Thursday, January 31, 2008


The discussion so far shows that the world has to move toward nuclear energy, along with other initiatives, to minimize global warming. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is a plan for making this an option for countries that presently rely on fossil fuels while preventing bomb proliferation.

The details of the plan are still under review while countries decide to join the partnership. But the general outline is understood well enough to describe here.

First we need to establish an important aspect of proliferation. Nuclear power plants aren't necessary for producing weapon material. The surest way to make bomb material is by enriching natural uranium to weapons grade. If an independent nation has a source of uranium, no other nation has the legal right to interfere with its weapons ambitions. At most, other nations can apply diplomatic and economic pressure on it, as many nations now are doing with no apparent effect on Iran.

There has been so much talk about diversion of spent fuel being a problem, you may wonder why it is that spent fuel isn't a necessary ingredient. The reason is that it's more difficult to make a successful bomb from spent fuel than from uranium ore. It's instructive to look at the history of the Manhattan Project that led to the first atomic bombs. In short, spent fuel contains transuranic actinides that cause the bomb to pre-detonate so the result is a burp instead of a bang.

All this means that the problem of proliferation is irrelevant to the issue of nuclear energy. But GNEP provides a formula by which the partners can offer safe and cost-efficient nuclear energy on the premise that the subscriber nations will prefer the GNEP fuel system over developing their own. The fuel processing and enrichment will be done by nations that already possess that capability.

So GNEP cannot stop any nation from acquiring a bomb. What it can do is offer nations a way to employ nuclear energy without building a capability for fuel processing and enrichment.

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