Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members

14. Responsible Nuclear Energy Management

Sharing the Benefits of Nuclear Energy

14.1     One of the three cornerstones of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – along with the disarmament and non-proliferation – is its recognition, in Article IV, of the “inalienable right” of all parties to use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, in conformity with their other treaty obligations, and the need of all parties to cooperate in its provision: assisting states in this respect is part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s core mission. The Commission is well aware that there is not universal support, particularly in civil society, for this pillar of the NPT, but it is inconceivable that states’ commitment to non-proliferation could be maintained, let alone strengthened, without it.

14.2     There are also very good reasons in their own right for supporting, as this Commission does, the cooperative sharing of the benefits of nuclear energy. In a world ever-anxious about energy security, an increase in the share of nuclear energy to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas has many attractions for many states. And, more importantly still, while situations vary from country to country, it is almost impossible now to argue, from a global perspective, that civil nuclear energy is anything other than an indispensable element of the energy policy mix. The global recognition of the need for suppression of greenhouse-gas emissions significantly increases the attractiveness of nuclear power as the only low-carbon electricity generation technology with proven capability for large-scale supply – expensive up front, but economical in the long-run. Whether nuclear energy will increase its total share of electricity generation in a period of major and continuing demand increases may be questioned, but simply maintaining it would by itself be a major contribution to climate policy.

14.3     Beyond energy generation, nuclear technologies and techniques are demonstrably valuable for improving human well-being, especially in fighting disease, helping to grow food, addressing food security and safety, and managing safe water and other natural resources. In health care, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy will continue to be important in providing earlier, more accurate diagnoses and safer, more effective treatments. In food security and safety, nuclear techniques have also contributed significantly in integrating pre- and post-harvest pest-control measures such as food irradiation and area-wide application of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) to protect crops and livestock from pests. Techniques for diagnosing trans-boundary animal diseases will be increasingly important for early and rapid detection in both the laboratory and the field. And nuclear techniques have a significant role to play in hydrology, important as the growing scarcity of water resources and the dramatic lack of sustainable access to water and sanitation in developing countries become major impediments to sustainable development, wealth creation and the eradication of poverty. The Commission supports additional resources for the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Programme, to assist developing states to take full advantage of peaceful nuclear energy for human development.

The Three Ss: Managing Safeguards, Security and Safety

14.4     If peaceful nuclear energy is to play the role it should, it is critical that it be managed in a way that reduces, and does not add to, the world’s problems. The first indispensable dimension of that effective management is safeguards (i.e. ensuring that there is no diversion of nuclear material from civil to military purposes, fully discussed in Sections 8, 9 and 10 above, and again in Part IV). The second is security, which has been discussed in Section 13 above in the context of counter-terrorism strategy, where it is most immediately relevant, and the third is safety, discussed briefly in the following paragraphs. These are not the only factors involved in long-term effective management – others, discussed later in this section and in Section 18, are the development of proliferation-resistant technology, stronger industry–government cooperation and efforts to multilateralize the fuel cycle. But they are the three most immediately important. At the 2008 Hokkaido Toyako G8 Summit an initiative for international cooperation on nuclear energy infrastructure was launched with a view to raising awareness of the importance of the three Ss worldwide and assisting countries concerned in developing the relevant measures.

14.5     As the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 showed, a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. If the number of nuclear power plants around the world is to grow substantially without increasing the total risk of a nuclear accident, the risk of an accident at any given reactor must continue to be reduced. As additional countries build nuclear power plants, it is essential that they establish strong safety measures, including competent, effective, and independent national regulators and the global safety regime that emerged after Chernobyl is being maintained and continuously improved.

14.6     The IAEA develops and publishes crucially important safety standards, recommendations, and guides: it serves as the depository for nuclear safety conventions, and helps to develop new instruments as necessary; it organizes international reviews of the safety of particular facilities at the request of member states, which have led to major improvements in safety at many facilities; it helps coordinate assistance to member states in improving safety measures and exchanges of best practices, experience, and lessons learned; it collects and analyzes a wide range of international data important for safety; and it organizes studies and discussions of key safety issues.

