Climate change

April 20, 2010

Analysis of the 2010 Nuclear Summit and the obsession with highly enriched uranium

Filed under: IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) Nuclear Power — Barry Brook @ 5:03 pm

Guest post by DV82XL. He is a Canadian chemist and materials scientist.

In the biggest gathering of world leaders short of the one that formed the United Nations, leaders from almost 50 states and other related organizations came to Washington, D.C., this week as part of the Nuclear Security Summit. The host, US President Barack Obama said the joint action plan agreed at a summit in Washington would make a real contribution to a safer world. The plan calls for every nation to act to keep material out of terrorists’ hands. This meeting and the action plan it created is a thinly veiled attempt to concentrate power in the hands of those that currently enjoy it.

First let’s make one thing very clear: a subnational group (terrorists) cannot and never will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. This is true even if they were handed weapons-grade fissile material up front. Whatever the reasons for this drive to strip every last gram of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from every country in the world that is not one of the existing nuclear weapon states (NWS) ‘terrorists’ stealing this material to fabricate a weapon, is not one of them. HEU is treated by all countries that own it as if it were more valuable than gold, a critical mass worth of HEU represents a huge investment to a country who acquired it for a purpose, and as part of a program, the fact remains that this stuff is controlled and accounted for very closely, which is why it has never showed up on the black market.

Let’s examine the first contention. While it is true a gun-assembled HEU uranium bomb is conceptually simple, building one that will work, is not and requires more resources than an extranational group can muster. A careful review of the facts suggests that there are technical obstacles to such an attack that are insuperable, and there is no evidence that any terrorist group currently possesses the expertise necessary for a nuclear effort. Claims that this is possible glosses over the difficulty of finding the kinds of highly qualified experts such a project would need and omits real consideration of at least a dozen points in the process where something could, and very likely would, go wrong that would bring the whole project to an end.

But let’s take it one step further. Any terrorist group that decided it wanted a nuclear weapon would first reason that the easiest way would be to steal or buy a device from a nuclear weapons state. They are quickly disabused of this idea because it is impossible for them to do so. Why do we know this? Because it hasn’t happened. If it was that easy there would be no running planes into buildings; there would already be a radioactive crater in Manhattan.

So they are left with building one. Now they have three issues: HEU which is no easer to obtain than a complete device, finding people that know what to do with it, (and are willing to cooperate) and setting up some place on Earth where the host government won’t have instant diarrhoea at the thought of a group they had no control of holding a nuclear device inside their borders.

Looking at it like this, the terrorists can see that it would require a very unlikely series of events and a great deal of effort, and pressed for information, any high school physics teacher will tell them there are no guarantees the damned thing will work. Result, scrap Plan A and go to Plan B: Hijack four widebody aircraft…

Fretting about “loose nukes” has been a popular topic of discussion in anti-proliferation circles, but a solid decade of this hand-wringing about terrorists’ hypothetical nuclear weapons has revealed no new evidence that any such group is any nearer to realizing this ambition,

So why then is everyone getting their shirts in a knot over this? There is a real concern that the world is standing on the cusp of a nuclear proliferation cascade, and the current NWS want to reduce the possibility that any other nation will acquire these weapons. It’s not terrorists stealing Chile’s HEU that is the worry; it’s that somewhere down the road the State of Chile may decide it needs a weapon.

At the root of this thinking is the Bush era, Pentagon commissioned study that argued climate change could lower nuclear security possibly even leading to war. The issue was not just the spread of nuclear weapons. The issue was the spread of nuclear weapons in the context of a global environment more conducive to conflict and strife, following on from a lowering in the world’s carrying capacity.

The report explored how such an abrupt climate change scenario could potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war provoked by resource constraints such as: food shortages due to decreases in net global agricultural production, decreased availability and quality of fresh water and disrupted access to energy supplies .

These the report argued, could cause tensions to mount around the world, which would lead to the adoption of one of two fundamental strategies: Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbours, may initiate struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy. Unlikely alliances could be formed as defence priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honour.

Clearly it is believed by the current NWS that within this context, a tipping point leading to a proliferation cascade is a real possibility. This is the unstated underlying reason for the rush to secure as much HEU from around the world as possible, and will be the driving force to push through a fissile materials treaty in the near future. However this path is not without its consequences, nor is it as pure in its motivations as it might seem.

