BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 February 2014
by John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service
“Atoms for Peace”, the title of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 speech to the UN General Assembly, may be regarded by future generations as being tragically self-contradictory. Nuclear power generation has led not only to dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also to disasters which have made large areas of the world permanently uninhabitable because of long-lived radioactive contamination.
The dangers of nuclear power generation are exemplified by the Chernobyl disaster: On the 26th of April, 1986, during the small hours of the morning, the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine turned off several safety systems in order to perform a test. The result was a core meltdown in Reactor 4, causing a chemical explosion that blew off the reactor’s 1,000-ton steel and concrete lid. 190 tons of highly radioactive uranium and graphite were hurled into the atmosphere. The resulting radioactive fallout was 200 times greater than that caused by the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The radioactive cloud spread over Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Eastern Europe, exposing the populations of these regions to levels of radiation 100 times the normal background. Ultimately, the radioactive cloud reached as far as Greenland and parts of Asia.
The exact number of casualties resulting from the Chernobyl meltdown is a matter of controversy, but according to a United Nations report, as many as 9 million people have been adversely affected by the disaster. Since 1986, the rate of thyroid cancer in affected areas has increased ten-fold. An area of 155,000 square kilometers (almost half the size of Italy) in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is still severely contaminated. Even as far away as Wales, hundreds of farms are still under restrictions because of sheep eating radioactive grass.
Public opinion turned against nuclear power generation as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Had the disaster taken place in Western Europe or North America, its effect on public opinion would have been still greater. Nevertheless, because of the current energy crisis, and because of worries about global warming, a number of people are arguing that nuclear energy should be given a second chance. The counter-argument is that a large increase in the share of nuclear power in the total spectrum of energy production would have little effect on climate change but it would involve unacceptable dangers, not only dangers of accidents and dangers associated with radioactive waste disposal, but above all, dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The more recent disaster of 11 March, 2011, may prove to be very much worse than Chernobyl. According to an article by Harvey Wasserman (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/02/03-3), the ongoing fallout from the Fukushima catastrophe is already far in excess of that from Chernobyl. Ecosystems of the entire Pacific ocean are being contaminated by the 300 tons of radioactive water from Fukushima that continue to pour into the Pacific every day.
Meanwhile, the increasingly militaristic government of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has passed a State Secrets Act that makes it an offense punishable by 5-year imprisonment for journalists to report on the situation. Under this cloak of secrecy, attempts are being made to remove highly radioactive used fuel rods balanced precariously in a partially destroyed container hanging in the air above the stricken Unit Four. If an accident should occur, the released radioactivity could dwarf previous disasters.
There are three basic reasons why nuclear power generation is one of the worst ideas ever conceived: First is the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, which will be discussed in detail below. Secondly, there is the danger of catastrophic accidents, such as the ones that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Finally, the problem of how to safely dispose of or store used fuel rods has not been solved.
In thinking about the dangers posed by radioactive waste, we should remember that many of the dangerous radioisotopes involved have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. Thus, it is not sufficient to seal them in containers that will last for a century, or even a millennium. We must find containers that will last for a hundred thousand years or more, longer than any human structure has ever lasted.
The danger of proliferation
Of the two bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one made use of the rare isotope of uranium, U-235, while the other used plutonium. Both of these materials can be made by a nation with a nuclear power generation program.
Uranium has atomic number 92, i.e., a neutral uranium atom has a nucleus containing 92 positively-charged protons, around which 92 negatively-charged electrons circle. All of the isotopes of uranium have the same number of protons and electrons, and hence the same chemical properties, but they differ in the number of neutrons in their nuclei. For example, the nucleus of U-235 has 143 neutrons, while that of U-238 has 146. Notice that 92+143=235, while 92+146=238. The number written after the name of an element to specify a particular isotope is the number of neutrons plus the number of protons. This is called the “nucleon number”, and the weight of an isotope is roughly proportional to it. This means that U-238 is slightly heavier than U-235. If the two isotopes are to be separated, difficult physical methods dependent on mass must be used, since their chemical properties are identical. In natural uranium, the amount of the rare isotope U-235 is only 0.7 percent.
