A paper for the session on “What’s the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons? “ at the No Nukes Teach-In, Earth Sciences Building, University of Toronto, 14 March 2009.
Presented again at Voice of Women’s Conference 25 April 2009, Friends House, Lowther Avenue, Toronto
by Phyllis Creighton
Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are Siamese twins. A nuclear reactor designed for electricity production or for use in research is fuelled by uranium. Its operation leaves spent fuel containing plutonium. This plutonium by-product can be recovered and used to make nuclear weapons. The link between the Siamese twins was hailed from the beginning. The UK Maud Committee on the uranium bomb in 1941 stated: “There must always be a very close relation between exploitation of nuclear energy for military explosive power and for power production in peace and war.” The1946 Acheson-Lillienthal report on atomic energy control in 1946 echoed it, asserting that “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.”
Partners in the bomb business
US civilian commercial nuclear energy programs served as partners in the bomb business because plutonium had to be produced for the bombs. By the early 1950s the US Atomic Energy Commission recognized that the American nuclear weapons program would need more plutonium than AEC could supply but there was a mutual need and benefit. A 1951 AEC study concluded that “commercial nuclear reactors would not be economically feasible if they were used solely to produce electricity; they would be, however, if they also produced plutonium which could be sold” for military purposes. “It was this fact which interested utilities in getting involved with nuclear reactors,” according to Nuclear Energy Information Service, Illinois’ Nuclear Power Watchdog for 25 years. This Watchdog notes that the Atomic Energy Act was amended by Congress in 1954 so utilities would receive uranium to fuel their reactors from the government in exchange for the plutonium produced in their reactors, which was to be shipped to Rocky Flats, Colorado, where the US government made plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. There never was any intention to separate nuclear weapons production from commercial nuclear power. A Los Alamos National Laboratory document dated August 1981 bluntly notes that “There is no technical demarcation between the military and civilian reactor and there never was one.”
The whole notion of “Atoms for Peace” – US President Dwight Eisenhower’s claimed harnessing of the destructive force of the atom for peaceful purposes – is phony. Nuclear reactors make the materials essential for the production of nuclear weapons widely available. France and China took the fuel from peaceful research reactors to piece together nuclear weapons. The CIRUS heavy water reactor that Canada supplied to India produced the plutonium India used for its first nuclear weapon, tested in 1974.Today, in 70 countries there are small research reactors, most fuelled with highly enriched uranium, which is suitable for nuclear weapons production. Nuclear power plants now widely distributed across the globe, though mostly fuelled with low enriched uranium, deeply worry the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who called them ‘latent bomb plants.’ Also, uranium enrichment facilities that enable production of highly enriched uranium, the fuel for nuclear weapons, exist in at least 18 countries.
The risk of terrorists?
As Helen Caldicott acidly notes: “Nuclear power plants are essentially atomic bomb factories.” They offer the perfect cover. The nuclear technology associated with them, and their by-products can be diverted for use in nuclear weapons. So maybe we shouldn’t discount the risk of terrorism, either. A 1000 megawatt nuclear reactor produces 300 to 500 lbs of plutonium a year. Though it’s generally accepted that it takes 5 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to make a nuclear bomb, there was a successful test explosion at the Nevada test site in 1962 of a nuclear weapon from reactor grade plutonium. Caldicott says it would only take 10 lbs of reactor grade plutonium to make a crude atomic bomb — one that could devastate a city. Plutonium has gone missing from weapons facilities in both the US and Russia, and who knows about storage at nuclear power plants? Never let them tell you there’s no link between nuclear power and devastation by weapons as well as reactor accidents!
Moreover, it’s obviously not easy to tell whether a country is using its reactors for
research, production of electric power, or weapons production. Illinois’ Watchdog says “It is precisely this ambiguity which makes the proliferation of nuclear weapons from so-called ‘peaceful research’ a certainty, and the proliferation of commercial nuclear reactors worldwide a Trojan Horse for nuclear weapons production.”
Claims versus realities
The so-called “good” atom has always been a cover for the “bad” atom. Remember the slogan “too cheap to meter”? Another lie. Nuclear power, always heavily subsidized, in this province has meant huge cost overruns, unreliability, breakdowns, shut-downs, hugely overbudget repairs, stranded debt we’re still paying for on our hydro bills, radiation risk and deleterious health impacts, tritium in our water, the risk of a Chernobyl close to Toronto from Pickering reactors, which were built near an earthquake fault line. Environmentalists who should know better have called nuclear energy green power. Anyone considering for a nanosecond the full cycle of production — uranium mining, truck transport of uranium, and reactor construction, decommissioning, storage — knows that the claim of “clean” is a lie.
Abolition 2000 for renewables
We need to join Abolition 2000, the worldwide movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons founded in 1995 which has more than 2000 non-governmental organizations, in insisting, as its founding statement does, that “the inextricable link between the ‘peaceful’ and warlike uses of nuclear technologies and the threat to future generations inherent in creation and use of long-lived radioactive materials must be recognized.” We need to pursue the remedy it proposed: “We must move toward reliance on clean, safe, renewable forms of energy production that do not provide the material for weapons of mass destruction and do not poison the environment for thousands of centuries.” The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (in Article IV) offered the right to nations forgoing nuclear weapons to have access to nuclear energy. Abolition 2000 in contrast says “The true ‘inalienable’ right is not to nuclear energy, but to life, liberty and security of person in a world free of nuclear weapons.”
The meaning of the US/India nuclear trade deal?
Despite the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, the nuclear industry is making a pitch to come back all over the world — or is it because of desire for such increase in nuclear arsenals? The recent US-India nuclear supply agreement did not subject India to IAEA full-scope safeguards, or require India to accept the disarmament obligations in the NPT, which it has never signed. Since then countries have rushed to provide India with uranium — France, Russia, Kazakhstan, and even Canada, with our minister of trade Stockwell Day, senior executives from AECL, Saskatchewan uranium producer Cameco Corporation, and nuclear-engineering firm SNC-Lavalin in tow going there in February in pursuit of contracts. All of India’s domestic uranium may thus become available for nuclear weapons and its warhead production accelerated. So, does the US want a stronger nuclear India, as a countervailing regional force against China, as Caldicott suggests? Certainly Pakistan and China are unlikely to overlook the prospect of an expanded Indian nuclear arsenal. The nuclear arms race just got a boost.
Renewables, if you love this planet
“Atoms for peace” are just low enriched uranium available for enriching and atoms for war are just highly enriched uranium. So nuclear energy lulls people with an illusion and affords the means and the impetus for the nuclear arms race to continue. Years ago, scientists warned that, in light of probability theory, sooner or later, if the world does not get rid of nuclear weapons, they will be used. If you love this planet, you have every reason to work to get rid not only of nuclear weapons, but also to stop construction of new nuclear power stations and to phase out old ones. The call of Abolition 2000 for reliance on clean, safe, renewable forms of energy production now has international means of support, with the founding conference in January 2009 of the International Renewable Energy Agency – IRENA. IRENA was launched by Germany with other likeminded countries, especially Denmark and Spain, to develop comprehensive solutions, involve a broad range of stakeholders including industry, and cooperate with organizations and networks to complement and pool their work resources in order to pave the way to a sustainable energy future.
Message to our governments
Let’s tell the Ontario and Canadian governments to leave 20th century hazards and lies behind. We are resolved to create the green 21st century, reclaiming humanity’s future through sun, wind, tides, and Earth’s deep-down warmth. Remember your humanity and forget the rest – especially nuclear – as the Russell-Einstein manifesto urged way back in 1955.