Nuclear power and the risk of nuclear proliferation

Feb. 14, 2011

Cooling towers at the recently built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. (Download Image)

Nuclear power and the risk of nuclear proliferation

Lauren Y Devore,, 925-422-0855
We're deluding ourselves if we think we can greatly expand the use of nuclear power without also increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

That was the view expressed by Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, in a seminar last week sponsored by the Center for Global Security Research.

Sokolski began his talk by describing the "current narrative" about nuclear power and nuclear proliferation and gave his views as to the flaws in that narrative.

The narrative begins with the premise that: "We have to have lots more nuclear power as soon as possible to meet global energy demand without causing further global warming." He noted that some projections call for as many as 1,000 to 1,500 1-gigawatt reactors deployed by 2050. Sokolski observed that while it's clear that the world needs more energy and carbon-free energy and that nuclear power has an important role to play, there are important downsides to this energy technology, most notably the spent fuel issue. He also noted that the nuclear industry is lobbying heavily for this approach, "which is only to be expected, since they stand to reap huge profits."

The pro-nuclear narrative also maintains that: "Those who worry about the link between the spread of nuclear power and nuclear proliferation are alarmists, and there are ways around the problems they raise." Sokolski described a major shift in perception regarding the link between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation since the 1970s, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was first negotiated. "There are people today, 'neo-realists,' many in their 20s and 30s, who believe that the nuclear proliferation problem isn't as bad as we think and there are ways to prevent any problems that might arise."

They also believe that: "Whatever risks there are can be managed by strengthening the IAEA." But solving the nuclear proliferation problem isn't as simple as scaling up the IAEA. The agency is already overwhelmed by its current responsibilities, Sokolski noted. "Organizations that monitor complex systems and have contradictory goals may make the situation worse if they try to affect or change that complex system, and this phenomenon may well apply to the IAEA."

The pro-nuclear power narrative also asserts that: "We can also strengthen our intelligence community and get better warning of proliferation problems." Sokolski expressed doubt that more intelligence was easily attainable, or would be used even if policy-makers had it, saying that the problem wasn't so much detection but indecision in taking action. "We have excellent strategic intelligence, but things are always fuzzier at the tactical level. We keep wanting proof, waiting for evidence, and by that time it's usually too late to do anything to reverse the problem."

For a more balanced approach to the nuclear power-nuclear proliferation issue, Sokolski said that the true costs of various energy technologies need to be used, including the value of government subsidies and loan guarantees for nuclear power plants and tax breaks for the oil and coal industry. "When these hidden costs are factored in, we'll finally be able to accurately judge and compare the cost for carbon sequestration and other alternative energy approaches."

Sokolski also emphasized the need for in-depth assessment of what it means to share nuclear power and nuclear technology with various regions of the world, such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia. "As important as the energy demand and climate change arguments are, we really need to carefully think through the security implications of pushing nuclear power in these regions."