Hedging your bets

July 28, 2008 at 8:04 pm 2 comments

Nuclear power versus sustainable energy security and nuclear disarmament

Xanthe Hall, Disarmament expert, IPPNW

According to the Oxford Research Group 2006 report “Global Responses to Global threats” the following are the major international threats to stability and human security:

  • climate change,
  • competition over resources,
  • global militarism,
  • and marginalisation of the majority.

Yet international terrorism shapes Western security policies much more than these, although it is more a symptom of the above listed problems than a cause. These threats are confronting us in 2008 daily in the form of food and energy crises with inflation and famine hitting the poor of the world particularly hard and causing panic in industrial nations. The UN Secretary-General has already pointed out at the G8 summit that all of these threats are interconnected and urged world leaders to tackle them. 

Competition over resources is showing itself most strongly in the energy sector where oil is already a cause for conflict (Iraq, Arctic sea bed). The scarcity of uranium combined with the optimism of the nuclear industry to feed a nuclear renaissance with hundreds of new reactors mean that uranium supply will become equally problematic. This highlights that the peaceful settlement of resource disputes depends on an adequate early-warning system and conflict prevention mechanisms, as well as the willingness to distribute resources in an equitable fashion in order to prevent the rush to military solutions. 

Nuclear terrorism

In their op-ed of January 2007 in the Wall St. Journal, the 4 elder statesmen (Kissinger, Schultz, Perry and Nunn) gave terrorism as the reason for the need to abolish nuclear weapons and their loss of faith in nuclear deterrence. There is now a widespread understanding in the Western political class that nuclear deterrence cannot work against those who are “prompted by a psychology of ‘heroic’ response to perceived aggression including the acceptance of personal death in the battle”[1]. Moreover it would be more or less impossible for a State to find a target to attack or retaliate against as terrorist organisations operate covertly and do not have large obviously military facilities. In other words, the use of nuclear weapons would only mean suicide, since the “enemy” is within. On top of this, the fear that the cat is now so far out of the bag that proliferation can no longer be held in check, supports the call for abolition. 

Meanwhile, climate change and the present energy crisis are feeding into the hands of the nuclear industry that is promoting nuclear expansion as the answer. The risk of nuclear terrorism, however, is even higher in the field of civil nuclear energy than in the military sector, because:

  • civil nuclear materials (spent fuel, medical materials) can be used in a dirty bomb, which is much easier to make than a nuclear bomb
  • an attack on a nuclear power plant or waste storage facilities would have catastrophic effects
  • Present-day technology (particularly ultracentrifuge enrichment and reprocessing) is not proliferation resistant.

Therefore, the expansion of nuclear energy increases the risk of nuclear terrorism manifold. 

A solution to climate change?

The contention that nuclear power would be an answer to climate change is simply untrue, mostly because it would take too long to make a difference and the difference would be negligible. The International Panel on Fissile Materials says:

“Nuclear power would have to expand five-fold or more to make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas reductions”. Presently there is not enough uranium for this to take place and even if it were to be found, then it is unlikely to be achieved before 2050, too late to make an impact. Projections of future nuclear growth have been consistently over-optimistic and even today, the 438 nuclear power plants worldwide still only have a generation capacity of 371 gigawatts-electric, of which only eight countries account for 80% of global nuclear capacity” 

The underlying motivation for development/expansion of civil nuclear energy is frequently to be found in security policies, not in energy needs: 

·        New countries seeking nuclear energy are frequently to be found in crisis regions, e.g. Gulf states, responding to Iran’s nuclear programme, that have large reserves of other fuel sources (oil, gas, solar)

·        India is looking for nuclear energy deals with other countries while saving their indigenous uranium for expanding their nuclear weapon arsenal

·        There is a widespread understanding that the nuclear “option” (i.e. fuel cycle capabilities) confers status and a certain amount of security in a discriminatory world – the 5 NWS have a veto in UNSC, the nuclear suppliers group decide who gets fuel, the IAEA governing board is controlled by the top 10 nuclear suppliers. Like joining the golf club, the nuclear club gives you privileges. 

And the other way round, civil nuclear programmes in countries not welcome in the club cause suspicion, which can lead to conflict or even be used as a justification for war. 

Inalienable rights

Central to the problem is the idea embedded in Article IV of the NPT that there is an “inalienable” right to civil nuclear energy. According to Wikipedia, the term inalienable rights refers to a “theoretical set of individual human rights that by their nature cannot be taken away, violated, or transferred from one person to another”, for example: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,  because they are deemed to be “necessary for human survival”. 