A paper published in 1939 by Niels Bohr and John A. Wheeler indicated that it was the rare isotope of uranium, U-235, that undergoes fission. A bomb could be constructed, they pointed out, if enough highly enriched U-235 could be isolated from the more common isotope, U-238 Calculations later performed in England by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls showed that the “critical mass” of highly enriched uranium needed is quite small: only a few kilograms.
The Bohr-Wheeler theory also predicted that an isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, should be just as fissionable as U-235. Both U-235 and Pu-239 have odd nucleon numbers. When U-235 absorbs a neutron, it becomes U-236, while when Pu-239 absorbs a neutron it becomes Pu-240. In other words, absorption of a neutron converts both these species to nuclei with even nucleon numbers.
According to the Bohr-Wheeler theory, nuclei with even nucleon numbers are especially tightly-bound. Thus absorption of a neutron converts U-235 to a highly-excited state of U-236, while Pu-239 is similarly converted to a highly excited state of Pu-240. The excitation energy distorts the nuclei to such an extent that fission becomes possible. Instead of trying to separate the rare isotope, U-235, from the common isotope, U-238, physicists could just operate a nuclear reactor until a sufficient amount of Pu-239 accumulated, and then separate it out by ordinary chemical means.
Thus in 1942, when Enrico Fermi and his coworkers at the University of Chicago produced the world’s first controlled chain reaction within a pile of cans containing ordinary (nonenriched) uranium powder, separated by blocks of very pure graphite, the chain-reacting pile had a double significance: It represented a new source of energy, but it also had a sinister meaning. It represented an easy path to nuclear weapons, since one of the by-products of the reaction was a fissionable isotope of plutonium, Pu-239. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 used U-235, while the Nagasaki bomb used Pu-239.
By reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods, using ordinary chemical means, a nation with a power reactor can obtain weapons-usable Pu-239. Even when such reprocessing is performed under international control, the uncertainty as to the amount of Pu-239 obtained is large enough so that the operation might superficially seem to conform to regulations while still supplying enough Pu-239 to make many bombs.
The enrichment of uranium, i.e. production of uranium with a higher percentage of U-235 than is found in natural uranium is also linked to reactor use. Many reactors of modern design make use of low enriched uranium (LEU) as a fuel. Nations operating such a reactor may claim that they need a program for uranium enrichment in order to produce LEU for fuel rods. However, by operating their ultracentrifuges a little longer, they can easily produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), i.e. uranium containing a high percentage of the rare isotope U-235, and therefore usable in weapons.
Nuclear power generation is not a solution to the problem of obtaining energy without producing dangerous climate change: Known reserves of uranium are only sufficient for the generation of about 25 terawatt-years of electrical energy (Craig, J.R., Vaugn, D.J. and Skinner, B.J., “Resources of the Earth: Origin, Use and Environmental Impact, Third Edition”, page 210). This can be compared with the world’s current rate of energy use of over 14 terrawatts. Thus, if all of our energy were obtained from nuclear power, existing reserves of uranium would only be sufficient for about 2 years.
It is sometimes argued that a larger amount of electricity could be obtained from the same amount of uranium through the use of fast breeder reactors, but this would involve totally unacceptable proliferation risks. In fast breeder reactors, the fuel rods consist of highly enriched uranium. Around the core, is an envelope of natural uranium. The flux of fast neutrons from the core is sufficient to convert a part of the U-238 in the envelope into Pu-239, a fissionable isotope of plutonium.
Fast breeder reactors are prohibitively dangerous from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation because both the highly enriched uranium from the fuel rods and the Pu-239 from the envelope are directly weapons-usable. It would be impossible, from the standpoint of equity, to maintain that some nations have the right to use fast breeder reactors, while others do not. If all nations used fast breeder reactors, the number of nuclear weapons states would increase drastically.
It is interesting to review the way in which Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, India and North Korea obtained their nuclear weapons, since in all these cases the weapons were constructed under the guise of “atoms for peace”, a phrase that future generations may someday regard as being tragically self-contradictory.
