Jeffrey LewisActon on Prolif Risk, Nuclear Power

James Acton argues in Survival that proliferation risks ought to play a bigger role in decisions about nuclear power:

Policymakers, industry insiders and regulators have usually failed to factor proliferation concerns into decisions about nuclear energy. If the policy of abolishing nuclear weapons is to be anything more than rhetoric, proliferation concerns will have to be taken much more seriously and given due weight in decisions about nuclear energy. In some cases, this might involve the decision to forsake a technology that offers and economic advantage where this is outweighed by the proliferation risk. Realistically the gas centrifuge is too economically advantageous, and its use too entrenched, to be phased out. The opportunity does exist, however, to forsake enrichment and other nuclear technologies that have not yet been commercialised.

Today, for instance, Global Laser Enrichment (GLE, owned by General Electric Hitachi) is attempting to commercialise a new enrichment process (known as the SILEX process) based on lasers. GLE expects that the SILEX process will be more profitable to enrichment firms that other technologies. However, the economic benefits of cheaper enrichment to electricity consumers are slight because enrichment typically accounts for less than 5% of the total cost of nuclear electricity. Meanwhile, laser enrichment is probably even more worrying from a prolifieration perspective than the gas centrifuge because detecting a small, clandestine laser-enrichment plant is likely to be even harder than detecting a secret gas-centrifuge enrichment plant of similar capacity. Regulators should factor such concerns into licensing decisions for all nuclear technologies and be willing to deny applications if they determine that the costs outweigh the benefits, as is almost certainly the case with GLE, for instance. Forsaking sensitive nuclear technologies on non-proliferation grounds would be controversial, but justifiable.

I guess we won’t be seeing Tammy Orr, the CEO of GLE, at the next Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference. No word yet on Orr’s taste in shoes.


  1. anon

    I have not read the rest of Dr. Acton’s article (I will do so as soon as I am able and if the issue becomes more clear will revise my remarks), but from the excerpt above, I am confused about why he believes that the denial of a construction and/or operating license is a useful nonproliferation tool.

    If the concern is that the use of the technology in State X presents an attractive target to non-state actors, the regulator in State X can insist on appropriate levels of security (as all national regulators already do).

    If State X is concerned about State Y’s use of a given technology, it seems that the appropriate approach is for State X to prevent the export of the technology.

    Once exported, if the concern is misuse by State Y (e.g., diversion of material), the appropriate approach is the international safeguards system.

    I understand from the excerpt above that Dr. Acton’s real concern, however, is the clandestine construction and operation of a given technology. This assumes that State Y obtained the technology without State X’s knowledge (so export controls would not work), that State Y plans to build and operate without the knowledge of the IAEA (so safeguards are not applicable) and that State Y isn’t all that interested in security (so State Y regulations are unlikely). So, while I confess that the available nonproliferation tools are not up to this particular risk, it is utterly unclear to me why the denial of a construction or operating license in State X would be of any benefit either.

    There may be many good reasons not to allow the use of particular technologies, but how the regulatory actions of one state would prevent another state from using that technology secretly is a mystery to me. I do hope Dr. Acton’s article is more enlightening than the excerpt provided here.

  2. Mike F (History)

    Just curious – isn’t this the same train of thought that compelled President Ford to “temporarily” halt, then President Carter to kill, reprocessing in the United States? If memory serves, one rationale (not the sole rationale) behind that effort was that by killing it in the U.S. it would help set the stage for others to not reprocess. This would shut off a route for waste management and limit the potential proliferation aspects of nuclear power, eventually killing it off?

    The laser enrichment technology will be deployed because, assuming they have the engineering worked out, it is much cheaper and more efficient and has non-nuclear applications as well.

    If NRC were to step in and add an enormous licensing cost to this type of technology, they might kill it in the U.S. but it almost certainly will be deployed elsewhere.

    Also, wouldn’t this be just another in a long line of “us vs. them” and “the weapons states vs. the non-weapons states” moves? Weapons states and others, such as Europe and Japan, have a certain amount of legacy enrichment capacity available. If we try to use, for instance, prohibitive costs via IAEA imposed fees or some such effort, isn’t that just another stab at developing nations efforts to deploy peaceful nuclear power?

  3. aust

    silex can’t enrich to weapons grade, have a read.
    it would be a useful nonproliferation tool!

