April 19, 2022 - 13 min read
Since scientists first split the atom, nuclear technology has created the potential for both incredible danger and fantastic opportunities. While nuclear energy remains one of the cleanest energy generation methods in existence, the dangers of nuclear weapons loom large, particularly as many experts believe the world is again trending toward an era of great power competition.
Trust is one of the biggest issues in nuclear diplomacy, whether involving extremely hot-button issues such as nuclear weapons control, controversial issues like nuclear power, or other associated activities, such as nuclear energy research or uranium mining. As a potentially “trustless” technology that aims to eliminate the need for third parties, blockchain could be a powerful tool that would allow greater trust between nations, institutions, and the public in regard to nuclear technology.
In addition to preventing nuclear disasters and improving trust among nations attempting to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, blockchain could be used as a powerful information sharing tool for scientists conducting research into new applications of nuclear technology, such as fusion, which has the potential to provide power at far greater efficiency, and with far less waste than current nuclear fission technology.
Blockchain has a variety of potential applications along the nuclear power supply chain, and that starts with the individual supply chains for various components. As recent nuclear disasters have shown us, even small malfunctions can lead to terrible consequences, such as reactor meltdowns, so it’s never been more important to ensure that every part and every ounce of material used in the nuclear power generation process can be fully verified.
Like many other industries, the nuclear industry contains a variety of complex supply chains. In terms of fuel, that supply chain begins in uranium mines. Over the last several decades, the largest suppliers of uranium have been Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the United States, Russia, and Germany. According to the World Nuclear Organization, 67,500 tons of uranium are required each year to facilitate current nuclear power requirements.
Blockchain can be used to track the mining and processing of uranium to ensure safe and environmentally friendly mining conditions, particularly in developing countries, such as Kazakhstan, where this may be a concern. It may also prevent the theft or misappropriation of uranium from known mining sites. According to experts, in many cases, it takes 30 days or more for missing uranium supply reports to reach a mine’s management, and blockchain could potentially speed up this dangerously slow process.
Beyond mining, the next stage of the nuclear fuel supply chain is the uranium enrichment process. It should be noted that uranium contains two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The enrichment process is designed to increase the amount of U-235 in the subject amount of uranium. Most nuclear power plants require uranium to be enriched from 0.7% to 3-5% U-235, while some require enrichment of up to 20%.
In contrast, the uranium needed to power nuclear weapons must be enriched up to 90% U-235. The same technology that can be used to enrich uranium from 0.7% to 5% or 20% can also easily be used to enrich it up to 90%, which is why most uranium enrichment is currently tightly controlled via international agreements.
Blockchain can help create an immutable ledger of enriched uranium products in order to help improve secure record-keeping among governments and private companies operating enrichment facilities, which may be able to help prevent uranium from being enriched to weapons-grade material by bad actors. Once enriched, blockchain can also create an immutable supply chain trail between an enrichment center and the nuclear power facility ultimately using uranium as fuel.
When it comes to tracking enriched uranium, blockchain’s secure record-keeping may be beneficial for nuclear security, even when used by countries that do not abide by international atomic energy agreements. Even if some do not abide by these agreements, they can still use blockchain to track nuclear material within their own programs. For example, many political scientists would argue that a rogue establishment having sufficient nuclear material to create a nuclear weapon is already destabilizing to international security; however, if that nuclear material were to be stolen or misappropriated within the country, it would be even more dangerous.
In terms of nuclear safety, it’s one thing to have a threatening regime with nuclear material, and entirely another to have nuclear material floating around the world in unknown hands.
Despite the importance of uranium for nuclear power generation, it should be noted that fuel is only one part of the nuclear power supply chain. Other essential materials include computers and computer chips which regulate and control computer power generation, as well as building materials, such as ceramic, steel, and concrete, from which facilities are built.
Like many other industries, the nuclear industry must contend with counterfeit, fraudulent, and suspect items (CFSI).
Much like Walmart has done with its Food Trust supply chain tracking initiative, which forces suppliers to create a blockchain-based trail back to the original farm that supplied a piece of produce, nuclear power plants and the firms or governments that own them could mandate that all sourced materials use blockchain supply chain tracking systems, down to the base materials, be trackable. This could greatly prevent the proliferation of counterfeit items, which could significantly prevent the chance of accidents occurring due to low-quality or counterfeit building or containment materials.
