Avoiding Atomic Armageddon:
Why we should not rejoin the nuclear bazaar
by Dr. David Lowry
“We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) -- an inexhaustable source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .
But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . .
It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration.” [Weinberg, Alvin; "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy", Science, 7 July 1972, p33]
The venerable veteran Labour politician, Tony Benn, who once was responsible for the British nuclear power programme when he was Technology Minister in the late 1960s, when asked by The Times if he had made any political mistakes in his life, responded:
“Yes, nuclear power: I was told it was, when I was in charge of it, that atomic energy was cheap, safe and peaceful. It isn’t.” (Times Magazine, 11 September 2010)
A serious problem for today’s politics is both Conservative ministers, and their Labour opponents , have not learned from Tony Benn’s conversion on the road to energy sustainability, and do support new nuclear, here and abroad..
How was it that thinking politicians like Tony Benn could have originally got nuclear power so wrong in the 1960s and 1970s?
In post-war Britain, after the United States had started the Nuclear WMD Cold War by detonating two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, many nuclear scientists wanted to put their intellectual expertise in atomic science to the public good, so horrified were they over the nuclear attacks on Japan.
The British Atomic Scientists Association (BASA) – founded in 1946 – set about trying to bring good news, in contrast to nuclear weapons deployment, about atomic discoveries and developments to the public, even sponsoring a mobile exhibition called “The Atomic Train” which moved from city to city, town to town, seen by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic members of the British public. BASA also published a regular edition of Atomic Scientists News, which became Atomic Scientists Journal, with a widespread readership among teachers, journalists and professionals, including MPs [members of Parliament].
It was absorbed into New Scientist in 1956, the same year the plutonium production reactors at Calder Hall on the Sellafield site – then called Windscale, operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – were opened by the young Queen Elizabeth, on 17 October that year, 54 years ago. Her Majesty told the assembled crowd of dignitaries, including representatives of almost 40 nations:
“This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community….”
She went on to add
“It may well prove to have been among the greatest of our contributions to human welfare that we led the way in demonstrating the peaceful uses of this new source of power.”
But false words had been put into the mouth of Her Majesty. Calder Hall was not built or designed to be put to civilian – or peaceful – uses. Here is what the UKAEA official historian Kenneth Jay wrote about Calder Hall, in his short book of the same name, published to coincide with the opening of the plant. [He referred to] “[m]ajor plants built for military purposes, such as Calder Hall.” (p.88) Earlier, he wrote: “… The plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant, to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power.” (p.80)
Twenty nine years ago, , the CND Sizewell Working Group, supported by technical work by Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, SGR’s predecessor organization, in evidence to the Sizewell B Public Inquiry, demonstrated in detail how plutonium created in the first generation of Magnox reactors, scaled-up versions of Calder Hall, also produced plutonium put to military uses … in the United States. (see Nature, Vol.407, 19 October 2000)
Just over a year after Britain first tested its own atomic bomb, on 3 October 1952, U.S. President Eisenhower delivered to the U.N. General Assembly in New York what has turned out to be one of the most misguided speeches ever made by a world leader. This was the notorious “Atoms for Peace” speech, on 8 December 1953. It was crafted at the height of the Cold War, and purported to be an “atomic swords into nuclear energy ploughshares.”
The President opened saying:
“Never before in history has so much hope for so many people been gathered together in a single organization. Your deliberations and decisions during these sombre years have already realized part of those hopes. But the great test and the great accomplishments still lie ahead ….”
He went on to assert:
“The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension, at least in comparative terms, of the extent of this development of the utmost significance to every one of us. Clearly, if the people of the world are to conduct an intelligent search for peace, they must be armed with the significant facts of today’s existence. ... [M]y country’s purpose is to help us move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men every where, can move forward toward peace and happiness and well being.”
And [Eisenhower] unveiled to a rapt audience [his plan that]:
“The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”
He proposed creation of a fissionable (explosive) nuclear materials storage bank and an international atomic energy agency:
“The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods where by this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.”
And he closed with these high-fluting words:
“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world--its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
Eisenhower’s PR team went into overdrive after the speech, being instantly distributed in 10 languages, with key excerpts being included in 350 US-based foreign language newspapers. TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, were deluged with articles explaining the case for spreading nuclear technology worldwide. The US Government used the official US Information Agency and the Voice of America radio station (the American equivalent to our own BBC World Service) to propagandise the speech.
Four years later the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created as a United Nations Agency in Vienna, the centre of Cold War intrigue, to bang the drum for nuclear power across the globe.
Britain’s early unintended export of nuclear proliferation
In the same year the IAEA was founded, the UK made one of its first forays into international nuclear trade, with Iraq, and [with] the opening Baghdad Pact Nuclear Centre on 31 March 1957. It was part of the UK’s own Atoms for Peace efforts.
According to a Parliamentary reply by Michel Heseltine in December 1992, “Iraq ceased to participate in the activities of the training centre when it was transferred to Tehran following the revolution in Iraq in 1959.”
In light of subsequent geo-political history in the region, that was out of the atomic frying pan, into the nuclear fire!
Around this time Britain also sold a single Magnox nuclear plant each to Japan and to Italy respectively.
It is also arguable that the British Magnox nuclear plant design – which after all was primarily built as a military plutonium production factory – provided the blueprint for the North Korean military plutonium production programme too!
