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Experts See New Nuke Power Plants Spurring Potential Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

By | April 14, 2008

      A looming renaissance in construction of nuclear power plants may increase dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation, according to experts.

      Their comments came hours after Iran announced it will triple its centrifuges that process nuclear materials.

      Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said 6,000 new centrifuges will be placed into production within months, adding to the 3,000 old centrifuges Iran already possesses. Because the new machines are more efficient, they will provide a five-fold increase in Iranian capability for enriching uranium.

      It is the movement of Iran to produce nuclear materials, and its acquisition of ever-greater missile hardware, that has prompted the United States to press for construction of a Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) shield in Europe against enemy missiles coming from Middle Eastern nations such as Iran.

      Existing GMD missile defense installations in Alaska and California guard against any missiles that North Korea might launch toward the United States. North Korea already has detonated, underground, a nuclear weapon.

      Separately, the Bush administration has concluded, in assessing renewed violence in Baghdad and Basra, that Iran is the main precipitator of strife in Iraq, rather than al Qaeda.

      If nations such as Iran pose an increasing threat as they move to process nuclear materials that someday might be used in building bombs, then the counter-strategy should be to tell nations building new nuclear power plants that they shouldn’t begin producing nuclear fuel themselves, the experts advised. Rather, the approach should be for industrialized nations to guarantee to supply nuclear fuel to those nations, and to take back spent fuel.

      Their comments came at a panel forum at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

      Around the globe, as oil prices have soared to triple or more their levels in the 1990s, and as demand for electricity soars with individuals buying computers and economic growth soaring in nations such as China and India, many nations may see construction of new nuclear power plants.

      Construction of new nukes plummeted in many areas after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the old Soviet Union (in Ukraine), and the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 in Pennsylvania.

      But more recently, there are signs of a nuclear power construction renaissance, according to Robert Einhorn, senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense-oriented Washington think tank.

      In the United States, there are plans for construction of a series of new nuclear power plants, which are seen as clean, no-carbon-emissions electrical generators, unlike the carbon-emitting fossil fuel plants using coal or oil.

      Sharon Squassoni, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank, displayed a global map showing locations of proposed new nuclear generating plants, including many in less developed nations. "More than 25 states have announced plans for nuclear power," she said. Of those in the United States, she said that the Bush administration has launched "headlong into supporting nuclear energy, not only in the United States but other countries, in the name of climate change" and cutting carbon emissions to lessen global warming. Where all the fuel for those plants eventually will go when it is spent is unknown, she said, since "no country as yet has a repository for nuclear waste."

      If there is a massive rise in the number of nuclear plants, there will be a concomitant increased demand for nuclear material to fuel them, and "some nations may want to make it themselves," Einhorn warned.

      On a positive note, he continued, it would be cheaper for those nations to purchase fuel from producers in established industrialized nations.

      But, he said, for whatever reasons, those less developed nations might wish to produce fuel themselves, even though that would be more costly. They might argue, for example, that they wish "assurance that they can produce their own fuel," Einhorn said.

      Here, he said, developed nations may wish to step forward and provide assurance that they would provide those less developed countries with any fuel needed for generation capacity, to undercut the rationale that those countries would feel impelled to develop indigenous fissile materials production capabilities.

      Otherwise, as those countries produce and accumulate the low-grade nuclear materials suitable for power generating stations, they could at some later date abruptly veer into processing those fuels into materials for nuclear weapons.

      According to Einhorn, having a multiplicity of nuclear materials processing and production facilities scattered about the globe would raise concerns not only as to what non- electrical-generating purposes might be found for those materials. As well, he continued, there would be concerns as to whether some materials might wind up in the hands of black market networks selling the materials to terrorists.

      In any event, "some nations are likely to succeed" in producing fissile material, and stockpiling it, Einhorn predicted. Then, at a later time of their choosing, they could process that into weapons-grade fuel within six to 24 months. He sees the emergence of "a very unstable world even if very few of those nations" chose to develop weapons, since that might create competitive pressures in still other developing nations to manufacture nuclear weapons.

      Einhorn said the world needs to head off this risky business with a regime of intrusive inspections and stiff economic sanctions against less developed countries that attempt to become nuclear powers. Mild sanctions against North Korea or Iran, for example, would send the wrong message to wanna-be members of the global nuclear club, he said.

      For advanced non-nuclear nations such as Japan, confronted with a bellicose and nuclear-armed North Korea, the non-proliferation strategy should be for the United States to ensure their security, under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

      To be sure, however, there won’t be any instantaneous, short-term appearance of a large number of nuke-wielding less developed nations, another speaker said.

      Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow with the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique in Paris, predicted that the appearance of more nations fielding nuclear weapons "will be a slow-motion process," because this is expensive work.

      Even so, one must worry about proliferation, and worry about the potential military use of some research reactors to produce materials for weapons.

      Another panelist predicting that there won’t be a sudden emergence of a vast number of newly nuclear-armed states was James Acton, a lecturer at King’s College London in the Centre of Science and Security Studies.

      Talking grandly of building nuclear processing facilities, and actually doing so and producing fuel even for civilian electrical generating purposes, can involve formidable amounts of funding and personnel, he noted.

      It can require perhaps 200 to 1,000 personnel to operate a single reactor, he said. And one cannot employ just anyone to operate a reactor, he said. Typically, one would wish to staff it with people possessing three years experience in operating a reactor.

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