Israel began producing nuclear weapons in the late 1960′s (with the help of a “peaceful” nuclear reactor provided by France, and with the tacit approval of the United States) and the country is now believed to possess 100-150 of them, including neutron bombs. Israel’s policy is one of visibly possessing nuclear weapons while denying their existence.
South Africa, with the help of Israel and France, also weaponized its civil nuclear program, and it tested nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean in 1979. In 1991 however, South Africa destroyed its nuclear weapons and signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
India produced what it described as a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974. By 1989 Indian scientists were making efforts to purify the lithium-6 isotope, a key component of the much more powerful thermonuclear bombs. In 1998, India conducted underground tests of nuclear weapons, and is now believed to have roughly 60 warheads, constructed from Pu-239 produced in “peaceful” reactors.
Pakistan’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons were spurred by India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion”. As early as 1970, the laboratory of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, (a metallurgist who was to become Pakistan’s leading nuclear bomb maker) had been able to obtain from a Dutch firm the high-speed ultracentrifuges needed for uranium enrichment. With unlimited financial support and freedom from auditing requirements, Dr. Khan purchased restricted items needed for nuclear weapon construction from companies in Europe and the United States. In the process, Dr. Khan became an extremely wealthy man. With additional help from China, Pakistan was ready to test five nuclear weapons in 1998. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear bomb tests, conducted in rapid succession, presented the world with the danger that these devastating weapons would be used in the conflict over Kashmir. Indeed, Pakistan announced that if a war broke out using conventional weapons, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be used “at an early stage”.
In Pakistan, Dr. A.Q. Khan became a great national hero. He was presented as the person who had saved Pakistan from attack by India by creating Pakistan’s own nuclear weapons. In a Washington Post article (1 February, 2004) Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote: “Nuclear nationalism was the order of the day as governments vigorously promoted the bomb as the symbol of Pakistan’s high scientific achievement and self- respect…” Similar manifestations of nuclear nationalism could also be seen in India after India’s 1998 bomb tests.
Early in 2004, it was revealed that Dr. Khan had for years been selling nuclear secrets and equipment to Libya, Iran and North Korea, and that he had contacts with Al Qaeda. However, observers considered that it was unlikely that Khan would be tried, since a trial might implicate Pakistan’s army as well as two of its former prime ministers.
There is a danger that Pakistan’s unpopular government may be overthrown, and that the revolutionists might give Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to a subnational organization. This type of danger is a general one associated with nuclear proliferation. As more and more countries obtain nuclear weapons, it becomes increasingly likely that one of them will undergo a revolution, during the course of which nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists.
There is also a possibility that poorly-guarded fissionable material could fall into the hands of subnational groups, who would then succeed in constructing their own nuclear weapons. Given a critical mass of highly-enriched uranium, a terrorist group, or an organized criminal (Mafia) group, could easily construct a crude gun-type nuclear explosive device. Pu-239 is more difficult to use since it is highly radioactive, but the physicist Frank Barnaby believes that a subnational group could nevertheless construct a crude nuclear bomb (of the Nagasaki type) from this material.
We must remember the remark of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan after the 9/11/2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. He said, “This time it was not a nuclear explosion”. The meaning of his remark is clear: If the world does not take strong steps to eliminate fissionable materials and nuclear weapons, it will only be a matter of time before they will be used in terrorist attacks on major cities, or by organized criminals for the purpose of extortion. Neither terrorists nor organized criminals can be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation, since they have no territory against which such retaliation could be directed. They blend invisibly into the general population. Nor can a “missile defense system” prevent criminals or terrorists from using nuclear weapons, since the weapons can be brought into a port in any one of the hundreds of thousands of containers that enter on ships each year, a number far too large to be checked exhaustively.
Finally we must remember that if the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons becomes very large, there will be a greatly increased chance that these weapons will be used in conflicts between nations, either by accident or through irresponsible political decisions.
The slogan “Atoms for Peace” has proved to be such a misnomer that it would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Nuclear power generation has been a terrible mistake. We must stop before we turn our beautiful earth into a radioactive wasteland.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf.