Nuclear Growth and Proliferation Issues

Presented to the 2007 Conference of the Australian Nuclear Association, Sydney, 19 October 2007

The views in this paper are the author’s, not necessarily those of the Australian Government.

SUMMARY Nuclear energy is gaining increased interest worldwide, especially because of its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The expansion of nuclear power raises the issue of ensuring there is not a corresponding increase in the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact, nuclear power in itself does not present a proliferation problem, but there is a need to address the spread of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. International cooperation – in particular, the GNEP initiative – is furthering the establishment of new, proliferation-resistant fuel cycle technologies, together with new institutional arrangements to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. With the world’s largest uranium reserves, Australia can expect to have a major influence in these developments.

1. Introduction

Nuclear energy is gaining increased interest worldwide, especially because of its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In our region, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are considering nuclear power programs, and now the possibility of nuclear power is receiving serious attention in Australia. The expansion of nuclear power to a wider range of countries raises the issue of how to ensure there is not a corresponding increase in the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Here, it is important to appreciate that nuclear power in itself does not present a proliferation problem. While plutonium is produced during irradiation of fuel in a reactor, this plutonium is not available for misuse unless it is separated by reprocessing. At both the “front end” and the “back end” of the fuel cycle, however, technologies are involved which, in the wrong hands, could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Today, most power reactors require LEU (low enriched uranium) fuel – hence there is a requirement for uranium enrichment. Plutonium recycle – which has advantages both for spent fuel management and for optimising uranium resource utilisation – currently requires reprocessing, i.e. the separation of plutonium. With both these technologies – enrichment and reprocessing – there can be a risk that capabilities acquired ostensibly for “civil” purposes could be diverted to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The position that nuclear power in itself does not present a proliferation problem is confirmed by historical experience. Proliferation programs have followed two routes:

  • operation of reactors of a type optimised for production of low burnup plutonium – including large natural uranium fuelled “research” reactors such as those of India, Israel and the DPRK, and now being built by Iran – together with reprocessing plants or substantial hot cells for separation of plutonium; or
  • operation of uranium enrichment plants – particularly stolen Urenco centrifuge technology which found its way onto the black market. Examples here include Pakistan, Iraq and Libya. Iran’s enrichment program has similar origins – and Iran’s pursuit of enrichment in violation of Security Council resolutions raises international concern about its underlying purpose.

None of these cases involved a nuclear power program, although in the case of Iran, once its secret enrichment program was exposed Iran has claimed that its purpose is for fuelling power reactors.

Two conclusions follow:

  • the problem is not the spread of nuclear power, but the spread of proliferation-sensitive nuclear technologies;
  • maintaining the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime depends on maintaining effective control over these technologies.

In addition to current proliferation challenges, there is a broader challenge on the horizon. To date, reprocessing plants and the recycle of plutonium are not widespread. But the sustainable use of uranium resources, and the minimisation of high level waste, will require plutonium recycle to become a regular part of the civil fuel cycle in the future. Plutonium recycle using fast neutron reactors can improve the efficiency of uranium utilisation by a factor of some 50-60. Fast neutron reactors also offer substantial waste management advantages, through transmutation of actinides and long-lived fission products. However, plutonium recycle based on the established “fast breeder” reactor concept – in which high-fissile plutonium is produced in a “blanket” and separated through reprocessing – presents obvious proliferation concerns.

Accordingly, there is a need not only to maintain and strengthen the institutional aspects of the non-proliferation regime – such as treaties, verification and national controls – but also to reinforce the regime at a technical level through the development of proliferation-resistant technologies. Especially important is the development of an approach to plutonium recycle that avoids adding to, and if possible reduces, proliferation risk.

2. Addressing the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies

As noted above, past and current proliferation cases have involved illicit development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, rather than misuse of facilities developed in support of nuclear power programs. A commercial project developed in full compliance with safeguards commitments would not normally give rise to proliferation concerns. However, because Iran, once its clandestine enrichment program was exposed, has made much of its claimed “rights” and has sought to characterise this program as a legitimate civil activity, the Iranian case in particular has focused international attention on the potential risks to the non-proliferation regime posed by the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies (SNT).

It is neither necessary nor cost effective for every country with a nuclear power program to have uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Because possession of such capabilities, particularly in regions of tension, could give rise to international concerns, and also because of the technical complexity and high development cost, most countries have not attempted to establish SNT capabilities. Moreover, for the majority of countries development of SNT would not make any economic sense. Several recent initiatives focus on how to create conditions of supply such that countries have no legitimate need to develop national SNT facilities.