Prospects for Proliferation-Resistant Technology

14.7     Proliferation resistance involves establishing impediments or barriers to the misuse of civil nuclear energy systems to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. There is no magic bullet to eliminate all proliferation risk. No presently known nuclear fuel cycle is completely proliferation proof: proliferation resistance is a comparative term. But a combination of institutional and technical measures can give needed robustness to non-proliferation and counter-terrorism efforts. Most attention in this respect tends to focus on the institutional measures, dealt with fully elsewhere in this report: treaty-level peaceful use commitments, principally through the NPT; verification of performance of these commitments, especially by IAEA safeguards; national controls on supply of nuclear materials, equipment and technology, including those coordinated through the Nuclear Suppliers Group; and possible new ways of multilateralizing the fuel cycle. In this part of the report we will focus on possible new technical barriers.

14.8     The objective of technical measures, as with institutional ones, is to increase the difficulty, time and cost of misuse and the likelihood of detection, both as a disincentive, and to provide sufficient delay for the international community to have timely warning and opportunity for intervention. These measures include avoiding production of weapons grade material, and introducing technical barriers to producing such material; ensuring fissile material is difficult to access (e.g. through high radiation levels), increasing the difficulties of diversion by states and theft or seizure by terrorists; and avoiding plutonium separation processes that result in a pure plutonium product or a product from which plutonium can be readily purified.

14.9     The basic issue can be stated as follows: can a fuel cycle be developed which produces nuclear fuel without using enrichment, and enables plutonium recycle without plutonium separation? As to enrichment, the necessity for this can be avoided altogether by the use of reactors fuelled by natural uranium, but those available today are “on-load refuelling” designs that can be used to produce weapons grade plutonium. In principle, another route for avoiding the need for enrichment is the thorium fuel cycle, but this is not as straightforward as it might seem. Thorium reactors depend on recycle of uranium-233, which with current reactor types must be separated from spent fuel by reprocessing, and which (albeit with some difficulty) can be used in nuclear weapons. Further, a thorium reactor requires enriched uranium (or plutonium) for the initial operating cycles, and more efficient operation requires enriched uranium or plutonium “driver fuel” in addition to recycled uranium-233.

14.10     Enrichment is not required for fast neutron reactors, which are fuelled through plutonium recycle, and can be operated to produce more plutonium than they consume. However, for most of this century the light water reactor is likely to remain the predominant reactor type, possibly supplemented by high temperature gas-cooled reactors (such as the pebble bed reactor), so there will be a continuing – indeed, growing – need for uranium enrichment. Proliferation risk can be reduced by limiting the number of states with enrichment programs, and operating enrichment programs on a multilateral rather than wholly national basis.

14.11     As to reprocessing, this can be avoided altogether through using the “open” or “once-through” fuel cycle. However, the “closed” fuel cycle, based on plutonium recycle using fast neutron reactors, is attracting increasing interest from a number of states. Fast neutron reactors offer substantial advantages for efficiency of uranium utilization and management of spent fuel and radioactive waste. They can also, however, present potential proliferation and terrorism-risk challenges. The currently used “fast breeder” model involves production of plutonium, which happens to be of weapons grade, in a “breeder blanket” surrounding the core, and separation of plutonium through reprocessing. Both these characteristics give ground for concern from both non-proliferation and counter-terrorism perspectives.

14.12     Proliferation resistant approaches now under consideration for fast neutron reactors include new designs with an integrated core and no breeder blanket, and the introduction of new processing technologies that avoid separating pure plutonium. Eliminating the blanket and producing all plutonium in the reactor core ensures that it will all be “high burn-up”, well outside the weapons grade range. New reprocessing technologies include “electro-metallurgical processing” (formerly known as pyro-processing), by which spent fuel is melted in molten salts and a number of fission products and most of the uranium are removed by electrolysis. The plutonium from the spent fuel is not purified, but remains in a mix with minor radioactive elements and some fission products. This ensures that the plutonium cannot be used for nuclear weapons without further, conventional, reprocessing. The radioactivity of the associated fission products increases the difficulty of diversion, and protects the plutonium mix from theft. At this stage the costs of these new technologies are not clear, and not using a blanket will have an efficiency penalty. But they are seen as moving in the right direction, and further international research is being coordinated by the Generation IV International Forum. Also, new blanket designs which will produce plutonium well outside the weapons grade range are being studied.

