London, March 14 : The US government is continuing with its plans to design small nuclear reactors for deployment in developing countries, despite ongoing fears about security and proliferation risks.
According to a report in New Scientist, the Bush administration has already ear-marked 20 million dollars in its 2009 budget toward the US Department of Energy's efforts to design nuclear power plants in the 250-to-500 megawatt range as part of its Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP).
These nuclear reactors are far more affordable and practical for developing nations than the typical 1,300-megawatt commercial light-water reactor. This is because these nations have smaller power grids and less well-developed technical infrastructures.
GNEP, which now includes 21 member countries, hopes to begin construction of its first reactor in a country currently without nuclear power in 2015, saying the plants will provide a clean, safe source of electricity.
"These will be deployed in a responsible way that is safe and secure and offers the lowest possible risk for proliferation," said Daniel Ingersoll of GNEP and the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
According to the GNEP, countries that build the reactors would have to agree to use nuclear power for civilian purposes only and to forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities that can be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Nations with established nuclear capacity would supply fuel and collect spent material for reprocessing to ensure no fuel went missing. "Fourth generation" reactors could be built with a sealed load of fuel that lasts the lifetime of the reactor.
But Elena Sokova of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, US, is sceptical.
"At this point, there are no proliferation-proof reactors," said Sokova. "If a country develops a reprocessing program, they then have the ability to turn the fuel into the plutonium needed to make a nuclear bomb," she added.
According to Sokova, the GNEP plans may burden developing countries with challenges and responsibilities they are unprepared for.
"If you are start pushing this technology, many countries are not ready for it in terms of highly trained personnel, maintenance, and security against terrorist threats," she said.
"Countries worried about relying on others for fuel may want to develop reprocessing capabilities of their own," she added.
"I think we should proceed with caution and make sure we are making good assessments whether there are good reasons for exporting this technology," said Sokova.