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'Pro-nuclear environmentalists' in denial about power/weapons connections

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

It takes a moment to tell a lie but it can take much longer to deconstruct one. So it is with this deconstruction of claims by pro-nuclear propagandists that "nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons" and that "peace is furthered when a nation embraces nuclear power".

As discussed in Nuclear Monitor #850, nuclear industry bodies (such as the US Nuclear Energy Institute) and supporters (such as former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz) are openly acknowledging the connections between nuclear power and weapons ‒ connections they have denied for decades.1 Those connections are evident in almost all of the weapons states, in numerous countries that have pursued but not built weapons, and in potential future weapons states such as Saudi Arabia.2

Ideally, acknowledgement of power/weapons connections would lead to redoubled efforts to build a firewall between civilian and military nuclear programs ‒ strengthened safeguards, curbs on enrichment and reprocessing, and so on. But that's not how this debate in playing out. Industry insiders and supporters drawing attention to the connections are quite comfortable about them ‒ they just want increased subsidies and support for their domestic civilian nuclear industry lest 'national security' and 'national defense' be undermined.

Some continue to deny the power/weapons connections even though the connections are plain for all to see and are now being acknowledged by a growing number of nuclear insiders and supporters. The silliest of the deniers are those who self-describe as 'pro-nuclear environmentalists'. One such person is Ben Heard ‒ a paid nuclear lobbyist in Australia whose so-called environment group 'Bright New World' accepts secret corporate donations.3,4

An article by Heard attacks the Australian Conservation Foundation for its failure to acknowledge the "obvious distinction" between nuclear power and weapons and for "co-opting disarmament … toward their ideological campaigns against peaceful science and technology".5

The Australian Conservation Foundation has actively supported the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons since ICAN was formed in Australia in 2007. ACF's nuclear-free campaigner Dave Sweeney was involved in the foundation of ICAN and has been on the ICAN Australia Board from 2007 to the present.

Heard's response is to note that the Nobel Committee "is well aware of the role of technology in driving peace" and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. But the Nobel Committee's 2005 citation says nothing about nuclear power "driving peace" ‒ whatever that means ‒ and it doesn't endorse or criticize nuclear power.6

The citation singled out then IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei ‒ the Peace Prize was awarded "in two equal parts" to the IAEA and ElBaradei. The citation noted that ElBaradei "has stood out as an unafraid advocate of new measures to strengthen" the non-proliferation regime. During his tenure as IAEA Director General, ElBaradei was strikingly honest about the limitations of the so-called safeguards system. He noted that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted", and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department ".7

In his Nobel Lecture, ElBaradei said: "We must ... strengthen the verification system. IAEA inspections are the heart and soul of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. To be effective, it is essential that we are provided with the necessary authority, information, advanced technology, and resources. And our inspections must be backed by the UN Security Council, to be called on in cases of non-compliance."6

There's nothing about the limitations of safeguards in Heard's article. He has never said anything about the limitations let alone made the slightest contribution towards resolving them.

Far from endorsing Heard's claim about the "obvious" distinctions between nuclear power and weapons, ElBaradei noted in his Nobel Lecture that under the current system, any country has the right to develop operations for producing nuclear materials for civilian uses "but in doing so, it also masters the most difficult steps in making a nuclear bomb."8

Consumption and production of fissile material

Heard says the anti-nuclear movement "simply ignore that the US nuclear power sector was integral in the destruction of no less than 16,000 former Soviet nuclear warheads under a program known as 'Megatons to Megawatts'."5 That's another lie ‒ the anti-nuclear movement hasn't ignored the program.

