re-used as fuel in many standard reactors without additional modifications of a reactor. Reprocessing can save up to 30% of the natural uranium otherwise required, avoiding the wastage of a valuable resource.38 However, studies comparing the total costs of a reprocessingrecycling system to direct disposal agree that current economic conditions make the reprocessingrecycle option more costly.39
41. Nuclear fuel, radioactive waste and spent fuel is constantly being moved to and from NPPs, storage facilities, fuel fabrication, enrichment and reprocessing plants using roads, railroads and seaways. Although about 50,000 tons of such material has been shipped worldwide since 1971, so far the IAEA regulations for safe transportation are being scrupulously respected and no accidents involving released radioactivity have been recorded.40
42. In addition to the problem of nuclear waste, the production of uranium fuel also poses certain environmental risks. The by-products of uranium ore mining and milling processes, so-called mill tailings, contain radiological contaminants and heavy metals. Mill tailings require impounding and long-term surveillance in order to prevent them from contaminating the soil and ground water. Since only a fraction of uranium ore is usable for fuel production, the processes of mining and milling produce enormous volumes of mill tailings. For instance, the Shirley basin mine in the US produced more than 7 million tonnes of tailings that occupy more than 100 hectares of land.41 Uranium enrichment processes also result in large stocks of depleted uranium, which can potentially be a source of chemical contamination in the case of leakage.
43. Nuclear material, technology and know-how were subject to proliferation from the very dawn of the nuclear age. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than 20 nations received nuclear capabilities from the United States under the Atoms for Peace programme, including Argentina, Brazil, Israel and Pakistan. At the same time, the Soviets helped China and North Korea, and France assisted Israel. Nuclear know-how was also proliferated: some 13,000 researchers from all over the world, including Iran and Pakistan, were hosted by the United States between 1955 and 1977.42 The inherent link between military and civilian nuclear technology makes countering proliferation a difficult task. All the above-mentioned recipients made political commitments to use their nuclear transfers exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, all the above-mentioned recipients also, at some point, embarked upon nuclear weapons programmes. Converting civilian programmes into military ones was facilitated by the fact that nuclear power plants in those days were fuelled by highly enriched uranium.
44. The development of Chinese, Indian and later Pakistani nuclear weapon programmes induced major world powers to revisit their nuclear co-operation policies. A number of instruments were introduced to curb further proliferation, including the NPT, the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Multinational initiatives were launched to replace HEU with LEU in all commercial and research reactors. These instruments helped to prevent uncontrolled spread of nuclear material and technology, making a clearer distinction between peaceful and weapon-related nuclear programmes. However, the cases of North Korea, Libya, Pakistan and possibly Iran demonstrate that the global nuclear non-proliferation regime is not completely foolproof.
45. If the global “Nuclear Renaissance” is to become a reality, the existing non-proliferation regime needs to become more robust. According to different estimates, between 20 to 40 nations with little or no experience and expertise in nuclear power generation have recently expressed interest in launching national nuclear energy programmes.43 More than a dozen of these – including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen – lie in the Middle East. In light of the abundance of traditional energy sources in the region, and the fact the Israel’s own nuclear arms have not provoked an arms race for decades, several experts have suggested that rivalry with Iran is driving this trend.44 IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei himself recently drew attention to the tendency, calling the region a “ticking bomb.”45 Although most states that have expressed and interest in nuclear power generation have adopted IAEA Additional Protocol, a scenario may emerge where the world sees a sharp rise in the number of ‘virtual nuclear’ countries that could develop the means and know-how to build a nuclear weapon, but still comply with the NPT by holding back on actually building weapons.
46. From a technological perspective, some reactors are more ‘proliferation-resistant’ than others. CANDU as well as graphite-moderated reactors do not need to be shut down to remove spent fuel, which makes it easier to clandestinely extract fuel from reactors in order to reprocess it and separate weapon-grade plutonium. Light-water reactors (LWRs) are considered to be the most ‘proliferation resistant’, although they too pose some security risks. According to the renowned 2004 study by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, LWR “is not nearly so ‘proliferation resistant’ as it has been widely advertised to be.” Experts warn that there are ways to secretly divert both fresh and spent nuclear fuel from LWR, particularly in the absence of upgraded IAEA monitoring systems.46 With that in mind, LWR is still a preferable choice in terms of nuclear security. CANDU builders argue that their reactors are less proliferation-prone when under upgraded IAEA safeguards.
47. Your Rapporteur is convinced that the key to ensuring the peaceful nature of new nuclear programmes lies in the multilateralisation of the nuclear fuel cycle – a view the IAEA has advanced for a number of years.47 Although nuclear power generation offers many potential benefits, nuclear enrichment and reprocessing must be restricted to a limited number of facilities that cheaply and reliably export their services in return for non-proliferation commitments from their customers. The same applies to the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The multilateral fuel cycle would allow states seeking nuclear power to construct only power generating reactors, instead of developing complete independent fuel cycles. As well as making nuclear energy more affordable, this would reduce the risks of proliferation by minimising the transfer of sensitive technologies.
