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:

a) Those that [i] possess a nuclear weapons arsenal (US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan) OR [ii] once had nuclear weapons but subsequently dismantled them or had them removed (South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine) OR [iii] are suspected to possess nuclear weapons (Israel, North Korea) OR [iv] are/were involved in the NATO weapons sharing programme (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey; formerly Canada and Greece). I do not include those nations who are alleged to have nuclear weapons programmes (Iran, Syria, Myanmar).

b) Those that [i] operate nuclear power reactors (e.g., Japan, Sweden, South Korea, Mexico)  OR [ii] once operated nuclear power reactors (e.g. Italy, Philippines) OR [iii] are constructing nuclear power reactors (e.g. Iran, UAE).

c) Those that [i] run research reactors (e.g., Australia, Colombia, Thailand) AND/OR [ii] have nuclear power reactors planned or seriously proposed (e.g., Indonesia, Portugal, Vietnam).

Given this classification, here is the table of relevant results I compiled:

ghg_nuclear_countriesThe 3rd row is cumulative with the 2nd, and the 4th row is cumulative with both. The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is expressed in millions of tonnes emitted from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels in 2006, based on data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The top 4 emitters are nuclear weapons states, the top 13 run commercial power reactors, and the top 26 nations have these capabilities, or run research reactors (and 41 of the top 50).

Pretty significant, eh? Category C encompasses 93% of global carbon emissions, and even category B scoops up more than four-fifth of them! There’s a sizeable chunk of the problem that nuclear power can conceivably solve right now, even before we get on to tackling the next issue of safe-and-secure deployment in all countries. This is good news, because, to paraphrase David Mackay, we ought to be focusing on the things that make a big difference (at least initially). This will.

Worldwide, nuclear power is not going away. Of the G20 economic forum nations, 15 have nuclear power, four are planning to take it up in the near future (see these recent announcements from Saudi Arabia), and only one, Australia, has ruled it out. Yet even Australia has a long history of research reactor use.

As I said in my editorial in GLF, it may be an over-used cliché, but the nuclear genie truly is out of the bottle — it is pointless discussing how to try to jam the stopper back in. In this context, the oft-repeated claim by antis that all new nuclear technologies “fail the crucial proliferation test” is asinine nonsense, and totally counterproductive if our aim is to increase global security through the ready supply of abundant, carbon-free energy. We should instead be embracing this technology, and seriously discussing how we can use it with minimal risk and maximal advantage, to all nations.

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28 Comments

  1. Right on.. A condensed blog post that hits the nail on the head.. Nuclear power should be immediately deployed in the mega-polluters, the top 10. If any country doesn’t want to use nuclear power, it should be forced to achieve the same zero-carbon targets as the other nations, using whatever other technology the local politics prefers.

    This should be the primary source of concern today. Everything else can be done coolly and slowly.

    Global nuclear power-sharing (like the GREAT that Tom mentions) can wait for another couple of decades. Global agreements are more pertinent on complete nuclear disarmament (please don’t use the bastard word “non-proliferation”) than on nuclear power sharing.

  2. Excellent Barry. And the lower we can make the cost of nuclear, the faster emissions will be reduced. And not just GHG emissions, but also all those other nasty, toxic polutants that spew from our coal and gas fired power stations, our heaters and our vehicles.

    So, Australia’s focus should be on how can we reduce the cost of nuclear in Australia. We need to de-risk the investment. If we can de-risk the investment, the investors will come.

    Which raises the question: Why is the government de-risking Carbon Capture and Storage but continuing to ban nuclear? CCS is far more dangerous and environmentally damaging than nuclear. CCS is going to do nothing to remove the toxic polutants from the coal fired power stations.

    We must be nuts to be still playing with CCS, wind and solar while at the same time banning nuclear. We’re stuck in a time warp.

