07 March 2009

Climate change and nuclear proliferation

The direct effects of climate change that might have national security implications for Australia have been much discussed. They include inundation of important areas of habitation and agriculture in the Asian region, large scale reduction of food production in Asia, and greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

One important issue that has barely been mentioned by Australian national security planners is the proliferation risk presented by a likely renaissance of nuclear power in response to the need to reduce emissions.

It is hard to construct a scenario in which the world produces enough low-emissions electricity without a massive expansion of the world’s fleet of nuclear power stations. This means that there will be many additional nuclear-capable states, simply because of all the investment in civil nuclear power and supporting infrastructure, including research facilities and tertiary education in advanced nuclear engineering. No country will rely upon an industry it cannot support technically for anything as important as its electricity supply.

A major interdisciplinary study undertaken by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003 explored the issues involved in a large-scale expansion of world nuclear power generation. The MIT team postulated a global growth scenario that by mid-century would see 1000 to 1500 reactors of 1000 megawatt-electric (MWe) capacity each deployed worldwide, compared to a capacity equivalent to 366 such reactors in service in 2003. This sounds impressive, and does indeed represent a very challenging investment program, but in fact in percentage terms it would represent only a minimal contribution to the reduction of the world’s reliance on fossil fuels for its electricity generation. On MIT’s projections of the growth of electricity demand, deployment of 1000 Gigawatts (GWe) of nuclear generating capacity would only increase the proportion of the world’s electricity derived from nuclear from 17% in 2003 to 19% in 2050.

As part of the study the MIT team considered where 1000 new nuclear base-load stations might be located. As an illustrative scenario, they postulated that 300 of the new reactors would be in the United States, 210 in Europe and Canada, 115 in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, 50 in the Former Soviet Union, 200 in China, India and Pakistan, 75 in Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico, and 50 in “Other Developing Countries” of which the leading contributors are expected to be Iran, South Africa, Egypt, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

While this is a scenario rather than a forecast, it demonstrates that the growth of the world’s nuclear power industry could produce an outcome that ought to be taken seriously by Australian defence planners: we are likely to be living in a much more nuclear-capable region. Any country with a complete fuel cycle will be in a position to exercise a military nuclear option relatively quickly.

The MIT study concluded that the current international safeguards regime is inadequate to meet the security challenges of the expanded nuclear deployment contemplated in the global growth scenario. It concluded further that the reprocessing system now used in Europe, Japan and Russia, which involves separation and recycling of plutonium, presents unwarranted proliferation risks.

We need to take seriously the regional proliferation risk inherent in the development of regional nuclear electricity capability. This means far more than just attempting to bring about a reformed non-proliferation regime that will prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons capability.

As the MIT team noted, the current non-proliferation regime is inadequate. I would rate the chances of strengthening it to the extent required – bankable security from any proliferation threat – as very low indeed. Anti-proliferation rules can be broken or circumvented. From the earliest days of nuclear weapons development in the 1930s to the present, the key to nuclear proliferation has been the movement of key personnel, not some imagined mechanism of technology transfer. To take just one example, before returning home to lead the Pakistani nuclear program, AQ Khan was working in a security classified European enrichment program in the Netherlands. An illicit network established by him was subsequently involved in the covert spread of nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan to North Korea, Libya and Iran.

The forthcoming nuclear renaissance will see many more top level nuclear technologists moving to wherever the best-resourced and most influential jobs are, and there will be a much larger trade in nuclear materials and sensitive equipment.

An adequate response to the emerging risk requires that we invest directly in our domestic nuclear engineering capability, as we were doing through the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s and 1960s, so that if need be we have the technological capability to counter the threat directly. The only adequate basis for that will be the progressive establishment of our own nuclear industry, on a fully independent fuel cycle basis.

The successful adoption of this approach will require that we set out to reverse the current politically encouraged public aversion to nuclear energy. Every time a political leader makes an election promise not to do something in relation to nuclear energy, the nuclear aversion is reinforced, without proper public debate about the ramifications of proceeding or not proceeding.

The only sure counter to the potential for a military nuclear capability to emerge in our region is to have the technological capability to match such an eventuality. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation in which we are arguing the relative merits of the Joint Strike Fighter vis a vis the Sukhoi fighters in the region, and suddenly realise that this has little relevance to whether we have the most capable regional defence force, because East and South East Asia are embarking on a nuclear arms race.

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