By ANDREW REED
The increased safety of nuclear reactors threatens to obscure the inherent dangers of their very existence. And as fossil fuels continue their terminal decline toward extinction, countries currently not operating reactors will operate them in the future. As more nuclear material is produced and more reactors come online the risks of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism only increase.
Reactors require fuel — uranium, but not the kind you can dig out of the ground. Current nuclear reactors require uranium-235 (U-235), an isotope which accounts for 0.7 percent of the uranium you can mine. Reactors generally require between 3-5 percent U-235 in order to sustain a chain reaction. You get to that magic number by separating the U-235 isotope in a process called enrichment. Unfortunately, the processes and materials used to enrich uranium to the reactor-grade threshold are the same as those used to reach the weapons-grade-enrichment threshold — 90 percent, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. 5 percent vs. 90 percent may seem like a massive gulf — but, unfortunately, once you’ve gone from 0.7 percent to 5 percent, you’ve already done about three-quarters of the work. Furthermore, one of the byproducts of producing energy from a nuclear reactor is, in part, plutonium-239, another material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Now you can see the problem — “going green” through nuclear energy can be a wonderfully benign and even altruistic disguise for a weapons program. If you think I’m being overly pessimistic, this was exactly the cover story used when Iran tried to acquire the bomb in 2003, and when North Korea did acquire the bomb in 2006. It’s only a matter of time until another nation successfully turns their nuclear energy program into a weapons program. And as the use of nuclear energy becomes safer and cheaper and its use increasingly ubiquitous, we’re looking at a world where many more countries have, at the very least, capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. And when that happens, the probability of nuclear war increases. The chances of it happening in a given year may be small, but one day our luck is going to run out.
Moreover, as countries increasingly rely on nuclear energy, two other risks begin to materialize — nuclear theft and sabotage.
Finally, as more and more countries gain access to nuclear materials, the concern for theft grows exponentially. Currently, there’s no good way to recycle nuclear waste, so it must be stored for thousands of years before it is no longer radioactive. The United States alone spends billions of dollars each year protecting its radioactive materials from theft. But with all the capital we have spent on nuclear security, there have been numerous cases of security lapses and even theft in the past few decades — including one last year. In an instance in 2012, a group of Ocean’s Eleven wannabes, led by an 82-year-old nun, descended from the wooded hills surrounding the U.S.’s most secure nuclear complex, cut through a series of three chain-link fences and maneuvered undetected to within 20 feet of the uranium storage building. Lucky for them, the security cameras had been broken for months, and the complex’s new motion detection system had been setting off so many false alarms that the guards just stopped investigating them. Lucky for the rest of us, the intruders’ only desire was to spray paint Bible verses and smear human blood on the walls of the complex.
Read more at Reed ’21: The Hidden Dangers of Nuclear Energy