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The Renewable Proliferation Treaty
Jamais Cascio   Feb 17, 2008   Open the Future  

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), originally promulgated in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, has three key provisions: that nuclear weapon-free signatory states refrain from developing nuclear weapons; that signatory states with nuclear weapons work to disarm; and that signatory states remain free to develop nuclear energy technologies.

The treaty has worked reasonably well in preventing weapons proliferation (the current post-treaty nuclear states either did not sign the NNPT or dropped out of it prior to testing), but may face an unexpected threat from climate change. One change to the treaty, however, could help on both the proliferation and climate fronts—and serve as a perfect example of an economy of scope.

Arguably, the covert (if as-yet unsuccessful) proliferation programs in a small number of countries suggests that the provision of the NNPT allowing for nuclear energy technology conflicts with the provision prohibiting nuclear weapons development. The unfortunate fact is that some of the technologies enabling ongoing nuclear power generation also enable nuclear weapons development; as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in October of 2007, enrichment and reprocessing technologies “could be the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.” The relative success of the NNPT has relied upon the relatively limited development and operation of nuclear power plants outside of the industrialized world. But that’s changing.

Half of the nuclear plants now under construction can be found in the developing world. As the risks from global warming highlight the problems with fossil-fuel power—especially coal—we’re seeing a growing number of calls for greater reliance on nuclear energy as a non-greenhouse gas alternative. The need to avoid carbon-intensive generation will only serve to accelerate global nuclear power deployment.

But the choice isn’t just between greenhouse-gas-producing coal plants and proliferation-enabling nuclear plants. Imagine if there were an amendment to the NNPT offering support for the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies to nations that refrain from both nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy development. Support could come in the form of financial assistance, technology transfers, even outright grants, all intended to accelerate the deployment of renewable power in place of both fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

Support could be contingent upon shutting down coal plants, and the details would be specific to the signatory nation’s geography. Aside from providing clean energy, this could also serve as a catalyst for the economic development of participating nations, helping them join the “green economy.”

People who dismiss this idea based on the argument that renewable power can’t match the scale of coal and nuclear haven’t been paying attention. Renewable power efforts such as the 500-850MW solar Stirling farm and the 1,500MW wind farm projects now underway in Southern California offer generation levels comparable to larger nuclear power plants. Moreover, what’s important is meeting power demands, not keeping all power generation in one building: a hundred 10MW generators offer the same power as a single 1,000MW power plant, and with greater resilience.

Renewables offer a few key advantages over nuclear that may be of particular value to developing nations:

  • No operational waste to dispose of, either with an expensive local facility or by paying to have it shipped off;

  • No conflicts between water needed for cooling vs. water needed for agriculture, likely to be the biggest inhibitor to nuclear power deployment in the coming decades;

  • Location flexibility, with the systems either deployable in a single large site or distributed across a variety of appropriate locations, and with far less local resistance than with nuclear;

  • Fewer insurance risks;

  • Most importantly, far greater flexibility for incremental changes.

    This last one is worth elaborating upon. Solar (photovoltaic and Stirling), wind, and (to a lesser extent) hydrokinetic power rely upon a multitude of small units generating power, while present-day nuclear technologies rely upon small numbers of big reactors. If demands increase, additional renewable power units can be added onto the grid with relative ease. Both new units and existing systems can readily adopt (or retrofit) the latest technology refinements, and broken units (from accident or sabotage) can be taken offline without bringing down hundreds of megawatts of generation.

    Intermittency (energy only being produced when the sun is out or the wind blows) is less of an issue than critics sometimes contend, and can be dealt with through distribution (taking advantage of micro-climates), diversity (not just relying on a single renewable source), and over-production & storage (so that the systems can work at peak capacity even when demand is low).

    With one step, we could reduce the potential threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, reduce carbon footprints arising from power generation, and help developing world economies leapfrog into 21st century markets. When I talk about “economies of scope,” where multiple, unrelated problems are handled by a single solution, this is precisely what I mean.

    How likely is this idea? It’s not on anyone’s agenda—I haven’t heard anybody else talking about the notion. But for a new president looking for ways to deal with big global problems efficiently… let’s just say my email address isn’t hard to find.

  • Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.



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