  3. An overwhelming majority of advocates of dual-use nuclear technology are quick to profess their concern about WMD proliferation – but never do anything about it. For Australian readers who want a bite-sized chunk of the problem to grapple with, you could lobby persistently for as many years as it takes to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Australian uranium exports. Some examples of unwarranted secrecy include the refusal of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) to publicly release:
    1. Country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.
    2. ‘Administrative Arrangements’, which are not nearly as innocuous as the name suggests – they contain vital information about safeguards arrangements.
    3. Information on nuclear accounting discrepancies (Material Unaccounted For) including the volumes of nuclear materials, the countries involved, and the reasons given to explain accounting discrepancies.
    4. The quantities of Australian-obligated Nuclear Materials (AONM) held in each country are kept confidential. (ASNO states: “The actual quantities of AONM held in each country, and accounted for by that country pursuant to the relevant agreement with Australia, are considered by ASNO’s counterparts to be confidential information.”)
    5. At least some uranium export agreements allow for further secrecy under the rubric of ”state secrets”.

    If working on that part of the problem doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of others. Only too happy to hear from anyone who wants to help out with practical work along those lines.

    cheers, jim
    jim.green at foe.org.au

  4. Jim – surely these problems of “unwarranted secrecy” are long standing and widespread among uranium producing nations
    As we haven’t had any nuclear bomb incidents since the end of World War II, I would suggest that the principle of “mutually assured destruction” acts to nullify any likelihood of the impetuous use of nuclear weapons by heads of state, dictatorial or democratic, and by terrorist states (even in the unlikely event they could make a nuclear weapons device).

  5. Jim: Any substantive technology will have flaws, bugs, holes and its always good practice to plug them, care about them and be diligent. But the final test is what actually happens. Consider chemical and biological weapons … both deadly serious and rightly feared. But do we dismantle our chemical industry? Do we worry about rogue biologists? No and yes, but we don’t shut down biology departments or the pharmaceutical industry.

    Nuclear isn’t any different. There is a pressing need (unless you are secretly a climate change skeptic) and the track record is good … is your list of 5 things the best you can come up with? … I can come up with a much bigger list of actual chemical disasters that, by analogy should have us closing down the chemistry industry. e.g. look at the global amount of fertiliser that has been sidetracked into car bombs during the past half a century and the suffering this has caused … hundreds of thousands killed and for each one killed, perhaps 2 or 3 with horrible injuries.

    I don’t mind having my taxes spread around renewables, nuclear … hell I don’t even mind spending on CCS, let them all go their hardest. There is no shortage of useless stuff we can cut back on (we gamble about $16 billion annually in Australia).

    But do you really want to bet the planet on only wind/solar/… ? It’s been 2 years since I sent an email to Origin Energy saying I’ve got the money, when will Sliver solar be available? It was just around the corner 2 years ago. Plenty of technologies are like that. Beautiful in the lab but surprisingly tough to scale.

  6. Geoff – you’re putting a lot of words in my mouth – all I said is that nuclear power proponents ought to engage in the work of improving safeguards (don’t you agree?), that your support would be extremely welcome, and that we (NGOs working on proliferation / safeguards issues) would be delighted to hear from you.
    As mentioned, there are many parts of the safeguards problem – the secrecy surrounding uranium exports is just one. Plenty of info on the Medical Association for Prevention of War website and the FoE website and elsewhere.
    I’m dipping out of this BNC discussion but hope to hear from some of you – contact details below.
    cheers, jim
    0417 318368
    jim.green at foe.org.au

  7. So Friends of the Earth are only concerned with improving safeguards but otherwise support nuclear energy, is that what we should take from your comments Jimmy? Because the last time I looked, that was one of the most antinuclear groups out there.

    I suspect that’s why you just came by to drop this little turd about proliferation and then scurried off – wouldn’t want to have to answer too many questions from the likes of us.

  8. Jim, its great to hear from you here at BNC.

    I confess I don’t follow the pragmatic logic behind several of the items you list, if the objective is to prevent proliferation. For instance,

    1. Country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.

    Of what value could this be? For any given stock of fissile material around the world, at any given point in the fuel cycle, how does preventing its diversion hinge on the percentage of Australian derived content?

