What You Should Think About Nuclear Proliferation

October 23, 2007

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of humanity any more than the discovery of matches.”

Albert Einstein

The 1986 film The Manhattan Project painted a light-hearted picture of what might happen if the power of atomic weaponry fell into the hands of an American teenager. Many aspects of working nuclear weaponry are within the means of any capable and well-equipped tinker. Even a truly tricky technical bit, like a working implosion trigger, becomes much simpler to fabricate with the widespread availability of high grade electronic components.

Weapons grade fissile material, the only bigger hurdle than an implosion trigger, was an issue the film sidestepped. The boy secretly obtained it from a government facility where his father was involved in refinement. However, that component is the real focus of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in our own times. No sovereign nation has ever been completely forbidden by international accord to work with conventional explosives. Mining, land development, and even agriculture create legitimate demand for safe controlled demolitions devices. Building every part of a working atomic bomb except the reaction mass involves activities that are no wild departure from peaceful actions.

On the other hand, proliferation experts have a fairly good grip on the kinds of specialized activities needed to produce weapons grade fissile material. The actual Manhattan Project required vast facilities, not to mention the loan of 15,000 tons of silver from the Department of the Treasury, in order to produce enough weapons grade material for a few primitive atomic bombs. Substances and processes have changed through the years. Yet it remains the case that large amounts of low grade radioactive material are required to synthesize masses with the properties needed to be consumed in an explosive chain reaction.

Tremendous amounts of electrical power, along with a great deal of distinctive industrial infrastructure, are required to produce material suitable for a nuclear bomb or warhead. Most processes require powerful centrifuges in which the radioactive material is combined with other chemicals to produce a fluid substance. Spinning sorts the nuclear material by isotope, making it possible to extract traces of the most volatile matter from the mix. A little more chemistry to return the stuff to its elemental form, and the end result is material that can largely be converted from matter to energy in a single explosive event.

Because of the tremendous economic demands of this activity, it is hard to conduct in secrecy. Yet in one way there is a parallel to the work with conventional explosives also needed to produce an actual nuclear blast. Enrichment of radioactive material has some valid application when it comes to developing fuel for certain types of reactors. This context enabled some regimes to blur the line between peaceful and military development of their own nuclear technology.

In recent years, the airwaves have seen plenty of people asking the question, “why would Iran construct nuclear power facilities when it has large domestic oil reserves?” Personally, I don’t see how that is a more sensible question than, “why would Iran expand its petrochemical energy infrastructure when it has large domestic uranium reserves?” After all, there are many reasons to minimize the extent to which a nation depends on fossil fuels. Nuclear power has its own disadvantages, but each uptick in oil prices makes it a better economic option, and sufficiently stringent controls enable secure handling of nuclear materials, including waste.

In an ideal world, international agencies would be permitted to inspect every nuclear facility in every nation. Outmoded thinking about the importance of preserving American secrecy (as if the idea that we have a pointlessly large nuclear arsenal would somehow surprise any other nation) makes it difficult to organize effective oversight around the world. Nations that really may have nuclear surprises stirring in their bowels can characterize inspections as an affront to their sovereignty, then point to the U.S. for cover. Setting a good example does not insure that all other nations will follow it. On the other hand, setting a bad example makes it much harder to push for positive change abroad.

So we have probable nuclear weapons in North Korea and possible nuclear weapons in Iran. Long-standing military adversaries India and Pakistan have both confirmed testing of functional nuclear weapons. Then there are the many ?s on a properly illustrated proliferation globe. Many herald the voluntary dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear program as a triumph of international efforts at non-proliferation. Yet it really seems much more like a footnote in the triumph of international efforts to end racial apartheid. Given their upbringing and outlook, I do not believe it is a cynical view to suggest the outgoing regime in South Africa was simply acting out of fear regarding what their successors might do with working nuclear weapons.

With America’s laser-like focus on perpetuating the status quo in Iraq, so many other foreign policy issues are not subject to due scrutiny. Again and again, opportunities for progress have emerged from North Korea, but this President’s aversion to summit diplomacy makes it impossible to determine the validity of offers to negotiate. It is as if George W. Bush would be so humiliated by not getting what he wants in a single meeting that our nation must forfeit the moral high ground of having at least tried to reach an accord. There is nothing humiliating about being rebuffed in negotiation. On the other hand, making no plausible effort to address the accumulation of nuclear weapons by a remarkably bizarre and militant regime — it seems like that could at least be described as “shameful.”

