Proliferation

One of the less rational reasons for rejecting nuclear energy is the fear of Proliferation; the fear that the used nuclear fuel could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Difference between nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons: Uranium processed for electricity generation is not usable for weapons. The uranium used in power reactor fuel for electricity generation is typically enriched to about 3-4% of the isotope U-235, compared with weapons-grade which is over 90% U-235. Few countries possess the technological knowledge or the facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Plutonium is produced in the reactor core from a proportion of the uranium fuel. Plutonium contained in spent fuel elements is typically about 60-70% Pu-239, compared with weapons-grade plutonium which is more than 93% Pu-239. Weapons-grade plutonium is not produced in commercial power reactors but in a “production” reactor operated with frequent fuel changes to produce low-burnup material with a high proportion of Pu-239.

The only use for “reactor grade” plutonium is as a nuclear fuel, after it is separated from the high-level wastes by reprocessing. It is not and has never been used for weapons, due to the relatively high rate of spontaneous fission and radiation from the heavier isotopes such as Pu-240 making any such attempted use fraught with great uncertainties.

Civil nuclear power has not been the cause of or route to nuclear weapons in any country that has nuclear weapons, and no uranium traded for electricity production has ever been diverted for military use. All nuclear weapons programmes have either preceded or risen independently of civil nuclear power, as shown most recently by North Korea. No country is without plenty of uranium in the small quantities needed for a few weapons.

Fallacy: Former US Vice-President Al Gore said (18/9/06) that “During my eight years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program. Today, the dangerous weapons programs in both Iran and North Korea are linked to their civilian reactor programs.” He is not correct.

Iran has failed to convince anyone that its formerly clandestine enrichment program has anything to do with its nuclear power reactor under construction (which is fueled by Russia), and North Korea has no civil reactor program. In respect to India and Pakistan, which he may have had in mind, there is evidently a link between military and civil, but that is part of the reason they are outside the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Ireland was a proposer for the NPT and was one of the first signatories to it in 1968.

Perspective is relevant: As little as five tonnes of natural uranium is required to produce a nuclear weapon. Uranium is ubiquitous, and if cost is no object it could be recovered in such quantities from most granites, or from sea water – sources which would be quite uneconomic for commercial use. In contrast, world trade for electricity production is almost 70,000 tonnes of uranium per year, all of which can be accounted for.

There is no chance that the resurgent problem of nuclear weapons proliferation will be solved by turning away from nuclear power or ceasing trade in the tens of thousands of tonnes each year needed for it.

In other words, the production of nuclear weapons is entirely independent of whether Ireland uses nuclear energy.