Friday, July 31, 2009

Arctic Freeze

When John Willis posted on 6 July in the wake of the Obama-Medvedev Summit on the opportunity for a nuclear free Arctic initiative, I told him that I'd comment, but I've not found the time until today.

John is right to place the Obama-Medvedev nuclear weapons stockpile reduction commitment in the context of what's left of the global non-proliferation regime, which will hold a five-year review next year, in 2010. In a piece I wrote in April after President Obama delivered his speech in Prague, I expained why the five Nuclear Weapon States recognized under the treaty will be pressed hard to show that they're delivering on their legal obligation to curb vertical proliferation. And how important this is to diminish the threats from horizontal proliferation.

The number of known States possessing nuclear weapons has almost doubled since the Treaty on the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was adopted in 1968. It would be wrong to say that the NPT has been a complete failure because the number of Nuclear Weapons States would be higher if it had not existed. But one cannot on the one hand tear apart the principles and letter of the treaty -- as the five formal Nuclear Weapon States have done most of this time, and continue at varying degrees including in the case of the US and China not ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and ask the rest of the world to adhere to it. I'm very curious to know what will come out of the Global Summit on Nuclear Security the US Government wants to host in 2010, because indeed it's time to think out of the NPT box. Ban Ki-Moon is trying hard, but it's tough when the largest part of the UN budget comes from Nuclear Weapons States.

John Willis proposes a Nuclear Free Arctic as a goal. "Russia and the US can take the lead on a treaty to impose a permanent ban on nuclear weapons (and nuclear-powered vessels) in the Arctic region", says Willis who (as a good Canadian) also thinks it would give his government something good to do.

Indeed, looking at a map of the existing nuclear weapons free zones, it only takes a glance to be reminded that a nuclear-free Arctic would bring some balance in a world where most nuclear weapons free zones are located in the South.

Willis' Nuclear Free Arctic model would include nuclear-powered vessels. That's interesting. Not only because we know there are plenty of nuclear submarines under what's left of the ice-flow. Not only also because the Arctic happens to be the only maritime region where a full blown nuclear meltdown is known to have happened, on board the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Lenin in the 1960s. But also because the Arctic is where a new generation of nuclear installations, floating nuclear power stations are about to be deployed.

We've already discussed floating nuclear reactors many times Chez Rémi. The last thing I read, on the website of World Nuclear News in the month of June, was that the assembly of the first "floating" 35 MW reactor had been completed in St.Petersburg

According to World Nuclear News, an All-Russian Acceptance Committee says the reactor meets "required standard" (it sounds good, but...I wonder who's set the standard?).

The reactor was due to be transported in June to the Baltiysky Zavod ship-building company in St.Petersburg to be placed into the keel of the first floating plant. The first plant will house two KLT-40S reactors, the second of which is being built now.

The first floating plant is expected to be in operation in 2012, to provide energy for the exploitation of Arctic minerals expected to become available with the retreat of the icecap. Unless of course, John Willis and his friends in Canada and elsewhere, stand up and say "Wait a moment! We don't want any floating Chernobyls on our doorstep!"

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