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Nobel Laureate Sees Proliferation, Waste Issues Shaping Nuclear Future

Burton Richter

(Photo Credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

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Nobel Laureate Burton Richter scrutinised the promise and problems of nuclear energy in a keynote address to the IAEA´s Scientific Forum 27 September 2005.

The 1976 Nobel Physics Prize winner said the full potential of nuclear power -- as a source of large scale carbon-free energy -- could only be realised if governments and the public were satisfied that radioactive waste could be safely disposed of and that the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons was low. Prof. Richter is on the faculty of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), Stanford University, and served as SLAC Director from 1984-99.

Curtailing Nuclear Weapons

Prof. Richter said the scientific community needed to develop better safeguards technology to search out theft and diversion of weapons-usable material as well as identify clandestine facilities that could be used to fabricate bombs. "There are technologies not yet deployed that can give real-time results in critical areas." One such development is known as nuclear-gamma-ray resonance fluorescence, which would give inspectors real-time isotopic analysis. "One does not have to wait long to see if uranium-235 is within declared limits in an enrichment plant," he said.

Prof. Richter said the development of advanced technical safeguards had received little funding recently. He called for an internationally coordinated program for their development to be implemented. "Proliferation resistance and monitoring technology should be an essential part of the design of all new reactors, enrichment plants, reprocessing facilities and fuel fabrication sites," he said.

Even with greater investment, he cautioned, the most that science and technology could do was to make proliferation difficult, and to make sure that any attempts would be discovered early. "It should be clear to all that the only way to limit proliferation by nation States is through binding international agreements that include effective inspection as a deterrent and effective sanctions when the deterrent fails," he said.

The Nobel Laureate praised the IAEA, saying in an imperfect world, the Agency had kept it from becoming more imperfect. "If we want a safer world then we would need more that 100 inspectors to safeguard it, and more than 200 people to support them."

Nuclear Waste

Prof. Richter outlined two general ways to protect the public from highly radioactive spent fuel created by nuclear energy production. Isolate it from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years, or use destruction by neutron bombardment. The latter case -- which involves the reprocessing of spent fuel -- is done in France where up to 96 percent of the spent fuel´s content is recycled and used again as new fuel to power the reactor.

Isolation is the principle behind the "once through" system, where the waste is not recycled and turned into new fuel. This is advocated by the United States for reasons related to preventing weapons proliferation.

"To use the United States example, if nuclear energy were to remain at the projected 20% fraction of the US electricity needs through the end of the century, the spent fuel in a ´once through´ scenario would need nine repositories of the capacity of Yucca Mountain... This would be quite a challenge since we have not been able to open the first one."

"In the world of expanded use of nuclear power, the once-through cycle does not seem workable," Prof. Richter said. He added that once through was not that different from reprocessing, when it came to mitigating proliferation concerns.