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Nuclear Growth and Proliferation Issues

Presented to the 2007 Conference of the
Australian Nuclear Association, Sydney, 19 October 2007

The views in this paper are the author's, not
necessarily those of the Australian Government.

SUMMARY Nuclear energy is gaining increased
interest worldwide, especially because of its potential to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The expansion of nuclear
power raises the issue of ensuring there is not a corresponding
increase in the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. In
fact, nuclear power in itself does not present a proliferation
problem, but there is a need to address the spread of
enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. International
cooperation – in particular, the GNEP initiative –
is furthering the establishment of new, proliferation-resistant
fuel cycle technologies, together with new institutional
arrangements to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.
With the world's largest uranium reserves, Australia can
expect to have a major influence in these
developments.

1. Introduction

Nuclear energy is gaining increased interest worldwide,
especially because of its potential to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. In our region, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand
and Vietnam are considering nuclear power programs, and now the
possibility of nuclear power is receiving serious attention in
Australia. The expansion of nuclear power to a wider
range of countries raises the issue of how to ensure there is
not a corresponding increase in the risk of nuclear weapons
proliferation.

Here, it is important to appreciate that nuclear power in
itself does not present a proliferation problem. While
plutonium is produced during irradiation of fuel in a reactor,
this plutonium is not available for misuse unless it is
separated by reprocessing. At both the "front
end" and the "back end" of the fuel cycle,
however, technologies are involved which, in the wrong hands,
could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear
weapons.

Today, most power reactors require LEU (low enriched
uranium) fuel – hence there is a requirement for uranium
enrichment. Plutonium recycle – which has
advantages both for spent fuel management and for optimising
uranium resource utilisation – currently requires
reprocessing, i.e. the separation of plutonium. With both
these technologies – enrichment and reprocessing –
there can be a risk that capabilities acquired ostensibly for
"civil" purposes could be diverted to produce
fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The position that nuclear power in itself does not present a
proliferation problem is confirmed by historical
experience. Proliferation programs have followed two
routes:

  • operation of reactors of a type optimised for production of low
    burnup plutonium – including large natural uranium
    fuelled "research" reactors such as those of India,
    Israel and the DPRK, and now being built by Iran –
    together with reprocessing plants or substantial hot cells for
    separation of plutonium; or
  • operation of uranium enrichment plants – particularly
    stolen Urenco centrifuge technology which found its way onto
    the black market. Examples here include Pakistan, Iraq
    and Libya. Iran's enrichment program has similar
    origins – and Iran's pursuit of enrichment in
    violation of Security Council resolutions raises international
    concern about its underlying purpose.

None of these cases involved a nuclear power program,
although in the case of Iran, once its secret enrichment
program was exposed Iran has claimed that its purpose is for
fuelling power reactors.

Two conclusions follow:

  • the
    problem is not the spread of nuclear power, but the spread of
    proliferation-sensitive nuclear technologies;
  • maintaining the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime
    depends on maintaining effective control over these
    technologies.

In addition to current proliferation challenges, there is a
broader challenge on the horizon. To date, reprocessing
plants and the recycle of plutonium are not widespread.
But the sustainable use of uranium resources, and the
minimisation of high level waste, will require plutonium
recycle to become a regular part of the civil fuel cycle in the
future. Plutonium recycle using fast neutron reactors can
improve the efficiency of uranium utilisation by a factor of
some 50-60. Fast neutron reactors also offer substantial
waste management advantages, through transmutation of actinides
and long-lived fission products. However, plutonium
recycle based on the established "fast breeder"
reactor concept – in which high-fissile plutonium is
produced in a "blanket" and separated through
reprocessing – presents obvious proliferation
concerns.

Accordingly, there is a need not only to maintain and
strengthen the institutional aspects of the non-proliferation
regime – such as treaties, verification and national
controls – but also to reinforce the regime at a
technical level through the development of
proliferation-resistant technologies. Especially
important is the development of an approach to plutonium
recycle that avoids adding to, and if possible reduces,
proliferation risk.