It is now apparent that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does not adequately deal with the issue of SNT. The NPT refers to the “inalienable” right to use nuclear energy. The Treaty certainly does not guarantee the right to develop SNT. Nor however does the Treaty explicitly limit the development of SNT, other than by the fundamental obligations of non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) not to acquire (or seek to acquire) nuclear weapons, and to place all their nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.

When the NPT was negotiated, it was thought that development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities would be beyond the means of most NNWS. In retrospect, this was short-sighted. Before the Treaty was concluded there were already several NNWS developing enrichment or reprocessing capabilities (e.g. Germany, Australia, Belgium), and several more, both legitimate and illicit, have emerged since. In addition to the five NWS and the three non-NPT Parties, currently there are ten NNWS that have, or have had, enrichment plants[1], and six NNWS that have, or have had, reprocessing plants[2].

Current approaches to control the spread of SNT have focused on measures against the transfer of equipment, components, special materials and technology, through national export controls and multilateral coordination within the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group). However, these approaches do not fully address the problems of illicit acquisition of enrichment technology and development of indigenous enrichment technology. A way is needed to assess the international acceptability of enrichment projects regardless of whether they involve transfers of controlled items.

Concerns about SNT programs are not addressed simply by having these activities placed under safeguards. Safeguards are an essential part of international confidence-building, but safeguards alone cannot provide assurance about a country’s future intent. An enrichment or reprocessing facility under safeguards today could be used as the basis for break-out from non-proliferation commitments in the future. In the case of enrichment, a large centrifuge plant, using LEU feed, could produce sufficient HEU for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days, or even hours[3]. An essential aspect of non-proliferation is minimising the risk of break-out occurring, through limiting the countries with SNT projects to those regarded as presenting a low proliferation risk.

Since the NPT does not elaborate on the issues surrounding SNT, it is now apparent there is a need to develop an international framework dealing with these issues, to complement the objectives of the NPT. Such a framework might address the following elements:

  • how to reduce the availability of SNT for misuse now or in the future;
  • how to ensure that countries with nuclear power programs have a secure and reliable supply of fuel, so they have no legitimate need to develop national enrichment or reprocessing capabilities;
  • development of proliferation-resistant fuel cycle technologies.

An important political dimension must be recognized here – a number of countries feel strongly that they should have the opportunity to develop independent SNT capabilities, even though in practice they are unlikely to do so, for reasons of economics and technical difficulty. These countries are sensitive about the possibility of enrichment being limited to cartels which could dictate price or even deny supply. They also see it as an issue of principle – a sentiment that is being exploited by Iran.

In order for measures to limit access to technology to gain general international acceptance, attention needs be given to two aspects:

  • substantial diplomatic effort must be invested into explaining why limits on access to technology are necessary to maintain an effective non-proliferation regime – a regime that serves national security interest of every country;
  • issues of equity must be taken into account – countries with nuclear power programs must be confident that nuclear fuel will be available on fair terms and conditions.

These considerations are reflected in a number of the proposals outlined in the following pages.

3. Supply-side measures – reducing the availability of SNT

There is on-going work seeking to establish a political framework in which decisions on transfers of SNT would be more stringently regulated. In 2004 the United States proposed that members of the NSG should refrain from transferring enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology to any country that does not already have “full-scale functioning” facilities. Subsequently, the G8[4] agreed that SNT be transferred “only pursuant to criteria consistent with global non-proliferation norms and to those states rigorously committed to these norms.”

The NSG has been discussing what such criteria might involve. While details of the NSG’s deliberations are not publicly available, possible criteria could include: a country’s non-proliferation and safeguards record and whether it has ratified an Additional Protocol; whether there is a clear economic rationale for the project concerned; whether there is multination or regional involvement in the project; and the implications of the project for international and regional security.

4. Demand-side measures – reducing the requirement for SNT

Recent initiatives have shifted focus from supply and denial policies to addressing demand – how to create conditions under which countries that might otherwise consider national enrichment projects would have no reason to continue – indeed would have incentives not to do so. For example, a number of proposals involve supply assurances – that countries choosing to forgo national enrichment projects would be given assurances about the supply of nuclear fuel at commercial prices.

One of the main proposals along these lines is the “Concept for a Multilateral Mechanism for Reliable Access to Nuclear Fuel” (RANF), launched by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the UK and the US in June 2006. This proposal focuses on assurances for reliable supply of enrichment services or enriched uranium for countries not pursuing national enrichment or reprocessing projects. In July 2007 the US and Russia launched a new initiative, developing the fuel assurance concept further.

A further elaboration in this area is the concept of an international fuel cycle centre, under which enrichment facilities would be operated by groups of countries rather than as national projects. Interested countries could participate, securing a share of product and profit, but without having access to the technology – the technology holder would retain sole control of the technology. In addition to the fuel assurance aspect, there is also an important non-proliferation benefit – the involvement of several countries, appropriate treaty arrangements, and limiting know-how to the technology holder, would help ensure sensitive facilities were not misused.