Even if it was the case in the 1950s and 1960s that nuclear energy was seen to be guarantor of the future with its promise of cheap, unlimited energy, the world has since developed a more ambivalent opinion of its benefits, which are strongly offset by its drawbacks. IPPNW and other NGOs would argue that it actually threatens human life because of the risks associated with radiation and accidents as well as the unresolved waste problem. Nor has it turned out to be cheap and unlimited. Yet most countries still use the term “inalienable right” to mean that it is the sovereign right of a country and cannot be taken away. It is therefore still taboo to say anything against nuclear energy in the NPT context. 

Article IV is seen to be a “pillar” of the NPT, suggesting that if taken away the whole thing might collapse. The term “inalienable” refers to the idea that the pillar of non-proliferation is contingent upon the pillar of unhindered access to nuclear energy. But there is an argument that the other two pillars – non-proliferation and disarmament – could be strong enough to hold the treaty up, if nuclear energy was not held to be an “inalienable” right. Just as the promise of Article V, that there would be access to the benefits of “peaceful” nuclear explosions, the understanding of their environmental and health consequences led to their prohibition in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thus negating Article V of the NPT. For the same to happen with Article VI, amendment of the NPT is not necessary, but further international law would be needed which would supersede the older treaty, for instance if there were to be an additional protocol on phase-out or one on preferring assistance in the field of renewable rather than nuclear energy. 

Addressing Root Causes

Oxford Research Group proposes that an adequate response to global threats (ORG) would mean enacting a paradigm change from the “control” paradigm to a “sustainable security” paradigm. Trying to control threats without resolving their causes is ineffective. I would argue that the present conflict with Iran is a good example of this. 

·        The mistrust of Iran’s motives was caused by the discovery that Iran dealt with the illegal Khan network and did not declare the capabilities it acquired.

·        Iran, however, contends that it wanted its own fuel cycle because it could not get fuel from Eurodif, although promised and paid for (thus a fuel supply assurance was denied to NPT member), because of US sanctions.

·        The underlying causes of conflict between the US and Iran are not being addressed (similarly the conflict between the West and Islam is also only superficially dealt with, leaving out major historical issues, in particular colonialism). The only issues discussed are: enrichment, fear that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and a potential attack on Israel.

·        Also, the underlying and principal problem of the proliferation-friendly nature of certain nuclear technologies (in particular ultracentrifuge enrichment technology) is not being addressed, there is only a discussion on tightening control mechanisms – safeguards, multinational facilities, etc.

·        Another context issue is the role that Iran plays in a region of major geostrategic interest, where the fight to gain control of Iraq is central and could result in military action against Iran. 

Discrimination and Disarmament

I would contend that the same problem applies to Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, i.e. that the NWS seek to control the situation, only cutting off supply to potential future nuclear weapon states rather than dealing with the stocks built up during their provisional period of time as NWS. This means yet again, that they are not addressing the root cause of other states dissatisfaction: discrimination between “haves” and “have nots”. This is also the basic problem of non-proliferation versus disarmament. It goes to the root of the NPT bargain that determines that the NWS are not entitled to remain NWS permanently. But already we refer to them as the “P5” i.e. the “Permanent” Five. That is unsustainable. 

The problem is that we are stuck in the present and the immediate future while only talking about “Achieving a vision of a nuclear weapon-free world” and not the actual steps necessary to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world. In other words, the authors of the Hoover plan are satisfied with getting halfway up the mountain in order to have a better view of the summit, because they can’t imagine what the rest might look like. There is also a well-founded fear that the NWS may be more comfortable to stay halfway up the mountain and not bother with getting to the top, if theys feel it would be to their advantage. British renewal of Trident submarines, US programmes by many different names (RNEP, RRW, Complex 2030), new French submarines, the new Russian Topol missile, Chinese modernisation, all point to a doctrine of permanent nuclear status. 

The Model Nuclear Weapon Convention goes further than the Hoover plan and tries to imagine the actual abolition of nuclear weapons so that we can work back from there. It therefore actively “discourages the use of nuclear energy, recognising that the continued reliance on nuclear power and its potential expansion pose a challenge to verification of a nuclear weapons-free world.” 

The NWC also partially deals with the problem of nuclear terrorism by outlawing its means and materials. After abolition, it would be much more difficult for a terrorist organisation to steal a bomb and the safeguarding of materials and facilities would be much improved.  A strong verification system would make it easier to discover a diversion of fissile material or technical expertise in order to provide early warning of a terrorist threat. Banning the production of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium would equally be important steps for achieving real security from nuclear terrorism. Nevertheless, short of a complete phase-out of nuclear power, there is no absolute guarantee that spent fuel cannot be diverted and the plutonium covertly separated out, nor that uranium cannot be enriched to beyond 20%. 

