I stumbled across a 1983 article titled Nuclear power and nuclear weapons: the connection is dangerous that is the clearest piece of evidence I’ve found to prove that many of the basic talking points of the nuclear nonproliferation crowd are actually aimed at slowing, halting and reversing the use of nuclear energy.
These efforts have not just been aimed at keeping nuclear energy production facilities out of non-nuclear weapons states; as the article describes in substantial detail, the nonproliferation crowd will not really be satisfied by anything short of a gradual reduction in all nuclear technology knowledge. After all, according to the article:
The main technical barriers are a weapon’s program’s requirements for a sizable cadre of highly trained specialists and for a source of fissionable raw material plus the facilities for converting it to weapons-usable form.
A commercial nuclear power program lowers these barriers in three ways:
- Even in its formative stages, the program assembles people having the same skills needed for a weapons program and melds them into a working unit.
- A nuclear power program cannot avoid solving the problem of fissionable material, typically on a small scale at the research reactor stage that precedes commercial operations and necessarily on a large scale at the commercial stage.
- Such programs often provide directly the means for converting the raw fuel into weapons-usable material, and even if a country refrains at first from acquiring this capability, having both raw material and personnel simplifies a later decision to do so.
After a “once-over-lightly” survey of various countries and their nuclear-related efforts, the article proceeds to list six approaches that can “reduce the danger” that a few additional countries might decide to create an additional independent nuclear weapons capability. The article assumes that readers would automatically agree that there is danger in adding to the eight countries – at the time – who were acknowledged “nuclear powers” (US, UK, France, Soviet Union, and China), known to have a weapons capability outside of the Nonproliferation Treaty (India), or suspected of having clandestine nuclear weapons (Israel and South Africa).
Here is a paraphrase of the six possible approaches:
- Strengthen NPT
- Strengthen superpower security guarantees
- Upgrade NPT and international standards, including efforts such as regional enrichment and reprocessing
- Attempt to develop more proliferation resistant fuel cycles
- Unilateral US and multilateral action among suppliers to restrict technology access by withholding assistance and using sanctions where indicated
- Develop and encourage the world-wide use of all energy technologies that are not nuclear. (The article recognizes that there are some who say that using more nuclear in places that are already nuclear weapons states would free up oil and gas for developing nations. It also recognizes that even in 1983 there was a growing recognition of a potential hazard from “the global buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion.)
As soon as the article describes the approaches it continues on to the following statements about the viability and effectiveness of each one.
- None of the first five approaches is even close to being fully satisfactory. They all have costs, risks and holes. This verdict holds as much for the pollitically- as for the technologically-oriented ideas. While various combinations of these measures could be tried, the overwhelming likelihood is that even the best attainable results will not prevent some acceleration of the spread of nuclear weapons as a consequence of the spread of nuclear power. This probable contribution to proliferation must be counted a significant cost of nuclear power. Hence it is important to pursue vigorously the sixth approach — the promotion of energy alternatives to fission. This approach is not cheap or easy, but I believe its potential for diminishing further the grave hazards of weapons proliferation outweighs its costs and difficulties.
- The attraction of nuclear energy for industrial and less developed countries alike, aside from its proliferation liability, are widely overestimated.
(Emphasis in original.)
The article continues on to provide the talking points for nonproliferation practitioners to use when discouraging the use of nuclear energy.
As the author of this article clearly understands, the relative attractiveness of any energy option is a function of both the perceived benefits of one choice and the perceived risks and costs of all other choices. Advocating for non-nuclear energy choices means both support for advances in those choices and efforts to diminish, demean, and obfuscate both existing nuclear advantages and the potential for future technology improvements.
Paraphrasing, here is the slanted information about nuclear energy that the article provides. It helps convince people who are sincerely concerned about nuclear weapons that fighting nuclear power is an effective way to achieve their goals. Fear of the effect of using nuclear weapons is a legitimate concern, one that is large enough to lead people to believe it is a moral crusade whose ends justify the means.
- Nuclear is too big, too centralized, and can only deliver electricity. (All of those are false and were known to be false at the time. Since the fission chain reaction was proven in 1942, there have always been small reactors, there have always been reactors that produce heat, and there have been propulsion reactors since January 17, 1955. Besides, nearly every non fossil, non nuclear energy source is also limited to providing electricity.)
- Developing countries need small scale power sources using “portable fuel.”
- Nuclear does not replace oil since most oil is used outside of electricity generation. (By 1983, nuclear power plants had pushed most oil out of the electricity markets in the US, UK, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Japan. In places where nuclear plants have been shutdown, like Japan and much of the Northeast US, oil is making a comeback.)
- Nuclear is a slow, expensive, and ineffective way to prevent fighting over oil. (Disagree. When electrical power has no need to burn oil, nations have far less incentive to fight about it. Transportation consumption adjusts rapidly to variations in prices; electricity use is generally isolated from market pricing at the consumer level.)
Tapping into antinuclear weapons passion was a great strategic move by the people whose real mission was to slow the development of a formidable competitor in the lucrative enterprise of selling hydrocarbon fuels to billions of people to provide them the energy that they need or want.
I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning the article’s author up until now. Those readers whose first action in reading a blog post is to open links will already know that John P. Holdren wrote the article. Holdren is currently serving as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
Even though Holdren wrote the article discussed here more than 30 years ago, it was not a youthful indiscretion. By the time he wrote the article, he had already been leading the interdisciplinary graduate program in energy at the University of California (Berkeley) for ten years. The opinions and strategies described are mature positions that have probably done nothing but firm up over the succeeding decades.
The intention of the nuclear energy policy actions that the Obama Administration has implemented became far more clear to me after reading this article than they ever were in the past. As long-time readers know, I was once a strong supporter of the President and defended him as being in favor of nuclear energy based on his political origins in Illinois, a state that obtains about 50% of its electricity from nuclear and hosts the Argonne National Laboratory. History has proven me wrong.
I was duped by skilled politicians and propagandists in a way similar to those people who once believed that President Carter would be in favor of nuclear energy because he falsely claimed to have been a nuclear engineer in the Navy.
Note about image: After initially publishing this piece, I decided that it needed an image. I went to the recently redesigned PopAtomic where I knew there was a growing library of images just right for illustrating nuclear-themed works. Within a couple of minutes I found and downloaded just the right image. Thank you, Suzy and and team!