The concept of multination ownership of sensitive nuclear facilities has been around for some decades (it was elaborated in the INFCE[5] report of 1980). Now, Russia is proceeding with a practical expression of this concept. The enrichment facility at Angarsk, Siberia, has been established as an international fuel cycle centre, to be monitored by the IAEA. Russia is inviting multination participation in this project, and already Kazakhstan has joined. In addition to the non-proliferation advantages, the benefits of participation include assured supply of product and profit-sharing. Russia envisages that in future further such centres could be established elsewhere.

5. Development of a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle

This is a very broad subject – in this paper it is possible only to touch on some aspects.

As already discussed, technologies at the front and back ends of the currently-established fuel cycle – enrichment and reprocessing – have dual-use potential, i.e. they could be used for military as well as civil purposes. There are many concepts for a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle, but the basic issue is, can a fuel cycle be developed which produces nuclear fuel without using enrichment, and enables plutonium recycle without plutonium separation?

The need for enrichment can be avoided through approaches such as accelerator-driven systems, but these do not offer the sustainability advantages of recycle. Fast reactors do not require enrichment – but the conventional fast breeder reactor depends on reprocessing, and what’s more, produces high-fissile plutonium (attractive for weapons use).

Russia has developed a fast neutron reactor concept that addresses these issues – the BREST lead-cooled fast reactor. The basic concept is to use a fast neutron reactor in conjunction with “dry” processing of spent fuel, to enable recycle of plutonium without separation, and to transmute minor actinides and fission products. This has both non-proliferation and waste management benefits – the period high level waste must be isolated from the environment will be very substantially reduced, from some 10,000 years to around 300-500 years.

The BREST reactor concept incorporates a number of proliferation-resistant features, such as use of a “hot” fuel (plutonium mixed with fission products as well as minor actinides), high burnup (so at all times plutonium from the reactor has an isotopic composition unsuitable for weapons), absence of a breeding “blanket” (all plutonium production occurs in the core), and an equilibrium core (no excess neutrons available for undeclared irradiation), in addition to the use of a spent fuel treatment – probably pyro-metallurgical processing – that avoids any separation of pure plutonium.

The practicability of using lead as a coolant in a large reactor has yet to be demonstrated – but the proliferation-resistant features could be adapted to other fast reactor types. It is noted that four of the six reactor concepts under development in the Generation IV program are fast neutron reactors[6].

In principle, the general use of fast reactors, which are fuelled through recycle, would make uranium enrichment obsolete. However, establishing fast reactors on an industrial basis will take some decades, and may be constrained by availability of fuel for initial core loads (i.e. until self-sustainability is achieved). For most of this century, light water reactors will continue to have an important role (with other thermal reactors such as pebble bed modular reactors also having a place), so there will be a continuing need for enrichment for the foreseeable future. An increase in global enrichment capacity will be needed from as early as the coming decade.

As regards reprocessing, however, the development of fast reactors together with advanced spent fuel treatments such as pyro-metallurgical processing could have a more immediate effect – making solvent-based reprocessing technology obsolete in the near term. If the viability of these new technologies is proven, there should be no requirement to build new plutonium separation plants – management of spent fuel from light water reactors would be based on advanced spent fuel treatment and recycle through fast reactors. However, for safeguards purposes there will be an ongoing need to counter the possibility of clandestine plutonium extraction plants.

6. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is a United States-led initiative, launched in 2006 – a comprehensive package drawing together a number of the themes discussed in this paper[7]. GNEP promotes the development of new fuel cycle technologies and institutional arrangements to minimise proliferation concerns from the wider use of nuclear power. While a major focus of GNEP is non-proliferation, GNEP also promises substantial benefits in spent fuel and waste management, and in resource utilisation.

The key features of the GNEP initiative are as follows:

  • “fuel supplier nations” – currently envisaged as the P-5 (i.e. the NWS) plus Japan – would undertake to supply “user nations” with reactors, and to supply nuclear fuel on a “cradle-to-grave” basis. This would include spent fuel take-back – users could return spent fuel to a fuel supplier, which would recycle the fuel and treat the eventual high level waste;
  • “user nations” would be given assurances of supply for power reactors and fuel. GNEP envisages that users will operate mainly light water reactors, will obtain LEU fuel from a supplier nation, and return the spent fuel to a supplier nation. Thus user nations would not need to develop national enrichment or reprocessing capabilities – and would have a major incentive not to do so;
  • fuel supplier nations would operate fast reactors and advanced spent fuel treatment facilities, in order to recycle plutonium and transmute longer-lived radioactive materials.