The Plutonium Problem

A major problem is the question of civil stocks of plutonium. Zia Mian, of Princeton University, says:

“At present there are roughly 500 tonnes of separated plutonium in the world, enough for over 100,000 nuclear weapons. About 250 tonnes of this plutonium has been separated from civilian spent nuclear power-reactor fuel, mostly in France, Russia and the UK. The stock of civilian separated plutonium is growing and will soon be significantly larger than the amount of weapon plutonium. It is all weapon-usable.” 

On top of this, there is well over 800 tonnes of plutonium contained in spent fuel. This grows every year and would grow even more rapidly, were there to be a nuclear “renaissance”, as the proponents of nuclear energy are predicting. The present safeguarding system is inadequate to deal with a sudden expansion in nuclear energy with new facilities popping up all over the world, often in countries that have no additional protocol. For this reason, in 2003 a team of scientists at MIT questioned the wisdom of any scenario envisioning the growth of nuclear energy. 

But the United States, although it turned its back on reprocessing back in 1974 after India successfully exploded a nuclear weapon using reactor-grade material, is now returning to the idea. The plan is for the NWS and Japan to provide reprocessing services through the “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership” (GNEP) to non-NWS. This idea has stimulated a revival of  interest in reprocessing in France and South Korea. Since Germany decided to end reprocessing, the French reprocessing industry had been beginning to flag. 

Frank von Hippel says of the former US policy, which was:

“in effect, that “we don’t reprocess and you don’t need to either,” has been much more successful. During the 30-year period it has been in force, no nuclear weapon state has initiated commercial reprocessing and seven countries have abandoned their interest in civilian reprocessing… Today, Japan is the only non-weapon state that engages in commercial reprocessing.” 

The scarcity of high-grade uranium makes it more than likely that a plutonium-based expansion of nuclear power would be the only option, should we go down the “renaissance” road. Plutonium is notoriously vulnerable to proliferation, due to the problems of material unaccounted for (MUF) that could mean a diversion of material of up to the equivalent of one nuclear weapon per month in a large facility like Rokkasho in Japan[7]. If there were many more new reprocessing plants, then the resulting problem would be much greater.

The Hoover plan

The so-called Hoover plan of 2007 (Wall St. Journal, January 2007) contains the proposal that  “ an international system of secure control and supply for enriched uranium” should be developed. In a response to the second op-ed in January 2008, one of the leading Hoover Institute people Henry Rowen criticised the original op-ed in one of his own with the title “This ‘nuclear-free’ plan would effect the opposite” for its continued support of nuclear power. He said:

The offending part is that on nuclear fuel assurances, to wit: the “advanced nuclear countries should provide reliable supplies of nuclear fuel, reserves of enriched uranium, infrastructure assistance, financing and spent fuel management . . .” However, in the name of not spreading “the means to make nuclear weapons . . . around the globe,” it would do just that.

“There is a sense that Arab fear of Iran’s nuclear weapons, along with lower confidence in U.S. protection, is causing some of them to want the bomb. These governments understand that the way to do this is to follow the traditional path of building reactors for ostensible civilian purposes because the line between civilian and military uses is thin. Moreover, the economics of nuclear electric power in these countries ranges from bad to atrocious. Making big power reactors is hard and lengthy work; our subsidizing their infrastructure and fuel would not only foster uneconomic power systems, it would speed the creation of easy weapons options.” 

There are a number of suggestions of how to make control of nuclear power more effective. At the Oslo Conference in February 2008 Rose Gotemoeller puts forward the idea of an “NPT companion treaty” for states wanting to develop a nuclear fuel cycle that would allow for automatic no-warning intrusive monitoring and inspection. But she leaves the NWS outside of this, as do present IAEA safeguards, thus perpetuating the discrimination problem. 

The Hedge

Tom Graham further perpetuates the problem in his vision of achieving a nuclear weapon-free world by placing a “hedge” made out of fissile material in between elimination of the weapons and a nuclear weapon-free world.

“A third and later stage would require the complete elimination of weapons but these eight states would be allowed to keep a relatively limited amount of fissile material which could be converted into a small number of weapons as a hedge against failure of the regime.”[9]

This hedge varies in size according to the country’s status – the US and Russia get to keep the most, the P3 next and then the de-facto states get the least. This hedge is only defined in terms of so-called weapon grade fissile materials, but there is of course the other hedge: nuclear power. 

Still problematic but at least levelling the playing field somewhat, is the proposal from El-Baradei of internationalising the production and assuring fuel supply through an IAEA fuel bank, though there are still problems with the structure of the IAEA which is governed by the nuclear supplier countries and has the promotion of nuclear energy as part of its mandate. 

El-Baradei said: (Oslo, Feb 2008)

“the growing interest in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle – seen by some countries as an implicit deterrence or insurance policy – raises the prospect of a steadily increasing number of nuclear-weapon-capable states.