2. Addressing the spread of sensitive nuclear
technologies

As noted above, past and current proliferation cases have
involved illicit development of enrichment and reprocessing
capabilities, rather than misuse of facilities developed in
support of nuclear power programs. A commercial project
developed in full compliance with safeguards commitments would
not normally give rise to proliferation concerns.
However, because Iran, once its clandestine enrichment program
was exposed, has made much of its claimed "rights"
and has sought to characterise this program as a legitimate
civil activity, the Iranian case in particular has focused
international attention on the potential risks to the
non-proliferation regime posed by the spread of sensitive
nuclear technologies (SNT).

It is neither necessary nor cost effective for every country
with a nuclear power program to have uranium enrichment and
reprocessing facilities. Because possession of such
capabilities, particularly in regions of tension, could give
rise to international concerns, and also because of the
technical complexity and high development cost, most countries
have not attempted to establish SNT capabilities.
Moreover, for the majority of countries development of SNT
would not make any economic sense. Several recent
initiatives focus on how to create conditions of supply such
that countries have no legitimate need to develop national SNT
facilities.

It is now apparent that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) does not adequately deal with the issue of SNT. The
NPT refers to the "inalienable" right to use
nuclear energy. The Treaty certainly does not guarantee
the right to develop SNT. Nor however does the Treaty
explicitly limit the development of SNT, other than by the
fundamental obligations of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) not
to acquire (or seek to acquire) nuclear weapons, and to place
all their nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.

When the NPT was negotiated, it was thought that development
of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities would be beyond the
means of most NNWS. In retrospect, this was
short-sighted. Before the Treaty was concluded there were
already several NNWS developing enrichment or reprocessing
capabilities (e.g. Germany, Australia, Belgium), and several
more, both legitimate and illicit, have emerged since. In
addition to the five NWS and the three non-NPT Parties,
currently there are ten NNWS that have, or have had, enrichment
plants[1], and
six NNWS that have, or have had, reprocessing plants[2].

Current approaches to control the spread of SNT have focused
on measures against the transfer of equipment, components,
special materials and technology, through national export
controls and multilateral coordination within the NSG (Nuclear
Suppliers Group). However, these approaches do not fully
address the problems of illicit acquisition of enrichment
technology and development of indigenous enrichment
technology. A way is needed to assess the international
acceptability of enrichment projects regardless of whether they
involve transfers of controlled items.

Concerns about SNT programs are not addressed simply by
having these activities placed under safeguards.
Safeguards are an essential part of international
confidence-building, but safeguards alone cannot provide
assurance about a country's future intent. An
enrichment or reprocessing facility under safeguards today
could be used as the basis for break-out from non-proliferation
commitments in the future. In the case of enrichment, a
large centrifuge plant, using LEU feed, could produce
sufficient HEU for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days, or
even hours[3].
An essential aspect of non-proliferation is minimising
the risk of break-out occurring, through limiting the countries
with SNT projects to those regarded as presenting a low
proliferation risk.

Since the NPT does not elaborate on the issues surrounding
SNT, it is now apparent there is a need to develop an
international framework dealing with these issues, to
complement the objectives of the NPT. Such a framework
might address the following elements:

  • how
    to reduce the availability of SNT for misuse now or in the
    future;
  • how
    to ensure that countries with nuclear power programs have a
    secure and reliable supply of fuel, so they have no legitimate
    need to develop national enrichment or reprocessing
    capabilities;
  • development of proliferation-resistant fuel cycle
    technologies.

An important political dimension must be recognized here
– a number of countries feel strongly that they should
have the opportunity to develop independent SNT capabilities,
even though in practice they are unlikely to do so, for reasons
of economics and technical difficulty. These countries
are sensitive about the possibility of enrichment being limited
to cartels which could dictate price or even deny supply.
They also see it as an issue of principle – a sentiment
that is being exploited by Iran.

In order for measures to limit access to technology to gain
general international acceptance, attention needs be given to
two aspects:

  • substantial diplomatic effort must be invested into explaining
    why limits on access to technology are necessary to maintain an
    effective non-proliferation regime – a regime that serves
    national security interest of every country;
  • issues of equity must be taken into account – countries
    with nuclear power programs must be confident that nuclear fuel
    will be available on fair terms and conditions.