48. LEU and other fuels are readily commercially available on the international market. However, the lack of guaranteed access of this essential material could be in the future a key consideration in whether nuclear newcomers choose to embark on developing their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The provision of credible guarantees is thus facilitated by a so-called ‘multilateral’ approach, where the facilities exporting their services are put under the control of the nations they supply. A number of proposals are being floated in this context: bottom-up ‘international’ projects run on a commercial basis by the private-sector, and more complex top-down 'multilateral' projects that involve the IAEA or some other form of shared international management. Some of these proposals are examined below. It is unrealistic to assume that a single, generic formula will be politically and technologically satisfactory for all states. What is critical is that an inclusive and layered combination of proposals is realised in a timely manner.
49. Several short-term schemes are already well advanced, with key elements in place. For example, the commercially run International Uranium Enrichment Centre (IUEC) in Angarsk, Eastern Siberia, is a fuel enrichment enterprise and an LEU fuel bank. It already has a site, a contractor for enrichment services (AEKhK), a management board consisting of IUEC shareholder states (with the IAEA as an observer) and four committed state-participants – Kazakhstan, Armenia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. However, Russia must finalise an agreement with the IAEA on safeguarding the nuclear materials at the Centre and the fuel bank. While the IUEC can technically work without the IAEA, the Agency’s participation is viewed as the key to ‘assuring’ fuel supply and providing transparency.
50. The so-called ‘Six-Country Concept’ could also be feasibly realised by the international community in the short-term. Presented by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the UK, and the United States, this initiative would require recipient states to forego sensitive indigenous nuclear facilities and submit themselves to non-proliferation conditions in return for binding assurances that the recipient could count on any of the six afore-mentioned nations to supply reserves of nuclear fuel in the event of a supply disruption. Failing this, the IAEA itself would provide fuel from a reserve under its management (the World Nuclear association has proposed a similar scheme, albeit with a slightly more modest role for the IAEA). As a complement to the above, Japan has proposed an IAEA administered information system to help prevent interruptions in nuclear fuel supplies. Another proposal that may enhance the Six-Country Concept is the ‘enrichment bond’ scheme mooted by the British Government – an agreement between nuclear supplier states, recipient states, and the IAEA that guarantees enrichment supply services to recipient states that the IAEA judges to be meeting non-proliferation conditions.
51. Apart from the quickly realisable proposals above, there are a number of more ambitious proposals worthy of mention. The Nuclear Threat Initiative has pledged US$50 million for the establishment of an international fuel bank – an emergency reserve of fuel to be available to nations hit by an unexpected supply disruption. Because the bank would be completely administered by the IAEA, experts believe it would be an important step towards encouraging the development of nuclear energy based on external sources of fuel supply. Although all the monetary conditions for the fuel bank have recently been fulfilled,48 the bank still requires new physical infrastructure to be constructed, as well as complex political, and legal arrangements, before it becomes operational.
52. Even more ambitiously, the German Multilateral Enrichment Sanctuary Project proposes the creation of a multilateral uranium enrichment centre with extra-territorial status as a new supplier in the market. This centre would operate under IAEA control on a commercial basis. The strong role for the IAEA this scheme envisages will necessitate financial, and institutional complications on a United Nations scale. However, because the proposal will prove attractive to consumer states without close links to at least one supplier state, it is worthy of consideration as an important layer of the international fuel cycle, realisable in the medium-term.
53. Finally, there exist a small number of notable long-term proposals of a very comprehensive scope. Whereas all the afore-mentioned schemes are aimed at providing reliable access to reactors and fuel for the so-called ‘front end’ of the nuclear fuel cycle, experts believe that schemes also including ‘back end’ processes, such as removing spent nuclear fuel, would create far stronger incentives for states to rely on international mechanisms for fuel supply.49 In this vein, a proposal by Austria would place all nuclear fuel transactions under the auspices of a ‘Nuclear Fuel Bank’ to “enable equal access to and control of most sensitive nuclear technologies, particularly enrichment and reprocessing”.50 Russia has put forward the Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure – a worldwide supply mechanism giving all countries the equal right to receive the services of a limited number of international centres (such as the IUEC) for the sensitive steps of the nuclear fuel cycle. Whilst comprehensive, both of these suggestions have yet to be elaborated fully.
54. More concretely, the United States proposed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in 2007. Originally, GNEP meant to offer a similar bargain as the NPT: nations that already have sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies (‘firsttier’ countries) pledge to supply reactor fuel to other nations at an affordable price. In return, the recipients (‘second-tier’) commit not to seek these sensitive technologies and to return spent nuclear fuel to the country of origin. The IAEA would participate at all levels of the process to see that this arrangement was followed. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei positively contrasted GNEP with other multinational fuel cycle initiatives because of its ambitious goal of dealing with both the front end and the back end of the fuel cycle.51
55. However, the initiative is not without its fair share of uncertainties and its ambitions were eventually scaled down. It no longer aims to replicate the NPT bargain and turned mostly into a consultation mechanism. Reprocessing and fast neutron technologies that GNEP promotes are seen by many as not commercially viable. Their non-proliferation benefits are also dubious: while these technologies can help dispose redundant nuclear or radioactive substances, they might themselves be misused to produce weapon-grade nuclear material.