    What if uranium from Kazakhstan is irradiated by uranium from Australia in a reactor core to produce plutonium? Do we own the whole nucleus, or are we just exporting the neutrons?

    Tracking this sort of information through complex materials processing steps is simply pointless bureaucracy. Its not required to put the material to its intended use, and its of no value in preventing illegitimate use.

    However, I can see its value in domestic political strategy. Being able to say “x% of the plutonium in the world comes from our own Australian uranium, and did you know plutonium is used to make nuclear weapons” is a great sound bite, if you want to work to confound the development of nuclear power. It hits both the fear and the guilt buttons.

    In fact, the only way to improve on that is to say, “They won’t tell you how much plutonium is derived from Australian uranium”. That hits fear, guilt and conspiracy all at once. Its perfect!

    But the information has no utility in preventing proliferation, so you’ll understand if its not high on my list of priorities. The most effective technical measure to reduce the proliferation risk would be the development of proliferation resistant resistant fuel cycles, such as discussed here for the IFR and LFTR, which also have huge environmental payoffs.

    I really look forward to seeing foe helping out with practical work along these lines,

    best, john.

  9. John – Australian groups working on safeguards have good reasons for wanting country-by-country information on the stockpiling of Australian-obligated separated plutonium and the government already has the information – no additional accounting or bureaucracy is required.

    IFR/LFTR advocates generally acknowledge that rigorous safeguards are necessary and that existing safeguards fall short. So we’re back to square one – what are proponents of dual-use nuclear technology going to do to redress the contradiction between your fine words about safeguards and your inactivity? Some suggestions (with an Australian bias):
    * Lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding uranium exports.
    * Adding some integrity to the Howard/Putin agreement, a live issue as the government is pondering the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.
    * Leveraging uranium exports to achieve positive outcomes (e.g. bans or restrictions on uranium sales to countries blocking progress on the CTBT, FMCT etc).
    * Much-needed reform of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (see EnergyScience Coalition briefing paper #19 at energyscience.org.au).
    * Internationally, the outgoing IAEA Director-General has recently been in the media complaining again that the IAEA has neither the resources nor the legal authority required for effective safeguarding.

  10. Peter #34102 (I see everyone has given up on reference numbers)

    The Australian government’s interest in CCS probably has more to do with minerals and technology exporting than emissions reduction. If they can get CCS to work effectively with a bit of patented technology thrown in there is a huge technology export potential if the price is right. (I know – there are a few “ifs” in there)

    Over half the world’s electricity is produced in fossil fuel plants. Thermal coal is a big export earner for Australia and swamps uranium exports (ABARE 2009). The government rightly wants to protect that income stream and it knows that if CCS doesn’t deliver – eventually these fossil fuel plants will all get phased out and probably replaced with nuclear or gas plants. The additional uranium exports will never match the lost coal exports.

    It’s a difficult conundrum for a government. Does it abandon CCS and embrace nuclear and lose $10b a year in exports or does it do all it can to protect it’s export thermal coal markets and possibly develop a technology export business in CCS conversions.

    I wonder how much of this is behind the government’s blockheadedness about domestic nuclear power. They are more concerned about the threat to coal than perceived safety issues.

    If CCS can work and come in at a cost which makes it quicker and more financially attractive than doing a nuclear conversion – it may be a better interim solution for fossil fuel plants and reduce GHG emissions more quickly.

    I am not expressing a preference here. Just trying to inject another perspective.

  11. Martin,

    I agree with you about one of the government’s motivations for being anti-nuclear. The other more important one is that it is an divisive issue on which it is easy to run a scare campaign which wins elections.

    The hypocricy annoys me. It is basically lying to the electorate. CCS, solar, wind and geothermal will only ever be small players in our energy supply, and at hugh expence. So the government is trying to pretend it is serious about cutting GHG emissions while misleading the electorate on the potential for renewables and CCS to solve the problem. It is total BS.