An important aspect of GNEP is the development of small-to-medium reactors suitable for developing countries with small power grids. These reactors would be designed for long refuelling periods, possibly a life-time core. Refuelling would be carried out by the supplier, or the reactor might be replaced when refuelling is necessary (“nuclear battery” concept).

Some of the GNEP technologies are already well established, others require major development. A time frame for the establishment of new fast reactor models, advanced spent fuel treatment, and remotely handled fuel fabrication as envisaged under GNEP may be around 20-25 years.

GNEP is a long-term project, which has only recently been launched, so it can be expected to evolve considerably over time. One area for further analysis is the likely role of fast reactors. Under GNEP as currently envisaged, fast reactors would be operated as “burners” to consume plutonium and minor actinides and transmute fission products, and these burner reactors will be operated by a limited group of countries (the “supplier nations”). Under the Russian BREST concept, fast reactors would be operated in a sustainable mode for optimum resource utilisation, and because the reactors and spent fuel treatment process would be inherently proliferation-resistant they would be suitable for deployment in a number of countries. Over time, the GNEP focus may well evolve from “burning” undesirable materials to sustainability of uranium use.

7. Some implications for Australia

As a major supplier of uranium to the world market, a potential user of nuclear power and a strong proponent of non-proliferation, Australia has a close interest in GNEP, which is why we joined GNEP in September 2007.

Spent fuel take-back Some people have expressed concern that GNEP would oblige uranium producers such as Australia to take back spent fuel or nuclear waste. This is not the case. As outlined above, with GNEP technologies spent fuel will not be “waste”, but a valuable energy resource with the potential to multiply significantly the amount of energy derived from a given quantity of uranium. Spent fuel would be transferred to a country with advanced fuel cycle technologies, able to recycle the spent fuel and to treat the eventual high level waste.

Australia does not have these technologies – in fact, if Australia were to proceed with nuclear power, we would be a “user” country, able to take advantage of the GNEP arrangements to have our spent fuel managed by a country with an advanced nuclear program. The eventual high level waste is likely to be returned to the user country – as is the case now with waste from reprocessing. However, GNEP technologies will result in high level waste that will be more easily manageable because of its substantially shorter isolation requirement.

Uranium market GNEP could result in a significant restructuring of the world’s uranium and nuclear fuel markets. Today, power utilities typically conclude contracts at each point of the nuclear fuel cycle: uranium producers, conversion facilities, enrichment facilities, fuel fabrication facilities, and sometimes reprocessing facilities. GNEP however contemplates a vertically integrated approach under which nuclear power utilities may negotiate nuclear fuel supply as a single package (including fuel supply and spent fuel treatment services), backed up by government-level assurances of long-term supply, based on internationally agreed criteria for the non-proliferation and safeguards compliance requirements that make countries eligible for assurances.

Governments will need to determine what arrangements could provide the supply assurances that GNEP requires (to create an environment whereby user countries are able to rely on enrichment and fuel management services provided by suppliers), without impacting on the commercial market that drives and encourages investment. At present governments of uranium supplying countries are not in a position to guarantee specific quantities over long periods of time, as production is undertaken by companies rather than governments, and will depend on commercial decisions determined by balances of supply and demand and extraction costs. As GNEP develops, governments, nuclear processing companies, nuclear power utilities, and mining companies will need to consider carefully the potential implications for the international nuclear fuel market, and how industry and governments can work together to mutual advantage.

8. Conclusions

The nuclear industry is on the verge of two major developments – a substantial expansion of nuclear power, including uptake by new countries, and the establishment of proliferation-resistant technologies, backed with new institutional arrangements, to further strengthen non-proliferation objectives. With the world’s largest uranium reserves, Australia is expected to have a major influence in these developments, to the benefit of our own and regional economies, the global environment, and the non-proliferation regime.

[1]. Argentina, Australia (pilot plant), Brazil, DPRK (suspected), Germany, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa.

[2]. Belgium, Brazil, DPRK, Italy, Germany, Japan.

[3]. See John Carlson, Addressing Proliferation Challenges from the Spread of Uranium Enrichment Capability, Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, 8-12 July 2007.

[4]. The Group of Eight comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US.

[5]. International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation.

[6]. In addition to the lead-cooled fast reactor, Gen IV includes a sodium-cooled fast reactor, a gas-cooled fast reactor, and a supercritical water-cooled reactor that can operate in thermal or fast spectra.

[7]. For an outline of GNEP see ASNO’s 2005-06 Annual Report, pages 11-14. More details are in the US Department of Energy website

John Carlson
Director General, Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office,
RG Casey Building, John McEwen Crescent, BARTON ACT 0221

Last Updated: 24 September 2014