This simplicity of design also features in other gen-III reactor designs like the Westinghouse AP1000, which has 60 percent fewer valves, 75 percent less piping, 80 percent less control cabling, 35 percent fewer pumps, and 50 percent less seismic building volume than currently operational reactors. This trend becomes more pronounced in gen-IV designs like the pebble bed reactor. In conjunction with “the modern computer-aided manufacturing technologies currently used most extensively in the ship-building industry,” Peterson says, what’s now possible is a modular approach to nuclear-plant construction, whereby large segments of the plants will be prefabricated in factories.
This new context of markedly cheaper, more easily constructed reactors clearly has the potential to invalidate some long-cherished assumptions–and not just those of antinuclear Western environmentalists, whose claims were that nuclear power would always remain dependent on government subsidies. It’s in this context, for instance, that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy-director general Tomihiro Taniguchi recently reported that six Middle Eastern countries–Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Tunisia–have expressed interest in building nuclear plants. Egypt, in particular, has specific plans for four reactors and has been checking out the options.
Much of the materials and knowledge employed in a civilian nuclear program can be used to develop nuclear weapons. What should an international policy to resist nuclear-weapons proliferation look like in a 21st century in which climate change, depletion of fossil fuels, and radically simpler, cheaper nuclear-reactor designs will be prominent features of the landscape?
The IAEA has proposed a nuclear “fuel bank,” whereby the agency would run a backup supply for nuclear reactors throughout the world on a nondiscriminatory, nonpolitical basis that would thereby reduce the need for countries to develop their own uranium. Simultaneously, the Bush administration is pushing its plan for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which would be an international collaboration to reprocess spent nuclear fuel so as to render the plutonium in it usable for nuclear reactors but not for nuclear weapons. Of these proposals, Jeffrey Lewis, of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, comments, “A forward-looking nonproliferation policy would have elements of the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, in that it’d have a renewed commitment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s inherent bargain–that is, states that refrain from developing nuclear weapons get the benefits of nuclear technology.” But Lewis isn’t optimistic about the Bush plan’s chances. “I don’t think that the Bush administration’s proposals on restricting access to fuel-cycle technologies will be met with much international enthusiasm, because they’re seen as ad hoc, and the Bush administration has so little credibility on proliferation issues. The Bush administration’s deal with India, for instance, suggests that rules aren’t really part of the equation, that what’s more important is a state’s current relationship with the U.S. and its relative power in the international system.”