  4. Cristina Hansell (History)

    Dear aust,

    I would be very interested to know where you found that SILEX cannot be used to enrich to weapons-grade. I did find a LANL report from a few years ago that notes an earlier report concluded the process was “not currently capable of producing significant amounts HEU” but seems to imply it may be able to do so in future (see Further in this report indicates a limit on enrichment… but that seems to be per stage. Multiple stages could get above, though, or am I mistaken for some reason? Can anyone answer that?

  5. Yale Simkin (History)

    You are correct. Lyman from Los Alamos’s analysis was for limitations of the small experimental setup at Lucas Heights. He made clear that a production plant would have the potential for producing from a single optimum efficiency, or a from a cascade of lower efficiency, laser cells about 1 kg of HEU every 100 hours from natural uranium.

    An implosion bomb’s worth every 3 months.

    Starting with LEU – either from “proliferation-resistant” LWR fuel rods, or LEUhex, the enrichment time would cut to a small fraction.

    With parallel silex lines, the time-to-bomb drops by 1/2, 2/3, or whatever, depending on the number.

    “human society is too diverse, national passions too strong, human aggression too deep-seated for peaceful and warlike atoms to stay divorced for too long. We cannot embrace one while abhorring the other; we must learn, if we want to live at all, to live without both”. – Cousteau

  6. MarkoB

    The report to which aust refers on SILEX was actually focused on a small pilot facility at Lucas Heights, in Australia. The report did go on to make some comments in regards to an idealised plant, but these were sketchy and not conclusive. Of course, SILEX technology has attracted a very high level of secrecy. If aust thinks it is good for proliferation why the secrecy? In fact, aust has just solved the Iranian nuclear crisis!!! Get GE to make a SILEX plant in Iran. Problem solved.

  7. Robert Merkel (History)

    As I understand the mathematics, even if SILEX can’t produce HEU, if it produces LEU efficiently it could make an existing centrifuge program much more productive.

    That said, I don’t get the big additional risk factor this poses.

  8. Yale Simkin (History)

    Acton wrote: “In some cases, this might involve the decision to forsake a technology that offers an economic advantage where this is outweighed by the proliferation risk.”

    He was discussing the relative cost-savings of centrifuges. The key word is relative. The whole nuclear power enterprise has been, and continues to be, an economic train-wreck, and a positive hindrance to solving our needs for energy security and environmental protection.

    In the larger scheme of things, the cost of SWUs is a non-issue – essentially discussing which brand of French wine you’ll use to dose a forest fire.

    A broader discussion by Lovins:

    “In brief, nuclear power makes widely and innocently available the key ingredients —fissile materials, equipment, technologies, skills—needed to make bombs by any of the ~20 known methods (other than stealing military bombs or parts). (New reactor types and the [Bush] proposed reversal of the Ford-Cheney non-reprocessing policy greatly intensify these perilous links.)

    But in a world that took economics seriously, nuclear power would gracefully complete its demise, due to an incurable attack of market forces …, so these ingredients of do-it-yourself bomb kits would no longer be items of commerce. This would make them harder to get, more conspicuous to try to get, and politically far costlier to be caught trying to get, because for the first time the reason for wanting them would be unambiguously military.

    This would not make proliferation impossible, but would make it far more difficult and much easier to detect timely: intelligence resources could focus on needles, not haystacks.

    The U.S. example is critical because if a country with such wealth, technical skill, and fuel resources claims it cannot meet its energy needs without nuclear energy and reprocessing, then it invites every other less fortunate country to make the same spurious claim. Yet the U.S. could still offer to meet the intent of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Article IV bargain by sharing today’s cheaper, faster, more effective [non-nuclear] energy technologies… to boost global development.

    The NPT’s specifically nuclear bargain was written by nuclear experts, in a nuclear context, around 1969–70, when nuclear energy was widely believed to be cheap and indispensable. Now that the market has decided otherwise, Article IV should be reinterpreted to achieve the same electricity-for-development goal by more modern, speedy, and affordable means, starting immediately with U.S./Indian energy cooperation: improving the non-nuclear 97% of India’s electricity system could produce enormously greater, wider, faster, and cheaper development benefits.“ – Amory B. Lovins – 2006

  9. mark hibbs (History)

    Mike F: Reprocessing vs Silex

    Ironically, some of the proponents of Silex argue that it is both nonproliferating and commercially attractive because its technology is unique, more highly advanced than anything else out there, and highly protected. That certainly is not the case for reprocessing, which during the last 60 years has become more or less freely available. If you say the two are “the same” don’t you imply that the same development will happen with Silex? That it will be either diverted, or the achievement replicated by others who currently do not have the know-how? The proponents seem to argue that that won’t happen.