Another neglected front is the subsidy of controls on old Soviet stockpiles. If indeed the “terrorist nuke” scenario is what keeps Homeland Security bureaucrats up at night, then why not scoop a little pork out of their budget to accelerate efforts to put old Soviet fissile stockpiles under American control? To suggest that there was no chaos in that part of the world in the early 90s is to overlook major historic events. Since then there has been some effort to render Soviet stockpiles of weapons grade material useless for those applications or to relocate that material to secure American facilities. Yet no new emphasis has been placed on this painfully slow effort in spite of its obvious relevance to any serious global counterterrorism strategy.

Frankly, if I were a patriotic citizen of Iran today, I would be hoping that my government has an aggressive nuclear weapons development program that has already produced significant capabilities. The sitting administration in the White House seems to believe that the best way to discourage nuclear proliferation is to sling threats haphazardly around the world, then invade and occupy purported “menaces” that clearly do not possess any nuclear deterrent. I believe all honorable peoples of the world desire peace, and that no nation is populated by a dishonorable majority. Yet, given the behavior of the U.S. government, it seems as if compliance is the road to misery while real peace can only be achieved through strength.

It is a sorry state of affairs, but it is not without remedy. For those nations already in possession of nuclear weapons, open arms and honest dialog can accomplish much. It is in everybody’s interests to promote stability and democracy in societies that already possess nuclear weapons. As most sensible folks must already understand, this is not best accomplished with threats and attacks. Rather, it is accomplished through support that enables national leaders to feel secure enough that a more open society is not seen as a source of danger. Of course a bunker mentality will develop in a regime that is under constant assault, even if the assault is chiefly rhetorical. Openness to civil liberties, checks and balances, et al. comes more naturally in an environment without some hostile superpower deliberately provoking fear from afar.

Then, for those nations that have not yet developed nuclear weapons, setting a good example is key. The United States would give up very little to allow international inspectors to reveal what is already well-known from pole to pole. Yet in that process it becomes much easier to push other reluctant, secretive regimes to allow international inspectors regular visits to their nuclear facilities. It would then become easier to promote technologies that lack military applications and to spot instances where nuclear weapons development may be underway.

Long ago we let the nuclear genie out of its bottle. If our role from here forward is to be in any way constructive, we must promote peace with peaceful methods. Recent experience abroad should confirm that promoting peace with military aggression is every bit as horrible an idea as it sounds. This becomes all the more true as science and economics converge to make nuclear weapons affordable to ever smaller governments.

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What You Should Think About Nuclear Energy

October 9, 2007

For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.”

–George Monbiot

Born into the 70s, making my first efforts to comprehend “the grown up world” in the 80s, my earliest perceptions of atomic power were shaped by a blend of rosy corporate propaganda and bleak doomsday dramatizations. By the time I was ready for my first political debate, concepts like “control rods” and “implosion triggers” were already familiar to me. Even setting environmental risks aside, my teenaged self could not break associations between constructive and destructive applications unleashed by discoveries in nuclear physics.

As time advanced, so did my views. Much more importantly, scientific understanding has advanced as well. Today the world finds itself in an interesting place vis-à-vis nuclear energy production. It was not so long ago that consensus views favored “cheaper” alternatives. Yet resource depletion, soot production, and greenhouse gas emission are all real costs associated with fossil fuel consumption. A market that demands one industry protect the public commons while making no similar demands of others may indeed place alternatives to nuclear power at a lower price per unit. Yet a more circumspect analysis reveals that polluting enterprises ultimately exact their true price one way or another — whether or not it is reflected in utility bills.

To be sure, nuclear power poses pollution concerns of its own. Chernobyl is now a household word precisely because of the extreme dangers associated with radioactive contamination. Heck, even thermal pollution is an issue with nuclear power. Clearly any sensible nuclear power program demands stringent and redundant oversight. Operating with a flawed design or sloppy management practices creates a very real risk that no nation should tolerate.

