Monday, November 30, 2009

More Atoms for peace

It’s good to have Obama and Brown pushing for the phase out of nuclear weapons. At least part of the driver for this is that the US and its allies can be seen to be honouring their part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in the hope that other countries will sign up to it - or, since it will soon run out, its yet to be negotiated replacement. But there is more. Then, so the argument goes, the way will be clear for the spread of civil nuclear power around the world. That, it’s argued, helps reduce use of fossil fuels and thus reduces global geopolitical tension over oil and gas, while also helping with global climate change. So it’s all related globally and geopolitically - and NPT will save the planet.

The official view seems to be that the NPT has worked well- otherwise we would have many more weapons states. That’s hard to swallow given that India, Pakistan and Israel, all with nuclear weapons, are outside the NPT. The battles with Iran and N Korea over their adherence to the NPT has hardly been a good demonstration of its effectiveness- unless you like brinkmanship. If we are really to enter a brave new nuclear world with lots more countries going for civil nuclear power, but avoiding weapons production, it’s going to get even more hair raising. Hardly sounds like ‘atoms for peace’. With the added increased threat of diversion of technology and materials to terrorist groups, it sounds more like receipt for more global tension and confrontation.

A commitment instead to renewables could avoid all these problems. Egypt, Jordan and Algeria are amongst the countries who have indicated interest in going nuclear recently- yet all these are much better placed to develop their huge solar potential, e.g. via Concentrated Solar Power plants in desert areas. Following the success of pioneering projects in Spain, over 5GW of new CSP projects are already underway or planned in, amongst other paces, Algeria, Jordon, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE. Longer term the ‘Med Solar’ plan envisages up to 20GW of CSP in North Africa.

Meanwhile, GNEP, the ambitious Global Nuclear Energy Partnership programme backed by George W Bush, now seems to be in disarray. The aim was to provide sealed nuclear plants to developing countries, with the spent fuel being returned to the USA for reprocessing, to extract the plutonium that had been produced. This would then be used to fuel a new fleet of US breeder reactors. The theory was that this approach would be less prone to illegal diversion of weapons material- although it would involve installing plants around the world and shipping radioactive material regularly across the globe. GNEP had attracted support from 25 countries,

However, earlier this year Obama halted work on reprocessing techniques that were a key USA contribution to this programme, and the future of GNEP is now unclear. Instead the USA has signed up to IRENA, the new International Renewable Energy Research Agency, which is to be based in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. The UAE of course also has civil nuclear ambitions. So the rivalry between these two very different energy options continues.

There had been some concern that IRENA might also back nuclear. But there is already a powerful International Atomic Energy Agency based in Austria, which promotes nuclear around the world. And in August Helene Pelosse, IRENA’s new director general, commented ‘IRENA will not support nuclear energy programmes because it’s a long complicated process, it produces waste and is relatively risky. Renewable energy is a better alternative and a faster, less expensive alternative, especially with countries blessed with so much sun for solar plants’. Let’s hope that having a major new international agency based in a developing country will shift the balance.

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