I realized I needed to change what I’d written on “weapons grade” material not being produced by the nuclear fuel cycle, so I edited the original post. I live in the US, and I guess I was letting myself think what’s happening here is what’s happening everywhere, which in terms of reprocessing as part of the normal nuclear fuel cycle is not the case.
Thanks for getting the response from John.
I’ve been involved with the climate issue since 1988 and spent many years in the political wilderness in Canada arguing that civilization needed to act to limit its impact on the biosphere in any area where what it was doing was not sustainable. The climate policy I advocated that voters should vote for was to return the atmosphere to its preindustrial composition. But I remained “agnostic” that there would be a role for nuclear power.
I had despaired that anything I was doing was making the slightest bit of difference by around the late 1990s, and was “burned out’ for some years. But then I heard that Hansen was saying he had concluded there was too much CO2 in the atmosphere already and I heard him saying things like he expected to be called to testify at the trials for crimes against humanity of CEOs of fossil fuel companies. Perhaps now that scientists were speaking out as forcefully as that, I thought, there would be new possibilities.
Hansen started touting nuclear power, specifically a breeder reactor design that had proved itself at prototype and was ready for full scale testing in the US before the program was suddenly cancelled when anti nukes around President Clinton came into power in Washington.
I followed Hansen’s lead and took up the study of nuclear power. The design he was touting creates more fuel than it uses, is safer than anything currently operating, reprocesses its used fuel on its own site always keeping it in a form unsuitable for weapons, produces waste that decays in hundreds of years instead of hundreds of thousands of years, in fact it could burn todays waste piles converting it into a hundreds of years problem from what it is now, and as such could totally replace fossil fuel generation worldwide. Of course, people would have to change their minds about nuclear and allow this or similar designs to be built at scale then deployed in numbers to prove this out. But it isn’t like fusion - the designers felt ready to build a first of a kind large scale plant as their last step before commercialization when the program was cancelled. It was the biggest nuke R&D program the US had at the time. When it was conceived it was supposed to produce the prototype for the next generation nuclear fleet and the aim was to replace fossil fuels. The designers say they took it upon themselves to find design solutions to the biggest problems the current fleet had. Then the tide turned on nuclear in the US and suddenly they couldn’t even build reactors of any type any more.
You can see the Sierra Club nuke policy online, its no nukes, no research, no fusion, no nothing we don’t care we know all we need to know about that and we don’t want it. And it was all written before it first dawned on them that climate was even an issue.
I studied the debate around nuclear. No wonder the pro nuke types are in trouble promoting their favorite technology: the US nuclear industry has a climate science denier as one of their most prominent lobbyists. They tend to argue that radiation is good for you. It seems that most pro nuclear types have no perception that there could possibly be a limit to how large of an impact human civilization can impose on the biosphere, and most don’t buy that there is a climate problem. They want civilization to use more nukes for electricity generation, but they love fossil fuels for their cars. Some think the only reason anyone is an environmentalist is they are totally corrupt morons only interested in all the money environmentalists get for obstructing reasonable things.
So I don’t know. I am appalled at the pro nuclear types and hardly interact with them any more - I used to study what they were saying to try to learn more about nuclear technology but at some point you get tired of hearing you are mentally ill because you believe the NAS is capable of assessing the state of present knowledge in a scientific discipline such as what radiation does to human beings. And the anti nukes are preposterous - Helen Caldicott proclaimed during the heightened press attention she got during the Fukushima event that Japan, that’s the entire country, was going to be uninhabitable, forever. Romm is actually telling his readers that nuclear is more expensive than solar power now. And he assures everyone he isn’t anti nuke.
I have reservations about proliferation. But what is clear is that the scientists who first discovered that fission was possible, i.e. that the atom could be split to produce energy in the form of bombs, and controlled to produce heat and electricity, didn’t believe it was possible to keep this “genie” in the bottle. They understood it wasn’t going to be possible to keep others who were determined to understand this physics from figuring it out. If you want a bomb today, it seems Iran is showing what someone would do: you get uranium from wherever, it can be ore from the ground, learn how to enrich it, they are using centrifuges, they don’t need reactors or anything from any fuel cycle for this, and once you’ve got enough enriched to 90% or so U- 235, after that, I hear its very easy to make a bomb. The US apparently felt it didn’t have to test the first U - 235 bomb it made it just dropped it and it worked. Its something like a sub critical mass with a hole in it and you fire the rest of the critical mass into the hole when you want it blow up. You’d need some physicists. What banning breeder reactors in the US does to slow this down is not clear.