“(…) Control of the nuclear fuel cycle is key to curbing proliferation risks. But it must be  unambiguously under multinational control, not just managed by the leading nuclear powers. Otherwise it would fail to win the confidence of countries on the receiving end, who would perceive it as yet again perpetuating a nuclear order of ―haves and have-nots.”

“(…) The ultimate goal, in my view, should be to bring the entire fuel cycle, including waste disposal, under multinational control, so that no one country has the exclusive capability to produce the material for nuclear weapons.” 

The Blix Commission report is rather unclear which horse it is backing:

“States should make active use of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a forum for exploring various ways to reduce proliferation risks connected with the nuclear fuel cycle, such as proposals for an international fuel bank; internationally safeguarded regional centres offering fuel-cycle services, including spent-fuel repositories; and the creation of a fuel-cycle system built on the concept that a few “fuel-cycle States” will lease nuclear fuel to States that forgo enrichment and reprocessing activities.” 

These ideas are certainly better than GNEP, but still only address the fuel supply problem and not the underlying energy crisis and proliferation risks of the continued use of nuclear power. It also remains to be seen how it would be decided which countries are allowed to get fuel from such a fuel bank and, most importantly, who would do the deciding. The definition of “multinational” is ambiguous and could still be exclusive, “international” is preferable but also open to misuse. 


Finally, my conclusion is that we will only abandon the fruitless search for ultimate control over nuclear energy when we switch to positive thinking: how can we provide a guaranteed supply of sustainable energy that does not rape and contaminate the earth, give people cancer or make them sterile, endanger human security and provide the stuff for making nuclear bombs? As was said only a few days ago on a German television documentary programme “Frontal 21” in reporting on the scandalous leak of water in to the Asse nuclear dump, “what is the point in saving the climate when we poison the earth beneath it?” Only a couple of days ago, the leak of uranium into a lake in France once again highlighted this problem. And if that was not enough, yesterdays New Scientist reports that almost 4 million litres of radioactive waste have leaked into the ground from 67 of the 177 underground tanks at the Hanford site in Washington state in the USA. Most of these tanks are over 50 years old and contain more than 210 million litres of radioactive and chemical waste. 

In my opinion, once the problem of how to store solar energy has been solved, the energy crisis can also be solved. That is, if the political will is there and the giant energy companies that are monopolising the national grids stop insisting on retaining their nuclear power plants or even on building new ones. The question will be: who will pay for this nuclear renaissance? The money is needed for government investment in sustainable energy as an absolute must in order to redress decades of imbalance in the subsidy of nuclear power. Companies like Siemens should expand their renewable energy technology department and shut down their nuclear one. There are more jobs in the renewable energy market than in the nuclear industry. The German government hosted a conference in April of this year to found an International Renewable Energy Agency[11] which was attended by over 2 thirds of the world’s countries. A network of over 2000 NGOs, Abolition 2000, has been calling for the establishment of just such an agency for many years. These are the positive signs for a solution to the energy crisis. 

It is time for the energy revolution. 

[1] „Securing our Survival (SOS): The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention“, Chapter on Terrorism

[2] International Panel on Fissile Materials: Chapter 7 “Managing the Civilian Nuclear Fuel Cycle” in “Global Fissile Material Report 2007”

[4] „Securing our Survival (SOS): The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention“, Chapter on Nuclear Energy

[5]Mian, Zia, Comment: Nuclear Energy in „Securing our Survival (SOS): The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention“, Comment: Nuclear Energy

[6] von Hippel, Frank: „Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing“, p.4,  January 2007

[7]Barnaby, Frank and Kemp, James: „Secure Energy? Civil nuclear power, security and global warming“, Oxford Research Group Briefing Paper, March 2007

[8]Rowen, Henry: „This ‚nuclear plan“ would effect the opposite“ in Wall St. Journal, p. A15, January 17, 2008

[9]Graham, Thomas: „Zero nuclear weapons and the international nuclear non-proliferation regime“, Article VI Forum, Dublin, March 2008

[10] Contaminated US site faces ‘catastrophic’ nuclear leak, New Scientist, 9 July 2008, http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg19926642.900-contaminated-us-site


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. zomanulj7  |  March 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Salutations à tous les participants de ce forum ,

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    Je ne suis pas convaincue d’être au bon section mais je n’en ai pas vu de meilleur.

    Je réside à Cobourg, canada . J’ai 37 ans et j’éduque quatre très gentils enfants qui sont tous âgés entre deux ou 10 années (1 est adoptée ). J’adore beaucoup les animaux de compagnie et je tempte de leur donner les produits qui leur rendent l’existance plus agréable.

    Merci à l’avance pour toutes les formidables discussions à venir et je vous remercie de votre compréhension pour mon français moins que parfait: ma langue de naissance est l’arabe et je tempte d’éviter les erreurs mais c’est très complexe !



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