14.13     As already noted, the predominant reactor type for the foreseeable future, and for most states, is expected to be the light water reactor. This design is difficult to misuse to produce weapons grade plutonium, so is considered to have good proliferation resistance. However, in the interest of non-proliferation, international measures such as spent fuel take-back arrangements by fuel suppliers, are desirable to avoid increasing spent fuel accumulations in a large number of states. Particular attention should be paid in this respect to take-back of fuel from initial core loads, where the short irradiation time results in the contained plutonium being closer to weapons grade.

14.14     A proliferation-resistant method of recycling spent fuel is the DUPIC process, being developed by South Korea, Canada and the U.S. The basis of DUPIC is that the fissile content of spent PWR (pressurized water reactor) fuel – residual U-235 and produced plutonium) is well suited for use in heavy-water moderated CANDU reactors. It involves direct re-fabrication of spent PWR fuel into reactor fuel, thereby reducing natural uranium requirements and the overall quantity of spent fuel. Dry thermal-mechanical processes are used to reduce spent PWR fuel to a fine powder, which is subject to high temperature to drive off volatile fission products (around 40 per cent of total fission products), pressed into pellets, and fabricated into CANDU fuel bundles. Since there is no plutonium separation, DUPIC is inherently proliferation resistant. However, its potential application is limited to situations where suitable numbers of both PWRs and CANDUs are available (currently only South Korea, India and China)

14.15     Other proliferation-resistant concepts include reactor designs that reduce access to the reactor core by the operator. For example, new designs are under development that will extend the period between refuelling, or even have life-time cores, with the reactor being replaced by the supplier when refuelling is required. These developments will contribute to assurance that an expansion in the use of nuclear energy can proceed without adding to proliferation risk.

Industry as a Non-Proliferation Partner

14.16     Until now it has been more or less accepted wisdom that the issue of nuclear non-proliferation is a political and security matter for government. Industry’s view, broadly shared by most governments, is that the nuclear power industry has no direct responsibility for nuclear weapons proliferation. Industry feels it is already highly controlled and regulated. However much of the world’s nuclear industry is multinational, with significant public/private cross-ownership where commercial interests, non-proliferation interests and national strategic interests can overlap or collide. And proliferation has in the past been bad for the development of civil nuclear industry, with the Nuclear Suppliers Group having been successful in ensuring peaceful nuclear trade was conducted only with countries that had made internationally binding non-proliferation commitments – at least until it approved the 2008 agreement between the U.S. and India.

14.17     More than ever, the issue of how to manage the civilian nuclear agenda is not just a problem about how some states may be making inappropriate use of their rights under Article IV of the NPT: it is about responsible stewardship of a system under strain which at the same time is experiencing a revived interest, despite current financial constraints. In short, the role of the world’s nuclear industry in mitigating the proliferation risks of a growing civilian nuclear sector world wide will need to grow, requiring more intense government-industry collaboration than has hitherto been the case.

14.18     The nuclear industry already cooperates with governments to fulfil its non-proliferation obligations, abiding by export controls and their safeguards inspection and reporting requirements. Industry has been engaged in Generation IV reactor activities in the U.S. and other countries to develop proliferation safe reactor designs. Beyond their formal obligations and R&D cooperation, the industry contribution to non-proliferation has tended to be minimal, with operators primarily focused on safety and security issues. Non-proliferation values are, however, contained in the WNA Charter of Ethics and Principles of Uranium Stewardship.

14.19     Industry knows how fragile public support remains and how the slightest mishap can set things back for it. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), formed in May 1989 in response to the Chernobyl accident to improve safety standards at nuclear power plants world wide, shows how industry initiatives to improve the safety record of nuclear operators have surpassed the minimum safety standards imposed by national legislation and have facilitated more uniform safety standards internationally. The recently-established World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) intends to bring together representatives from government, industry, academia and think tanks in an effort to share best practices on nuclear security, in a similar model to WANO. A commitment to nuclear safety is a very common corporate social responsibility principle for companies operating nuclear reactors. The sharing of best practices, performance indicators and peer reviews are mechanisms that could be transposed into the non-proliferation arena, as WINS is attempting to do for nuclear security.

