Put yourself in an imaginary time machine and set the dial to around the year 2040. The exorbitant price of oil, now at $500 a barrel, has pushed a good chunk of the globe toward nuclear power.
If the world is on the cusp of such an era, will it result in weapons proliferation or accidents such as meltdowns? Or will a new way to harness energy emerge to compete with nuclear power?
Currently, more than 400 reactors in 30 countries supply about 16 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Nuclear power is increasing steadily, with about 30 reactors under construction in 12 countries. Most reactors being ordered or planned are in Asia. And more than 40 developing countries have recently approached U.N. officials to express interest in starting nuclear power programs.
Nuclear energy advocates see the technology as a clean way to wean the world from expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.
But for critics, the thought of a nuclearized world stirs controversy.
“The G8 countries can’t even maintain adequate safety and security,” said Paul Walker at Global Green USA, an environmental and arms control organization and affiliate of a group founded by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. “So the developing world presents a dangerous potential for terrorist attack or diversion of radioactive materials or major accident.”
Experts are also concerned that the spread of nuclear power could spur weapons proliferation. Arab states could learn the wrong lessons from Iran, a nation that thumbs its nose at the West while it allegedly builds a nuclear weapons program, said Charles Ferguson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Neighbors of the Persian giant could follow its lead in sidestepping full disclosure of its nuclear program, or repeat its argument that unfriendly relations with the few Western countries that supply nuclear fuel have forced it to build it’s own enrichment program, Ferguson said. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have only small programs without the ability to produce highly enriched uranium, which can be used in bomb making, he added.
“Iran thinks of itself as a top dog in the region, and that can appear threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states,” Ferguson said.
Surrounding nations could establish nuclear programs with the intent of supplying electricity but could later flirt with the idea of nuclear weapons, Ferguson said. Fear of a dominant Iran could prompt regional governments to keep their nuclear weapons options open, he added. Some could decide it’s more cost effective to start enriching their own uranium.
“It’s kind of a slow train wreck,” Ferguson said.
Commercial reactors use low enriched uranium, which is non-weapons grade, although some research reactors use highly enriched uranium, Ferguson said. An enrichment facility can make low enriched uranium for commercial reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs, he said. “That’s why there is such a big concern about the spread of enrichment technology,” he said.
A turning point for the Middle East could come when its oil begins to dry up and the region starts clamoring for nuclear power.
“At that point Saudi Arabia will feel some economic pain,” Ferguson said. “So they can legitimately say ‘let’s invest in nuclear.’”
To curtail moves from peaceful technology to weapons material production, experts recognize the need for strong regulatory bodies. But some authoritarian governments may not warm to the idea of answering to an independent government body, Ferguson said.
Ernie Moniz, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s energy initiative, said one way to curtail nuclear weapons proliferation is to push “fuel leasing,” in which a country would receive a secure, fresh supply of low enriched uranium fuel and return the spent fuel to the supplier. The user would agree not to pursue further enrichment or reprocessing. Spent fuel can also be used to make weapons.
The United Arab Emirates is moving toward such an arrangement, although no country has formally adopted it, Moniz said.
The spread of nuclear power could also increase terrorists’ access to nuclear materials, experts said. Even now, some of the world’s research reactors, which contain fuel suitable for bomb making, are lightly guarded and vulnerable to security breaches, Ferguson said.
Safety is another concern. There have been two major accidents — Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Chernobyl was a result of major design deficiencies, violation of operating procedures and the absence of a safety culture, according to the World Nuclear Association.
“Chernobyl used an old design that could never have been licensed in the West,” Moniz said. “I would expect that any future plant built anywhere will use modern safety features.”
Regardless, it takes just one Chernobyl or Three Mile Island to spur panic, the fallout of which could halt nuclear power expansion worldwide, Ferguson said. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident raised many public questions about the safety and reliability of nuclear power and dealt a death blow to new plant construction in the United States, Walker said.
George Friedman, chief executive officer of Stratfor.com, a private intelligence firm, said nuclear weapons proliferation is unlikely. “The most remarkable thing is the lack of nuclear proliferation,” he said. “In fact we’ve seen very little.”
Nearly 200 states are party to the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty, five of which have nuclear weapons. Other known nuclear powers are India and Pakistan. Iran and Syria are alleged to have nuclear weapons and Israel’s nuclear weapons status remains unknown. Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan is alleged to have shared nuclear secrets with North Korea, Libya and Iran, although he recently recanted his confession.
Simply creating a nuclear explosion is easy, Friedman said. “But creating a nuclear weapon is fiendishly difficult,” he said, explaining why weapons proliferation fears are unfounded.
Iran, for example, does not have the advanced electronics or other engineering capabilities to deliver such an explosion, he said. “Eighty percent of a weapons program has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.”
But he does expect increased civilian use of nuclear power in a future with a dwindling supply of affordable fossil fuels.
One problem is that the electricity that nuclear plants produce cannot be stored well. An airplane, for example, cannot be flown on batteries, Friedman said. “And you can’t drive a truck using electricity,” he added. Building a reactor can also take years.
“So the real issue is going to be storage,” Friedman said.
Friedman expects Japan, which imports 100 percent of its oil, to move increasingly toward nuclear power. Other countries would likely include industrial nations with limited domestic resources like South Korea and Taiwan, he said. European countries would also fall into the mix, at least until a better technology comes along.
But nuclear power’s limitations could spur a drive toward other technologies.
“If I were to bet, I would bet on space-based solar power,” Friedman said.
Direct conversion of solar energy on earth is inefficient, mostly because of the amount of land it uses, Friedman said. But beaming microwave energy to earth would be more viable later in the century. This would especially be the case if the military’s use of space soars, which would eventually cause launch costs to decline, he said.
In line with such predictions is a 2007 report by the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office entitled Space-Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security, which encourages the government to start developing space power.
As for which energy source will reign later in the century, Friedman expects a range of competing ideas but says that one dominant one will emerge, just as hydrocarbons did in the 19th century.
“I expect ferment, crisis and then a single solution (will) emerge,” he said.