    Anyway, why are you worried about coal exports? Surely the ‘green jobs bonanza’ will make up for any reduction in coal exports?? :)

  12. CO2 from Australian black coal exports should be about the same magnitude as net domestic emissions from all sources or about 600 Mtpa CO2e. Apparently some coking coal importers have cut back but China is picking up the slack. Maybe they are running out or our coal is cheaper thanks to subsidised infrastructure. We could ask coal customers to pay a $50 per tonne of coal carbon tax in lieu or take LNG instead with a $20 tonne charge or yellow cake instead with no carbon charges. How ’bout it Kev?

    If Rudd goes to Copenhagen and big notes himself over Australia’s pathetic efforts I will be quite angry. Australia is at the same time both a massive carbon pimp and a renewables delusionist. At least the conference hosts the Danes have the decency to recognise their own hypocrisy.

    PS the last couple of days I drove 600km on biodiesel. Yet it’s clear to me barring algae breakthroughs it will never scale up. No doubt some Federal minister will soon tell us it’s the next big thing.

  13. Jim – you still haven’t answered my question as to why we should worry about the possibility of nuclear weapons being deployed, given that it is over 60 years since the last two nuclear bombs were detonated in aggression. Seems to indicate paranoia on the part of anti-nuclear power proponents. I would prefer to take my chance on the very unlikely possibility of a nuclear war rather than the assured, inescapable,catastrophic consequences of AGW unless we de-carbonise the energy supply system. As shown on this blog and elsewhere renewables cannot provide the baseload power needed.Not doing this would make the World more likely to suffer war- nuclear or conventional.
    “Friends of the Earth”? Seems not!

  14. —“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?”—

    Even if progress on safeguards is considered as a necessary condition for increased a wider deployment of nuclear energy, it might not be sufficient. Andrew Grotto argues that political and security factors are likely to prevent states from cooperating in nonproliferation efforts. He has said:

    “The behavior of states is guided not only by normative considerations about fairness, hypocrisy and the like; it is also animated, and in many cases dominated, by security and economic interests. A state may oppose an NPT-plus obligation on principle because it is unfair, but it does not follow that a state would necessarily support the obligation if the unfairness were remedied. That’s because taking on new nonproliferation obligations is not costless. Budgets and time are finite for all governments, and officials must spend scarce resources—time and money—formulating, evaluating, and negotiating the content of a proposed obligation. Then they have to implement it, which could entail a new set of costs, such as adjustment costs and a potential loss of sovereignty. In short, a state may continue to oppose a nonproliferation measure on the grounds that it will not produce a net security, economic, or prestige benefit.”

    In other words safeguards are not a simple matter of extending IAEA powers or making unilateral conditions between seller and buyer. The experience of Canada and India is an ideal example of this; the only thing that happened when Canada cut India off, was that both sides were harmed with no change to India’s weapons program.

    Over the years, many experts have predicted proliferation cascades, but this has yet to unfold. The track record of proliferation to date, has been both limited and slow. The historical record does not support the dire predictions that have been made, especially when the presumed proliferators have close ties to one of the five legitimate nuclear weapon states and are dependent on them for their security. Although admittedly this has not stopped Israel or North Korea, nether has existing international controls.

    What is needed is a full re-evaluation of the whole non-proliferation regime, based on a firm historical foundation, and an awareness of the geopolitical forces that drive the need for the acquisition of nuclear weaponry.

    It worth repeating: no country prosecutes a nuclear weapon program without a belief in a pressing need, the expense is just too great, the potential of international sanctions are just too strong. Continuing to erect barriers to nuclear energy in fear of runaway proliferation is at best just wrong and at worst counterproductive.

