Nuclear Spring

by Peter Scoblic | April 23, 2008

Anne Lauvergeon (or "Atomic Anne," as the press calls her) is the fourteenth most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes. She owes this rank, and her nickname, to the fact that she heads the French nuclear company Areva. Three weeks ago, Lauvergeon made an appearance at Harvard's Center for the Environment. And, when she strode to the lectern, she set about toying with the expectations of her audience. Where Americans are accustomed to hearing Europeans lambaste their wasteful way of life and degradation of the planet, Lauvergeon took a more counterintuitive approach: "A tribute to your country's essential contribution to the world debate on the crucial issue of climate change!" She continued, "Yes, I want to pay tribute to Vice President Al Gore and his amazing Inconvenient Truth." This unexpected flattery of her host country didn't just make for good theatrics; it hewed to Areva's marketing plan. The nuclear industry, long the bete noire of environmentalists, has experienced a rehabilitation of late, as carbon--rather than radioactive nasties like uranium and plutonium--has become the chief enemy of the green movement. It is a reversal of fortunes that the nuclear industry, whose plants emit no greenhouse gases, has been only too happy to exploit.

France, which gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors, has been particularly aggressive in marketing its atomic expertise. Within the span of a few weeks in December and January, President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, peddling French nuclear technology. And he is in hot pursuit of other markets as well. Late last year, Areva, which is largely state-owned, inked a deal to build two reactors for China, at a cost of $12 billion. India is its next major target; and Indonesia, Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, and Turkey are considering the company's wares, too.

There are many reasons why countries like France would sell nuclear power (to build international prestige, to gain a strategic toehold in the Middle East, to make money) and many reasons why countries would buy it (growing energy demand, national prestige, anxiety over the supply of hydrocarbons from temperamental dictatorships). But, as Atomic Anne's talk at Harvard implied, there's one justification for nuclear power that the industry and its consumers will increasingly deploy to disarm critics: climate change.

While there's good reason to believe some countries intend to harness nuclear power toward green ends, there's also good reason to believe that other nations will use warming as a pretext for less virtuous purposes--namely, to acquire technology that would allow them to build nuclear weapons. And, even as nuclear power spreads to developing countries without such nefarious motives, the increased production of uranium and plutonium will provide new opportunities for would-be terrorists (or profiteers selling to terrorists). Nuclear power may be a necessary, if not sufficient, weapon against planetary apocalypse; but, in hyping its ameliorative properties, we could well open ourselves to a different sort of catastrophe.

In the American psyche, "nuclear" has long been synonymous with "doom." As Lawrence Wittner writes in The Struggle Against the Bomb, that conviction has applied not only to weapons, but to anything atomic. In fact, the grassroots arms control movement was kick-started in the 1950s less by the horror of duck-and-cover drills or the growth of the Soviet nuclear arsenal than by tests of our own H-bombs, which spewed radiation into the atmosphere. Ultimately, the first U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty, signed by President Kennedy in 1963, limited not nuclear bombs or missiles, but nuclear tests.

Over the next 30 years, this dynamic--whereby concerns that were essentially environmental in nature shaped national security policy--affected nuclear power, as well. To their opponents, atomic power plants were ticking time bombs dotting the American landscape, regularly extruding toxic waste and threatening much worse. Environmentalists believed, in the words of Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, that "nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust." By the late '70s, many opponents of nuclear power and many supporters of nuclear disarmament had come to see themselves merely as different manifestations of the same movement. The panic that followed the Three Mile Island incident helped fertilize the Nuclear Freeze movement, which called on the United States and the Soviet Union to immediately stop the arms race. (The mayor of nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, actually proposed making Hiroshima its "sister city," despite the fact that not a single person had died at TMI.) Conversely, when fear of nuclear war peaked in the early '80s, public opinion turned against further reactor construction. The nuclear industry, already hammered by exorbitant cost overruns and slowing energy demand, entered a long slumber.

It's difficult to pinpoint when atomic-energy optimists began touting the phrase "nuclear renaissance," but the Bush administration's National Energy Policy, published in May 2001 by Dick Cheney's infamously industry-friendly task force, certainly marked a turning point. That document painted a stark picture, in which electricity demand would grow by 45 percent over the next 20 years and existing supplies would not keep pace. "America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s," it said. The report called for increasing America's domestic energy supplies, most controversially by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but perhaps most importantly by supporting "the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy."

President Bush then put taxpayer money behind the idea, signing legislation in 2005 that provided billions in tax credits and loan guarantees to spur construction of the first nuclear plants in years. (The last U.S. reactor had been ordered in 1978.) And it worked. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already received proposals for seven new plants, and many more are in the works.

