Climate change

November 15, 2009

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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