Nuclear Power Play
- I could destroy all available copies of A Clockwork Orange, but then nobody would be able to enjoy it—not to mention censorship being a very dangerous prospect in general.
- I could make sure my son doesn’t have access to any books at all, but I don’t want to end his intellectual growth so early on.
- I could throw out my copy, but I wouldn’t be able to explore and learn from the novel anymore.
- Or, I could keep the book, but monitor it and my son very closely, making sure the two don't come into contact with each other.
The U.S. has been giving Iran a lot of flak lately about its nuclear ambitions. Iran claims that it just plans to build nuclear power plants, but the U.S. is “worried” that Iran may have nuclear weapons in mind. Although I’ll admit that Iran seems pretty shady, the U.S. and its allies have not actually presented any evidence that Iran plans to do use its nuclear program for anything but nuclear power. It would be a shame not to let a country develop a cleaner and more efficient alternative to greenhouse gas-releasing fossil fuels. On the other hand, the stakes are too high to just let Iran run loose. A compromise is definitely in order.
Making things more complicated, the U.S. has announced plans to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuels, a practice suspended there since 1977. Although some countries, particularly France, still reprocess their nuclear fuels, others do not because the process can also be used to create weapons-grade material. Reprocessing nuclear fuels, though, greatly decreases the amount of nuclear waste generated by power plants. This is significant since no sufficient long-term waste storage solution has been agreed upon.
In an editorial in its current issue, Nature argues that the benefits of nuclear fuel reprocessing do not outweigh the risks. (The editorial can be read here if you or your institution has a subscription.) The argument is disappointingly weak, though, and it does not offer any solutions: only a vague charge to deal with disposal issues:
It may be that the Bush proposal reflects the administration's frustration over continued opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository. But, in the end, the only environmentally or financially viable path to nuclear power generation involves wrestling with the murky details of long-term waste disposal. Fuel recycling may look exciting on paper; in practice, it is part of the problem, not the solution.
Finding a repository, though, is not a permanent solution, especially if it will be filled up by unnecessarily large amounts of unprocessed waste. More relevant to the issue at hand, the editorial also addresses the connection between reprocessing and building weapons:
When it is released next week, Bush's 2007 budget proposal is expected to include a provision that would start to revive nuclear-fuel reprocessing. That would end a three-decade-old strategy in the United States that has sought to sever the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
This is an interesting statement, since the Bush administration has already explicitly made this connection in regards to Iran’s nuclear power program. The course the U.S. is currently taking would be akin to me deciding in the scenario above that access to any books could be a source of violent inspiration for my hypothetical son, and therefore I should not let him read any. Sure, by capriciously exerting my power in such a way I could get rid of any insecurities I might harbor about my position as “man of the house”, but it would be pretty damaging to him in the long run.
In the case of nuclear energy, at least, this strategy could also be much more difficult. If the U.S. continues to try to prevent Iran from having any nuclear energy program, it will have to monitor Iran’s program remotely, because all diplomatic channels would be shut down. This is no easy task, and a recent article from The New York Times details just how undeveloped the technology needed to perform such a task is. Here is an example of “successful” monitoring:
There are signs that atomic espionage is already aiding Washington's hunt for clandestine Iranian sites. Late last year, Iran publicly complained to the United Nations about two unmanned American aircraft that it said crashed on its territory. In interviews, two federal intelligence experts said such drone aircraft, launched from Iraq, periodically spy on suspected nuclear sites.
Remote sensing wasn’t particularly successful in providing intelligence on Iraq’s purported nuclear program either, as I recall. Direct inspections, then, are much more preferable.
Unlike the Nature editorial, I will offer a clear solution. The U.S. should go ahead with plans to reprocess nuclear fuels while allowing Iran to develop its own peaceful nuclear program, but Iran should not be allowed to reprocess its fuel. Diplomatic channels will remain open, allowing international organizations to monitor Iran’s program closely for signs of an underground weapons program. This seems like a win-win situation, one that would be beneficial for all parties involved.