However, this would pose a significant challenge, as right now, many nuclear facilities do not even use computers to track their supply chains, and instead, operate legacy paper-based record systems.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the world’s main reporting body for nuclear energy use. The organization, which reports to the United Nations, aims to promote the peaceful, safe use of nuclear power while preventing the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.
The IAEA regularly conducts inspections of nuclear facilities across the globe, via its process of safeguard reporting. Countries generally give up information about their nuclear activities via bilateral agreements with the IAEA, which allow the IAEA to conduct inspections, take samples, and run lab tests, reporting specific violations to the IAEA board of governors and issuing an annual report of any issues it has encountered.
Despite the best efforts of the IAEA, the current inspection processes, particularly the data collection elements of their efforts, are particularly fragmented, as they involve various attempts to help enforce a fragmented framework of a multitude of agreements. This is particularly problematic in highly volatile areas like the middle east, where governments may not be willing to fully share information with IAEA investigators.
Due to the current fragmentation of this process, blockchain could help bring the international nuclear inspection processes conducted by the IAEA into the modern age, by creating a shared, distributed ledger of nuclear inspections. The current level of trust between countries utilizing nuclear technology is very low, and blockchain ledgers may be able to increase this trust due to the inherent “trustlessness” of the technology.
In fact, last spring, Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, mentioned blockchain technology as one major innovation that could improve the efficacy and trust of the nuclear reporting process.
Since many countries and corporations wish to keep much of their nuclear information confidential, the IAEA could potentially benefit by implementing a private blockchain, which could potentially interface with the individual blockchain systems of companies and national governments to create a comprehensive repository of nuclear reporting data. Each state or company’s information could be well-secured, with the private keys to the data being held only by IAEA officials with the responsibility to confidentially report that information to the IAEA board of governors, the United Nations, or other specifically designated parties.
In addition to private blockchains, a public, permissioned blockchain could be utilized to help inform the public of non-confidential information regarding nuclear energy and nuclear weapons control efforts. This could help lead to better public oversight of the IAEA’s efforts, and could lead to more public support and funding for the organization, which many believe is underfunded and understaffed.
While the IAEA holds an influential role in the process of nuclear enforcement, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is mainly enforced through a patchwork of treaties, the broadest among them being the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the NPT Treaty. The NPT Treaty was initially signed in 1970 and currently has 191 signatories, which includes most members of the United Nations, with the notable exceptions of India, Pakistan, and Isreal. North Korea signed the NPT Treaty in 1985, but declared in 2003 that it would not be bound by the treaty and its obligations.
The treaty delineates between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, with nuclear weapons states including the United States, Russia, the UK, France, and China. All other signatory states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapons states agree to never assist non-nuclear weapons states in the acquisition of such weapons.
In addition to preventing an increase in the number of nuclear weapons states, the treaty strongly encourages nuclear disarmament, which includes the dismantlement of current nuclear warheads. Such a process is difficult to track, and information sharing among treaty signatories is a consistent challenge.
A recent report issued by the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) at King’s College London argued that blockchain technology could be a key solution in verifying the safe dismantlement of nuclear weapons in adherence with the NPT Treaty. According to the report:
In addition, the report specifically argues that blockchain could be essential in building an encrypted chain of custody for nuclear material, which would allow third parties to verify the data without seeing it. The report also suggests that private IoT (internet-of-things) networks could be used to place location sensors and environmental monitors at nuclear sites in order to better track and verify the use and transport of sensitive nuclear components and materials in real-time. This could potentially allow third parties and organizations such as the IAEA to receive automatic notifications of potential treaty violations.
It should be noted that while the NPT Treaty may be the broadest in scope, it’s not the only important nuclear weapons treaty facing implementation challenges. The New START Treaty, signed in 2010, is a major treaty between the United States and Russia that places limitations on intercontinental-range nuclear weapons. The treaty provides for 18 on-site inspections per year for U.S. and Russian inspection teams. It also involves the exchange of telemetric information for up to 5 missile launches each year.