  10. Hairs (History)

    The economics of nuclear power is an interesting aspect of proliferation. Yale quotes Lovins: “…in a world that took economics seriously, nuclear power would gracefully complete its demise, due to an incurable attack of market forces…” But I would contend quite the opposite: In a world that took economics seriously, nuclear power would be much more prevalent.

    Nuclear power is hideously expensive for two main reasons:

    1. Nuclear power is obliged to account for its waste both physically and financially. In contrast fossil-fired power generation do not have to make up-front payments for waste management. Instead they freely emit NOx, SOx, uranium (in coal ash and emissions), thorium (in coal ash and emissions), vanadium (in oil ash and sludge), mercury (coal and natural gas emissions), and a whole host of carcinogenic organic compounds from uncombusted fuel. In recent years the industry has become better – at least in the more advanced countries – at precipitating out ash, scrubbing gases, etc. But nonetheless substantial traces are still emitted, and the ash in particular is a major problem. And I haven’t even started on the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change… In comparison to nuclear power, up to now fossil-fired generation has had pretty much a free ride in terms of accounting for its waste, and it is this free-ride history that is making agreements with India, China, etc on CO2 reductions so difficult.

  11. Hairs (History)

    2. Nuclear power is held to a safety standard that (in my view, at least) is unreasonably excessive. In the late 90’s when I was at a nuclear station we were required to create a mini safety case even for relocating a rawl plug for a hanging a picture in the manager’s office. The standing joke in the industry is that if you run out of uranium, you can burn the paperwork and it’ll be good for at least a year’s worth of generation! By virtue of their working altitude, flight crew regularly receive far more radiation exposure than nuclear plant workers, yet Lufthansa recently argued successfully that it would be uneconomic for them to track – and limit – crew exposures in the same way as happens in the nuclear industry. Similarly, people live quite happily around naturally occurring thorium sands in Brazil and India, with background radiation levels above what would be actionable levels in the UK nuclear industry. Similarly natural radon levels in houses in Cornwall in the UK sometimes far exceed the actionable level for the industry, yet to my knowledge no-one has yet been evicted, or their house torn down as a hazard to them and visitors. And while I’m having my rant, the calculational model for deaths due to radiation (known as the “linear no threshold model”) seems anyway to be used more for its calculational simplicity and lack of agreed alternative than for its predictive power. For example, under linear no threshold, ten people each drinking two bottles of wine over a year will suffer the same number of deaths as one person drinking twenty bottles of wine in an evening.

    OK, rant over – you can see which side I’m on. The point I’m coming to is that the economics of SILEX, or AVLIS, or any other of the competing versions of laser separation, are important. If the world gets serious about GHG emissions then there may well be decisions to loosen some of the strictures on nuclear power (we’re already seeing simplified planning and licensing procedures in the UK). If that happens, and nuclear power grows, there will be increasing competition for uranium, and those who can enrich more cheaply – or even economically extract U-235 from stockpiles of “tails” (i.e. depleted uranium) – are going to prosper.

    As mentioned by Mike F., economics has beaten proliferation concerns in the US, and gaseous diffusion has been abandoned in favour of gas centrifuges. If the world takes economics seriously, nuclear power will increase in the coming years, and so will the demand for – and proliferation risks from – laser enrichment.

  12. Mike F (History)

    Nuclear Power an economic trainwreck? Considering all the legal hindrances (adding high costs and uncertainties not borne out by the engineering facts) put in the way of its development, the fact that it is the single most efficient way to generate base electricity should amaze everyone.

    As for Lovins, his tripe has been dissected and revealed for the hollow, unscientific propaganda that it is on many occasions. Please refer to:

    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion, Part 1
    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion, Part 2
    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion, Part 3
    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion, Part 4
    Amory Lovins and His Nuclear Illusion, Part 5

    As for giving up a technology, that might work in a feudal, isolationist society (i.e., Japan’s “giving up” of gunpowder in their feudal era) but giving up a technology in an open, competitive world system will lead to a signficant loss of technical competitiveness.

    The only way you can stop this technology is through an international ban – and how likely is that? I come at this from an implementation point of view of non-proliferation. How do you actually do this? Laser technology is widely dispersed and well-known. This technology has wide application in non-nuclear areas – do you ban it there as well? We then start tumbling down the dual-use rabbit hole.

    Implement it. Get IAEA trained on it. Get it safeguarded – everywhere, Weapons States as well as non-Weapons States. Get investigators plugged into the potential supply chain. Monitor it.

