Monday, April 04, 2011

Wish I didn't have Shellenberger on my (partly) pro-nuke side

Nuclear proliferation issues are probably the second-biggest problem with nuclear power after economics. Michael Shellenberger spent much of this Forum discussion pretending it wasn't a problem at all. "You don't build nuclear power to get a nuclear weapon." Oh yes, you do. There's a huge amount of overlap in the technology.

France used civilian nuclear energy program to develop and disguise its nuclear weapons program (Shell completely screws this up). Other nuclear powers did the same thing. For Shell to claim the Iran example supports his position when so much of its program was built with the assistance of the UN, is really stupid. I have trouble believing he actually believes it.

Shell also made a somewhat misleading cost comparison of "built" nuclear power, which ignores the massive upfront construction costs. Existing nuclear capacity is cheap, but building new plants is a totally different issue that he glides by.

Also annoying is Shell's "I used to be against it, now I'm for it" conversion trick that climate denialists think give them credibility. It doesn't.

Getting back to proliferation, it's not an easy thing to solve because throwing taxpayer money at it, the Republican solution to nuclear power, won't work. I think a solution that expands nuclear power to other nations would require much more powerful UN control, not just inspections, of nuclear plants. I also don't know how you get this unless existing nuclear powers offer up the same degree of restriction on sovereignty. Tell that to the Tea Party.


  1. The point is that you CAN design nuclear power plants so they cannot be used to make bombs, it's just that you can also design them to help make bombs. It's a choice.

  2. My understanding, and I'm happy to get it clarified, is any nuclear power process provides a great deal of the technical capability to produce a bomb. Whether it gives you the weapons-grade nuclear material is a different question, but at least half of the problem is solved.

  3. Nuclear reactors can also be designed to consume decomissioned weapons material and stockpiled plutonium.

    I've always thought the number one problem was what to do with the waste that has to be sequestered for 10,000+ years. Turns out those materials can be consumed as fuel too.

    If the reprocessing is done on-site and the materials don't have to be transported, that reduces the proliferation risk. Using metallic fuels instead of metal oxides make it harder to isolate weapons-grade material.

    Breakthrough Institute? They say putting a price on carbon, which has a real-world cost in the form of climate disruption, wouldn't be a good idea. I think we can disregard any "analysis" coming from that organization. Of course proliferation is a major concern.

    I really was against nuclear energy (or at least pretty ambivalent) before I became an advocate.

  4. Hi Seamus - there's nothing shameful about changing your mind, but it doesn't add to credibility the way denialists and Shellenberger think it does.

    I think plutonium reprocessing has significant proliferation problems, but I don't know the details. Regardless, how many countries do we want to send down this pathway of acquiring significant components of nuclear weapons technology? I don't think conservatives have an answer, and I don't think they like the international control answer that I'd give.

  5. Brian, I think you're right on proliferation. Even if a country would build a nuclear power plant that was not directly suitable for getting nuclear weapons, you'll inevitably need people able to deal with radioactive materials. That involves a lot of capacity building, including education and technological development. Once you've got those, it's much easier to go for the weaponised stuff. As you say: "Half of the problem is solved." I'd even guess it's at least three quarters.

  6. Nils Simon said...

    "you'll inevitably need people able to deal with radioactive materials"

    In the Hiroshima approach, that is strictly true, but misleading. According to Kang and von Hippel,

    Occupational radiation doses are currently limited to 5 rem/yr in the US. A worker could be 0.5 meters from an unshielded 5-kg sphere of l-year-separated weapon-grade plutonium (dose rate, 1.3 mrem/hr) for almost 3800 hours before reaching that dose limit.

    The Hiroshima bomb didn't use plutonium -- and so had no connection to any reactor -- but the material it did use, highly enriched 235-U, has a half-life 30000 times longer than plutonium's, and this lets us quickly get a pretty good estimate of how long US occupational radiation dose rules would allow a worker to be 0.5 m from the nuclear explosive charge for a Hiroshima-style bomb: 114 million hours.


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