As the Bush administration pressed its case, it studiously noted that nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases (even as it continued to question the role humans were playing in increasing worldwide temperatures). And, as the prospect of climate change grew more ominous, some environmentalists took another look at nuclear power. In a muchdiscussed conversion, Patrick Moore broke with Greenpeace and argued that "nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet." Liberal legislators and the public began to come around as well. Senator Dianne Feinstein has said, "I've never been a fan of nuclear energy. But reducing emissions from the electricity sector presents a major challenge. And, if we can be assured that new technologies help to produce nuclear energy safely and cleanly, then I think we have to take a look at it." In a 2006 poll by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg, 61 percent of respondents said they supported building more reactors "to prevent global warming."

The nuclear industry has aggressively rebranded itself as eco-friendly. John Ritch, the head of the World Nuclear Association, an international trade group, has painted nuclear as the only barrier against apocalypse: "We must place ourselves on a trajectory for a twenty-first-century nuclear industry that achieves the deployment of nothing less than 8,000-10,000 gigawatts of nuclear power"--that is, more than 20 times current capacity. "To plan for anything less would be to invite environmental disaster." This kind of hyperbole infuriates skeptics of the nuclear renaissance, who note that nuclear power cannot grow nearly fast enough to "solve" global warming--the optimistic scenario put forward by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) predicts the amount of nuclear power will merely double by 2030.

But hyping nuclear power brings greater problems than false hope. During the cold war, the anti-nuclear conflation of security threats with environmental concerns made little sense. The spread of atomic power had nothing to do with why the United States and the Soviet Union were building nuclear arsenals or whether they might someday use them. But, as fears of terrorism took precedence, the potential spread of fissile material has made the environmental movement's once-spurious national security linkages more credible.

The Middle East is already intolerably hot, yet global warming seems to be on the minds of many countries in the region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Jordan, and, of course, Iran are all pursuing, planning, or exploring their first nuclear power reactors. Just last week, the United Arab Emirates announced that it would go ahead with a civilian nuclear program, making it the first Gulf state to do so. Other states now considering their nuclear options range from Venezuela to Belarus to Indonesia. In justifying their programs to the world, "they've all jumped on the 'nuclear is clean and green' bandwagon," according to Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For example, Taiwan's president-elect, Ma Ying-jeou, has called for expanding the island's nuclear capacity to help combat climate change. Thailand announced last summer that it would build its first reactor and hopes to ultimately produce 25 percent of the country's electricity from nuclear power. "Without nuclear, you couldn't reduce greenhouse gases," said Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand.

Some of this greenery seems sincere. South Africa, for example, which gave up its nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s, has strict anti-pollution regulations that have driven up the cost of coal, making its nuclear expansion sensible. Indeed, although the continent uses little energy, Africa as a whole has taken an intense interest in nuclear power because of its fear of global-warming-induced desertification.

By contrast, Turkey's announcement that it would pursue a civilian nuclear program "is clearly a hedge against Iran," says proliferation expert Joseph Cirincione, referring to Tehran's suspected A-bomb efforts. Nevertheless, in explaining the decision last fall, Energy Minister Hilmi Guler stressed to journalists that nuclear energy is "environment friendly, with its carbon-free emissions." Indeed, Iran itself has cited global warming as justification for its uranium enrichment program, parroting the Bush administration's promotion of nuclear energy. "By trumpeting the potential benefits of nuclear power, the United States is essentially crafting an excuse for other countries," explains Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The problem here, as any casual Iran watcher can tell you, is that the same technology that is used to produce uranium fuel for nuclear reactors can be exploited to make the explosive core of a nuclear weapon. The danger then lies not in the reactors themselves, but in the facilities that enrich uranium--as well as in the facilities that reprocess spent uranium fuel into plutonium, which can also be used in both reactors and weapons. Of course, as the number of nuclear reactors around the world increases, so will the demand for fuel and the opportunities for nuclear mischief. According to Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations, under certain scenarios the fuel supply might need to double, triple, or even sextuple by 2050 to meet demand.

As a result, countries are already jockeying to become suppliers of enriched uranium. South Africa's 2007 draft nuclear energy program calls for development of the full fuel cycle, from uranium mining through reprocessing. Former prime minister John Howard argued that Australia should get into the uranium enrichment business as the world turns to nuclear power to combat climate change, and Argentina, Brazil, and Canada are joining the gold rush as well. Recently, Kazakhstan partnered with Russia to participate in a new enrichment center being built in Siberia.