There are few things as desperately misunderstood as nuclear weapons, and their place in the broader geopolitical picture. This is in general due to the fact that public perceptions about this weapon system are a product of Cold War propaganda, and their treatment in fiction, both on the page and on the screen. These ideas persist even though the devices, the doctrines, and the world itself have changed radically since those times.

Most believe that the military role of nuclear weapons is to destroy cities. This is understandable, since that was what the only two used in war did. Indeed at the beginning this was the role of these weapons because with the crude technology of the day, a city was the smallest high-value target that a bomber or an ICBM could reliably acquire. Once this process of targeting each other’s cities between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. started, a stalemate swiftly developed, even though it became clear to both players rather early on, that the usefulness of this strategy had passed.

What was realized was that the real military value of nuclear weaponry was in a tactical role. Low yield nukes, delivered by medium –range missiles, or attack aircraft were the ideal way to prevent any large scale manoeuvres, (like a massed column of armour) or a sea-born invasion from occurring, and that any attempt to carry out operations on a wide, dispersed front, could be countered easily by defence-in-depth tactics. Thus the real nuclear stand-off was between the word’s military powers, rather than by threatening dense civilian populations.

This situation persists to the present. The fact is that no nuclear power would consider an attack another because they could not follow it up with an invasion and there would likely be a counterstrike. As well, no nuclear power would prosecute a nuclear attack on a non-weapons state, without risking becoming an international pariah, and again with the risk of enduring reprisals in kind. Thus nuclear weapons ultimately stand as defensive assets, almost useless in an offensive role. And indeed this is reflected in both the designs and doctrines of these systems in the smaller NWS.

This brings us back around to the current nuclear summit and the obsession with weapons-grade uranium and plutonium in the hands of smaller states, and the threat of climate change. If the role of nuclear weapons is seen by smaller powers as a military tool to counter large conventional forces mounting an invasion, or even to counter the projection of might from something like a carrier task force, this renders conventional military power useless as a threat. The current members of the NWS club are also field large conventional forces as well, and several have shown no compunction in using them to further diplomatic or economic ends. The possibility of having those forces rendered useless by a major round of proliferation, particularly in regions where they currently exercise domination and especially in the event that climate change alters the relative value of those same regions, is obviously unpalatable. In short, this is not about keeping the peace, but maintaining the status quo in the international power structure.

There is a price to pay for this however. Putting an end to commercial use of HEU is going to cause problems of its own and these are not insignificant. In fact several countries are balking at the prospect and have said as much at the summit. Reading between the lines, it is also clear that their intransigence will be addressed at the G8 meeting later this year.

The two most widespread uses of HEU are as research reactor fuel and as targets for the production of medical and industrial isotopes. While few in number, test reactors, used for experimental fuel development for NPP, also need to be very powerful, and thus need enriched fuel. In addition to research and test reactors, there are also critical assemblies, subcritical assemblies, and pulse reactors that use fuels containing HEU. Critical and subcritical assemblies, for example, are typically used for either basic physics experimentation or to model the properties of proposed reactor cores, while pulsed reactors, are used to produce short, intensive power and radiation impacts.

High energy neutron beams can be used for some sorts of radiotherapy and for imaging very dense materials, an application of use to several industries. All this will end except in those places under the control of the governments of the NWS. Arguments that most of these applications can be redesigned to use low flux radiation are specious, as the throughput of these processes is sharply reduced. The NRU reactor, in its day could supply much of the world with medical isotopes, when it restarts, using LEU targets, it will supply Canadian needs only.

In short, activities that depend on high flux neutrons, in medicine, industry, and research, will be the private domain of those states that deploy nuclear weapons. This includes the development of nuclear energy, and power reactor design, which requires access to high flux neutrons to qualify material and assemblies, essentially closing the door on any further competition, (as well as the end of CANDU development) putting the NWS in virtual control of nuclear energy all over the globe, further extending their economic hegemony for the foreseeable future.

This is the real story here. The facts are all in front of us, and available to anyone who wishes to explore them. They are not that complex, and the geopolitical, economic and military ramifications of nuclear technology, and the impact of policy on them, are surprisingly simple to understand by anyone that takes the time to background themselves in these topics. I encourage everyone to do so as I believe you will draw the same conclusions I have in these matters.


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