Nucleo-aggressions: Does Nuclear Civilian Energy Lead to More Wars?

Petro-aggressions, the role of oil in wars, and nuclear deterrence have all been extensively studied. However, few have looked at civilian nuclear power plants and uranium as a raw commodity, and how these may create or stop wars.

One reason why oil may cause more wars is its relative scarcity, as it is non-renewable and controlled by a few countries. What of uranium? There is little risk of running out, especially with fast-breeder reactors that recycle their uranium and given that uranium’s greater energy density. Thus, there are not enough incentives for countries to forcefully take over uranium mines. However, the market is effectively controlled by a cartel of importing nations, namely Western countries with large civilian nuclear programs like France and the USA. There are also heavy restrictions from the IAEA, meaning that smaller nations have relatively little freedom or independence over their civilian nuclear programs. Thus, some countries may dare invade to take control of uranium mines or stocks if refused a legal alternative by the international community. Furthermore, a large amount of the world’s uranium is mined in countries in rather unstable geopolitical situations, like Niger, Uzbekistan, Malawi, and Ukraine. 36% of the world’s uranium comes from Kazakhstan, sandwiched between Russia and China. However, developing countries with large advanced armies want uranium to keep flowing on the free market, just as with oil. Threats to uranium supplies would likely prompt a response from the international community, dissuading anyone from invading uranium producing countries and reducing the risk of conflict.

There is also the possibility of developing countries trying to steal technology through force. With oil, the primary challenge is acquiring the physical resource. With nuclear energy, gaining the technology is half the challenge, raw uranium is useless on its own. Countries have either done it through alliances or spying, and thus a country may invade its neighbour to gain access to its nuclear plant to steal the technology stored there. The technological complexity does however mean that the main cost of nuclear energy is not the uranium, but the plants themselves. A 100% price increase of uranium would only result in a 5% price increase of nuclear electricity. Civilian nuclear countries thus need not worry much about uranium price hikes or fighting over uranium, as the primary cost remains the technology and the building of plants.

There is the issue of specifically targeting an enemy’s energy production capabilities in war through their nuclear plants. Countries with nuclear power plants rely on a few large production sites, clumping energy production in easily targeted spots. France produces 80% of its electricity in 58 nuclear reactors distributed across just 19 sites. However, targeting nuclear plants comes with its risks. Creating a nuclear leakage will likely affect both attacked and attacker, creating a dissuasion, protecting nuclear plants through their own dangerous reputation and explaining why no functioning nuclear site has ever been attacked.

It seems thus that war over nuclear resources or technology is unlikely, and there is little history of it. Yet, there have been attacks against nuclear plants, most conducted by Israel and the USA against Iran, Iraq, and Syria to stop them from starting civilian programs, for fear that they may later transform them into military ones. Both conventional missiles and cyberwarfare were used. Rumours that Iraq tried to purchase uranium in 2001 helped justify the ensuing Iraq War. This raises the issue of who has the right to decide who may or may not have nuclear programs. Indeed, it is hard differentiating between civilian and military programs as the boundary can easily be abused, but what entitles certain countries to bomb others, breach their sovereignty, and stop them from developing civilian nuclear programs, solely based on the aggressors’ fears?

Clement Francony

 

Kovynev, Alexey. “Nuclear Plants in War Zones.” Nuclear Engineering International, 19 Mar. 2015, www.neimagazine.com/features/featurenuclear-plants-in-war-zones-4536247/.

Price, Robert, and Jean René Blaise. “Nuclear Fuel Resources: Enough to Last?” NEA News, vol. 20, no. 2, 2002, www.oecd-nea.org/pub/newsletter/2002/20-2-Nuclear_fuel_resources.pdf.

Ustohalova, Veronika, and Matthias Englert. Nuclear Safety in Crisis Regions. Institute for Applied Ecology, 12 Apr. 2017, www.oeko.de/fileadmin/oekodoc/Nuclear-safety-in-crisis-regions.pdf.

“World Uranium Mining Production.” World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Association, Mar. 2019, www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx.

 

Cover Photo: Atomium, Bruxelles, Belgium  by Pierre Pavlovic on Unsplash

 

 

 

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