Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Canadian government signs on to Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

The British-based Mines and Communities reports that the Harper government has joined Howard's Australia in signing on to Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (Nov 29 07).

Frank Barnaby and James Kemp of the Oxford Research Group address GNEP at some length in their well-documented briefing paper entitled “Too hot to handle? The future of civil nuclear power.”

GNEP is a proposal by the Bush Administration for a nuclear fuel services program to supply developing nations with “reliable access to nuclear fuel in exchange for a commitment to forego the development of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies.” It sounds like a variation on the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) which the Bush revisionists see as a failure.

Nuclear-weapon powers would sell reactors and fuel to non-nuclear-weapon powers. They would take back the spent fuel elements from the reactors, reprocess them and dispose of the waste. (Barnaby and Kemp 12)

The purpose of GNEP is to encourage increased use of nuclear power for generating electricity (sometimes called the nuclear renaissance), to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to reduce CO2 emissions, to slow the pace of global warming, and to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.

But more nuclear electricity will have little impact on America’s use of foreign oil because so little of American electricity comes from oil fired stations in the first place. Only 3% of America’s electricity is generated by oil fired power stations and this is expected to decline even without nuclear power.

Jimmy Carter banned American reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in 1977 because of concerns that the plutonium separated from civil reactor fuel elements could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. Matthew Bunn of Harvard University still believes reprocessing would undermine current US efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Richard L. Garwin, IBM Fellow Emeritus and an expert in nuclear-weapon technology, argues that GNEP would make it easier for terrorists to get the fissile material needed to fabricate nuclear weapons.

He points out that plutonium only comprises about 1% of the material in highly radioactive spent fuel. A terrorist would need to reprocess a large amount to get a little bit of much less radioactive plutonium. Spent fuel is so radioactive that cannot be handled without remote-handling equipment and so is considered self-protecting.

GNEP's reprocessed fuel contains a higher percentage of plutonium concentrated in much less radioactive material. According to recent Department of Energy (DOE) studies, the GNEP fuel would have only about 1/2000 of the penetrating radiation contained in spent fuel, so it would be much less dangerous to handle.

This means that reprocessing considerably increases the risk nuclear material for nuclear weapons can be stolen, therefore, increases the risk of nuclear terrorism.

Furthermore, Steve Fetter, at the University of Maryland, points out that reprocessing does not remove the need for a permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste. It just puts the highly radioactive part in a different pile.

Canada’s decision brings the total number of GNEP partners to 18. The other partners are Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Ghana, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and the United States.

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Dr. Tux said...


Impressive Post.