Nuclear energy for developing countries?

Non-Proliferation Treaty impedes widespread use of generation III nuclear reactors

One example of a generation III nuclear reactor is the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR). The ESBWR rectifies a few important disadvantages of previous reactor generations. It incorporates improved fuel technology as well as passive safety systems. The reactor shuts down safely in any emergency without operator action or electronic feedback.

The ESBWR design reduces capital cost by 25 to 40 percent, a vitally important consideration in cash-strapped developing countries. This cost reduction has been made possible by simpler design of the circuits to incorporate natural circulatory forces and to modern computer-aided manufacturing technologies. The latter enables a modular approach to the nuclear plant construction.

Proliferation threads

The primary impediment to the use of generation III reactors in developing countries is the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Much of the material and knowledge employed in civilian nuclear programmes can indeed be used to develop nuclear weapons. In the MIT Technology Review, Per Peterson (UC Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering) sums up the five main proliferation thread categories:

  1. Clandestine diversion of materials from state facilities operated within the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  2. The production of materials in clandestine state facilities.
  3. The abrogation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by a country, overtly misusing facilities and materials.
  4. Terrorist theft of materials for nuclear explosives.
  5. Terrorists attacking a nuclear facility with the aim of generating a deliberate release of radioactivity.

According to Peterson, these threads could be countered by:

  1. More comprehensive IAEA safeguards at nuclear facilities.
  2. A stringent export control for dual-use equipment.
  3. Effective international action to make it highly unattractive for countries to abrogate the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  4. Ensuring adequate physical protection of nuclear facilities and that all links in the nuclear chain are safe.
  5. Making it so difficult for terrorists to attack nuclear power plants that they give up and go elsewhere.

However those remedies also come at a price and none of them can guarantee a 100 percent safety. So the question is whether it is worth taking the risks.

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