Much like the NPT Treaty, the New START Treaty involves the creation and sharing of significant amounts of sensitive data, data that can easily be lost or manipulated in certain circumstances. Therefore, the utilization of a private blockchain ledger, potentially combined with IoT sensors, could also be a powerful way to assist with the verification of START treaty agreements in a highly confidential manner.
In addition to tracking and securing nuclear materials at the early stages of the supply chain and assisting with the IAEA and other nuclear inspection processes, blockchain also has strong potential to help in the tracking and control process of nuclear waste.
While some nuclear waste is relatively harmless, other types of waste can potentially remain radioactive, and hence harmful to humans, for thousands of years. Traditional methods of storing nuclear waste have often failed due to corrosion, leading to dangerous leakage. This is why countries including the U.S. and Finland have detailed plans to store nuclear waste deep in secured underground facilities. Ideally, this would prevent both leakages into the water table and potential theft or vandalism by bad actors.
However, for these storage programs to be effective, it’s essential that these waste products be tracked effectively, something which blockchain has significant potential to do.
In March 2020, SLAFKA, a blockchain prototype for securing nuclear material, specifically nuclear waste, was introduced by the Stimson Center’s Blockchain in Practice program, Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The project specifically focuses on tracking spent fuel placed in underground storage to facilitate information sharing among trusted parties while maintaining overall confidentiality.
Beyond helping secure the nuclear energy supply chain, increase trust between distrustful parties, and potentially help advance the nuclear non-proliferation process, blockchain may have a role in helping scientists collaborate on one of the most promising potential energy sources of the near future; nuclear fusion.
While real fusion may happen in reactors, progress in fusion technology is underpinned by decades of academic research, and blockchain has shown strong potential to help improve information sharing between researchers, academic institutions, and corporations to advance a wide variety of scientific pursuits.
Much like other areas of nuclear technology, some governments and corporations may wish to keep all or part of their fusion research confidential, though they may be willing to share it with selected, pre-approved parties. Private, permissioned blockchains can help this type of selected information sharing by allowing permitted researchers and institutions to access and add to a shared blockchain.
When nuclear fusion energy generation finally becomes commercially viable– as most scientists believe it will, blockchain will likely have a role to play in the industry. While much safer than fission technology, fusion still has risks, and still requires fuel, and blockchain technology can be an integral part of that future supply chain.
As governments and corporations become more focused on addressing global warming and curbing carbon emissions, carbon credits and other types of tracking and economic incentivization tools will also likely grow in popularity, and blockchain may also play a role in the tracking and trading of credits and energy itself (some of which may be derived by fusion), as well as facilitating highly accurate emissions reporting.
No matter how potentially successful, fusion will likely be one of several future nuclear technologies that may be able to provide our society with clean energy; another being cleaner fission utilizing thorium fuel and molten salt reactors. Blockchain technology will likely help with the tracking and implementation of these technologies as well.
While blockchain has applications in a wide array of industries, the nuclear sector is one area where its potential seems particularly promising, particularly in the areas of improving nuclear energy supply chains and supporting the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. For instance, while nuclear energy has always shown great promise as a low-carbon energy source, concerns about weaponization, accidents, and waste have greatly limited its implementation, concerns that blockchain technology may be able to alleviate.
In the case of nuclear weapons control on non-proliferation efforts, the safe sharing of highly-sensitive data, in such a way that it can be verified by third parties, has always been a near impossibility, but blockchain may be able to change that. Facilitating this type of information sharing between governments and institutions could be an essential way to increase trust, enforce treaties and encourage further nuclear disarmament while preventing risks, such as the theft or misuse of nuclear materials.
Despite the potential of blockchain, it should be noted that much of the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons non-proliferation data infrastructure is highly dated, with many organizations still relying on pen and paper. Therefore, many organizations in the nuclear sector will first need to take the step of fully digitizing before the implementation of blockchain technology can even be seriously discussed.
So, while the long-term outlook is positive, the widespread implementation of blockchain technology in the nuclear sector may take years, or even decades, if current conditions do not rapidly change. That being said, governments, non-profits, and individuals should make significant efforts to encourage greater research and testing of blockchain applications in the nuclear sector in order to speed up this process and accelerate the rate of positive change in this highly consequential industry.
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