Monday, April 27, 2009

Can Nuclear Power Plants Help End Nuclear Weapons Proliferation?

Safety concerns aside, can nuclear fission power plants play the part in ending the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since staff of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began to concern themselves about the problem of global warming and climate change, the long-term future of nuclear fission power plants had inexplicably gained a new lease on life. Add to that the latest “fat-chance-but-good-nonetheless” rhetoric of US President Barack Obama on a nuclear weapons-free world and suddenly the long-term future of our fascination and disdain of everyone over 40 on nuclear fission power plants have put it yet again in the political center stage.

Even though the long-term future of nuclear fission power plants have always been driven by scientific, environmental, and political factors. It was the political factors that largely played the role on how the American people and the rest of the world view nuclear power. For example, ever since the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident on Wednesday, March 23, 1979, no new nuclear fission power plants have ever been constructed on US territory. But ever since the American public had shown concern over the threat of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, there are now calls to lift the ban on construction of new nuclear power plants in the US.

Also, if President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free – or a largely reduced number of nuclear weapons – world, nuclear fission power plants can play their part too. By converting those plutonium 239 – the active component in most nuclear weapons systems - into something that only a nuclear fission power plant can use. It will be easier to police the “disposal” of nuclear weapons grade material if they are stored in a few well-documented and secure places around the world. In other words the International Atomic Energy Agency will have an easier time watching over these weapons grade material as they are turned into something else.

Even though there is that eternal issue of safety given the high-profile nuclear power plant accidents of the past like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Though the much worse April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident has been an eternal sticking point when it comes to the issue of safety in nuclear power. We can always follow the French example. France gets 80% of their energy needs from nuclear fission and they never had a major nuclear accident, so an accident free nuclear fission power plant doesn’t just exist in science fiction. Though the issue of safe long-term storage of highly radioactive by-products that remain lethal for almost a million years – especially spent fuel rods – is still the major drawback of nuclear fission power plants.

Another factor plaguing nuclear fission power plants is that unlike coal-fired power plants, their power output cannot be varied as easily. This is a very common in northern countries that are dependent on nuclear power were they can have too much electrical energy in the summer when their peak energy needs are factored according to their winter heating energy needs. And also the economic viability of nuclear fission power plants cannot yet fully be assessed because they are for all intents and purposes a government-subsidized business entity especially in the United States.

These problems aside, the nuclear fission power plants unique selling point is that it emits not a gram of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during its electricity generating operation. And this will probably make nuclear power plants viable again, unless of course we can make wind and solar efficient enough to compete with nuclear fission sourced electricity within the next five years.