The myth of the peaceful atom
The connection between power and proliferation is the inconvenient truth of the nuclear industry.
Articles in The Australian in recent weeks by Ziggy Switkowski and academic Andrew O’Neil trivialise the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. O’Neil in particular had me choking on my cornflakes (and spluttering them all over Greg Sheridan’s mugshot, as luck would have it) with his contention that “every nuclear weapons program since and including the US Manhattan Project has been the product of dedicated military reactors rather than an offshoot of civilian programs.”
O’Neil seems blissfully unaware that uranium enrichment provides a pathway to nuclear weapons without the need for a reactor of any description. He points to North Korea, claiming that “no one − including high-level International Atomic Energy Agency experts − was in any doubt ... that North Korea’s nuclear reactor program was military in its focus and intent.”
But North Korea provides one of the clearest illustrations of the links between nuclear power and weapons proliferation, not least because the plutonium used in its weapons tests was produced in an ‘Experimental Power Reactor’. The ambiguity surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program provided the regime with the time and political wriggle-room that allowed it to produce weapons.
O’Neil claims that all fissile (nuclear explosive) materials are the product of special-purpose military reactors. But power reactors or research reactors can easily be operated on a short irradiation cycle to produce weapon grade plutonium. India’s first nuclear weapon test used plutonium produced in the CIRUS research reactor, the acronym identifying the suppliers of the reactor, much to their embarrassment − Canada India Reactor United States. It has long been suspected that India also uses power reactors to produce plutonium for weapons and this is no longer in doubt with India’s recent refusal to allow safeguards inspections to apply to eight of its power reactors.
Iraq never built power reactors but its professed interest in nuclear power greatly facilitated its pursuit of nuclear weapons from the 1970s to 1991. Iraq pursued a ‘shop til you drop’ program of acquiring dual-use technology, with much of the shopping done openly and justified by nuclear power ambitions. According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program:
“Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium.”
The government of Prime Minister John Gorton pursued plans to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay in New South Wales in the late 1960s. There is a wealth of evidence revealing that the project was motivated by a desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability. Gorton later acknowledged: “We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.”
The above-mentioned countries are just the tip of the iceberg − 21 countries have used their ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs to advance weapons ambitions. Of the 10 countries to have produced nuclear weapons, six did so with important technical support and/or political cover from their ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs − Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea, and France.
Former US Vice President Al Gore has summed up the dilemma: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”
Switkowski mentions the “striking” commitment to nuclear power in the Middle East, an unfortunate choice of words given that proliferation fears have motivated numerous conventional military strikes on nuclear plants there. These include the destruction of reactors in Iraq by Israel (1981) and the US (1991); Iran and Iraq attempting to strike each other’s nuclear facilities during the 1980-88 war; Iraq’s attempted strikes on Israel’s nuclear facilities (1991); and, most recently, Israel’s bombing of a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007.
If we extend that line of thought, what happens when two nuclear-powered nations go to war? Will they shut down their power reactors and go without electricity, or take the risk of a Chernobyl-scale catastrophe initiated by missile strikes? What happens on the Indian subcontinent if there is a major expansion of nuclear power? The US National Counterterrorism Center has documented 4462 terrorist incidents in India and 3687 in Pakistan over the past five years. A large expansion of nuclear power will increase the risk of subcontinental terrorism going nuclear. Or will we put our faith in the chivalry and good manners of terrorists and saboteurs?
We needn’t worry so much about the military capabilities of civil nuclear facilities if the international safeguards system provided a solid firewall. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system is seriously flawed and under-resourced. Recently-retired IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei has described the Agency’s basic inspection rights as “fairly limited”, complained about “half-hearted” efforts to improve the system, and expressed concern that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department”.
El Baradei’s statements are at odds with the mantra that “strict” safeguards “ensure” peaceful use of Australia’s uranium exports. It is disingenuous for O’Neil, Switkowski and other apologists for the nuclear industry to deny the links between nuclear power and proliferation. They ought to acknowledge the problems and do what they can to fix them − including lobbying for a credible safeguards regime.
- Jim Green is the coordinator of the ‘Choose Nuclear Free’ collaboration between the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Medical Association for Prevention of War and Friends of the Earth, Australia. www.choosenuclearfree.net His PhD thesis, in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Wollongong University, dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debates over the replacement of its research reactor.
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