Nuclear power and biodiversity - don't forget WMD proliferation!

A reminder to conservation scientists: not only can one little nuclear bomb ruin your whole day, it can also wipe out a whole lot of biodiversity.
A reminder to conservation scientists: not only can one little nuclear bomb ruin your whole day, it can also wipe out a whole lot of biodiversity.
Nuclear energy is essential to preserve the world's biodiversity, according to 69 conservation scientists. But there's a mysterious omission in their analysis, writes Jim Green: nuclear weapons proliferation. And after a major exchange of nuclear bombs, and the 'nuclear winter' that would follow, exactly how much biodiversity would survive?
Even a relatively modest exchange of some dozens of nuclear weapons could profoundly effect biodiversity, and large-scale nuclear warfare undoubtedly would.

A group of conservation scientists has published an open letter urging environmentalists to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power. The letter is an initiative of Australian academics Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw.

The 69 co-signatories from 14 countries "support the broad conclusions drawn in the article 'Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation', published in Conservation Biology."

The open letter states: "Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources - including nuclear power - must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change."

So, here's my open letter in response to the open letter initiated by Brook and Bradshaw:

Dear conservation scientists ...

If you want environmentalists to support nuclear power, get off your backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems associated with the technology.

Start with the proliferation problem since the multifaceted and repeatedly-demonstrated links between the 'peaceful atom' and nuclear weapons proliferation pose profound risks and greatly trouble environmentalists and many others besides.

The Brook / Bradshaw journal article emphasises the importance of biodiversity - but even a relatively modest exchange of some dozens of nuclear weapons could profoundly effect biodiversity, and large-scale nuclear warfare undoubtedly would.

The Brook / Bradshaw article ranks power sources according to seven criteria: greenhouse gas emissions, cost, dispatchability, land use, safety (fatalities), solid waste, and radiotoxic waste. WMD proliferation is excluded.

By all means ignore lesser concerns to avoid a book-length analysis, but to ignore the link between nuclear power and weapons is disingenuous and the comparative analysis of power sources is a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.

Integral fast reactors

While Brook and Bradshaw exclude WMD proliferation from their comparative assessment of power sources, their journal article does address the topic. They promote the 'integral fast reactor' (IFR) that was the subject of R&D in the US until was abandoned in the 1990s. If they existed, IFRs would be metal-fuelled, sodium-cooled, fast neutron reactors.

Brook and Bradshaw write:

"The IFR technology in particular also counters one of the principal concerns regarding nuclear expansion - the proliferation of nuclear weapons - because its electrorefining-based fuel-recycling system cannot separate weapons-grade fissile material."

Even a relatively modest exchange of some dozens of nuclear weapons could profoundly effect biodiversity, and large-scale nuclear warfare undoubtedly would.

However Brook's claim that IFRs "cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material" is false.

George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research program in the US, states: "If not properly safeguarded, [countries] could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor - operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material."

IFR advocate Tom Blees notes that: "IFRs are certainly not the panacea that removes all threat of proliferation, and extracting plutonium from it would require the same sort of techniques as extracting it from spent fuel from light water reactors."

Brook and Bradshaw argue that "the large-scale deployment of fast reactor technology would result in all of the nuclear waste and depleted uranium stockpiles generated over the last 50 years being consumed as fuel."

Seriously? An infinitely more likely outcome would be some fast reactors consuming waste and weapons-useable material, while other fast reactors and conventional uranium reactors continue to produce such materials.

The reality of fast reactor technology

The Brook/Bradshaw article ignores the sad reality of fast reactor technology: over US$50 billion invested, unreliable reactors, numerous fires and other accidents, and one after another country abandoning the technology.

Moreover, fast reactors have worsened, not lessened, proliferation problems. John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, discusses a topical example:

"India has a plan to produce such [weapon grade] plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. This is problematic on non-proliferation and nuclear security grounds.

"Pakistan believes the real purpose of the fast breeder program is to produce plutonium for weapons (so this plan raises tensions between the two countries); and transport and use of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors presents a serious terrorism risk (weapons-grade material would be a priority target for seizure by terrorists)."

The fast reactor techno-utopia presented by Brook and Bradshaw is theoretically attractive. Back in the real world, there's much more about fast reactors to oppose than to support.

Creative accounting

Brook and Bradshaw also counter proliferation concerns with the following argument: "Nuclear power is deployed commercially in countries whose joint energy intensity is such that they collectively constitute 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

"If one adds to this tally those nations that are actively planning nuclear deployment or already have scientific or medical research reactors, this figure rises to over 90%. As a consequence, displacement of fossil fuels by an expanding nuclear-energy sector would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise."

The premise is correct - countries operating reactors account for a large majority of greenhouse emissions. But even by the most expansive estimate - Brook's - less than one-third of all countries have some sort of weapons capability, either through the operation of reactors or an alliance with a nuclear weapons state.

So the conclusion - that nuclear power expansion "would not lead to a large increase in the number of countries with access to nuclear resources and expertise" - is nonsense and one wonders how such jiggery-pokery could find its way into a peer-reviewed journal.

The power-weapons conundrum is neatly summarised by former US Vice-President Al Gore:

"For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."


The Brook / Bradshaw article adds one further comment about proliferation: "Nuclear weapons proliferation is a complex political issue, with or without commercial nuclear power plants, and is under strong international oversight."

They cite a book by the committed IFR advocate Tom Blees in support of that statement. But Blees argues for the establishment of an international strike force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse or to divert nuclear materials.

That is a far cry from the International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards system. In articles and speeches during his tenure as the Director General of the IAEA from 1997-2009, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said that the Agency's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited".

The safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", he went on, while efforts to improve the system had been "half-hearted", and the safeguards system operated on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department".

Blees doesn't argue that the nuclear industry is subject to strong international oversight - he argues that "fissile material should all be subject to rigorous international oversight" (emphasis added). This conflation between reality and wishful thinking is a recurring feature of Barry Brook's nuclear advocacy.

Strengthening safeguards

Of course, the flaws in the nuclear safeguards system are not set in stone. And this gets me back to my original point: if nuclear lobbyists want environmentalists to support nuclear power, they need to get off their backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems such as the inadequate safeguards system.

Environmentalists have a long record of working on these problems and the lack of support from nuclear lobbyists has not gone unnoticed.

To give an example of a topical point of intervention, Canada has agreed to supply uranium and nuclear technology to India with greatly reduced safeguards and non-proliferation standards, and Australia seems likely to follow suit.

Those precedents will likely lead to a broader weakening of international safeguards - and make it that much more difficult for nuclear lobbyists to win support from environmentalists and others.

The seriousness of the problem has been acknowledged by, among others, a former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors and a former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office. It is a live debate in numerous nuclear exporting countries and there isn't a moment to lose.

To mention just one more point of intervention, the separation and stockpiling of plutonium from power reactor spent fuel increases proliferation risks. There is virtually no demand for the uranium or plutonium separated at reprocessing plants, and no repositories for the high-level waste stream.

Yet reprocessing continues, the global stockpile of separated plutonium increases year after year and now stands at around 260 tons. It's a problem that needs to be solved; it's a problem that can be solved.

Endorsing the wishful thinking and misinformation presented in the Brook / Bradshaw journal article is no substitute for an honest acknowledgement of the proliferation problems associated with nuclear power, coupled with serious, sustained efforts to solve those problems.



Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. Nuclear Monitor is published 20 times a year. It has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue!

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