Point Nuclear Proliferation
by Omeed Firoozgan and Ben Woll
Counterpoint Nuclear Energy
by Professor Alec Thomas
As we celebrate two decades of a unified Germany and the subsequent fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the issue of nuclear weapons is a topic of intense debate.
Proponents of nuclear proliferation maintain its advantages in effectively deterring warfare and defending against enemy threats, if the situation should arise. The costs of nuclear armament, however, far outweigh the benefits. Nukes have extremely destructive capabilities, can fuel retaliatory opposition, and are dangerous to the environment.
The entire world witnessed the intensity of nuclear warfare in the infamous U.S. attacks on the Japanese islands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of WWII. The blasts were devastating to the cities not because they destroyed infrastructure and killed thousands, but also because radiation continued to plague the city for decades after the incident. Today, the existence of nukes, to a large extent, makes the world uncomfortably volatile. Weapons capable of mass destruction create an international environment that is not safe. It is in this frame of reference, that arguments for nuclear proliferation have become increasingly tenuous.
Proliferation is driven by a perceived need to defend against aggression by other armed powers. Countries like Iran and North Korea relentlessly argue for their right to develop nuclear programs, but would be less inclined to do so if they did not feel such an eminent threat from other countries – like the United States, Britain, and Russia – that hold vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The existence of nuclear weapons creates an international power imbalance that makes non-nuclear countries fearful; as a response they become uncooperative and hawkish. This is inherently destabilizing and detrimental to international security.
What’s worse, nuclear weapons have the potential to empower non-state actors. Harsh rhetoric from rogue states is a relatively empty threat because their leaders are aware of the obvious catastrophic repercussions they would incur. Iran’s leaders know that an attempt to “wipe Israel off the map” would lead to their own destruction. However, radicals without government affiliations would, by contrast, have zero reservations. It is absolutely imperative that we leave no room for aggression of this type, and significant reductions would make it less likely that non-state actors could obtain a nuke.
In such precarious circumstances, the detriment of nuclear weapons is made clearer by the associated environmental hazards. According to nuclear experts, the thermal radiation caused by nuclear explosions can reach temperatures equal to that of the center of the sun (almost 100,000,000 degrees Celsius). In addition, the initial and residual chemical contamination can damage an area’s soil and water supply for decades. Above all, a nuclear impact would have long-term effects on the atmosphere and climate. A concentrated effort of safe disposal measures to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons is essential to preventing future environmental difficulties.
It is important to recognize the necessity of reaching zero. If President Obama is serious about his mission, we must agree that we cannot ask other countries to scrap their weapons without reciprocating that same action. Zero means zero. But why zero? Wouldn’t a significant reduction of weapons be sufficient? A simple reduction defeats the purpose of non-proliferation. The dangers of armament would not be averted. Additionally, reduction rather than elimination does nothing to eliminate the threat of nukes falling into the wrong hands.
Some may be skeptical about the feasibility of reaching zero. Since 1990, we have cut the world’s total number of nuclear weapons by one-third. The fate of nuclear non-proliferation is particularly the responsibility of the U.S. and Russia, as the two powers hold about 96% of the world’s weapons. Recent agreements between its leaders demonstrate that both countries are willing to make a world free of nuclear weapons a priority. In his speech in Prague on April 4, 2009, President Obama stated America’s pledge to achieve zero and declared his intention to “seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.” In June, Presidents Obama and Medvedev made a promising first step towards zero by agreeing to a fifty percent reduction of nuclear arsenals.
The vast amount of international support for Global Zero proves that the cause is achievable. Global Zero is a newly launched worldwide initiative dedicated to the phased, verified elimination of nuclear weapons. Originally agreed upon by a group of world leaders, Global Zero’s impressive list of signatories includes former heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, and top military commanders. In a nationwide launch on college campuses in September, hundreds of students from 15 different universities, including the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and Brown University, joined the effort. From students and community members to world leaders and politicians, reaching zero is not only supported, but completely necessary and possible in the next two decades.
In 2008, the United States consumed 4,110,259 GigaWatt-hours of electric energy, of which 2,916,687 GigaWatt-hours (GW-hr), or 71%, was derived from fossil fuels emitting 2,400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (Energy Information Agency, 2009).
Of the remaining fraction of energy production, 806,182 GW-hr, or 19.6%, was derived from nuclear power, preventing the emission of some 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas (CO2), which would be released if fossil fuels were used to derive the energy. In Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (United Nations, 2009), 193 nations discussed the need to drastically cut carbon emissions.
In the near term, a reduction in CO2 levels from electrical power generation can be achieved by contributions from three principle methods; an increase in energy efficiency, implementation of carbon capture and storage, and increasing the share of energy generation by renewable and nuclear energy sources. Of the latter, the geographically limited nature of most renewable sources means that they are likely to be contributors to, rather than sole sources of, base load electrical power. Nuclear energy has no geographic limitations, and can provide a prolific and reliable source of electricity. It therefore seems likely that nuclear power will play a prominent role in future power generation.
One area of real concern in nuclear power is that of nuclear proliferation – the spread of special nuclear materials and nuclear weapons. With worldwide adoption of nuclear power there is the very real concern that infrastructures built for the purposes of peaceful civilian power generation can be used for delivering nuclear weapons. This is certainly a contemporary issue, with Iran currently building extensive Uranium enrichment facilities (BBC, 2009). An additional threat is that nuclear materials could fall into the hands of terrorist groups and lead to construction of some sort of improvised device. There is no completely proliferation resistant nuclear fuel cycle, but some are significantly more so than others. It is therefore in the interests of the US to stay at the forefront of nuclear technology, so that it can lead regulation and implementing controls on a world stage.
There are currently 104 nuclear reactors in the US, with 4 new plants being built in the near future (World Nuclear Association). Because of their demonstrable robustness, licenses for nuclear power stations are being extended, and applications for 80-year licenses are expected within the next 5 years (New York Times, 2009). The knowledge and experience of 50 years of nuclear knowhow has resulted in nuclear power stations having less downtime than any other source of large-scale power generation. The economics of nuclear power production are favorable also, with the cost per MW-hr of nuclear generated electricity having been shown recently to be cheaper than both fossil fuels and renewable sources (The State, 2009). An additional advantage of nuclear energy is that the cost of the fuel itself is a very small fraction of the overall costs. This means that fluctuations in Uranium prices will not be reflected as dramatically in the cost to the consumer as for natural gas, for example. The nuclear industry can also have an impact on transportation. In the near term, electric and hybrid electric vehicles are likely to make inroads in the US, with major manufacturers investing heavily in the technology. Without CO2 free electricity production, such as nuclear power, the car will be just as polluting as if it ran on gasoline. Looking forward, hydrogen may be a possible fuel for transportation, in which future nuclear reactor designs can play a role.
In 2000, representatives from nine countries met to discuss international cooperation on the development of next generation reactor designs (Generation IV International Forum, 2009). These include a variety of revolutionary designs of thermal reactors operating at high temperature, and fast breeder reactors. Two options are to be pursued in the US: With operating temperatures up to 1000 oC (1800 oF), the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR), a gas cooled thermal reactor with a modular fuel type with high burn up (more energy per mass of fuel), will enable hydrogen production, or other heat requiring chemical processes in addition to power generation. The Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor (SFR), a fast reactor using liquid sodium metal as a coolant, will enable the reduction of nuclear waste impact; both by converting spent nuclear fuel and possibly also retired nuclear warheads into usable fuel, and by reducing longer lived radioactive waste products.
In addition, there are a number of initiatives for future sources of nuclear energy. These include the mpower (Babcock & Wilcox, 2009) and Hyperion (Hyperion Power, 2009) projects, which are looking into providing smaller scale production using modular units, more like a nuclear battery. The traveling wave reactor (Intellectual Ventures, 2009) is a reactor design that would be fueled for up to 60 years operation and would burn fuel from one end of the reactor to the other like a candle. Nuclear fusion energy derived from the joining together of heavy hydrogen (a hydrogen nucleus with additional bound neutrons) nuclei may provide nuclear energy in the future with greatly reduced radioactive waste, proliferation risk and from an abundant source of fuel – sea water. This year has seen historic events, in the first experiments using the National Ignition Facility (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2009) and the breaking of ground for ITER(ITER, 2009), two large scale facilities dedicated to fusion research.
Nuclear power already plays a substantial role in power generation in the US, and is likely to increase its share of the energy burden in the future. This is because it offers CO2 free and relatively inexpensive operation, with small waste volumes, and provides reliable, high power-density electricity that is needed now and in the future. Nuclear power has therefore emerged as a serious contender as a source of CO2 free energy in the US and the rest of the world in the future. With new power plants breaking ground and groundbreaking research being undertaken, are we undergoing a nuclear renaissance?
About the Issue
Point author: Omeed Firoozgan and Ben Woll are graduating seniors in the Political Science Department. They represent Global Zero at U of M, one of many national chapters part of an international initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons, supported by hundreds of world leaders and activists.
Counterpoint author: Alec Thomas is a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in the UM College of Engineering. His research interests include laser-plasma interaction at relativistic intensities and particle acceleration with intense lasers.
Edited by: Gabriel Zenon Tourek
Cover by: Dan Connors