Academic journal article Parameters

The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation

Academic journal article Parameters

The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation

Article excerpt

In recent years record oil prices, long-term concerns about fossil fuel supplies (particularly oil), and worries about the contributions of fossil fuels to the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane have helped revive interest in nuclear energy production. (1) Indeed, it has become commonplace to advocate renewed investment in nuclear energy production in the United States. There has been, however, little consideration as to what a global turn to nuclear energy on an enlarged scale would actually entail, let alone the security implications of such.

This article's concern, accordingly, is with what a globally expanded use of nuclear energy would mean for nuclear proliferation specifically (as opposed to the issues of nuclear waste disposal or the risk of catastrophic accident, which also merit serious consideration), and this topic as it centers on state actors (rather than nonstate actors such as terrorist groups). In doing so it will, first, examine what an enlarged use of nuclear energy would look like; second, what risks such a changed volume and distribution of nuclear energy production might entail; and third, what the options are for ameliorating those risks.

Expanding Nuclear Energy Use

A large-scale expansion of nuclear energy production would affect not only its sheer volume, but the distribution of such production around the world, an issue which has rarely drawn comment. These two matters are discussed below.

The Scale of Nuclear Energy Production, Present and Future

There are currently some 440 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, which as of 2006 produced 2,660 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. (2) This comes to roughly 16 percent of global electricity consumption, and five percent of the world's total energy consumption.

Significant as this is, it leaves enormous room for growth not only given today's overall portfolio, but the economic expansion anticipated in the coming decades. The World Bank recently estimated world gross domestic product (GDP) would grow to $140 trillion by mid-century, a 160 percent rise. (3) Such a growth rate would significantly outpace any previous improvement in energy efficiency (the trend having been about ten percent a decade since 1970). Even assuming recently observed rates of progress hold, this will translate into an 80 percent increase in energy consumption. (4)

For nuclear energy to simply keep its position in the world's energy portfolio, production equivalent to 800 of today's reactors would be needed. The very reason, however, for much of the interest in nuclear energy is concern about the scarcity of fossil fuels, particularly oil, so it can be expected that nuclear energy will be called on to play a greater role than it has to date--at the very least, generating a larger share of the electricity the world uses. France currently gets 77 percent of its electricity through this medium. Were the entire world to follow a similar path, it would mean more than a quadrupling of output, with more than 2,000 reactors required to meet current needs, and between 3,000 and 4,000 reactors plausibly online by 2050. Were nuclear energy to become more important in areas where it has previously been marginalized, such as transportation--for instance, by powering fleets of electric vehicles or large-scale hydrogen fuel production--then the demand could rise even beyond current expectations, with one observer estimating that simply to compensate for an absence in fossil fuel production (rather than absolute decreases), some 5,000 to 6,000 reactors would be required by mid-century. (5)

Global Distribution of Nuclear Energy Production

It is rarely noted that the vast majority of the nuclear production facilities currently operating in the world are concentrated in a handful of industrialized nations. Nearly half (218) are in just three countries--the United States (104), France (59), and Japan (55). …

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