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Before the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, many countries were planning to acquire nuclear-power reactors, or to increase the number they operate, in the belief that nuclear energy will give them a more secure supply of energy, one that will emit less greenhouse gases than fossil-fuelled power stations and, therefore, contribute proportionately less to global warming. In spite of worries about the safety of nuclear power, enhanced by the accident at Fukushima, a significant increase in the use of nuclear power for electricity generation, known as a nuclear renaissance, will probably go ahead. But a nuclear renaissance will bring with it serious security problems. A shortage of uranium to fuel nuclear reactors will lead, in the future, to many being fuelled with plutonium. This will increase the risk the risk that nuclear weapons will spread to countries that do not now have them and the risk of nuclear terrorism. New mechanisms will be needed to control and regulate plutonium.
One consequence of the unfolding nuclear disaster at Fukushima in March 2011 is the closure of Britain's only commercial mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear-fuel fabrication facility. The closure, "at the earliest practical opportunity", was announced on 3 August 2011 by the British government-owned Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) the owner of the plant (1). The facility - known as the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) - was operated at Britain’s nuclear establishment at Sellafield, Cumbria, England, (. SMP has cost the British taxpayer about £1,400 million ($2,300 million) since it was commissioned in the early 1990s.
SMP was built to fabricate mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel from plutonium and uranium dioxides for use in nuclear-power reactors. Plutonium is inevitably produced in nuclear reactors as they ‘burn’ their uranium fuel to generate electricity. It is separated from spent reactor fuel in a reprocessing plant, which chemically separates plutonium from unused uranium and nuclear-fission products.
It is hardly a year ago that a fuel-fabrication deal was struck with ten Japanese electricity utilities that was seen as a "huge opportunity" for the SMP. The Japanese were the plant's only remaining customer and it is now extremely unlikely, at least in the short term, that any Japanese operator will load MOX fuel into any reactor. A reactor at Fukushima Daiichi (Fukushima Daiichi 3) was loaded with some MOX fuel; two other Japanese reactors use MOX fuel.
SMP proved to be a white elephant. Ever since it was built, in 1996, it has had an extremely bad record. It never operated anywhere near its planned capacity of 120 tonnes of MOX per year. In 2006, the nominal capacity was lowered to 40 tonnes per year because of faults in the production line. But even this level was never reached. Between 2002 and 2010 a total of only just over 13 tonnes of MOX fuel was fabricated (2). Since then, the plant had been under refurbishment.
It appears that despite the dismal failure of the SMP, the NDA is considering constructing a new MOX plant. The preferred option of the NDA, the trade unions, and the Labour Party opposition is for Britain’s large stockpile of plutonium to be manufactured into MOX fuel at a new MOX plant. A decision on a new plant may be made as early as this autumn. If it is decided to go ahead with a new plant, history may well repeat itself.
Today’s nuclear-power reactors are normally fuelled with uranium dioxide. There is, however, a foreseeable shortage of high-quality uranium. The net energy, a measure of the quality of the uranium ore, is the energy produced per tonne of uranium fuel minus the energy used to produce the reactor fuel elements. The quality of the world’s uranium resources is much more important than the quantity of these resources. Assuming that the amount of energy produced by nuclear energy remains constant at 2.2 per cent of world energy supply, the net energy of uranium will fall to zero by about 2050 (3). If a greater amount of nuclear energy is used then the time scale will be even shorter.
The foreseeable shortage of uranium ores rich enough to give a positive net energy gives rise to considerable pressure to use plutonium to fuel reactors in, for example, fast breeder reactors (FBRs). An FBR, by using a cunning design, produces more nuclear fuel (plutonium) than it burns. A family of FBRs will, in time, become almost self-sufficient in fuel.
The first generation of FBRs will normally use a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel typically consisting of up to 20 per cent plutonium dioxide with the remainder being uranium dioxide. Later generations will use fuel containing mainly plutonium and requiring only a small input of uranium (4). If the nuclear industry’s ambitions are fulfilled, FBRs will be used commercially after about 2030.
In the meantime, ordinary nuclear-power reactors will increasingly use MOX fuel containing about 5 per cent of plutonium dioxide and 95 per cent uranium dioxide. Some current nuclear-power reactors in Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan, and Switzerland, already use MOX fuel elements in a fraction (normally about a third) of their cores.
Looking very much further into the future – perhaps towards the end of this century or even later – the nuclear industry hopes that nuclear-fusion reactors will become a commercial reality. Although the effective generation of electricity by nuclear fusion has yet to be demonstrated the nuclear community is hopeful that fusion reactors will eventually prove to be a widely used, environmentally benign source of civil electricity, with many advantages. A fusion reactor would, for example, produce relatively little radioactive waste.
With the closure of the SMP, commercial quantities of MOX fuel are currently manufactured only in one plant in France, which produces 195 tonnes of MOX per year (5). A Belgian plant, producing 40 tonnes of MOX per year, was closed down in April 2007. Before the Fukushima accident, Japan was planning to start up a MOX plant at Rokkasho in 2015, producing 130 tonnes of MOX per year. A small plant is operating at Tokai Mura, Japan, producing 10 tonnes of MOX per year. Russia is building a plant at Zheleznogorsk, planned to produce about 60 tonnes of MOX per year and is operating a small plant at Mayak, Ozersk, producing 10 tonnes of MOX per year. In 2015, the total world production of MOX will be about 400 tonnes a year.
