Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members

5. The Risks Associated with Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

Likely Scale of the Civil Nuclear Energy Renaissance

5.1     Governments are reconsidering the role of nuclear power within their electricity generation capacity because of increasing energy demand, pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rising fossil fuel prices, the potentially improving economics of nuclear power, and the pursuit of security of energy supply. Public opposition to nuclear power remains significant, but is changing. Precise figures are hard to come by, not least because much of the considerable growth planned for the world’s nuclear industry involves long lead times, and political and capacity constraints. But even if only a small percentage of the planned growth in the civilian industry sector comes to pass, it will have implications for the world’s proliferation controls.

5.2     Today there are some 436 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries plus Taiwan, with a combined capacity of over 370 gigawatts (GWe): nuclear power stations have an average capacity of around 1 GWe. In 2007 these provided 2608 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), about 15 per cent of the world’s electricity. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) projects possible expansion in world nuclear generating capacity from a base of 373 GWe today to at least 1130 GWe, and up to 3500 GWe, by 2060. The upper projection for 2100 is 11,000 GWe, with the fastest growth in Asia.

5.3     According to the WNA, nuclear power is under serious consideration in around thirty countries which do not currently have it. With 40 plus reactors being built around the world today, more than 130 planned to come online by 2030 and over 200 further back in the pipeline, the global nuclear industry has big plans. Countries with established programs are seeking to replace old reactors as well as expand capacity, and an additional 25 countries are either considering or have already decided to make nuclear energy part of their power generation capacity.

5.4     Despite the large number of these emerging countries, they are not expected to contribute very much to the expansion of nuclear capacity in the foreseeable future. Most of the growth will come in countries where the technology is already well established: 80 per cent of the expansion in nuclear power is forecast in countries already using nuclear power. Newly-minted nuclear countries are likely to account for only 5 per cent of global nuclear capacity by 2020.

5.5     China, Russia and India will account for the largest increases in new nuclear generating capacity to 2020, though the United States, France and Japan will retain their dominant position, producing 50 per cent of global generating capacity. The non-nuclear power countries which have planned or approved nuclear power generation are Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, Belarus and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), although in Indonesia popular opposition may yet prevent plans going ahead. Countries without a present nuclear power capacity which have proposed or intend to use nuclear power are Thailand, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Ghana, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Venezuela and Yemen.


BOX 5-1



Source: Data sourced from World Nuclear Association, July 2009


5.6     The capacity of the global nuclear industry is the major constraint upon a rapid expansion in nuclear energy. Supply bottlenecks in human resources, heavy forgings and other reactor parts are likely to worsen as demand increases. Other key components such as reactor cooling pumps, diesel generators, and control and instrumentation equipment have long lead times, requiring up to six years to procure and manufacture. Personnel qualified to design, construct and operate nuclear facilities are increasingly difficult to find as present employees approach retiring age, and a decreasing number of university degrees are awarded in nuclear-relevant fields. Governments and intergovernmental nuclear agencies have introduced measures to encourage students to enter the nuclear field and support nuclear research and development; however the maintenance of power reactor skills and competence has been largely left to industry.

5.7     Other important constraints include the ability of states, especially the newcomers, to finance their nuclear energy plans, and their capacity to develop and finance the necessary regulatory and technical bases to realize them safely. There is fertile ground for increased assistance from established nuclear powers and industry to help develop competence in regulation and effective export controls. But in the present post-global financial crisis economic climate, the ability to finance these costly projects is far from assured.

5.8     Even in the best of economic circumstances, new nuclear power plants continue to be uncompetitive against most other base-load power options, including natural gas, coal and oil. This may yet contain the contribution of nuclear power to world energy to current levels of around 15 per cent of total world electricity output, although the economics of nuclear power may become more favourable if carbon taxes or emission limits are introduced. Construction costs for plants remain very high, with many planned nuclear power plants requiring 100 per cent government loan guarantees or very high subsidies. Some experts predict that given its lack of cost competiveness, nuclear power may even go backwards, but this is very much a minority view.

Assessing the Proliferation Risks of Nuclear Energy Expansion

5.9     The proliferation risk of the nuclear renaissance is determined by three principal factors: whether the expansion takes place in existing nuclear power states or new nuclear power states; the geostrategic contexts of countries acquiring nuclear technology for the first time; and the nature of the nuclear technology acquired.

5.10     Views on whether an increase in the number of power reactors around the world poses an increase in nuclear proliferation dangers differ. Some argue that not even a tenfold increase in power reactors will have a significant impact on nuclear proliferation. They believe the greatest problem to be rogue states determined to develop a nuclear weapons program whatever the barriers, and that their number has not significantly increased in the last ten to fifteen years. Others, including in influential policy circles in the U.S., are concerned that “the rise in nuclear power worldwide, and particularly within Third World countries, inevitably increases the risks of proliferation.”

