The Myth Of The Peaceful Atom


Last week, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington issued a communiqué expressing the resolve of the 47 participating nations to strengthen nuclear security and thus reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

There’s a strange caveat in the communiqué. It calls on nations to "support the implementation of strong nuclear security practices that will not infringe upon the rights of States to develop and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes … " The Nuclear Security Summit seems to have it the wrong way around: surely preventing nuclear terrorism comes first and peaceful nuclear development is a subordinate "right" — assuming it’s a right at all.

The caveat reveals the fundamental contradiction that always exists when governments say they are reducing the security threat of nuclear weapons while they ignore the risks that come from promoting the "peaceful" purpose of power generation using almost interchangeable technology.

The same blind-spot is evident with the recent US-Russia agreement for each country to get rid of 34 tonnes of excess plutonium (the total being enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons). The agreement doesn’t mention the ongoing production of plutonium in power reactors — amounting to six tonnes in Russian reactors each year and between 25–30 tonnes of plutonium in the US.

In what is presented as a positive move, Russia has also agreed to close its last military plutonium production reactor. But Russia plans to "dispose" of its 34 tonnes of plutonium by using it as fuel in fast breeder reactors that are ideal for producing weapons-grade plutonium and can produce ("breed") more plutonium than they consume. To add to the irony, Russia’s fast breeder program is being propped up by US and European largesse under the plutonium disposition program. Meanwhile, the very fact that the now-deactivated Russian military plant was thought to be the last active military reactor in the world reflects just how easily ordinary reactors can do the same job.

The serious proliferation risks associated with peaceful nuclear programs will be studiously ignored at the five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York next month. The NPT has its own version of the NSS’s caveat: "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination."

The contradiction is magnified by the fact that the task of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not only to carry out safeguards inspections to assess NPT compliance, but also to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It would make as much sense to ask drug enforcement agencies to promote the cultivation of poppy seeds.

Given the history of actual nuclear proliferation, these contradictions are extremely disturbing. No fewer than five of the 10 countries to have produced nuclear weapons did so with crucial technical support and political cover from "peaceful" nuclear programs. Proliferation risks assume still greater significance in the context of renewed interest in nuclear power to help address climate change. The dilemma has been neatly summarised by former US Vice President Al Gore: "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 [substantially reduce coal use]… then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

These two bodies aren’t the only "non-proliferation" organisations doing their best to ignore a huge part of the proliferation risk that nuclear power presents. Last December, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), co-chaired by Australian Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi from Japan, released its first report. Like other bodies ICNND chooses to skim over the proliferation risks arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel — a process which involves separating plutonium which can then be used directly in weapons. Japan is one of the world’s worst offenders in relation to plutonium stockpiling and Australia is also complicit, never once having refused Japan (or any other country) permission to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium.

Japan’s plutonium program clearly fans regional tensions and proliferation risks. A March 1993 diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan’s being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"

Since that 1993 cable, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has grown and regional tensions have worsened. The ICNND report advocates new technologies "to avoid current forms of reprocessing altogether". But the obvious question is why wait for new technology when suspending reprocessing would provide an immediate signal that Japan and Australia recognise the need to resolve the problem of plutonium stockpiling?

Suspending reprocessing wouldn’t undermine Australia’s uranium exports or Japan’s nuclear power program — in other words it’s the least we should expect. Kevin Rudd could announce tomorrow that he will no longer allow reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel produced from Australian uranium. Instead he waffles on about the fracturing of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime while his actions and inaction contribute more to the problems than to the solutions.

The ICNND’s advocacy of new forms of reprocessing is just a throwaway argument to deflect criticism and to give the impression that the problem of plutonium stockpiling is being taken seriously. Such arguments are a dime a dozen. Another example comes from the Nuclear Security Summit communiqué with its promise to work to ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "continues to have the appropriate structure, resources and expertise" to carry out its safeguards role. Yet there is widespread acknowledgement that the IAEA is seriously under-resourced — a problem that has been festering for over a decade with no resolution in sight.

Recently retired IAEA director-general Mohamed El Baradei has summed up the limitations of safeguards with his observations that the agency’s basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", that efforts to improve it have been "half-hearted" and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget … comparable to a local police department".

Apparently preferring to ignore these problems, the Australian Government continues to set new lows in relation to safeguards. Australia’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has advised the Government against exporting uranium to Russia unless IAEA safeguards inspections take place. The IAEA has not inspected a single nuclear facility in Russia since 2001 and there is no requirement in the 2007 Howard-Putin agreement for any IAEA inspections to take place in future. However, the Government has rejected this advice, arguing that it trusts Russia to do the right thing.

All of these failures reflect a fundamental problem underlying nuclear power, a problem succinctly explained back in 1982 by current South Australian Premier Mike Rann: "Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first."

The Rudd Government needs to break this habit and establish an independent inquiry to identify measures to tighten the safeguards system. It must not be just another gabfest — as the ICNND turned out to be — but rather be a focused inquiry backed by a declaration with real intent to address the problems.

Physicist Victor Gilinsky, previously with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Atomic Energy Commission, noted in the January 2009 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"In international affairs, nuclear energy trumps just about everything. Even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals that grandfather everything that’s already in place. … It’s time to take a more serious view. Security should come first — not as an afterthought.

"We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow. At a minimum, that means an end to promoting and subsidising nuclear power all over the world."

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.