Heard ignores the production of fissile material in civilian nuclear programs:

  • The amount of civilian plutonium (almost all of it produced in power reactors) grows at a rate of about 70 tonnes per year.9 That amount of reactor-grade, weapons-usable plutonium10 would suffice to build about 7,000 weapons.
  • As of January 2017, the global stockpile of separated civilian plutonium (i.e. separated from spent fuel by reprocessing) was about 290 tonnes (enough for about 29,000 weapons).11
  • A May 2015 report written for the International Panel on Fissile Materials found that as of the end of 2013, civilian stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium amounted to over 50,000 weapons-equivalents.12 The weapons-equivalents figure jumps dramatically (to several hundred thousand) if plutonium in spent fuel is included.13

Nuclear power promotes peace?

Heard claims that nuclear power promotes peace and uses the two Koreas to illustrate his argument: "The South is a user and exporter of nuclear power, signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and possesses zero nuclear warheads. The North has zero nuclear power reactors, is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and is developing and testing nuclear weapons."5

Likewise, Michael Shellenberger from the pro-nuclear lobby group 'Environmental Progress' claims that: "One of FOE-Greenpeace's biggest lies about nuclear energy is that it leads to weapons. Korea demonstrates that the opposite is true: North Korea has a nuclear bomb and no nuclear energy, while South Korea has nuclear energy and no bomb."14

Heard and Shellenberger ignore the fact that North Korea uses what is calls an 'experimental power reactor' (based on the UK Magnox power reactor design) to produce plutonium for weapons.15 They ignore the fact that North Korea acquired enrichment technology from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network, who stole the blueprints from URENCO, the consortium that provides enrichment services for the nuclear power industry.15 They ignore the fact that North Korea's reprocessing plant is based on the design of the Eurochemic plant in Belgium, which provided reprocessing services for the nuclear power industry.15

Heard and Shellenberger also ignore South Korea's history of covertly pursuing nuclear weapons, a history entwined with the country's development of nuclear power. For example, the nuclear power program provided (and still provides) a rationale for South Korea's pursuit of reprocessing technology.16

Nicholas Miller's article in International Security

Echoing Shellenberger's claim that "nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons"17, Heard writes: "Peace is furthered when a nation embraces nuclear power, because it makes that nation empirically less likely to embark on a nuclear weapons program. That is the finding of a 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed journal International Security."5 That's a lie twice over. Firstly, it isn't true. Secondly, Heard's assertion isn't supported by the International Security journal article, written by Nicholas Miller from Dartmouth College.18

Miller's article does however downplay the power/weapons connections. He writes: "In contrast to the conventional wisdom, this article argues that the link between nuclear energy programs and proliferation is overstated. Although such programs increase the technical capacity of a state to build nuclear weapons, they also have important countervailing political effects that limit the odds of proliferation. Specifically, nuclear energy programs (1) increase the likelihood that a parallel nuclear weapons program is detected and attracts outside non-proliferation pressures, and (2) increase the costliness of nonproliferation sanctions."

However, much of the information in Miller's article undermines his argument. In Miller's own words, "more countries pursued nuclear weapons in the presence of a nuclear energy program than without one", "the annual probability of starting a weapons program is more than twice as high in countries with nuclear energy programs, if one defines an energy program as having an operating power reactor or one under construction", and countries that pursued nuclear weapons while they had a nuclear energy program were "marginally more likely" to acquire nuclear weapons (almost twice as likely if North Korea is considered to have had a nuclear energy program while it pursued weapons).

Miller notes that France, South Africa, India, and Pakistan all acquired nuclear weapons while their energy programs were ongoing, and he notes that Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran and Pakistan began pursuing nuclear weapons after a nuclear energy program had already been initiated.

Miller cites recent studies that find that "states are more likely to pursue or acquire nuclear weapons when they have greater numbers of peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements with other states (including agreements related to nuclear energy production), receive sensitive nuclear assistance, are recipients of technical aid on the fuel cycle from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or have greater latent nuclear capacity (e.g., uranium deposits, nuclear scientists, and chemical engineers)."

Leaving aside some of Miller's questionable arguments, his article is a reasonable primer on the manifold and repeatedly-demonstrated connections between nuclear power and weapons.