  15. IFR/LFTR advocates generally acknowledge that rigorous safeguards are necessary and that existing safeguards fall short. – Jim Green
    Jim, you have over stated the case. This LFTR advocate seriously doubts that LFTRs would be used in preference to old, low tech, World War II type graphite piles as proliferation tools. Thats what the North Koreans did. At any rate, there is no reason to make the LFTR more proliferation proof than it actually is. Building LFTRs in the United States, is not going to increase the likelihood that Brazil or the Congo will acquire nuclear weapons, and indeed selling LFTRs to Brazil will not increase the likelihood that Brazil would acquire nuclear weapons, Sale of LFTRs to the Congo seems unlikely for quite a long time to come. Way to much is being made of the whole proliferation issue. .

  16. I would echo Charles point…plutonium is not an issue with LFTR. It’s main decay product of thorium is U233 and is extremely difficult to make a bomb with…the US tried, and failed, to do this.

    But Charles touches on a much bigger issue…proliferation is above all an aspect of policy of a given country. Should we not develop LFTR, or IFRs, in China, or India, or France because we are worried about proliferation in *these* countries? Of course not, it is, in reality, totally irrelevant as they already have a weaponized nuclear industry. It is kin of a fake argument to raise this.

    But what about countries that have only a civilian nuclear program or are thinking of developing one? Canada (which has a partial WMD program), Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Veneuzlea, Nigeria, S. Africa (which gave up it’s WMD program…should they not have access to this advanced technology?), Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Israel, Jordon, UAE, Kuwait, Turkey, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Holland, Beligium, S. Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uganda and I probably missed a few.

    These countries are all considering nuclear energy programs or have them. But “we” think… “hold on, you can’t because *maybe* you’ll develop nuclear weapons with this technology?”.

    Charles likes to say that it’s “too late, the cat is out of the bag”. And of course this is true. No country needs a public commercial nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons. It’s *cheaper* to just develop it by building small R&D type plutonium reactors. And that is what they do. That is what they will do and continue to do. Thus the issue then is one of political proliferation policy and not one of having commercial nuclear energy that can help liberate their people from poverty.

    I think the problem with proliferation concerned anti-nuclear folks, like Helen Caldicott who in fact lies about how nuclear weapons are developed, have lost the forest for a single nuclear weapon.

  17. The bottom line is that the issue of antiproliferation regulations and safeguards has become immaterial now that India, a NPT non-signatory, is selling nuclear technology abroad. Teamed up with a dirt-poor Kazakhstan, desperate to exploit their massive uranium reserves for hard currency, India’s export program just doesn’t need the approval of anyone to sell nuclear reactors to who ever they want.

    The only thing that countries like Canada and Australia with large uranium mining sectors can do is join the party, or watch. The days when we could leverage the supply to dictate terms on nuclear issues has passed. Not only are there other players, but we will find ourselves increasingly dependent on the Indian and Chinese markets and will have to treat with them accordingly.

  18. Without nuclear: our species goes extinct. Before 2100, we all know that for sure.

    Our extinction happens in climate wars; A-Bomb is used in thousands.

    If we build 30 – 50 IFR 1000 MW plants per year, we are going forwards without any climate wars.

    And our species and all species go on happily.

  19. We can certainly start decarbonization with category A weapons-armed nations. We can build IFRs and LFTRs for a few decades before that market is saturated, and this can stop 68% of CO2 emissions. Category C nations with research reactors are reducing their stocks of weapons-capable HEU (highly enriched uranium) for reactors, using new designs that work with LEU not suitable for weapons, using technology such as LFTR or IFR that really makes weapons production very difficult and expensive. As this transition happens, they can use IFRs and LFTRs to reduce another 9% of CO2 emissions. For category B nations, we can encourage them to participate in the market for IFR and LFTR commerce reducing weapons proliferability. We must keep in mind that whatever course we take with the climate/energy crisis, nations with their backs to the wall can and may undertake to produce a nuclear weapon, suffering the economic consequences of having their citizens eat grass.

  20. Great article, Barry! This really highlights the stupidity of the proliferation argument. I would also note that, even in countries with power reactors, nobody takes fissile material out of a power reactor to make a weapon. Its just too messy and slow. The whole link between civilian power reactors and weapons proliferation falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

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