These considerations are reflected in a number of the
proposals outlined in the following pages.

3. Supply-side measures – reducing the
availability of SNT

There is on-going work seeking to establish a political
framework in which decisions on transfers of SNT would be more
stringently regulated. In 2004 the United States proposed
that members of the NSG should refrain from transferring
enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology to any
country that does not already have "full-scale
functioning" facilities. Subsequently, the
G8[4] agreed that SNT be transferred
"only pursuant to criteria consistent with global
non-proliferation norms and to those states rigorously
committed to these norms."

The NSG has been discussing what such criteria might
involve. While details of the NSG's deliberations
are not publicly available, possible criteria could include: a
country's non-proliferation and safeguards record and
whether it has ratified an Additional Protocol; whether there
is a clear economic rationale for the project concerned;
whether there is multination or regional involvement in the
project; and the implications of the project for international
and regional security.

4. Demand-side measures – reducing the
requirement for SNT

Recent initiatives have shifted focus from supply and denial
policies to addressing demand – how to create conditions
under which countries that might otherwise consider national
enrichment projects would have no reason to continue –
indeed would have incentives not to do so. For example, a
number of proposals involve supply assurances – that
countries choosing to forgo national enrichment projects would
be given assurances about the supply of nuclear fuel at
commercial prices.

One of the main proposals along these lines is the
"Concept for a Multilateral Mechanism for Reliable Access
to Nuclear Fuel" (RANF), launched by France, Germany, the
Netherlands, Russia, the UK and the US in June 2006. This
proposal focuses on assurances for reliable supply of
enrichment services or enriched uranium for countries not
pursuing national enrichment or reprocessing projects. In
July 2007 the US and Russia launched a new initiative,
developing the fuel assurance concept further.

A further elaboration in this area is the concept of an
international fuel cycle centre, under which enrichment
facilities would be operated by groups of countries rather than
as national projects. Interested countries could
participate, securing a share of product and profit, but
without having access to the technology – the technology
holder would retain sole control of the technology. In
addition to the fuel assurance aspect, there is also an
important non-proliferation benefit – the involvement of
several countries, appropriate treaty arrangements, and
limiting know-how to the technology holder, would help ensure
sensitive facilities were not misused.

The concept of multination ownership of sensitive nuclear
facilities has been around for some decades (it was elaborated
in the INFCE[5] report of 1980). Now, Russia is proceeding with a
practical expression of this concept. The enrichment
facility at Angarsk, Siberia, has been established as an
international fuel cycle centre, to be monitored by the
IAEA. Russia is inviting multination participation in
this project, and already Kazakhstan has joined. In
addition to the non-proliferation advantages, the benefits of
participation include assured supply of product and
profit-sharing. Russia envisages that in future further
such centres could be established elsewhere.

5. Development of a proliferation-resistant fuel
cycle

This is a very broad subject – in this paper it is
possible only to touch on some aspects.

As already discussed, technologies at the front and back
ends of the currently-established fuel cycle – enrichment
and reprocessing – have dual-use potential, i.e. they
could be used for military as well as civil purposes.
There are many concepts for a proliferation-resistant fuel
cycle, but the basic issue is, can a fuel cycle be developed
which produces nuclear fuel without using enrichment, and
enables plutonium recycle without plutonium separation?

The need for enrichment can be avoided through approaches
such as accelerator-driven systems, but these do not offer the
sustainability advantages of recycle. Fast reactors do
not require enrichment – but the conventional fast
breeder reactor depends on reprocessing, and what's more,
produces high-fissile plutonium (attractive for weapons
use).

Russia has developed a fast neutron reactor concept that
addresses these issues – the BREST lead-cooled fast
reactor. The basic concept is to use a fast neutron
reactor in conjunction with "dry" processing of
spent fuel, to enable recycle of plutonium without separation,
and to transmute minor actinides and fission products.
This has both non-proliferation and waste management benefits
– the period high level waste must be isolated from the
environment will be very substantially reduced, from some
10,000 years to around 300-500 years.