    Banning it will lead, in my opinion, to clandestine work that the people on the ground in the world of non-proliferation will have a hard time comabtting.

  13. Jodi (History)

    While I agree that the expansion of nuclear power is worrying given the need for additional fissile material, and the potential expansion of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, I do not believe it is realistic to “ban” or otherwise try to block such expansion internationally. First, the IAEA mandate includes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The incoming DG has noted that he will, during his term, emphasize all of the IAEA pillars, not just the nonproliferation one. Second, as a voting bloc, the so-called non-aligned countries, the G-77 and the nuclear “have-nots” have often voiced strong opposition to any infringement on their Article IV rights – yes, I said rights – to utilize nuclear power. We need these countries if any nonproliferation and disarmament efforts are going to succeed. Third, with the strong push toward eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and adherence to Kyoto, it is simply unrealistic to believe other countries will forgo development of nuclear power because of nonproliferation concerns. And finally, the role of energy independence in a country’s energy mix decisions should not be underestimated. Japan is a good example, as are many of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe as they came out from under the Soviet shadow and continue to distance themselves from Russia.

    Oh, and, incidentally, I would venture to guess that Ms. Orr’s sartorial choices wouldn’t factor into her decision to attend the bi-ennial Carnegie shindig. However, I suspect any choice she’d make would be eons better than what usually shows up. Sexism doesn’t become you Jeffrey.

  14. Mike F (History)

    @mark hibbs: Good point. My intention when I referred to this discussion of whether or not to restrict the technology as “the same train of thought” was supposed to refer to the mindset behind it. I was not clear in my posting. When the U.S. stopped reprocessing the rest of the world continued to do it and made many advances. Today the U.S. is far behind in this technology. It is my belief that if the U.S. were to try the same tactic again – banning a technology and then hoping/wishing others would follow that such a policy would not be successful.

    My opinion – and it is solely that – is that the technology and know-how that underpins laser-based enrichment is widely dispersed. SILEX has an obvious advantage in that they have built it and made it work at several scales, but looking 5 or 10 years down the road, the physics behind this work can probably be puzzled out by any country with a decent technical and educational system, assuming they want to prioritize it.

  15. Yale Simkin (History)

    First let me address Hair’s points:

    Nuclear power is hideously expensive for two main reasons:
    1. Nuclear power is obliged to account for its waste both physically and financially.

    It is not waste management that is costly. As the industry continuously asserts, dealing with waste is a tiny fraction of the cost per kilowatthour. Even then, EDF takes the money they set aside for permanent disposal and spends it on acquisitions as a source of cheap money.

    It is the containment of CURRENT radioactive poisons that is the expense. A reactor core holds something like 16 billion curies of fission products and transuranics – equal to the detonation of 1-2,000 Hiroshima-sized fission bombs. The costs of safely containing this inventory is enormous. If inadequately cooled temperatures in an shutdown reactor reach 1000s of degrees.

    A nuclear power reactor has to do everything a conventional steam plant does, but it must also contain, under any condition, these hot (in both senses) toxins. The plants require massive structures, engineering to the Nth degree, precision construction, and uncompromising operation.
    This makes construction EXPENSIVE and, to maintain quality, long lead times.

    The presumed lower cost of nuclear fuel is dwarfed by the high costs of everything else involved.

    2. Nuclear power is held to a safety standard that (in my view, at least) is unreasonably excessive.

    The bulk of costs in the life cycle of a reactor is preventing massive releases of radiation, not the low-level leakage (although that is important)

  16. Rwendland (History)

    The economics of nuclear power depends far more on finance and risk apportionment than the technical issues being discussed above. eg about 60% to 70% of electricity cost is attributed to servicing the capital costs at the 8% to 12% discount rate often used for nuclear finance in the West.

    This explains why nuclear power is considered economic in places where cheap government or customer finance is available at 3.5% to 5% discount rates (China, India, Iran, …) but uneconomic where private investors have to fully finance plants in advance and accept the financial risks of the build over-running or something going wrong during the 30-ish year repayment period.

    It’s all about the power of compound interest. Put simply halving interest rate over 30 years is much more significant than halving build cost (or operation cost for nuclear).

    To date I don’t think any running nuclear power station has been fully investor funded in an unregulated merchant plant environment where the financial risk is taken by the investor. In the US they have I believe generally been built under a regulated environment, often with regulated electricity prices increased during build to partially pre-fund build costs; and the customers largely covering the risk of any extra costs due to the plant performing poorly in future regulated pricing.

