Friday, August 22, 2008

A Recipe For Failure

Why does the anti-proliferation crowd continue to stubbornly insist on the efficacy of policies that are demonstrable failures?

Take, for instance, this recent piece from Leonor Tomero of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: "The Future of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: Next Steps." I believe that this article typifies the dangerous trend towards Americocentrism in U.S. policy circles. As a Russia specialist I find the once-through fuel cycle argument incomprehensible, as it is so clearly an abysmal failure that I have a hard time believing that professionals can pretend otherwise.

In their world, apparently, a "good example" on the part of the United States will forestall the spread of weapons-sensitive technologies. But in actuality, other nations have generally scoffed at American demands that they forgo particular technologies. Especially today, with Russia offering civilian nuclear technology to Iran in open defiance of US wishes. In earlier years Russia had offered fuel reprocessing services to all countries as well, but in the last few years this has been restricted to fuel made in Russia only. Russia has made a point of aggressively marketing nuclear power abroad, and there is no good reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon.

Even sillier is the proposal that "Washington should demand that its allies abandon ongoing plans or forego ambitions to develop these technologies. [reprocessing and fast reactors]" One need only look so far as France to see the wonderful success that this policy is likely to have. Thirty years of U.S. "leadership" in this area has been completely ignored by the French, who in the meantime have managed to demonstrate that reprocessing can be done well. In practice, we are in no position to "demand" anything. Tomero claims that this policy "worked in the past," citing the example of Taiwan (which in my mind is not really a great supporting case). The places where reprocessing has been abandoned have generally done so for the very sensible reason that uranium was absurdly cheap for decades, and without fast reactors the need for separated plutonium failed to materialize as expected. U.S. pressure seems to have had very little to do with it. Besides, North Korea proved dramatically that even a desperately poor and isolated country can develop the technology to construct a nuclear weapon. No commercial reprocessing needed.

Tomero suggests that "at home, the new administration should redirect funding currently provided to the national labs for reprocessing and fast neutron reactor research to programs that improve and reduce the cost of safeguards technology, explore ways to make uranium enrichment more proliferation-resistant, and develop renewable energy." To understand just how little good this is likely to do, just imagine what the likely results would be after a few decades. Research funding for reprocessing research and fast reactors has been moribund for years in any case. I cannot imagine any credible means how uranium enrichment can be made "proliferation resistant"--indeed, at Oak Ridge back during WWII the U.S. succeeded in producing weapons-grade material using even crude, inefficient, and handicapped technologies. In the real world, we're likely to see the commercialization of laser enrichment techniques like Silex. Even if the U.S. government squelches current research into this technology, it is so advantageous that it is certain to be reinvented by some other interested party. This may be unfortunate, as the very features that make laser enrichment so attractive make it a genuine proliferation nightmare. Unlike commercial fuel reprocessing, laser enrichment could make the clandestine production of weapons-grade U-235 absurdly easy.

Hard experience is fast exploding the popular notion that government investment in renewables will prevent the need for nuclear power in the future. Just look at Germany, where the nuclear phase-out is quickly losing public favor and will likely become an unpleasant memory when the SPD loses power. France is already nuclear, the UK is planning new plants, as are many of the former Soviet satellites and republics. The UK seriously reviewed the renewable options and found them inadequate, choosing to go nuclear despite the unpopularity of doing so. Indeed, it appears the rest of the world will ultimately go nuclear no matter what the US does.

The choice, therefore, is likely to be between various nuclear futures, rather than between a nuclear and a nuclear-free option. And because the U.S. has to live among its brother nations, it is in our interest to help build the best of all possible nuclear futures. Do we want to abandon the future to other nations with more vision and foresight than we? Do we want the Russians to realize the light-metal fast breeder using aqueous reprocessing, with all its attendant risks, when we could create a thorium-based fuel cycle that, upon maturity, would end the need for enrichment and produce no separated weapons-usable materials? I know what option I want. And pretending that we can go on with the failed policies of the 1970s isn't doing anyone any real favors.

1 comment:

DV8 2XL said...

I say this with no sense of anti-American triumphalism, but from the perspectives of those who kept on with developing their nuclear programs after the U.S. left the game, the current debate about this technology in the States, centering on anti-proliferation issues, sounds a bit pompous.

You are very right when you point out that the U.S. is not the technical leader in nuclear technologies it once was, nor does it control a significant amount of uranium, and has not demonstrated that it has any real influence on nuclear related matters outside its own borders. In fact the situation with India looks very much like the U.S. backing down, not setting terms, no matter what sort of spin that is put on it.

What is clear, is that these presumptions are only for internal consumption, and anytime a country starts to delude itself like this, the problems are just starting. We saw it happen in the U.S.S.R. and we saw it happen in the U.K. before in the 50's and 60's, when the fantasy that they were still a major imperial power was leveraged to influence public opinion.

Unfortunately nuclear issues are not the only ones where this is true in America today.

It pains many Canadians to see the U.S. heading down this path; you're our neighbors, you're our best friend, and you are also our older brother, the one who left home first to make it on his own. There is no pleasure in seeing you like this, and a good deal of fear that things might get worse.