Also, there is the security issue. Yet that is an issue that cuts both ways. Every additional nuclear facility is a new target for terrorists intent on stealing material for radiological attacks or even staging a deliberate environmental disaster. On the other hand, every additional petrochemical facility drives up demand for a commodity that is partially under the control of aristocrats involved with promoting religious fundamentalism and financing terrorist organizations. This would seem to suggest the American energy sector should be heavily invested in alternatives to either approach.

Yet those alternatives, as they exist today, fall short. Nature offers up light, wind, water, and earth all as methods of collecting energy from sources that renew themselves. In time the yields and costs of solar arrays may improve to the point where that approach would merit a place as a mainstay of American energy. Yet just when that time will occur is unknown. Windmills, tide mills, and dams are only appropriate in locations that satisfy specific conditions. Surprisingly enough, geothermal resources can be depleted by overuse, and they also depend on an appropriate site to achieve commercial yields.

As demand for fossil fuel resources rises and awareness grows of the hidden costs associated with burning ancient carbon compounds, nuclear power provides an alternative with generating capacity independent of local natural features. At the very least, it merits consideration as a supplement for meeting demands when clouds or calm or cooling produce shortfalls from other methods. Given responsible government oversight (a legitimate worry if pursued under the present administration,) nuclear power has the potential to bridge the gap between what we can harness from natural forces and what is required to sustain economic progress.

Yet nuclear power also offers much potential for innovation. Nuclear fusion research has yet to produce anything like a device for generating more energy than it requires, but new approaches do hold some promise. Decades ago, the scientific establishment abandoned the idea that an intersection of powerful laser beams could be used to contain the intense pressure generated by fusion reactions. A new approach, less like a turbine engine and more like a piston engine, might make it possible to sustain serial bursts of fusion reaction with lasers only active for the briefest of instants. The dramatic reduction in energy cost is just one of several innovations that could pave the way for productive fusion power plants.

Then there is the prospect of breakthroughs in fission as well. European scientists are developing precursor technology with an eye toward constructing energy amplifiers. The concept involves using a powerful particle accelerator to outright disintegrate nuclear fuel. It would require elaborate facilities, but it offers many advantages. Energy amplifiers are “subcritical” nuclear reactors, meaning that they can produce power from reaction masses that are not susceptible to meltdown in the event of unexpected technical problems. They can be used to safely destroy dangerous nuclear materials produced by conventional fission reactors. This includes the world’s stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. Also, they can derive power from thorium — a substance both much less radioactive and much more abundant than traditional nuclear fuels.

Of course, scientific breakthroughs are unexpected by nature. Low cost, high yield solar panels may emerge at some point in the future. Also, there is plenty of ground to be gained by applying energy conservation to building and product design. Society does well to invest in any avenue of progress that might address a mounting crises related to energy demands and existing fuel supplies. Yet without having already achieved such progress, we have no choice but to make due with what we have.

Considering the overwhelming mix of security and environmental concerns, giving private corporations broad latitude to expand America’s nuclear power industry seems like unacceptably risky business. Yet only politics obstructs the pursuit of a nationalized atomic energy industry that serves the common good while benefiting from tight controls that no nuclear facility should be without. As with other public sector enterprises, free markets and innovation could continue to play vital roles in areas ranging from component manufacturing to facility maintenance.

Personally, I’ve long questioned the merits of letting the whims of profit-seekers create turbulence in a key sector that serves as a foundation on which almost all other economic activity must rest. Entities like Enron operated contrary to the national interest not only because they were managed by dishonest crooks, but also because it was their business to seek profits through playing games with energy itself. When it becomes possible to generate revenue by deliberately choking off the economic lifeblood of a region, clearly a failed paradigm is in place.

Yet it is not my intent, today, to argue for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. Instead it is my contention that only in the context of nationalization can we expect the safest and best results from massive expansion of America’s nuclear power industry. Without the need for any technology yet to be discovered, that context makes it possible to safely generate energy enough to satisfy the needs of a large economy that (hopefully) will continue to grow through the years ahead. Given that numerous problems caused by fossil fuel consumption are already bad and likely to get even worse, I don’t believe it takes a visionary like Albert Einstein to point out that we would do well to make greater use of our capacity to split the atom for peaceful purposes.