5.11     Nuclear power reactors themselves, in particular the standard light water reactors (LWRs), are not considered a high proliferation risk because the isotopic content of the spent fuel and the difficulty of separating plutonium from the spent fuel assembly does not make them ready producers of weapons grade fissile material. It is widely acknowledged that the biggest proliferation risk in the expansion of nuclear energy is the expansion of sensitive nuclear technologies (SNTs) – principally enrichment or reprocessing – to non-nuclear weapon states. Proliferation of SNTs can be problematic per se and can increase the risk of fissile material being available for terrorists if facilities are not properly protected.

5.12     The states seeking nuclear power for the first time are concentrated in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. All are zones of varying degrees of domestic political instability. The Middle East is strategically unstable and directly affected by the Iranian enrichment program. While South East Asian countries are not directly in the line of North Korean nuclear threats, their security would nonetheless be affected by a deteriorating East Asian strategic environment were Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions to be unchecked, including its possible willingness to proliferate to hard-line regimes like Burma/Myanmar. In all three regions, states have genuine reasons for wanting to develop nuclear power, including growing energy demand and the desire to preserve fossil fuels for export, and in many cases had been interested in acquiring nuclear power prior to the Iranian and North Korean situations arising. Significantly, Vietnam and Indonesia have signalled their intent not to develop an enrichment capacity, as have Bahrain and the UAE.

5.13     While the U.S./UAE agreement is the gold-standard for supply (the UAE having foresworn SNT development such as uranium enrichment and reprocessing) this pattern is not necessarily being followed by other power aspirants in the region, such as Jordan. When some suppliers are prepared to take the minimalist approach to nuclear cooperation, it puts pressure on those supplier countries and companies which want to pursue best practice supply policies to resist the stronger international supply rules that might be needed to stem the proliferation dangers of an expanded civilian nuclear energy sector, especially to new countries.

5.14     Brazil plans to develop a commercial enrichment plant, and – while no additional states currently have such plans – Argentina and South Africa insist on their right to do so in future. While India has announced plans to construct an additional commercial reprocessing plant, currently no other state has such plans – with the U.S. having terminated the commercial reprocessing plant originally planned as a domestic project under its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

5.15     It is important to recognize that the establishment of even the most basic nuclear infrastructure and expertise may presage later pursuit of a full nuclear fuel cycle, with all that implies – as we are now acutely aware with the examples of North Korea and Iran – about the capacity to move to, or toward, proliferation under cover of the right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes. Some have gone so far as to label some recent nuclear cooperation agreements “bomb starter kits”.

5.16     Three strategies – technical, commercial and political – suggest themselves to policymakers and industry to mitigate the proliferation risks of the so-called “renaissance”. Technical solutions (discussed in Section 14) include the development of nuclear reactors less suited to producing weapons grade fissile material, or making it more difficult to access. Commercial solutions might include replacing turnkey reactor sales contracts to build-own-operate contracts, or inserting minimum non-proliferation requirement provisions into supply contracts.

5.17     Political solutions would include further efforts to achieve universalization of the IAEA Additional Protocol, with nuclear suppliers, through bilateral agreements, making adherence to it a condition of nuclear supply. Further steps would include giving credible assurances of fuel supply free from vexatious or political interference, and placing sensitive stages of the fuel cycle under multilateral control – although, perversely, pressures for multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle might accelerate attempts by some countries to develop sensitive nuclear technologies in a hurry. These questions are discussed in more detail in Sections 14 and 15.


BOX 5-2

The nuclear fuel cycle:

Box 5-2 Diagram



Uranium occurs naturally. To be useable, uranium ore (containing as little as 0.1 per cent uranium, sometimes less) has to be mined, then milled and processed to produce a uranium oxide concentrate (‘yellowcake’). Yellowcake is then converted into uranium dioxide which can be used as fuel in some reactors (see “heavy water reactors” below), but for most purposes into uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) and then enriched. The final step in the process is the fabrication of fuel assemblies (usually ceramic uranium oxide pellets encased in metal tubes).

“Enrichment” means increasing the concentration of the isotope uranium-235, and reducing that of uranium-238. Natural uranium consists primarily of these two isotopes, but only U-235 is capable of undergoing fission, the process by which a neutron strikes a nucleus, splitting it into fragments and releasing heat and radiation. (“Isotopes” are forms of the same element differing from each other in relative atomic mass but not their chemical properties, or putting it another way, atoms that have different numbers of neutrons in each nucleus but the same atomic number, i.e. number of protons in each nucleus.)

