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13 Comments

  1. You do know that the people entering this challenge are well aware of how flimsy their argument is? The real purpose of these types of demands is just to increase the overhead and delay the start of a nuclear project. Proliferation is just a useful flag to wave in this case.
    Part of the problem is that the whole proliferation issue is out of control, and it has spawned a policy monster globally that exists only to exist. Unless it is brought to heel, it may well cripple nuclear development in a way the Greens could only dream of.

  2. DV82XL – I agree. I do not believe that the hamstringing effects of the “non-proliferation” argument are accidental. Any deep research into the roots of the movement can find many threads that relate worries about weapons proliferation to the same kinds of establishment commercial interests that I continue to talk about.
    I imagine that there were at least some in the “influential” crowd who saw the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a manner illustrated by this imaginary board room discussion that I think just might have occurred in August 1945.
    “What do you mean, a single plane carrying a single bomb could cause that much damage? How in the world are we going to keep selling all of those bombers and bombs that our factories produce plus all of the fuel that they burn if the rest of the world figures this stuff out?”

  3. This may sound overly fatalistic, but if you stop GE, then someone else will eventually figure out laser enrichment. The way to stop proliferation is to address the reasons these countries want the weapons in the first place. I am NOT in favor of selling centrifuges in WalMart, but trying to stop proliferation by banning commercial nuclear technology is akin to banning florists to stop the opium trade…

  4. Proliferation shouldn’t be used as an excuse to attack nuclear power. There are relatively easy ways to detect the sorts of massive cascade type operations necessary for highly-enriched product, and with SILEX, this will presumably hold true.
    But proliferation, in the grand scale of things, is a concern. The problem with proliferation is that if such types of things get into the wrong hands, they can cause a lot of damage very quickly. What once took years of military effort and there was a chance of countering are replaced with weapons that have the same effect in the period of seconds.
    The flaw in the assumption that proliferation has no harm is that, of course, no nation would use weapons because of MAD. I would agree that no RATIONAL nation would use weapons. But human beings – and human nations – can sometimes be IRRATIONAL. Perfect rationality is a perfectly irrational assumption, and one that led to this financial crisis that we’ve found ourselves in.
    Of the many answers to proliferation, there are many that don’t affect technology, such as placing the fuel cycle under international regulation, treaties providing for multilateral coercive action to ensure disarmament of suspected proliferators, or the idea of forbidding sovereign states (with a temporary grandfather clause for the NWS) from touching the fuel cycle and only allowing IAEA licensed multinational corporations not substantially dominated by one nation to touch the fuel cycle.
    Proliferation concerns can be managed and accommodated without destroying or slowing nuclear power. That is because proliferation is a government failure (a “failure of socialism”) rather than a market failure or a technical failure. The answer to proliferation is to better manage governments, to better manage the evils that men do to one another, rather than gimping nuclear technology.

  5. We have got to get rid of this simplistic idea that if this technology isn’t controlled nations will be ‘tempted’ to make nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons program is a unbelievably expensive undertaking (“we were eating grass” as they said in Pakistan) and no nation decides to engage in such a project lightly.
    This attitude assumes that just the availability of HEU would be an overwhelming temptation for some random Third-World nation to start fabricating N-weapons. This is just too simplistic a view of the whole issue of what motivates a country to obtain an N-weapon capability. It presumes that the nation in question is going to treat the acquisition of this capability as lightly as they would any other item of military hardware and trivializes the other technical challenges of making a reliable, deliverable, device. Much of this thinking is a product of Cold War thinking that itself was based on assumptions that events have proven to be false.
    In short, no country has shown any signs of working towards making a nuclear arsenal unless they feel that their very existence is threatened, but once that determination has been made, nothing that the international community can do, short of military action can stop them from getting one.
    Hand wringing inside and outside of the pronuclear power community on the issue of weapons proliferation seems to be locked in theories first put forward in the 1960’s which events since that time has proven wrong. If you recall, it was assumed by those theories there would be more than a dozen new nuclear weapons States by the turn of the century – is is obviously just not so. Even if the question of suppling weapon-grade fissile material is removed, it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a weapon. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars.
    The fact remains that despite this popular view of what will happen, and a strong belief that it would in the anti-proliferation community, the truth, born out by by examining events of the last fifty years, is that it hasn’t turned out that way. Proliferation myths, like most of the nuclear mythos that grew as a consequence of a mix of ignorance, inexperience and Cold War propaganda, has been shown to be false. Continuing to expect policy to follow those falsehoods is ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst.

