Carbon emissions and nuclear capable countries

Atoms for peace — uranium and thorium power. This is the fit and proper use of nuclear technology in the 21st century, as a means to generate enormous amounts of cheap, convenient, reliable, clean electrify to supply the burgeoning needs of an energy-hungry and carbon-overloaded world. Yet there is no denying that nuclear technology has other uses. It is deployed in many nations in order to produce the radioisotopes needed for nuclear medicine and industrial applications. Nuclear science has also allowed for the development of atomic weapons, and this is where much contention lies.

Of the world’s 214 countries, 7 to 10 have a proven (or suspected) existing capability to create nuclear weaponry, and 20 currently possess ‘the bomb’ (via sharing arrangements), or have had it in the past and subsequently dismantled it. Further, as commenter DV82XL has pointed out, 5-10 other nations have the scientific capacity and economic wherewithal to launch an emergency R&D programme to build a deliverable weapon within 1-5 years (Japan, Sweden and Australia included) — if they so chose. An additional 20 non-weapons states use commercial nuclear power, or are currently constructing their first plant (see map — click for link), and a further 18 nations either run small fission reactors for research, experimentation and isotope production, or else are planning to embrace nuclear power in the short- to medium-term.

So, let’s lay the cards on table. What new challenges will we face — in terms of a wider scope of international technological oversight and secure management of fissile material — if nuclear power is to become the predominant energy generation technology for all people, all nations? In geopolitical terms, we are talking about deploying nuclear technology, in some form (be it large reactors or small, sealed nuclear batteries) to over 150 new countries.  There is no doubt that it presents a difficult yet very important future pathway for the global community to tread. Tom Blees, in the book ‘Prescription for the Planet‘, offers a detailed assessment of how this might be possible, in chapters 10 (“How Great is GREAT?”), 11 (“Going Global”) and 13 (“Come the Revolution”).

But for now, let’s put these exigent questions aside, and simplify the problem. What if we were only to deploy new nuclear power technologies with fuel recycling, like the Integral Fast Reactor and Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, in ‘nuclear capable’ countries? What sort of dent would that make in terms of matching world energy demand and heavily mitigating planetary carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion (the two are obviously highly correlated, at least at present)?

To answer this in a way that should satisfy most people, let’s consider three categories of nuclear countries:

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