14.20     Industry can contribute to global efforts to raise the political, financial and commercial costs of proliferation, raise the barriers, and raise the standards. Its technical and practical expertise, and unique networks within industry and with government as well as civil society, make it a valuable partner in the promotion of nuclear non-proliferation. Industry’s pragmatic and market driven approach could take the politics out of this matter, and can help underpin the non-proliferation regime.

14.21     As noted elsewhere in this report, new rules of the game are being considered which may have real impact on the development of the industry, most notable among them proposals to multilateralize the nuclear fuel cycle; to limit the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies; and to change NSG rules to insist that countries not exercise the right to develop sensitive technology as a condition of supply, as well as making the adoption of the Additional Protocol – or some more technologically up to date version – a mandatory condition of supply.

14.22     Industry is also at the front line of the development and spread of dual-use nuclear technology and has the capacity to prevent, limit or place conditions upon the spread of that technology, as well as report it, and to influence the type of nuclear technology that is developed in the future. Industry reporting of sales could assist the IAEA in assessing the completeness of member-state declarations.

14.23     Large nuclear companies can exert considerable pressure upon their national governments in their nuclear policy choices. Therefore an industry which makes non-proliferation a priority may also help reinforce the non-proliferation commitments of government. Making a commitment to non-proliferation part of the corporate brand might in fact deliver practical benefits for companies, helping to cultivate better relationships with regulators and non-proliferation advocates, and dispel the poor image created by the anti-nuclear lobby. Of course there are limits to the pressure that even larger nuclear companies can exercise when they are publicly owned and where broader national security and strategic concerns come into play.

14.24     Industry-wide initiatives to stem proliferation would require a harmonisation of business practices, ensuring that no company was disadvantaged for being more proactive on proliferation and thereby discouraging the first mover. More generally, industry should be an active partner with governments in the drafting of regulations and treaties that affect their activities, to ensure that they make operational sense and to encourage compliance.


Recommendations on Nuclear Energy Management

32. The use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should continue to be strongly supported as one of the three fundamental pillars of the NPT, along with disarmament and non-proliferation. Increased resources should be provided, including through the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Programme, to assist developing states in taking full advantage of peaceful nuclear energy for human development. [14.1–3]

33. Support should be given to the initiative launched at the 2008 Hokkaido Toyako G8 Summit for international cooperation on nuclear energy infrastructure, designed to raise awareness worldwide of the importance of the three Ss – safeguards, security and safety – and assist countries concerned in developing the relevant measures. [14.4–6]

34. Proliferation resistance should be endorsed by governments and industry as an essential objective in the design and operation of nuclear facilities, and promoted through both institutional and technical measures – neither is sufficient without the other. [14.7–8]

35. The increasing use of plutonium recycle, and the prospective introduction of fast neutron reactors, must be pursued in ways which enhance non-proliferation objectives and avoid adding to proliferation and terrorism risks. In particular, a key objective of research and development on fast neutron reactors should be to design and operate them so that weapons grade plutonium is not produced. [14.9–15]

36. International measures such as spent fuel take-back arrangements by fuel suppliers, are desirable to avoid increasing spent fuel accumulations in a large number of states. Particular attention should be paid in this respect to take-back of fuel from initial core loads. [14.13]

37. New technologies for spent fuel treatment should be developed to avoid current forms of reprocessing altogether, and as they are established, use of MOX fuel in thermal reactors, and conventional reprocessing plants, can be phased out. [12.26]

38. Nuclear industry, and government-industry collaboration, will need to play a greater role in mitigating the proliferation risks associated with a growing civilian nuclear sector worldwide. Industry should become a more active partner with governments in the drafting of regulations and treaties that affect its activities, to ensure that they make operational sense and to encourage compliance.[14.16–24]

Next: 15. Multilateralizing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle