20th Anniversary Conference

Environmentalist's View

Harold Feiveson

(Senior Research Policy Scientist at Princeton University's
Center for Energy and Environmental Studies)


Well, I think that I'm having a change of heart over the past few years. And, let me try to locate why I'm having that change of heart. Paul mentioned my thesis, so that's going way back. But, even before that, when I was in the science bureau of the Arms Control Agency, I helped draft the safeguards article, article three, when we were first drafting the NPT. And, that was done under the assumption that, if one has safeguards that somehow you can control diversions from, from nuclear power programs. Secondly, as Paul and the NCI group has always thought, when I first started looking at this, I imagined that a once-through system would be proliferation resistant. That, what we worried about was the separation of plutonium and the onset of breeder reactors. But, I'm more uneasy about this position than I was back then. And, it's this large scale future for nuclear power that people have talked about which, I think now makes most uneasy.

So, what I really fret about is a nuclear power system, let's say, ten to twenty times the present size, which, as Bob Williams made pretty clear, has to be the size of nuclear if it's going to make any substantial dent in the greenhouse problem.

So, how does one think about a kind of a nuclear power system of that size? If you look at waste, you know, I don't doubt that there could be technical solutions, but a nuclear power system of that scope would produce roughly one Yucca Mountain of waste per year. But, okay. Maybe it could be done. On safety, again, I imagine, that one could make the reactors safe. And, the analogy that people have often used is the airplane industry. That, as airplane industry has sort of diffused all over the world, and every nation has its own national airline, safety has actually improved. So, even if nuclear power spreads throughout the world, it doesn't mean, necessarily, that it will become less safe.

And, then, I come to proliferation resistance. And, here, I suppose one could also have an airplane analogy. Why don't people worry about bomber resistant civil air technology? I can imagine, at the start of the air industry, somebody said, you know, if you have civilian air, it could always be misused for bombers. Well, whatever happened, that's not the way it developed. And, of course, missiles, I guess, have made the question of bomber-resisant airplane technology completely moot anyway. Tremendous emphasis on proliferation-resistance is misguided because, for one thing, there are worse things in the world. Biological weapons and what not.

Nevertheless, I think we have to worry about developing a civil nuclear industry that will give us, whatever happens to it in thirty, forty, fifty, seventy-five years, a tremendous legacy of materials that's going to have to be safeguarded forever, basically, just as we're now worried about the residue of the Cold War which has given us tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and tremendous stocks of fissile materials that have to be controlled and then, somehow or other, gotten rid of.

But, let me talk about the solution that Dick Garwin alluded to and other people have talked about. This is that, okay, we are against the closed fuel cycle, but, if we can get uranium from sea water, then maybe we can go on for a long time with the once-through fuel cycle.

And, let me just give you a back of the envelope calculation to tell you why I'm uneasy with this. Let's take a capacity of thirty-five hundred giggawatts. That's a ten-fold increase from today. And, let's imagine that it's a hundred megawatt, pebble bed reactor that we're talking about. Such a reactor uses eight percent enriched uranium with a burnup of about 80 megawatt-days per kilogram. That means that you'd need roughly twenty tons of separative work units per year, per reactor.

And, let's say that a plant about half the capacity of the Urenco plant, say a thousand tons, could therefore service about fifty reactors a year. So, that seems like a pretty plausible size. Based on these figures, then you would need something like six hundred and fifty of these one thousand ton uranium enrichment plants around the world working each year. Each plant, if it started with natural uranium, would make three hundred bombs worth of uranium. If it started with eight percent uranium, instead of natural uranium, it could make maybe six times that amount, about eighteen hundred bombs per year.

So, in that world, you have a tremendous amount of uranium, coming out of seawater, and tremendous reason for people to try to innovate to make uranium enrichment cheaper, quicker, faster. I don't say it's impossible to safeguard that kind of system. But, it does give one pause. It leads me to think that, in the long run, if you're going to have nuclear power of this magnitude, you probably have to base it --- and maybe even this wouldn't work --- on very centralized international parks under international control. This means that countries would give up sovereignty over their energy systems.

So, let me just stop there --- the explanation of my change of heart, and why, I think, just opposing closed fuel cycles is not the answer.