Nuclear proliferation has been in the news a lot lately, between concerns about North Korea's weapons program and the even more worrying revelations about Dr. Khan's Pakistani nuclear Home Depot. Wednesday's NY Times featured N. Kristof's bleak editorial on a potential Nuclear 9/11 ,and last week's Economist carried their depressing, good news/bad news assessment of the situation. As they commented, "...the only real difference between a civilian nuclear fuel-cycle and a military nuclear fuel-cycle is one of intent."
What does this mean for the future of nuclear power? Roughly 450 nuclear power plants in 33 countries currently supply 6.5% of the world's primary energy (8% for the US alone.) They represent an enormous capital investment and an important base load of electricity. Barring the advent of economical nuclear fusion (see my posting of 2/13/04) or some new energy source with similar characteristics, they won't go away soon on economic grounds.
But that's the problem. Traditional economics does a very poor job of evaluating low risks of truly catastrophic outcomes. Previous conventional wisdom saw the nuclear industry's long-lived waste products as its biggest problem and assumed that proliferation was essentially under control. Surely that assumption must now be revisited.
We also need to be clear about the precise nature of our concern. Public speculation about terrorist use of a radiological device, or "dirty bomb", has created the impression that radioactive material is so ubiquitous that controlling it is beyond anyone's ability. But to paraphrase a friend's favorite Mark Twain quote, the difference between a nuclear bomb and a "dirty bomb" is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. While a radiological explosion in an urban area would be a deadly disaster with serious aftereffects, a nuclear explosion, with its much larger effects of blast, heat, and radioactive fallout, would be a nightmare orders of magnitude worse.
That means that the real issue is not controlling all radioactive material, but rather fissionables, the uranium used to fuel reactors and the plutonium byproduct they produce. Is it possible to create a foolproof, ironclad global system that would deny any country not already in possession of both nuclear fuel and fuel processing technology access to either or both, while also severely restricting the activities of countries already in the club? President Bush has proposed one approach, while the International Atomic Energy Agency has its own plan. While it's not clear that either approach goes nearly far enough, neither is it clear that the will exists to go even that far.
Fundamentally, we must either find a way to control this trade, or it must be stopped entirely, with the massive economic consequences that would entail. Any other alternative risks creating a world order infinitely more dangerous than the nuclear roulette of the Cold War.