56. We thus see that whilst a number of viable multilateral fuel cycle schemes exist, plenty of work still needs to be done to conceive and implement comprehensive fuel-cycle mechanisms that deal with both the front and the back ends of the cycle, as well as being attractive to non-nuclear-weapon states. Moreover, it should be realised that multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle are by no means ‘magic bullet’ solutions to the non-proliferation problem – determined nations may still illicitly develop their own fuel cycle capabilities.
VIII. NUCLEAR SAFETY
57. The safety of nuclear power plants poses the classic dilemma of a “lowprobability/highconsequence” event: how much should one invest in preventing accidents that are extremely unlikely to occur but might have formidable consequences? According to a nuclear safety study conducted in the US in 2000, the accident rate in the nuclear power sector is 0.26 per 200,000 workers, compared with 3.0 in other industries.52 When the NATO PA Science and Technology Committee delegation visited the Kozloduy NPP in Bulgaria in 2008, it was informed that the probability of an accident in this plant is estimated at one event per one million years. Nevertheless, after the Three Mile Island and particularly the Chernobyl accidents, it is universally agreed that nuclear safety is the paramount goal and that NPPs must have safety and control systems for all – even hypothetical – situations. It is believed that another major accident of the Chernobyl type would ruin all prospects for the “Nuclear Renaissance”.
58. The light- and heavy-water reactors used in the industrial countries are generally considered to be safe. In addition to several fail-safe security systems that are powered independently, physical containment structures cover the entire reactor. Thus, even if an accident does happen, the containment dome would prevent release of radiation and dangerous substances to the outside. The effectiveness of this structure was demonstrated during the Three Mile Island accident. The Soviet graphite-moderated RBMK reactors are too large to be covered by such a containment structure. However, the RBMK reactors operating today have received significant security upgrades and are also considered safe by IAEA and WANO inspectors. The new generation of reactors, as was mentioned before, should have passive security systems that are inherently safe.
59. Nevertheless, minor accidents do occur even today, including occasional steam or coolant leaks and cracks in structures. Seismic activity can cause damages. In 2007, the seven-unit plant at Kashiwazaki, Japan, had to be shut down due to the damage it received during a 6.8-magnitude earthquake.53 The most serious concern with regard to nuclear safety is that nuclear newcomers might not be applying same rigorous standards as countries with mature nuclear sectors. The IAEA seeks to impose universal safety standards but at the moment they differ from country to country.
60. In conclusion, your Rapporteur wishes to emphasize the following:
* There is an evident increase of interest worldwide in developing nuclear power, but the pace of the “Nuclear Renaissance” is slower than previously anticipated.
* Nevertheless, as global energy demand is projected to grow rapidly in upcoming decades, the contribution of nuclear power will be required and will be difficult to replace.
* The future of nuclear energy to a large extent depends on development of new (“III Generation”, fast neutron and nuclear fusion) reactors that are more efficient, safe and proliferation-resistant.
* Nuclear power plants can economically compete with conventional plants, particularly if carbon taxes were widely applied. However, due to high upfront investment costs, the success of nuclear power projects will require sustained governmental and public support.
* Additional funds and grants are needed to train nuclear scientists and engineers in order to avoid shortages of qualified personnel in NPPs.
* Nuclear power plays a major role enhancing energy security of several NATO countries. Projects such as the Belene plant – which includes companies from several NATO countries (Bulgaria, Germany, France and the US) – contribute considerably to greater energy independence of the Central and Eastern Europe. Supply of nuclear fuel is not an issue for those countries that have transparent peaceful nuclear programmes and fully co-operate with the IAEA.
* Nuclear power is essentially carbon free; it reduces global greenhouse gas emissions by 8%. Its important role in global climate change mitigation efforts was recognised by the IPCC. In addition to electricity generation, nuclear power has a potential to be a significant non-carbon option to produce hydrogen, to desalinate seawater and to be used for district heating.
* The prospects of nuclear power depend on whether or not a permanent and safe solution to the nuclear waste problem is found.
* The threat of proliferation of nuclear material, technology and know-how will be exacerbated as the “Nuclear Renaissance” spreads to new countries. The most effective way to manage this threat is to promote the multilateralisation of nuclear fuel cycle, including the establishment of multinational uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing centres, as well as international nuclear fuel reserves, in association with of the IAEA. In addition, promotion of more ‘proliferation-resistant’ reactor technologies can also reduce the threat of diversion of weapon-usable material. It is also critically important that IAEA receives proper funding and state-of-the-art technological capabilities for its monitoring missions.
* Nuclear safety standards need to be harmonised. International bodies must have full authority to ensure that global safety standards are being met in all existing NPPs.