I can’t work out why governments go for nuclear power. It looks like an expensive liability; eg. it has to be underwritten by the state because insurers won’t do so. I think Dave’s answer might be part of it, to have workers in an industry that is related to nuclear weapons, but far more countries that have nuclear power don’t have nuclear weapons, so this can’t be the whole answer. Partly I think that big, expensive, high-security projects appeal to people who seek power and become politicians; it makes them feel important.
Probably the biggest factor is vested interests and nation-state supported marketing. These were what was behind the UK Magnox and AGR programmes, and it’s what Westinghouse and General Electric get up to. They sell licenses to have their reactor designs built in other countries, but uranium enrichment, fuel element manufacture and reprocessing remain within the cartel guaranteeing future income. Just like cheap printers that are locked into using the manufacturer’s overpriced cartridges, but on a massive scale.
One thing that has occurred to me is that having nuclear reactors in a country makes the territory much more difficult to take over militarily. If Iraq or Libya had had power reactors, especially the typical water-cooled PWRs or BWRs, the West couldn’t have just bombed the country to smithereens and smashed all the infrastructure. Typical power reactors need electricity to run their cooling. If their power fails they get too hot and are very likely to explode, dispersing fall-out to the four winds and whatever water body they need for cooling, usually the ocean.
That’s what happened at Fukushima Daiichi; the reactors shut down automatically when the earthquake was detected, but without cooling remnants of the reaction can still cause a meltdown for over a week. The tsunami destroyed the connection to the national electrical grid and drowned the backup diesel generators, eventually leading to three meltdowns and two reactor vessel explosions. There’s more radioactive material in one civilian power reactor than would be released in a full scale global nuclear war, so any government that caused a nuclear disaster by striking a country with power reactors would become a pariah, internationally and with its own people. To invade a country with power reactors a government has to be sure that it can take them intact, a much trickier proposition than just smashing the place. I find it chilling to think that governments might be booby-trapping their own territory by building power reactors.
You can guess what I’m going to say next, can’t you? There are reactor designs that don’t need power and which shut down safely – such features are called “walk-away safe” and “passive safety” – but they’ve barely been developed. Here’s one prototype, but it was shut down in 1970 and never developed further. This is also the concept that might be good at burning the existing nuclear waste and getting the unused energy out of it.