    Carbon pricing may well be the new way of arranging costs such that nuclear becomes competitive in a merchant plant investor environment, as the UK mostly is.

  17. kme

    Not to mention that the nuclear power industry has the cost of insuring against the financial impact of a massive disaster subsidised heavily by the state.

  18. Yale Simkin (History)


    We are talking about the same thing. The high capital cost which you put at 60-70% is a byproduct of the both the extremely high overnight costs related to the “steamplant+fallout_containment” coupled with the l.o.o.n.g construction times necessitated by the specialized requirements of the technology.

    Your other point about risk has two components.

    The first was the problem with overbuild. Again, this is magnified with nuclear plants. They have l.o.o.n.g build times and typically overshoot the actual demand at any point in time. This almost killed many US utility companies. Also, the nuclear plants also tend to come in gigawatt units which is a poor match for actual demand growth. There are some experimental nuke designs for smaller output, but none actually in the order pipeline in the US.

    The potential for having your plants worth nothing due to an accident anywhere is factored in the risk premium.

    These specialized risks are associated with machines managing 16 billion curies and account for the risk premium lenders require.

  19. Hairs (History)

    Yale: Nuclear power does not have “l.o.o.n.g” build times, rather conventional plants have too short build times, which are largely as a result of not having to fulfill the (excessive) licensing requirements of nuclear and of corner cutting; I know this because I’ve been part of teams that have built and commissioned more than ten conventional stations, and I’ve lost two friends as well as hearing of many other contractor deaths in the process. If nuclear stations were held to the same standard as fossil-fired and chemical plants then they too could be constructed in around 3 years (the typical time for 1000 MW coal fired plant). The fact is that – rightly or wrongly – nuclear is held to a different standard that has little relation to its relative risks. For example, Chernobyl caused fewer than 50 confirmed deaths and probably a few thousand additonal ones via long-term exposure (the estimates of tens of thousand or even hundreds of thousands are based on a linear no-threshold model of exposure which has never been demonstrated to be correct, and is simply not in accord with any other risk in life). In contrast Bhopal killed around 7,000 outright and another 20,000+ from dieseases related to isocyanate exposure. Furthermore, if one moves on to coal generation then it would be necessary to factor in the thousands of miners who die directly each year in China, Indonesia, etc, plus the tens of thousands who die early from occupational exposure to coal dust.

    The relative levels of containment, redundancy, and safety at nuclear compared to other industrial plant have little relation to the true risks; rather they are political in the sense that public opinion demands them. I’m not saying that that is wrong – the public have every right to choose not to have nuclear power regardless of whether it is a rational or irrational decision – I’m just saying that if the playing field becomes more rational (possibly as a result of real, or perceived, climate change) then nuclear power will grow rapidly. As an example, despite their huge hydrocarbon reserves, the UAE intends soon to purchase a nuclear power station (with possibly some more in the future).

    In my opinion, a move to more nuclear power will drive a move to more efficient, and more widespread, enrichment i.e. laser technologies. In particular, a more rational comparison of nuclear vs other generation would result in relatively cheaper nuclear, with the consequence that the enrichment will become a very much greater part of the (nuclear) power station’s cost. So while laser enrichment might seem a very minor proliferation risk right now, in ten years’ time it could well be the topic du jour. In that sense it merits attention from the arms control community, even if – in the absence of some extraordinary agreements – it would likely be overtaken by economic issues.

  20. Yale Simkin (History)

    The the chernobyl committed deaths are “only” a few thousand, simply because the radioactive plumes travelled into almost uninhabited forest, meadow, and farmland. If an equivalent release happened at Salem in New Jersey, for example, the casualties and damages would have been appalling beyond comprehension – with unlucky weather and with evacuation, the deaths from acute radiation poisoning would not be the few hundred of Chernobyl, but reach 100,000 with 40,000 more from committed latent fatal tumors.
    Peak early radiation injuries for an equivalent release at Limerick Station, in Penn. would reach 610,000 persons.
    A release at Indian Point in NY would cause more than 3/4 of a trillion dollars in property damages (not including any costs for health effects) for which the nuclear industry is, by law, liable for only 12 billion dollars.

    The Chernobyl accident resulted in long-term agricultural restrictions over a distance equivalent to New York City to San Francisco, Calif.

    Hairs wrote:
    If nuclear stations were held to the same standard as fossil-fired and chemical plants then they too could be constructed in around 3 years (the typical time for 1000 MW coal fired plant).

    Precisely my point!