Table of Contents
The Energy Challenge
Nuclear Power Facts
Nuclear Power Advantages
The Salient Points
Annex I: The DECADES Project
Annex II: Nuclear Power Case Studies
There is a continuing public concern that the use of nuclear power is inherently associated with a further spread of nuclear weapons and a risk of terrorism. The US Atoms for Peace policy announced in 1953 promoted a policy of international nuclear co-operation based on the condition that nuclear technology transfer would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and bilateral safeguards arrangements were introduced. Several years after its creation in 1957, the IAEA initiated on-site inspections at nuclear facilities under binding safeguards agreements. The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) now commits more than 180 countries to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons and to accept comprehensive IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear activities. The Treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995.
This year, in response to the clandestine weapons programme of Iraq and the verification difficulties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the IAEA safeguards system has been reinforced through a number of new measures to detect clandestine activities. These provide for greatly increased information from States regarding their nuclear activities, broaden inspector access to locations and institute the use of sophisticated environmental sampling (air, water and soil) and other technical measures that increase the assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear activities. A number of regional weapons free zone agreements and the recently negotiated Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) reinforce the global non-proliferation regime.
Plutonium and weapons
The large scale production of plutonium for nuclear weapons has always been through specially designed plutonium production reactors. While spent fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors does contain significant quantities of fissionable plutonium, the separated plutonium is polluted with non-fissionable plutonium isotopes. This material does pose a proliferation risk; however, the high concentration of non-fissionable plutonium isotopes in power reactor spent fuel creates significant problems in its handling and use in connection with nuclear weapons.
The availability of plutonium for weapons is not dependent on continued civil nuclear power activities. Nuclear arsenal reductions by the Russian Federation and the USA within the next decade involving the dismantling of many thousands of weapons are expected to make available, in addition to highly enriched uranium, some 100 tonnes of plutonium. In January 1997 the USA announced a dual path policy in which their excess weapons plutonium will be either blended with uranium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel or vitrified to a glass solid for long term disposal in a repository.
The reprocessing of spent fuel over the past decades has resulted in a global inventory of some 160 tonnes of separated non-weapons-grade plutonium at the end of 1996. The quantity would be higher were it not for its use in MOX fuel or in a few fast breeder reactor programmes. In 1996, 23 tonnes of plutonium were separated and 8 tonnes used. By the end of 1999, the estimated worldwide inventory of separated plutonium will reach about 168 tonnes. Beyond 1999, the inventory of plutonium is expected to decrease modestly.
A 1000 MW(e) nuclear power plant produces some 0.2 tonnes of plutonium annually. In 1996, the spent fuel discharged from nuclear reactors worldwide contained some 50 tonnes of plutonium. The global cumulative amount contained in spent fuel will be about 1 000 tonnes by the year 2000. This spent fuel is now being stored pending decisions on its final use - either for reprocessing or long term disposal. Reprocessing spent fuel to separate plutonium for use in fast breeder reactors would not only reduce the quantity of plutonium and the need for storage, but also provide a long term energy resource. However, there is no current economic incentive for a rapid introduction of fast breeder reactors.
The 1995 NPT Review Conference called for continued international examination of policy options concerning the management and use of stocks of plutonium, including deposit with the IAEA and regional fuel cycle centres, a concept introduced in the late 1970s. For the longer term, diversion resistant reactors and fuel cycles that generate material unsuitable for weapons are currently being discussed.
Just recently, a group of States, including all of the nuclear weapon States, Germany, Japan, Swizerland and Belgium, agreed on guidelines for the management of plutonium, and will undertake in the near future to submit to the IAEA statements of national strategy and annual statements of holdings of plutonium covered by these guidelines.
The momentum in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in general over the past decade and a half is also reflected in the reduction of nuclear arms by the USA and the Russian Federation (with offers to place plutonium and high enriched uranium released from their weapons programmes under IAEA verification), in the renunciation by South Africa of its nuclear weapons, in the almost universal adherence to the NPT, and in the conclusion of new regional arrangements for non-proliferation, such as the quadripartite safeguards agreement concluded by the IAEA with Argentina, Brazil and the Brazilian- Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, and the treaties creating nuclear weapon free zones in the South Pacific, in Southeast Asia and throughout the African continent. The Brazilian President upon his recent announcement of Brazil's intention to join the NPT said that: "Nowadays... the atomic bomb is seen merely as a source of risk, costs and uncertainty."
The technology for nuclear weapons production is with us indefinitely, it cannot be undone. The risk of proliferation today is not zero and would not become zero even if nuclear power ceased to exist. It is a continually strengthened non-proliferation regime that will remain the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.