At the moment, most of the countries considering commercial enrichment programs are friendly to the United States, and there is little reason to expect they would not impose strict safeguards on the material they produce. At the same time, even friendly countries with safeguards have been known to misplace nuclear material. Japan, for instance, is unable to account for nearly 200 kilograms of plutonium--enough to make dozens of nuclear weapons. Moreover, as nuclear power spreads, other less friendly states will inevitably decide they would rather produce their own fuel than purchase it abroad--because they plan to build a bomb, or they worry their suppliers may be fickle, or they simply think the ability to enrich uranium makes their country look technologically advanced. Indeed, many states already chafe at the "nuclear apartheid" of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which allows an elite few to possess nuclear weapons but denies them to the rest. A further division between states that supply nuclear fuel and those that consume it would likely trigger resentment. And the spread of enrichment technology to the Middle East--the Gulf Cooperation Council has already proposed establishing a uranium-enrichment consortium--could increase the threat of nuclear proliferation exponentially.

What makes abuse of the global warming rationale more likely is that the Bush administration itself has used it to justify dangerous nuclear decisions. In the summer of 2005, President Bush reversed decades of precedent and announced that the United States would aid India's civilian nuclear power program, even though doing so violates international norms, requires changes to U.S. law, and frees indigenous uranium for use in India's nuclear weapons program-- a development that will likely encourage Pakistan to augment its own arsenal. Despite this, and despite the fact that the planned expansion of India's nuclear sector will do little to offset its burgeoning coal industry, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained that "providing India with an environmentally friendly energy source like nuclear energy is an important goal."

Worse, in 2006, the administration announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, whose goal is to encourage the spread of nuclear power. GNEP is supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation by limiting the number of states that supply nuclear fuel, but it does so by promoting the conversion of spent reactor fuel into plutonium--a process that the United States has banned (and encouraged others to ban) since the Ford administration because it increases stockpiles of bomb-ready material.

The truth is that nuclear power could help slow global warming if there were a concerted international effort to replace coal plants with reactors. Critics are right to challenge the industry's more self-serving forecasts, but nuclear power is a proven technology that can reliably produce large quantities of energy without contributing to climate change. That said, the effort and expense required to expand nuclear power to the point at which it substantially reduced the growth of carbon emissions would be enormous--and worthwhile only if we could control the accompanying proliferation threat.

That means limiting the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities even as the demand for nuclear fuel increases. Essentially, we would need to deny states the opportunity to develop such facilities, regardless of whether they were doing so for purely commercial purposes (like Australia) or for malicious ones (like Iran). Unfortunately, the current international regime doesn't give the International Atomic Energy Agency anything close to that kind of power. Indeed, according to its institutional mandate, the iaea cannot refuse nuclear assistance to states that are complying with the Nonproliferation Treaty.

One answer, albeit an ambitious one, would be to require all states to forgo uranium enrichment and reprocessing. That is, ownership and operation of existing facilities--whether held by private, quasi-private, or government entities--would be transferred either to the iaea or to a new institution, and the facilities themselves would be granted extraterritorial status, like the U.N. headquarters in New York. A moratorium would be placed on new reprocessing facilities, and any new enrichment plants that were built to meet growing fuel demand would have to be internationally controlled.

States that did not already have enrichment and reprocessing technology might blanch at being forbidden from ever developing it. But those states would have a guaranteed supply of fuel from an international organization, and they could console themselves with the fact that every other country was in the same boat. For enrichment-capable countries, too, the plan would pose challenges. What would it take, for example, to buy out the private elements of existing uranium-enrichment companies? In the United States, any whiff of "nationalization"--let alone internationalization--would provoke industrial and ideological opposition. But the enrichment industry is small: There is only a single uranium-enrichment facility currently operating in the United States, and it is leased from the U.S. government by the United States Enrichment Corporation, a private company with a market capitalization of less than $1 billion. Internationalizing a venture that size seems a small price to pay for strengthening the nonproliferation regime. Indeed, globally, the enrichment industry yields only $5 billion in revenue per year--hardly enough for any country to justify undermining nonproliferation efforts.

True, such ideas have floundered before. In 1946, drawing on recommendations prepared by physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who had led America's wartime effort to develop the atomic bomb, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and David Lilienthal, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, presented President Truman with a plan to internationalize all enrichment and reprocessing under an Atomic Development Authority. That plan shattered on the animosities of the incipient cold war--neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was ready to cede control of such a crucial technology. But, as we move into this perilous new phase, it's a plan that should be exhumed and urgently considered, so that we can prevent this nuclear renaissance from slipping into a nuclear dark age.

J. Peter Scoblic, TNR's executive editor, is the author of the forthcoming U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security, from which parts of this article were adapted.

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