Nuclear's Second Wind:
Innovative "fast" nuclear power plants may be a strategic imperative

by Evgeny Adamov

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Nuclear's "Second Wind"

The important point is that the necessity for innovative nuclear technologies needs to be assessed in the changing context. It is important to examine the possible conditions that may cause a demand for nuclear power and the circumstances under which the technology may gain its "second wind". For some countries, such as France and Japan, the lack of their own oil or gas resources is in itself a sufficient motive for keeping nuclear in the energy mix. Others may seek diversification of the energy sector or self-sufficiency in energy as a high priority.

It is important to examine the possible conditions that may cause a demand for nuclear power and the circumstances under which the technology may gain its "second wind".

Safe nuclear power is also capable of producing hydrogen, for example, and doing it in a profitable way. This use would allow reducing consumption of fossil fuels in electricity generation in the future, thereby saving these resources for other, more expedient applications in transport and energy-intensive industries. Even today, this may be an attractive option for some strong economies.

Yet paradoxical as it may seem, nuclear's second wind could be fuelled by rising costs and concerns over weapons proliferation and how to manage risks. Until nuclear weapons are totally banned and eliminated, proliferation will remain a risk demanding tight controls to keep nuclear materials and technologies from falling into the wrong hands. Right now, efforts to maintain and develop nuclear technologies, the associated expertise and industrial facilities for the sake of nuclear weapons alone is by far a greater social and economic burden in terms of public spending than if this know-how were channelled and shared for energy production.

In Russia, for instance, activities to remedy the consequences of nuclear-weapons programmes are estimated at tens of billions of dollars, which are yet to be found in the national budget. Meanwhile, reasonable implementation of the strategy for dynamic nuclear power development to the year 2050, already endorsed by the Russian Government, is a way to avoid diverting these weapons-related funds from other sectors of social demand.

In my view, the way forward is to develop advanced nuclear power plants based on technologies that help deter the spread of nuclear weapons. Large-scale nuclear power should be built upon innovative reactor designs and fuel processes that can provide technological support to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, while helping to meet the world's electricity needs.

"Fast" Nuclear Plants

On non-proliferation and other grounds, designs for fast neutron reactors offer the most promising option (See box, Fast Reactors). They would burn uranium-238 alone and, hence, allow eliminating uranium enrichment and separation of weapons-grade plutonium from the set of fuel-cycle technologies now used for nuclear power operation. Unlike earlier types, these fast reactors will have no fuel blanket where weapons-grade plutonium could be produced.

This option enables nuclear power development to become more technologically detached from the production of materials useable for weapons. It further would support other elements of the non-proliferation regime, including political and legal arrangements, such as inspections. These could be considerably facilitated, for example, by using satellite systems to watch the configuration of fuel-cycle buildings.

With such an approach, States now shouldering the cost burdens of nuclear proliferation could channel efforts differently. They could define the optimal conditions for sharing the advantages of innovative nuclear energy technologies with countries that have no nuclear weapons and, at the same time, feel a pressing need to develop their own energy production systems.

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