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The link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Women respond to the nuclear threat

(May 11, 1999) The link between nuclear weapons and civil nuclear power is often denied by the nuclear energy industry. The spread of nuclear weapons and/or nuclear weapons technology is called nuclear proliferation. The civil nuclear industry is more often than not the source of proliferation. Nuclear proliferation risks will be among us as long as the civil and military nuclear industry continue to exist.

(509/10.5007) WISE Amsterdam - The myth of "the peaceful atom" must be definitely exposed. Only all steps of the "civil" nuclear energy industry are the same as for the military nuclear industry: from uranium mining to uranium enrichment, from nuclear fuel fabrication to reprocessing: all steps, materials, technology, and equipment are the same. Only one step is missing in the civil nuclear chain, compared to the military chain: production of nuclear weapons themselves. But civil uranium enrichment plants as well as military enrichment plants can produce high enriched uranium: it is the same technology. The same applies for uranium mining: military uranium just looks the same as civil uranium. Nothing different for civil and military reprocessing plants: both use the same technology to separate the plutonium from used nuclear fuel. Another myth being told by the nuclear industry is that plutonium from civil nuclear plants can not be used for the production of nuclear bombs. That's not true: "civil" or reactor-grade plutonium does explode just as well in nuclear bombs as "military" or weapons-grade plutonium. Nevertheless, the commercial or "civil" nuclear industry likes to state that "civil" nuclear energy has no impact on nuclear proliferation. To justify their point of view, they refer to an international organization and treaty which, together, should assure that no nuclear proliferation occurs: the IAEA and the NPT.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the official United Nations nuclear watchdog. It was created in 1958, on instigation of mainly the US, to enable the acceptance and emergence of civil nuclear energy. The IAEA has been heavily criticized. It has serious shortcomings, which for a large part are the consequence of its conflicting double task: the promotion of commercial use of nuclear energy and safeguarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The IAEA sees the promotion of nuclear energy as their priority. The nuclear safeguards system functions mainly to make life possible for the civil nuclear industry. If there is no nuclear trade without the IAEA/NPT safeguards system, the nuclear lobby can claim their business is without proliferation risk. Safeguarding is done by controlling fissionable nuclear materials and nuclear installations in the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS - all members of the treaty except the five declared Nuclear Weapons States: Russia, US, UK, France and China) to guarantee that these materials or installations are not used for nuclear weapons. The task of an "early detection of significant quantities of fissionable materials" is laid on the shoulders of the IAEA.
The IAEA has three main shortcomings:

  • First, the IAEA only controls civil nuclear installations and materials. The IAEA is not required by the NPT to safeguard the five official Nuclear Weapons States, although the majority of nuclear installations and fissionable nuclear materials are found in these five: the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, and although proliferation also happens in those countries.
  • Second, the IAEA did not detect the secret nuclear weapon programs in South Africa, Iraq and North Korea, during more than 10 years, until after South Africa did produce nuclear weapons or until Iraq and North Korea almost succeeded in making them.
    Not especially a trust-building curriculum vitae. Both Iraq and North Korea were IAEA and NPT member states, so the IAEA had access to their nuclear sites. Nevertheless, the IAEA did not detect, search or look for secret nuclear facilities, because the respective governments just did not report those facilities to the IAEA. In all three countries many cases of smuggling and secret imports were published in open literature. The IAEA must have "heard, seen but kept silent": they did not notice or ignored the widely available information. And this official UN organization assures us again and again in their Annual Safeguards Reports that no cases of nuclear proliferation had taken place during that year.
  • Third, in the European Union, Euratom is actually applying safeguard controls to their own installations and materials. The IAEA is dependent on Euratom for their data and only controls the books. This is nothing more than self-control. This is giving a bad example for other regions, which might wish such self-control too. By safeguarding their own territory, Euratom is saving money for the IAEA, which is always short of funds.

But to make things worse in general: the IAEA has not sufficient means to fulfill its safeguard task. For about 15 years their safeguard budget had a zero growth, in spite of a more than 50 percent increase in number and quantity of nuclear installations and materials over that period.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty stems from 1968 and entered into force in 1970, for a 25-year period. The nuclear status quo in 1970, when five countries possessed nuclear weapons, was taken as a fait accompli. At the 1995 review conference the NPT was indefinitely extended. Every five years a review conference is to be held, to evaluate the NPT operation and to look at further implementation, especially the progress of disarmament in the five NWS. The NPT pretends to be the worldwide framework to prevent further nuclear proliferation beyond the Five Haves. This pretension is largely false, as the NPT has many loopholes: if a country should divert less than a "significant quantity of fissionable material" annually, over a number of years, the diversion would not be reported. And the country would have produced enough nuclear materials to produce one or more nuclear arms, without violating the NPT. But the figures for significant quantities are also outdated. Modern designs of nuclear weapons need only two to three kg of plutonium instead of eight (which is the official SQ-number).
Another loophole was recently uncovered: certain isotopes (Neptunium-237 and Americium-241) present in nuclear waste can be used for the production of nuclear weapons. The NPT does not mention or order the safeguarding of these nuclear materials. The US appears to have known this fact for 50 years, but kept it secret, until late last year it realized it was time to make it known. The reason: in the early 1990s a handful of countriesÑJapan, in particular--began researching the possibility to separate these two isotopes from spent nuclear fuel, to make disposal of high-level waste easier. Because they already have commercial use, they could possibly be offered for sale on the open market.

Examples of nuclear proliferation
Three categories of proliferation are distinguished:

  1. Vertical Proliferation: This takes place inside the five official accepted Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and/or the three de facto NWS. It involves: production of more nuclear weapons, design and research of new types of nuclear weapons.
  2. Horizontal Proliferation: The spread of nuclear weapons to Non Nuclear Weapon States, secretly or openly.
  3. Latent Proliferation: The realization of a civil nuclear infrastructure, able to produce nuclear weapon materials in Non Nuclear Weapons States. More than 20 NNWS have civil nuclear energy programs. Widespread commercial nuclear use may create "a nuclear-weapons-world in waiting". The line between horizontal and latent proliferation is sometimes difficult to draw.

1. Vertical Proliferation
The five NWS are continuously modernizing and maintaining their nuclear weapons stocks. Although all signed the NPT in which they promised that "they consider it as their principal aim to reach as soon as possible a general and complete nuclear weapons disarmament", none of them is planning a reduction to zero.
After long negotiations, the US and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear stocks. Based on the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) I agreement, their stockpiles of strategic arms were reduced to 6,000 on each side. Further reductions to 3,500 each have been agreed upon in START II. Ratification by the Russian and US parliament of START II have been delayed several times. The Russian Duma sees the NATO bombing of Serbia as a new reason for delay. Discussions on further reductions, START III, have been going on for years, without concrete results so far. The three other NWS have not yet discussed nuclear arms reductions.

2. Horizontal Proliferation
A large number of countries once tried to acquire or are still trying to acquire, nuclear arms through illegal or legal import of "civil" nuclear knowledge and equipment from other countries. Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa succeeded. South Africa is the one and only country which acquired nuclear weapons and voluntarily destroyed them. The list of countries which once ran secret nuclear weapons programs is too long to mention here. Some examples: Australia, Germany, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, South Korea, Yugoslavia. Other countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Algeria are still trying. Uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies are most wanted because they can produce nuclear weapon materials. Enrichment technology from the European Urenco company was stolen, smuggled and sold to Pakistan, Iraq and Brazil. Russia sold uranium-enrichment plants to China: China sells it to Pakistan, which sells it again to North Korea.

3. Latent Proliferation
Maybe the most dangerous form of proliferation and anyway the largest category of countries, is the group which has the necessary nuclear industry infrastructure in place and is able to produce nuclear weapon materials, in quantities often far larger than needed for their civil nuclear program. If countries from this group should decide to produce nuclear weapons, they could do so within a year. Examples range from countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland to countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. If North Korea should succeed in producing nuclear weapons, their neighbors might feel threatened and decide to produce them too. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have advanced and large nuclear energy infrastructures and advanced missile programs, too. Especially countries with reprocessing plants and/or uranium-enrichment plants have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons materials in large quantities. Stocks of separated plutonium may run into the thousands of kilograms.
The increasing use of MOX-fuel (a mix of uranium and plutonium) and therefore use, trade, transports and availability of plutonium would further strengthen latent proliferation.

Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi
The borderline between the officially accepted Nuclear Weapons States, the "Haves" and the "Have nots" was drawn arbitrarily in 1970. That distinction between "Gods and cows" [Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi: what God is free to do, is forbidden for cows], is still a bone of contention. It is not mere coincidence that the five NWS are the five permanent UN Security Council members. It is an unjust discrimination, which is officially sanctioned by the NPT. The possession of nuclear weapons is in this way rewarded by larger political influence: the status of belonging to the club of superpowers. Israel, India, Pakistan all seem to be taken more seriously by other states since they have nuclear weapons. More countries might wish to acquire such a status.

No borderline
The borderline between civil and military use of nuclear energy evidently exists more in theory than in practice, as we have seen above. Nuclear proliferation more often than not starts from countries with civil nuclear energy programs. Many times that borderline is non-existent. An example was recently provided by the US: the US government decided to produce tritium, for their nuclear arms, in civil US nuclear power plants.

Contact: WISE Amsterdam