The Economist


Feb 23rd 2006

Not yet off the drawing board

"If a problem cannot be solved," suggested Dwight Eisenhower, "enlarge it." When George Bush announced a new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), in a radio address on February 18th, he followed Ike's advice.

Mr Bush's problem is how to deal with proliferation risks while promoting nuclear power. His solution is to get countries that already have advanced nuclear industries to "lend" nuclear fuel to poorer countries that need it, then recover the spent fuel from them for recycling and burning down, getting rid of dangerous nuclear wastes. The borrowers would forgo costly uranium-enriching or plutonium extraction of their own (technologies that can be used for making reactor fuels, or abused to make bombs). This would make it harder to do the covert nuclear dabbling that may be going on in Iran.

The Department of Energy guesses that by 2050 energy demand will have doubled and there will be 1,000 nuclear power stations dotted about the globe (compared with fewer than 450 today). Without a big change in the way nuclear fuel-making is handled and nuclear waste is managed, the proliferation risks will grow too. Mr Bush hopes that new safer, smaller and simpler reactors can be built for developing countries; and that new technologies will extract more energy from fuels, while reducing both the amount and danger of left-over waste.

There is a logic to this. America stopped extracting plutonium from its spent fuel in the 1970s. But others continued, leaving 200 tonnes of civilian plutonium around the world, a big proliferation risk. If GNEP technologies--more proliferation-resistant recycling techniques and fast-burning reactors--can move from the lab to production, plutonium stockpiles could eventually be eliminated.

So far, claims an enthusiastic Clay Sell, the deputy secretary for energy, the idea has at least had a good hearing in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo (all potential partners) and Vienna (home of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency). But will they also chip in to the huge cost of making the technology work?

Mr Bush has included $250m in his next budget for R&D, with larger sums promised for what is likely to be at least a ten-year effort to produce a pilot fast-burner reactor. The danger, says Victor Gilinsky, an energy consultant and former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, comes in basing energy policy on technologies that may never work and, if they do, will be exorbitantly costly. So much so, he argues, that the bits involving new technologies will need to be government-run: a form of "nuclear socialism" that will finance laboratories for years but never be commercially viable.

And even if more fuel is burnt more efficiently, there is still the problem of where the waste will go. Successive administrations have failed to build a repository for high-level (unrecycled) nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Mr Sell points out that, on present levels of nuclear use, America will need nine more Yuccas this century. Unprocessed spent fuel takes 1m years to pass its peak of radioactivity; recycled fuel wastes take a mere 1,000 years.

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