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Secure energy? Civil nuclear power, security & global warming

Prominent scientists and analysts have shown that the UK government’s case has not taken account of key environmental and security costs of nuclear power.

Evidence presented in a new report by Oxford Research Group, Secure Energy? Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming [PDF], shows that:

* CO2 emissions from nuclear power are many times higher than the Government claims.
* A new build would increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
* A new build would increase the risk of nuclear terrorism.

All over the world the fortunes of civil nuclear power are rising - why? Many in government hope that nuclear power would increase energy security during a time of unstable competition and surging demand. Some claim nuclear power is key to reducing global CO2 emissions. For others, it is because nuclear power opens the door to nuclear weapons.

This report asks two questions: how dangerous is nuclear power? And can it help reduce CO2 emissions? The short answer to the first questions is ‘very’: nuclear power is uniquely dangerous when compared to other energy sources. For the second question the answer is ‘not enough and not in time’.

By comparing the security consequences of civil nuclear power to its contribution to tackling climate change, Oxford Research Group shows that rather than making a positive contribution, an expansion of civil nuclear power would:

• make efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons much more difficult

• increase the risk of nuclear terrorism;

• make a negligible short-term contribution to lowering CO2 emissions; and

• make a negligible contribution to energy security.

Finally, we show that nuclear power is not needed. Germany, for example, already has more wind-power capacity than the UK nuclear component and within six years will have more solar powered capacity too. If the UK pursued similar policies, by 2020 wind would provide well over six times and solar three times the generating capacity major industrial players estimate for a nuclear new build.

Much of the disagreement about the security implications of nuclear power revolves around whether the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism risks can be managed. Using the most recent research we can show that these risks will become much harder to manage. In fact a new nuclear build would take us into uncharted and very dangerous waters.

The foundation upon which we make this claim concerns the availability of high-grade uranium, i.e. there is not enough high-grade uranium in the earth’s crust to fuel a large-scale nuclear expansion. Therefore spent fuel will have to be reprocessed in plants like Thorp (England) or Rokkasho Mura (Japan) to produce MOX fuel and reactor-grade plutonium. These materials are suitable for use in nuclear weapons, and will need to be securely stored and transported. Current stocks are a serious proliferation hazard and millions of dollars are spent trying to find and secure them. To produce more would be extremely risky.

Even the most advanced technology for preventing the theft or diversion of weapons usable materials from reprocessing plants cannot guarantee security. Such safeguards are accurate up to 99%. In a reprocessing plant such as Rokkasho Mura, one percent a year is enough for one nuclear weapon a month. If a state decided to start diverting small amounts of plutonium from the reprocessing chain for future use in a weapons programme (or perhaps to sell), it would be very hard for IAEA inspectors to detect the diversion.

For these reasons HMG should apply the precautionary principle. Tony Blair’s justification for replacing the UK’s nuclear weapons system is based on a version of this principle: in an uncertain future in which new nuclear weapons states and state sponsored terrorism are likely, the ‘ultimate deterrent’ is justified. Judged against this argument, building more nuclear power plants is self-defeating in the extreme: they would increase the very threats nuclear weapons are intended to deter.

Editorial Notes: The full report is available as a PDF. Oxford Research Group is
an independent non-governmental organisation established in 1982 which seeks to develop effective methods whereby people can bring about positive change on issues of national and international security by non-violent means. (About Us)

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