US Nuclear Might Rests on Civil Reactors

Nuclear power propels the USS Enterprise and Dwight D Eisenhower in the Red Sea.

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London – American experts say that US nuclear might depends  crucially on the civilian use of atomic energy, and believe the country will lose its place as the world’s nuclear superpower if it does not support its nuclear industry.

The link between the civil nuclear industry and the military’s ability to maintain its nuclear weapons capability is spelt out in a report by experts close to the Pentagon.

It states openly that tritium, an essential component of nuclear weapons, is manufactured in civilian reactors for military use. It also says that civilian reactors are needed to produce highly enriched uranium.

The Washington-based Energy Futures Initiative report, says that Russia and China, which are both building civil nuclear stations outside their national borders, will overtake America both in influence and ability to deliver a nuclear threatunless steps are taken to prop up the civil nuclear programme at home.

False claim

This is the first time that the dependence of nuclear weapons states on their civil nuclear programmes has been so clearly spelt out. Governments, particularly the United Kingdom’s, have repeatedly claimed there is no connection between the civil and military nuclear industries, but this report makes clear that is not the case.

It says: “The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program is comprised of military and civilian personnel who design, build, operate, maintain and manage the nearly one hundred reactors that power US aircraft carriers and submarines and provide training and research services.

“The program is operated jointly by the Department of Energy and the US Navy. Nuclear reactors provide the Navy with the mobility, flexibility and endurance required to carry out its global mission. More powerful reactors are beginning to be employed on the new Ford class aircraft carriers and will enable the new Columbia class of submarines in the next decades.

“A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements.

Clear dependence

“This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector.

“This supply chain for meeting the critical national security need for design and operation of Navy reactors includes a workforce trained in science and engineering, comprised of US citizens who qualify for security clearances.

“The Navy will (also) eventually need additional highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel its reactors for long intervals between refueling. Because of the national security use and the sensitivity of HEU production, the entire supply chain from uranium feed to the enrichment technology must be of United States origin.

“There is currently no such domestic capability in the supply chain. The relatively lengthy time period required to stand up such a capability raises serious, near-term concerns about the US capacity to meet this critical national security need.

Non-stop demand

“The nuclear weapons stockpile requires a constant source of tritium (half life about 12.5 years), provided by irradiating special fuel rods in one or two commercial power reactors. As with the Navy HEU requirements, the tritium must be supplied from US-origin reactors using domestically produced LEU reactor fuel.

“Once again, we do not have the long-term capability to meet this need because of the absence of an enrichment facility using US-origin technology. This is a glaring hole in the domestic nuclear supply chain, since the only enrichment facility in the United States today uses Urenco (European) technology to supply power reactor fuel.”

The report also spells out that the companies that supply the shrinking civil nuclear reactor programme are the same firms that provide the components and enriched uranium to keep the Navy’s nuclear-propelled vessels in full operational order.

The report says: “A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers.”

Unappealing option

The report goes on to detail how the number of American citizens taking higher education nuclear energy qualifications is becoming too small to sustain the industry. If only military nuclear options were available for a career path, this might prove even less attractive to the younger generation. It fears there would not be enough qualified American people with security clearance to support the military.

“The picture is clear: a stabilized existing reactor fleet and new builds, perhaps incentivized by the favorable emissions characteristics of nuclear power, will be needed to rebuild a supply chain that will underpin both clean energy and national security success,” the report concludes.

Britain decided in 2002 after an objective inquiry by the government’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) that nuclear was becoming too expensive and renewables were a better alternative for generating electricity.

However, quite unexpectedly, in 2005, after a secretive review under the premiership of Tony Blair, the policy was reversed and the UK government announced a revival of the nuclear industry.

Corresponding with this unprecedented U-turn on civil nuclear power was an equally unprecedented intensification in efforts to preserve nuclear skills for the military sector. Many millions of pounds have been given in government grants since that time to set up nuclear training programmes.

The Oxford Research Group  (ORG), a UK think tank, published a two-part report, entitled Sustainable Security. Both parts examined the prospects of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme influencing its energy policy

The ORG concluded that the government realised it could not sustain its own nuclear weapons programme, or more particularly its nuclear-propelled submarine fleet, without a large and complementary civilian nuclear industry.

Commenting on the release of the American report on the military crisis being caused by the lack of civilian power projects, Andrew Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the School of Business, University of Sussex, UK, said: “With renewable costs tumbling and the international nuclear industry in growing crisis, it is becoming ever more difficult to carry on concealing this key underlying military reason for attachment to civil nuclear power.”

Strange similarity

In the last year the UK government has been trying to generate interest in an alternative civilian nuclear programme. It has encouraged a competition to develop small modular reactors.

These reactors are supposed to be dotted around the countryside to power small towns. There are a number of designs, but some are remarkably similar to the power generators for nuclear submarines, particularly those that will be needed for the UK’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent – the Trident programme.

It is no coincidence that the frontline developer of both these kinds of reactors is Rolls-Royce, which has a workforce that seamlessly crosses over between military and civilian developments.

Despite the fact that these reactors might create considerable public opposition if they were placed anywhere near homes, no public consultation has been carried out, and none of these matters has ever been debated in the UK Parliament.

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