Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Stopping the wrong sort of chain reaction," The Economist, May 22, 2008.

REDISCOVERING the charm of nuclear power throws up some odd results. America and Saudi Arabia have just signed a deal that may mean that the world's biggest oil-producer imports American-made uranium fuel for (as yet unbuilt) reactors. Japan's prickly relations with Russia did not stop Toshiba agreeing on joint reactor-construction and fuel-production efforts with state-owned Atomenergoprom. Diplomats, engineers and businessmen from Argentina, India, Pakistan, South Korea and elsewhere tout nuclear know-how around the globe. Yet behind the potential profits is a danger: that the spread of the peaceful atom will, as in the past, fuel military rivalry.

Cost, safety concerns and scarce skills mean that many of 200-plus new power reactors now proposed or planned (in addition to more than 400 operating worldwide and almost 30 under construction) may never actually be built. Yet curbing the most proliferation-prone nuclear technologies is already proving tricky. Efforts to persuade countries to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing (usable but not vital in civilian power programmes, but abusable for bomb-making) have sometimes backfired.

Canada, for example, is staunchly against proliferation, yet its government is lobbying hard for a loosening of proposed tighter rules for the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal cartel that oversees nuclear trade. Four years ago, President George Bush urged the NSG to bar the sale of uranium and plutonium technologies to any country that at the time did not already possess “full-scale, functioning” plants. Canada doesn't, but has large uranium reserves and wants to keep the option open. So do Argentina, Brazil (which has a pilot enrichment facility) and South Africa, all NSG members. Australia used to, but its new government has gone cooler on the idea. Uranium-rich Namibia, a non-member, hankers after its own enrichment business too.

Read the rest in The Economist =>

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