Miller's focus is on the pursuit of nuclear weapons so he is silent about the ongoing connections between power and weapons in existing weapons states ‒ connections such as those loudly trumpeted by nuclear advocates in the US and the UK in their recent efforts to secure further support for ailing civilian nuclear industries1; or India's refusal to put much of its 'civilian' nuclear industry under IAEA safeguards.

Miller also has little to say about research reactor programs and their connections to both nuclear power and weapons.19 Yet that is an important part of the story. To give one example: India's first nuclear weapon test used plutonium produced in the CIRUS (Canada‒India-Reactor-United-States) research reactor and that plutonium was ostensibly separated for India's fast breeder power program.20

Downplaying the connections

Miller's article includes a reasonable account of the troubling connections between nuclear power and weapons ‒ so how does he downplay the connections? He conducts a quantitative analysis concerning nuclear energy programs (reactors under construction or operating) and the pursuit of weapons. In so doing, much relevant information is cast overboard, such as real or feigned interest in nuclear power facilitating the pursuit of weapons even if construction of power reactors never began.

Even so, much of his data contradicts his conclusions. His simple count of countries pursuing weapons with or without a nuclear energy program from 1954 to the present yields these results:

  • Nuclear energy program during pursuit of weapons: 10 countries (59%)
  • No nuclear energy program during pursuit of weapons: 7 countries (41%)

As discussed below, at least two countries listed in Miller's 'no nuclear energy program' category ‒ Australia and Iraq ‒ could be included in the other category in which case the 59:41 ratio becomes 71:29, a ratio of more than 2:1.

Another difficulty with Miller's quantitative analysis is that it yields contradictory and inexplicable results such as these:

1. The annual probability of starting a weapons program is more than twice as high in countries with an operating power reactor or one under construction (a statistically-significant finding).

2. The annual probability of starting a weapons program is somewhat lower in countries with operating power reactors compared to countries without them (a statistically non-significant finding).

So why does Miller conclude that "nuclear energy programs do not significantly increase the likelihood of proliferation"? Why does he privilege the second of those findings when only the first is statistically significant? Why privilege the finding that excludes countries with power reactors under construction (but not in operation) when the inclusion of such countries provides a fuller, more accurate assessment of the power/weapons connections? It seems he bases his conclusions on the findings he likes and downplays those he dislikes.

Miller produces a series of 'logistic regression models' to map the raw data against potentially confounding variables such as economic and industrial capacity. He concludes that "although statistical power may be an issue, the data at hand do not make a strong case for a large, positive effect of nuclear energy programs, as the conventional wisdom would predict." But within the findings, conventional wisdom can be found. The only statistically-significant finding arising from the models is a positive link between nuclear energy programs and the pursuit of weapons ‒ a problem Miller circumvents by momentarily adopting a stricter definition of statistical significance!

Countries that have built nuclear weapons

Miller finds that among 17 countries that pursued nuclear weapons from 1954 to the present (others put the number higher21), they were more likely to actually build weapons if they had a nuclear energy program (defined as a power reactor in operation or under construction). For countries with a nuclear energy program, 44% developed weapons (4 out of 9 countries); for countries without a nuclear energy program, 37.5% developed weapons (3 out of 8 countries).

Once again, there is a disconnect between Miller's findings and his conclusions. And the disconnect is greater if North Korea is considered to have had a nuclear energy program while it pursued weapons. Miller writes: "If one instead codes North Korea as pursuing nuclear weapons with an energy program, the acquisition rate for countries with energy programs would be 50 percent, versus 28.5 percent for countries without energy programs. This is a substantial difference in success rate, and it is in line with the conventional wisdom."

The Dartmouth College media release announcing the publication of Miller's article asserts that "countries that pursued nuclear weapons under the cover of an energy program have not been significantly more likely to acquire nuclear weapons, when compared to countries that seek nuclear weapons without an energy program."22 Yet Miller's own count finds an increase, rising to a near-doubling if North Korea is considered to have had a nuclear energy program. Once again it seems he is basing his conclusions on the findings he likes and downplaying those he doesn't.