Low enriched uranium (LEU), used as the fuel (to heat water to steam to drive turbines) in most power generating reactors, involves increasing the natural concentration of U-235 (0.7 per cent) to between 3 and 5 per cent.

High enriched uranium (HEU) is defined (for safeguards purposes) as that in which the percentage of U-235 has been increased to 20 per cent or greater. Weapons-grade uranium is usually described as that enriched to 90 per cent or higher U-235.


Plutonium occurs naturally only in minute quantities and is essentially a man-made element. Plutonium is produced by reactors as a normal by-product when some of the neutrons released during fissioning are captured by uranium-238 atoms: some of the plutonium is itself fissioned, but a proportion remains in spent fuel assemblies in different isotopic forms (including Pu-239, Pu-240 and
Pu-241), which can be extracted and used as a nuclear fuel.

In the case of standard light water reactors, the plutonium contained in the spent fuel is typically about 60-70 per cent Pu-239, described as reactor-grade; heavy water reactors, by contrast, can be used to produce Pu-239 in weapons-grade concentrations (but the brief irradiation required to achieve this is inefficient for power production). Weapons-grade plutonium has 93 per cent or more Pu-239.

Fissile Material

This expression usually refers to high enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium (i.e. plutonium separated from spent fuel through reprocessing).


These are of four main types:

(1) Gas centrifuge: UF6 gas is pumped into a series of rotating cylinders: the centrifugal force draws heavier molecules (containing U-238) toward the outside of the chamber while lighter U-235 molecules remain in the centre. Standard centrifuge enrichment is easily modified to produce HEU, and the modifications can be concealed.

(2) Gaseous Diffusion: UF6 containing U-235 and U-238 is compressed and fed into a semi-permeable vessel. Since lighter molecules travel faster than heavier ones, molecules consisting of U-235 will escape from the vessel faster than those of U-238.

(3) Electromagnetic enrichment: The different paths of the U-235 and U-238 isotopes as they pass through a magnetic field allow them to be separated and collected.

(4) Laser: A laser of a particular wavelength is used to excite U-235 atoms to the point that they can be separated from U-238 (or vice versa).


There are two basic types of fission reactor – “thermal” (in wide use) and “fast neutron” (now limited in number, but expected to be important in the future):

(1) Thermal reactors. These use a moderator to slow neutrons to the optimum (“thermal”) speed to cause fission, viz. a material that slows neutrons without capturing them. The usual materials are light water, heavy water and graphite:

Light water reactors: The most common reactors in operation today, light water reactors use ordinary water as a coolant and moderator. Because this is a relatively inefficient moderator these reactors require low enriched uranium as fuel. From a non-proliferation standpoint, light water reactors are preferable to heavy water reactors for two reasons: first, removing the fuel (to extract the plutonium by-product) requires shutting down the reactor (easily noticed); secondly, it is difficult to produce plutonium with a high proportion of Pu-239.

Heavy water reactors: These reactors use as coolant and moderator water containing an elevated concentration of “heavy hydrogen” (also known as deuterium) - hydrogen atoms which contain a neutron in their nucleus in addition to the usual proton. This allows the use of natural (non-enriched) uranium as fuel. Heavy water reactors produce significant quantities of plutonium, and are capable (though not in commercial use mode) of producing Pu-239 in weapons-grade concentration.

Gas-graphite reactors: These use gas (CO2 or helium) as the coolant and graphite as the moderator. They can operate on natural or low enriched uranium. Examples include the early “Magnox” reactor, the Advanced Gas-cooled reactor currently used in the UK, and the German-designed “pebble-bed” reactor under development in South Africa and China.

(2) Fast neutron reactors. These use high energy (“fast”) neutrons to cause fission. They do not use a moderator, relying instead on fuel of higher fissile density (typically 20-30 per cent plutonium). The coolant is a material that neither absorbs nor slows neutrons, either molten metal (to date, sodium) or gas (helium). The principle is use of high energy neutrons to convert the predominant uranium isotope U-238 to plutonium. Fast neutron reactors can be operated in three modes:

Plutonium burners: these consume more plutonium than they produce.

Equilibrium mode: in these, plutonium production and consumption are in balance.

Plutonium breeders: these produce a surplus of plutonium available for fuelling additional reactors.

Both breeding and equilibrium modes are self-sustaining, in the sense that once operating they provide their own fissile material requirements and only require additional “fertile” material, i.e. natural or depleted uranium.