The BREST reactor concept incorporates a number of
proliferation-resistant features, such as use of a
"hot" fuel (plutonium mixed with fission products
as well as minor actinides), high burnup (so at all times
plutonium from the reactor has an isotopic composition
unsuitable for weapons), absence of a breeding
"blanket" (all plutonium production occurs in the
core), and an equilibrium core (no excess neutrons available
for undeclared irradiation), in addition to the use of a spent
fuel treatment – probably pyro-metallurgical processing
– that avoids any separation of pure plutonium.

The practicability of using lead as a coolant in a large
reactor has yet to be demonstrated – but the
proliferation-resistant features could be adapted to other fast
reactor types. It is noted that four of the six reactor
concepts under development in the Generation IV program are
fast neutron reactors[6].

In principle, the general use of fast reactors, which are
fuelled through recycle, would make uranium enrichment
obsolete. However, establishing fast reactors on an
industrial basis will take some decades, and may be constrained
by availability of fuel for initial core loads (i.e. until
self-sustainability is achieved). For most of this
century, light water reactors will continue to have an
important role (with other thermal reactors such as pebble bed
modular reactors also having a place), so there will be a
continuing need for enrichment for the foreseeable
future. An increase in global enrichment capacity will be
needed from as early as the coming decade.

As regards reprocessing, however, the development of fast
reactors together with advanced spent fuel treatments such as
pyro-metallurgical processing could have a more immediate
effect – making solvent-based reprocessing technology
obsolete in the near term. If the viability of these new
technologies is proven, there should be no requirement to build
new plutonium separation plants – management of spent
fuel from light water reactors would be based on advanced spent
fuel treatment and recycle through fast reactors.
However, for safeguards purposes there will be an ongoing need
to counter the possibility of clandestine plutonium extraction
plants.

6. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is a United
States-led initiative, launched in 2006 – a comprehensive
package drawing together a number of the themes discussed in
this paper[7]. GNEP promotes the development of new fuel
cycle technologies and institutional arrangements to minimise
proliferation concerns from the wider use of nuclear
power. While a major focus of GNEP is non-proliferation,
GNEP also promises substantial benefits in spent fuel and waste
management, and in resource utilisation.

The key features of the GNEP initiative are as follows:

  • "fuel supplier nations" – currently envisaged
    as the P-5 (i.e. the NWS) plus Japan – would undertake to
    supply "user nations" with reactors, and to supply
    nuclear fuel on a "cradle-to-grave" basis.
    This would include spent fuel take-back – users could
    return spent fuel to a fuel supplier, which would recycle the
    fuel and treat the eventual high level waste;
  • "user nations" would be given assurances of supply
    for power reactors and fuel. GNEP envisages that users
    will operate mainly light water reactors, will obtain LEU fuel
    from a supplier nation, and return the spent fuel to a supplier
    nation. Thus user nations would not need to develop
    national enrichment or reprocessing capabilities – and
    would have a major incentive not to do so;
  • fuel supplier nations would operate fast reactors and advanced
    spent fuel treatment facilities, in order to recycle plutonium
    and transmute longer-lived radioactive materials.

An important aspect of GNEP is the development of
small-to-medium reactors suitable for developing countries with
small power grids. These reactors would be designed for
long refuelling periods, possibly a life-time core.
Refuelling would be carried out by the supplier, or the reactor
might be replaced when refuelling is necessary ("nuclear
battery" concept).

Some of the GNEP technologies are already well established,
others require major development. A time frame for the
establishment of new fast reactor models, advanced spent fuel
treatment, and remotely handled fuel fabrication as envisaged
under GNEP may be around 20-25 years.

GNEP is a long-term project, which has only recently been
launched, so it can be expected to evolve considerably over
time. One area for further analysis is the likely role of
fast reactors. Under GNEP as currently envisaged, fast
reactors would be operated as "burners" to consume
plutonium and minor actinides and transmute fission products,
and these burner reactors will be operated by a limited group
of countries (the "supplier nations"). Under
the Russian BREST concept, fast reactors would be operated in a
sustainable mode for optimum resource utilisation, and because
the reactors and spent fuel treatment process would be
inherently proliferation-resistant they would be suitable for
deployment in a number of countries. Over time, the GNEP
focus may well evolve from "burning" undesirable
materials to sustainability of uranium use.