Miller goes on to note that using different codings (country categorizations) "there is little support for the conventional wisdom" and he states that "the evidence that a nuclear energy program is associated with a higher success rate is inconsistent and sensitive at best."

All the logistic regression models in the world don't alter the fact that nuclear power/weapons connections are multifaceted, repeatedly demonstrated, disturbing and dangerous:23

  • Nuclear power programs facilitated the successful pursuit of weapons in four countries (France, India, Pakistan, South Africa) according to Miller (and North Korea could be added to that list) and have provided many other countries with a latent weapons capability.
  • Power programs have provided ongoing support for weapons programs to a greater or lesser degree in seven of the nine current weapons states (the exceptions being Israel and North Korea).
  • The direct use of power reactors to produce plutonium for weapons in all or all-but-one of the declared weapons states (and possibly other countries, e.g. India and Pakistan).
  • The use of power reactors to produce tritium for weapons in the US (and possibly other countries, e.g. India).
  • Power programs (or real or feigned interest in nuclear power) legitimizing enrichment and reprocessing programs that have fed proliferation.
  • Power programs (or real or feigned interest in nuclear power) legitimizing research (reactor) programs which can lead (and have led) to weapons proliferation.
  • And last but not least, the training of experts for nuclear power programs whose expertise can be (and has been) used in weapons programs.

As a counterfactual, how would nuclear weapons proliferation have unfolded if nuclear power had never existed? There would be far less fissile material in existence (several hundred thousand weapons-equivalents). Far fewer nuclear experts. The three pathways to weapons (power, research, or secret programs) would be reduced to two (and the remaining two pathways would be more difficult to pursue). There would be far fewer latent nuclear weapons states. There would be fewer nuclear weapons states. There would be fewer nuclear weapons.

Conversely, let's imagine a significant expansion of nuclear power. Former US Vice President Al Gore said during a 2006 interview: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale. And we'd run short of uranium, unless they went to a breeder cycle or something like it, which would increase the risk of weapons-grade material being available."24

Errors and omissions

Miller's downplaying of the power/weapons connections is weaker still when his errors are corrected. He claims that Australia had no nuclear energy program while it pursued nuclear weapons. In fact, Australia's pursuit of weapons was intimately linked to the pursuit of nuclear power.25 For example, Prime Minister John Gorton pushed for a power reactor in the late 1960s and early '70s and later said: "We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb."26

If forced to put Iraq's weapons program into just one category, it would undoubtedly be classified as a secret program rather than one pursued under the cover of nuclear power or research. But therein lies a serious problem with Miller's quantitative analysis: numerous weapons programs defy a simple, singular classification. At various stages Iraq pursued all three pathways to weapons: a research reactor program (disrupted by repeated military strikes on its research reactors to prevent weapons proliferation), real or feigned interest in nuclear power, and a secret weapons program.27

Real or feigned interest in nuclear power provided the rationale to send hundreds of Iraqi scientists overseas for training and many of those scientists were put to work in the weapons program.27 According to Khidhir Hamza, a nuclear scientist involved in Iraq's weapons program: "Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel."27 (emphasis added)

Miller says Japan has not actively pursued nuclear weapons ‒ but Japan's reprocessing program suggests it has actively pursued (and achieved) a latent weapons capability. The reprocessing program provides Japan with separated, weapons-usable plutonium, and stockpiles could skyrocket if Rokkasho proceeds to operation. Rokkasho will also produce recycled uranium that could soften the blow in the event of Japan pursuing weapons and having uranium imports disrupted.