In 2000, under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, America and Russia to each dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium considered to be surplus to requirements. The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site, South Carolina began construction in August 2007 and will convert the American weapon-grade plutonium to MOX fuel. MFFF is expected to begin operating in 2016. It will convert 3.5 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium per year into MOX fuel. The MOX will be loaded into two nuclear reactors.
In November 2007, America and Russia agreed that Russia would dispose of 34 tonnes of its weapons-grade plutonium by converting it into MOX. The MOX fuel will be burned in the BN-600 FBR at the Beloyarsk nuclear plant, and in the BN-800 FBR being constructed at the same site. Russia should begin burning MOX fuel in the BN-600 reactor in 2012 and in the BN-800 soon after.
There are two major problems with plutonium. Firstly, it has a very high toxicity for inhalation, just a few tens of micrograms inhaled into the lung would have a very high probability of causing lung cancer, and so it must be completely isolated from the human environment. Secondly, it can be used by countries or nuclear terrorists to fabricate nuclear weapons. Plutonium is, therefore, a very dangerous material. A lot of it is, however, already spread around the world.
The total worldwide stock of plutonium is about 500 tonnes, of which about a half is military, contained in nuclear weapons, and a half is separated civil plutonium. Stocks of civil plutonium are held by: France, 56 tonnes (excluding 28 tonnes which are foreign owned); Germany, 13 tonnes (in France, Germany and the UK); India, 7 tonnes; Japan, 48 tonnes (including 38 tonnes in France and the UK); Russia, 47 tonnes; and the UK, 79 tonnes (excluding 27 tonnes which are foreign owned) (6).
An increase in the use of nuclear power will lead to the further global spread of plutonium as MOX fuel is increasingly used as a nuclear fuel and as plutonium is used to fuel future FBRs.
A proposal to reduce the plutonium threat is the establishment of a ‘nuclear fuel bank’ or nuclear fuel reserve, administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The aim would be to prevent new countries obtaining the capability to enrich uranium and/or to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, the most sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle insofar as nuclear-weapon proliferation and terrorism are concerned. The fuel bank would assure a back-up supply of fuel for nuclear-power reactors on a non-discriminatory, non-political basis, thereby reducing the need for countries to develop their own uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies.
The fuel bank would, it is proposed, be set up in a way that would not disrupt the existing commercial market in nuclear fuels. Former IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei explains, "I want to make sure that every country that is a bona fide user of nuclear energy, and that is fulfilling its non-proliferation obligations, is getting fuel. It is not asking any State to give up its rights under the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). The importance of this step is that, by providing reliable access to fuel at competitive market prices, we remove the need for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. In so doing, we could go a long way towards addressing current concerns about the dissemination of sensitive fuel cycle technologies." (7)
In the words of Tariq Rauf, Head of the IAEA’s Verification and Security Policy Coordination Section, the setting up of a nuclear fuel bank under international safeguards “is an either/or situation, if we don’t make it work, then we must prepare to live in a world where dozens of countries have the capability and key ingredients to make nuclear weapons." (8)
The international community faces a dilemma. If global warming increases and the world population continues to grow, a massive number of people will die from diseases and food shortages among other things. If nuclear power is used to reduce global warming, the increased worldwide availability of plutonium will increase the risk that nuclear weapons will spread far and wide and the probability of nuclear wars will considerably increase. A world of many nuclear powers would be one of nuclear anarchy and very difficult to manage (9).
Can the world solve this dilemma? Can the world’s energy demands be met without a significant reliance on nuclear energy? Can sufficient non-nuclear energy be produced to avoid a disastrous increase in the global temperature? If so, how? Only time will tell.
1. SMP closure – latest news, NDA Statement on Future of the Sellafield MOX Plant, 3 August 2011 www.sellafieldsites.com/news/2011-08-03/smp…
2. Fissile Material – International Panel on Fissile Materials, By Mycle Schneider, 3 August 2011 www.fissilematerials.org/blog/
3. Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, “Energy Lifecycle of Nuclear Power”,
Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, “Into the Unknown, fuelling civil nuclear power?”, in Frank Barnaby and James Kemp (eds.) “Secure Energy; Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming”, Oxford Research Group, London, March 2007.
4. W.J.Nuttall, “Nuclear Renaissance; Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power”, Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia, 2005.
5. World Nuclear Association, Mixed Oxide Fuel, MOX, the production of nuclear fuel from reprocessed plutonium www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf29.html
6. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, SIPRI yearbook 2010 Oxford University Press, 2010, table 8A, Global Stocks of Separated Plutonium 2009, p 369.
7. International Atomic Energy Agency, International Fuel Bank, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/PressReleases/2006/prn200615.html
8. IAEA seeks guarantees of nuclear fuel, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/PressReleases/2006/prn200615.html
9. Ken Booth, “New Dimensions of Security and International Organizations”, paper given at an international symposium in June 2007 organised by the Turkish General Staff. www.aber.ac.uk/interpol/en/research/DDMI/research_trust_building_workshops.html
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About the Author
Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London
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