Nuclear Energy Security Meets Nonproliferation

A strategic petroleum reserve in Japan. This man-made island contains less thermal energy than can be stored by 30 square feet of nuclear fuel.

A strategic petroleum reserve in Japan. This man-made island contains less thermal energy than can be stored by 30 square feet of nuclear fuel.

At the end of 2013, there were 434 nuclear reactors worldwide, producing 2360 TWh of electrical power, with a thermal equivalent of 4.3 billion barrels of oil. Some scholars have suggested that a doubling of nuclear power within the next forty years would be prudent if carbon mitigation for reasons of climate change becomes a major policy of world governments. Despite this considerable role of nuclear power, there is little international protection against fuel-supply risk.

Large nations with well established nuclear industries make their own fuels to protect against political risk, but this creates a problem for international security: the facilities used to produce nuclear reactor fuel—namely enrichment plants—can also be used to produce materials for nuclear weapons. The need of non-weapon states to guard against political risk creates an unwelcome tension between nuclear power and international security.

Even with national fuel-cycle facilities, non-political forms of fuel-supply risk such as interruptions caused by natural disasters or unforeseen technology failures remain unaddressed. The flooding of the Cigar Lake uranium mine in 2006, and again in 2008, are recent examples that has substantial consequences on the nuclear-fuel markets leading to a 400 percent increase in the cost of uranium. A catastrophe of similar scale elsewhere in the fuel-cycle could have left large numbers of reactors without fuel.

One possible alternative is to establish an international mandate for national strategic nuclear-fuel stockpiles, analogous to strategic petroleum reserves currently mandated by the International Energy Agency. Strategic reserves are little more than large stockpiles of nuclear fuel, either as oxide low-enriched uranium or pre-fabricated into fuel elements. These fuels are stable for hundreds of years, very inexpensive to store, and unlike national fuel-cycle facilities, highly robust against natural disasters.

Just as the petroleum industry was initially concerned with strategic petroleum reserves, the nuclear industry is also cautious about the implications of stockpiled nuclear fuel. If not properly regulated, the fuel stockpile could be used to manipulate markets and create downward pressure on fuel prices. At LNSP, we are studying technical and political-economic feasibility of establishing a national nuclear-fuel stockpile to find a framework that would prevent market manipulation while still creating energy security for nuclear-power countries and reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation at the same time.


R. Scott Kemp