  6. The US (and Australia) do not have a monopoly on bright engineers and scientists. Blocking the commercial deployment of the SILEX uranium technology will not make it disappear and be forgotten.
    If the technology proves to be economically advantageous in comparison to the centrifuge process, I would particularly look to the Chinese to start pursuing it. They certainly are not above espionage to obtain the details, but they are fully capable of developing it independently.
    One point of concern with a laser based process is that it may not need the large number of stages to obtain HEU that both the diffusion and centrifuge processes require. If this is so, it does make a small laser based system more suitable for a clandestine weapons program.
    Bill

  7. Bill – I would imagine that the best target for anyone who wants a clandestine weapons program is a finished weapon. I would bet that it is far easier to get ones hands on that kind of device than to put together a program to develop a tricky and complex technology like SILEX and then still have to do all of the rest of the development needed to build a weapon. All enrichment gets you is refined material – you still have a ton of work to do to turn that into a weapon.
    You have more faith in Chinese invention than I. They are terrific reverse engineers, but how many innovations have they developed recently?
    My point is that hampering the development of this particular project will do NOTHING to make the world a safer place, but it will do a LOT to keep profits flowing in the same direction that they are flowing today. In other words, it is simply a ploy to hamstring the competition. Nothing more.

  8. That’s another thing that is pure myth – the ‘loose nuke.’
    Given the size of the investment these things represent, the idea that they would be so poorly controlled in and country that owns them, that somebody could walk off with one is ludicrous. The risk of some internal enemy getting hold of one is more than enough motivation for any goverment to keep security high.
    That someone could sell or give a complete device to a ‘terrorist’ group is also highly unlikely, because any government doing that would in essence be handing over their foreign policy decisions to the leadership of said group.
    When you stop to think about,these scenarios are the stuff of bad made for TV movies, not real geopolitics.

  9. DV82XL – Just to make myself clear, I am not terribly worried about a loose nuke scenario either. I am just saying that neither one (loss of control of key enrichment technology or loss of control of a complete weapon) is likely enough to cause me to lose sleep.

  10. In the long run, the only thing that will ever make the world a safer place is to end the motivation for wars. That means to end scarcity, because scarcity is at the root of all conflicts, whether scarcity of energy or scarcity of materials. Without ending scarcity, conflict is inevitable.
    Nuclear power will get us there in terms of ending scarcity of energy, and with enough energy, all things become possible.
    (As for scarcity of materials, there’s a great NASA publication entitled “Advanced Automation for Space Missions” from back in 1979 that introduces the concept of self-replicating space factories, which are about 1000x as feasible today as they were 30 years ago when the study was published, just because of the advance in computing technology.
    All you have to do is launch 100 tons of payload (various types of robotic mining, processing, and fabrication equipment – probably initially teleoperated equipment) to the Moon and, well, you’ve just made raw materials shortages history, as well as built the only thing that can outproduce the Chinese – because the robotic factory you just launched to the Moon works for free, it can be used to reproduce itself, say 100,000 times, and it can be used to gather the raw materials for, fabricate, assemble, and launch other 100 ton factories to the asteroid belt, Mars, Alpha Centauri, etc. Seriously – it’s feasible and it’s worth looking in to. The nation that builds it and launches it wins everything, forever.)

  11. Dave – You made a great case for how nuclear energy can lead to a wonderful world where scarcity has been eliminated and there is plenty to go around. Such a situation can indeed lead to reduced pressure for war, which is really a way to fight about the distribution of scarce resources. However, you also illustrated the difficulty of actually achieving that peaceful utopia in a society full of human beings with your very last sentence:
    The nation that builds it and launches it wins everything, forever.
    For some people, competition is always about having winners that need a whole bunch of losers in order to make themselves feel powerful and superior. Until we get to a point where people see that their gains do not have to come at the expense of losses for others, we will continue to be warlike creatures.
    My hope for the future, however, is that we will move that competition more and more to playing fields where we can cheer and battle without actually shoot each other or blowing things up. I really do believe that eliminating scarcity is a wonderful goal for human ingenuity, we just have to get there without those who are now dominant and powerful tripping us up because they LIKE living in a world of haves and have nots simply because they are a “have” and it makes them feel better to think that there are others who are not.

  12. The end of scarcity will eventually bring about the end of nations, at least as militarized bodies. All together, there becomes no point to have haves and have nots in a world without scarcity.
    What I meant by the nation that builds it “wins everything forever”, is that it wins the only scarce thing in a world without scarcity: the credit and the honor for making a world without scarcity possible.
    Perhaps I’m also using a bit of reverse psychology. It’s also because to some extent I’m a realist, and I realize that the only way something like the Advanced Automation for Space Missions concept would get built is if somebody sees it as a either a weapons system or an enabler of building weapons systems, just like the Internet grew out of concepts originally designed for distributed, resilient communications in the event of a nuclear attack, or GPS was a positioning system for fast-moving land, air, and space platforms.

  13. In essence, it’s the ultimate weapon, the very last weapons system ever necessary, because it destroys the very purpose of weapons.

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