Miller says "there is strong reason to believe … that Japan's nuclear energy program has served as an additional brake on a nuclear weapons program" because the power program would likely be severely disrupted by nuclear trade sanctions in the event of Japan pursuing weapons. But he is silent about the implications of the US-India deal: based on that precedent, countries such as Japan and South Korea (i.e. US allies) might reasonably expect that sanctions resulting from the pursuit and acquisition of weapons would be manageable and short-lived.

One of the three 'policy implications' discussed in the conclusion to Miller's article is that "the United States should seek to revive its role as a nuclear supplier, because doing so would provide greater leverage over countries with nuclear energy programs that can be used to enforce nonproliferation". But the US has done nothing to curb Japan's reprocessing program and its stockpiling of separated plutonium. And the US-India deal has legitimized India's weapons program, worsened the South Asian nuclear arms race, legitimized nuclear trade with other non-NPT states (e.g. China's support for Pakistan's nuclear program), and created a precedent that could encourage other countries to pursue weapons.

Miller argues that the US should not insist that nuclear customer countries forego enrichment or reprocessing because that "gold standard" potentially reduces US leverage over other countries' nuclear programs. And why would the US want leverage? To stop countries pursuing enrichment or reprocessing, primarily. At worst, Miller's arguments are as silly and circular as those of Heard and Shellenberger.

More information: Nuclear Monitor #804, 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom',


1. Nuclear Monitor #850, 7 Sept 2017, 'Nuclear power, weapons and 'national security'',

2. Nuclear Monitor #854, 4 Dec 2017, 'Is Saudi Arabia going nuclear?',

3. Friends of the Earth, 'Ben Heard and the fake environment group 'Bright New World' that accepts secret corporate donations',


5. Ben Heard, 12 Dec 2017, 'Australian Conservation Foundation leverages peace prize against peaceful technology',

6. IAEA, 2005, '2005 Nobel Peace Prize',

7. The relevant articles and transcripts are no longer posted on the IAEA website but are available from

8. Mohamed ElBaradei, 10 Dec 2005, 'Nobel Lecture',

9. David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, 2005, 'Plutonium Watch: Tracking Plutonium Inventories',


11. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 'Fissile material stocks',

12. Zia Mian and Alexander Glaser, 2015, 'Global Fissile Material Report 2015: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production', International Panel on Fissile Materials,

13. Institute for Science and International Security, 1 Jan 2005, 'Global Stocks of Nuclear Explosive Material – End 2003 (Updated 2005)', Chapters I and II,

14. Michael Shellenberger, 16 Oct 2017, 'Enemies of the Earth: Unmasking the Dirty War Against Clean Energy in South Korea by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace',

15. David Lowry, 26 July 2016, 'What Theresa May forgot: North Korea used British technology to build its nuclear bombs',

16. Nuclear Threat Initiative, 'South Korea',

17. Michael Shellenberger, 30 Oct 2017, 'Saving Power in Danger: Michael Shellenberger Keynote Address to IAEA',

18. Nicholas L. Miller, 2017, 'Why Nuclear Energy Programs Rarely Lead to Proliferation', International Security 42, No. 2, pp.40-77,

19. 'Research Reactors & Nuclear Weapons', 2002, Paper prepared for Medical Association for the Prevention of War',

20. International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2010, 'Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status',

21. Institute for Science and International Security, 'Nuclear Weapons Programs Worldwide: An Historical Overview', accessed 26 May 2015,

22. Dartmouth College, 6 Nov 2017, 'Nuclear energy programs do not increase likelihood of proliferation, Dartmouth study finds',

23. For references to literature on power/weapons connections, see and

24. David Roberts 10 May 2006, 'An interview with accidental movie star Al Gore',

25. Friends of the Earth Australia, 'The push for nuclear weapons in Australia 1950s-1970s',

26. Pilita Clark, 1 Jan 1999, "PM's Story: Very much alive… and unfazed", Sydney Morning Herald.

27. Khidhir Hamza, Sep/Oct 1998, 'Inside Saddam's Secret Nuclear Program', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 5,