7. Some implications for Australia

As a major supplier of uranium to the world market, a
potential user of nuclear power and a strong proponent of
non-proliferation, Australia has a close interest in GNEP,
which is why we joined GNEP in September 2007.

Spent fuel take-back Some people have expressed
concern that GNEP would oblige uranium producers such as
Australia to take back spent fuel or nuclear waste. This
is not the case. As outlined above, with GNEP
technologies spent fuel will not be "waste", but a
valuable energy resource with the potential to multiply
significantly the amount of energy derived from a given
quantity of uranium. Spent fuel would be transferred to a
country with advanced fuel cycle technologies, able to recycle
the spent fuel and to treat the eventual high level
waste.

Australia does not have these technologies – in fact,
if Australia were to proceed with nuclear power, we would be a
"user" country, able to take advantage of the GNEP
arrangements to have our spent fuel managed by a country with
an advanced nuclear program. The eventual high level
waste is likely to be returned to the user country – as
is the case now with waste from reprocessing. However,
GNEP technologies will result in high level waste that will be
more easily manageable because of its substantially shorter
isolation requirement.

Uranium market GNEP could result in a
significant restructuring of the world's uranium and
nuclear fuel markets. Today, power utilities typically
conclude contracts at each point of the nuclear fuel cycle:
uranium producers, conversion facilities, enrichment
facilities, fuel fabrication facilities, and sometimes
reprocessing facilities. GNEP however contemplates a
vertically integrated approach under which nuclear power
utilities may negotiate nuclear fuel supply as a single package
(including fuel supply and spent fuel treatment services),
backed up by government-level assurances of long-term supply,
based on internationally agreed criteria for the
non-proliferation and safeguards compliance requirements that
make countries eligible for assurances.

Governments will need to determine what arrangements could
provide the supply assurances that GNEP requires (to create an
environment whereby user countries are able to rely on
enrichment and fuel management services provided by suppliers),
without impacting on the commercial market that drives and
encourages investment. At present governments of uranium
supplying countries are not in a position to guarantee specific
quantities over long periods of time, as production is
undertaken by companies rather than governments, and will
depend on commercial decisions determined by balances of supply
and demand and extraction costs. As GNEP develops,
governments, nuclear processing companies, nuclear power
utilities, and mining companies will need to consider carefully
the potential implications for the international nuclear fuel
market, and how industry and governments can work together to
mutual advantage.

8. Conclusions

The nuclear industry is on the verge of two major
developments – a substantial expansion of nuclear power,
including uptake by new countries, and the establishment of
proliferation-resistant technologies, backed with new
institutional arrangements, to further strengthen
non-proliferation objectives. With the world's
largest uranium reserves, Australia is expected to have a major
influence in these developments, to the benefit of our own and
regional economies, the global environment, and the
non-proliferation regime.


[1]. Argentina, Australia
(pilot plant), Brazil, DPRK (suspected), Germany, Iran, Iraq,
Japan, Netherlands, South Africa.

[2]. Belgium, Brazil, DPRK,
Italy, Germany, Japan.

[3]. See John Carlson, Addressing Proliferation Challenges from the Spread of
Uranium Enrichment Capability
, Annual Meeting of the
Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, 8-12 July
2007.

[4]. The Group of Eight
comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the
UK and the US.

[5]. International Nuclear
Fuel Cycle Evaluation.

[6]. In addition to the
lead-cooled fast reactor, Gen IV includes a sodium-cooled
fast reactor, a gas-cooled fast reactor, and a supercritical
water-cooled reactor that can operate in thermal or fast
spectra.

[7]. For an outline of GNEP
see ASNO's 2005-06 Annual Report, pages 11-14.
More details are in the US Department of Energy website

John Carlson
Director General, Australian Safeguards and
Non-Proliferation Office,
RG Casey Building, John McEwen Crescent,
BARTON ACT 0221
john.carlson@dfat.gov.au

Last Updated: 24 September 2014
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