Thursday, December 06, 2007

Nuclear power and Kyoto: Baird’s guest-list hints at climate strategy
Environment minister John Baird has taken some interesting people with him to the Bali climate discussions. Among them is Elizabeth Dowdeswell, an adviser to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. As I have pointed out, the countries involved in the Asia-Pacific Partnership are members of another partnership, the GNEP.


What’s the connection? The APP focuses on a technological solution to climate change, rather than Kyoto’s bulky, unwieldy everyone-aboard-one-big-spaceship approach. No technology will reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than nuclear-generated electricity. And if nuclear power is to develop worldwide beyond its current capacity, and it will, then there absolutely must be a safe way to deal with spent fuel from reactors.

Hence GNEP, and Canada’s decision, announced last week, to join it. Whether or not you like GNEP’s central technological proposal—which is to use special reactors to destroy certain dangerous components of spent fuel—you have to agree that there must be close international supervision of the nuclear fuel cycle. And hence Dowdeswell’s presence in Bali. Her organization will be closely involved with spent fuel management in Canada.

But now that Canada is in GNEP, “management” in this country might mean more than directly storing spent fuel in a geologic repository. It might mean reprocessing, i.e., separating plutonium from spent fuel and burning it using either CANDU or fast-neutron technology.

I like the idea of recycling fuel, but we should think hard before we start separating plutonium. It is safer when this stuff is entrained in highly radioactive spent fuel. Separating it from spent fuel requires close monitoring and supervision, which is fine as far as Canada is concerned. But if other countries do the same with their spent fuel, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring responsibilities increase in complexity. South Korea secretly produced small amounts of plutonium in 1982; the IAEA only learned about it in 2004.

On the other hand, disposing of U.S. spent fuel in CANDU reactors (i.e., DUPIC) doesn’t entail separation beyond mechanical reformation of fuel rods. DUPIC spent fuel maintains the radiation shield. I hope Canada hasn’t succumbed to the accepted wisdom which says CANDU won’t sell in the U.S. The situation has changed since AECL’s last failed attempt to sell to a U.S. utility.

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