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US and Russia to give uranium to ANYONE

'No, you really don't need your own enrichment plant'

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So the US is making more nuclear fuel. And they're willing to offer that fuel, alongside the Russians, to countries who cannot get nuclear fuel for political reasons. Recklessness carried to extremes, surely?

Well, no, that's not quite what is going on at all. What is going on is that the US and Russia are continuing to take highly enriched uranium (HEU) and blend it with depleted uranium to produce low enrichment uranium (LEU). It is the sort of thing that has been going on since Al Gore got the programme going back in the '90s: yes, really, something for which Al Gore is actually responsible, unlike Love Story or the internet. And even those who don't like Gore might admit that this is something good for which Al is responsible - for what this is really all about is turning nuclear bomb material into nuclear reactor material.

Yes, this does mean that nuclear reactors will be supplied with fuel for a little longer than they otherwise would ("Yay!" or "Boo!" to taste) and it will mean more used nuclear fuel rods, transuranics and nasty isotopes that have to be taken care of. It also means that anyone who tries to make a private sector nuclear bomb by nicking the stuff will be dead as they process it rather than dead when they explode it, which I'll take as being on the good side of things. And that's a very large part of the motivation.

We also play our part in the UK in such programmes: some of the work going on in Sellafield, some of what THORP (the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) was all about, is to make the same thing possible with the other bomb-making material, plutonium. Instead of having Fat Man type amounts littered around the world, why not turn it into the oxide, mix it with uranium oxide into Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX), stick it in rods and run it through a reactor? We've again increased the total amount of nasties and decreased the likelihood of someone making a nasty bang in a public place with it.

The American Assured Fuel Supply (AFS) is also making a political point, not just the sensible one of keeping the matches away from the terrorist kiddies.

According to World Nuclear News:

The AFS stands alongside other initiatives to create international fuel reserves managed under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Russia already funds the storage of 120 tonnes of LEU at the International Uranium Enrichment Centre at Angarsk, available to any IAEA member state in good standing which is unable to procure fuel for political reasons. The IAEA is also drawing up a framework to establish an International Fuel Bank with the support of $50m from the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative organization and $107m from the US and other governments.

US energy secretary Steven Chu described the assurance of fuel supply without promoting proliferation sensitive technologies to countries looking towards nuclear power as a critical national security priority.

"In addition to protecting fuel supplies for commercial power producers, the Assured Fuel Supply helps demonstrate our commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by eliminating surplus weapons uranium in a way that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.

The way to read this is in reference to the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the country therefore has an absolute right to develop civilian nuclear power. It also has the right (note, right) to ask for help from other signatories in getting that industry going. Yes, it is even allowed to enrich its own uranium to make the fuel for its reactors.

Nuclear bombs are bad... Expensive too

However, the usual worry when someone starts enrichment is that they'll get carried away and start making HEU for bombs, not just the LEU for reactors (yes, there are reactors that use HEU but not large-scale power ones). This is what Stuxnet and disrupting the centrifuges was all about.

There's also an economic case against doing your own enrichment. It's the mind-garglingly expensive part of the process. Reactors and buying the fuel from others are cheap by comparison. So there's always a suspicion that someone doing it all the expensive way is doing it so as to get the lovely bomb toy, not just the nuclear power: or rather, attempting to become a nuclear weapon power rather than just having nuclear power.

I recall, many moons ago, sitting in an office in Moscow and being told by a bureaucrat that the Russians had just agreed to build a whole enrichment and reprocessing plant for Iran in Iran. I wasn't all that surprised when a few years later the Russians said that actually, while they were delighted to build the plant for Iran, they'd decided to build it in Russia so that they could keep an eye on it all. Iran rejected this offer, which raised a few more eyebrows: why do they really want to do their own enrichment (perhaps so they can make HEU?) and reprocessing (so they can extract the plutonium?)

And that's what the Assured Fuel Supply is really all about. It says: "You know, guys, if you want reactors, well, hey, you have reactors. We've some nice fuel here you can use and we'll take care of the clean up and reprocessing when you're done."

This is for what I think to be the very good reason that whatever our worries about nuclear reactors 'n'all, we're a lot more worried about fools building bombs. Or stealing them. So, let's blend the weapons-grade stuff down into fuel to make sure it can't be nicked and then let's offer fuel to any and everyone so they're not tempted to build the factories that can build bombs. ®

This logic might not convince everyone but it convinces me. ®

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