Here is what a Conservative minister, Douglas Hogg – later infamous for his moat – told former Labour MP, Llew Smith, in a written parliamentary reply on 25 May 1994:
“We do not know whether North Korea has drawn on plans of British reactors in the production of its own reactors. North Korea possesses a graphite moderated reactor which, while much smaller, has generic similarities to the reactors operated by British Nuclear Fuels plc. However, design information of these British reactors is not classified and has appeared in technical journals.”
North Korea’s other method of producing its enriched uranium nuclear explosives, via its uranium enrichment plant, also originated from the UK. The blueprints were stolen by Pakistani scientist, Dr A.Q.Khan, from the URENCO enrichment plant (one third owned by the UK) in Holland in the early 1970s. Pakistan subsequently sold the technology to Iran, who later exchanged for North Korean Nodong missiles.
A technical delegation from the A Q Khan Research Labs visited Pyongyang in the summer of 1996. The secret enrichment plant was said to be based in caves near Kumch’ang-ni, 100 miles north of Pyonyang, some thirty miles north west of the plutonium production reactor at Yongbon. Defectors have located the plant at Yongjo-ri, Taechon, Mount Chonma or Ha’gap 20 miles northeast of Yongbon-kun, where US satellite photos showed tunnel entrances being built
Hwang Jang-yop, a former aid to President Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current North Korean President, who became the highest ranking North Korean official to defect when he fled in 1997, revealed details to Western intelligence investigators. ( source p.281 of “Deception: Pakistan, The United States, and the Global Weapons Conspiracy, Atlantic Books, 2007, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark).
So the UK’s proud nuclear export record involves provision of support to both Iraq and Iran, and indirectly to North Korea.
Blowback: NPT as a vehicle for proliferation
At the end of the 1967, the text of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was finalised between the U.S., Soviet Union and the UK, and presented to the United Nations General Assembly next year (1968) for endorsement, with the IAEA playing an enforcement role.
CND and the wider nuclear disarmament movement has spent much of its campaigning time since trying to get countries to sign-up to the NPT; and signatory states to adhere to its articles.
But the Grand Bargain embodied by the NPT – the non-nuclear weapon states(NNWSs) should renounce possession of, or desire to possess, nuclear WMDs in exchange for civilian nuclear assistance – has now become a problem in itself. Countries such as the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Japan and Russia are now promoting nuclear technology sales worldwide.
Here is a salient extract from the final document:
31. The Conference reaffirms that nothing in the Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination. … The Conference recognizes that this right constitutes one of the fundamental objectives of the Treaty. In this connection, the Conference confirms that each country’s choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle policies.
Several more paragraphs underscore the agreement to massively expand nuclear trade, including scientific and technological cooperation, and sales of nuclear equipment and nuclear materials.
The NPT review conference conclusions also stated:
39. The Conference affirms the importance of public information in connection with peaceful nuclear activities in States parties to help build acceptance of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Experience of such activities by national and international bodies suggest this will be pure propaganda.
Pandora’s Box prized open
The Coalition Government newly unveiled policy on promoting nuclear exports will open a Pandora’s Box of problems. Exporting the very technology used to make nuclear bombs and nuclear material - such as plutonium - as nuclear fuel, will put nuclear weapons capability and nuclear explosive materials into the hands of many countries – and possibly non-state terror groups – in an increasingly insecure world.
Labour started the decline down this dangerous rocky road in 2009. Chris Bryant, MP, then a foreign office minister, when responding to a Parliamentary debate on prospects for the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review (on 9 July 2009) commented sagely:
“It is clearly important that we secure fissile material. One of the greatest dangers to security around the world is the possibility of rogue states or rogue organisations gaining access to fissile material.”
Yet, only a few days later the Labour Government published one of the most dangerous and deluded documents issued in modern times by any democratic government – “The Road to 2010” – interestingly released under the imprimatur of the Cabinet Office, not the Foreign Office. (The “2010” referred to the NPT Review conference held in May this year at the United Nations in New York.) Mr Bryant asserted that it would: “lay out a credible road map to further disarmament.”
In my judgment, whatever its laudable aims on nuclear disarmament, it is in effect a blueprint for nuclear proliferation and undermines Government aims to create a more secure world.
The reason for this is the deeply misguided policy to increase nuclear exports and spread nuclear technology and material around the globe.
The “Road to 2010” was a remarkably naïve and disingenuous document, and seriously suffers from not having been subject to critical review before publication.
It appears to have been only share with blinkered nuclear industry “cheerleaders”, such as the London-based international industry lobby group, the World Nuclear Association, which in its reportage of the proliferation blueprint wrote glowingly:
“The opening paragraphs in Britain's Road to 2010 strategy set the scene: ‘Nuclear power is a proven technology which generates low carbon electricity. It is affordable, dependable, safe, and capable of increasing diversity of energy supply. It is therefore an essential part of any global solution to the related and serious challenges of climate change and energy security.... Nuclear energy is therefore vital to the challenges of sustaining global growth, and tackling poverty.’”
In March this year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – significantly, not DECC - published a suite of documents promoting nuclear power development in the UK and abroad, backed with £31 million of new taxpayers’ money. One of the documents, Long-term Nuclear Energy Strategy, said the following:
“The Government commits to further increasing its presence and impact into associated international forums, in particular those relating to nuclear R&D where government representation has waned over the last decade.
At an EU level, the Government will work with like-minded nations to provide a positive and informed political environment for the civil use of nuclear power both domestically and globally. We will develop and implement broader strategic relationships with nuclear interested countries through a programme of coordinated and proactive engagement that can help shape EU policy and that enables nuclear power to continue to have a role in the energy mix and harnesses economic opportunities.”
“Working with embassies, UKTI, industry, NSA Nuclear and academia, we will explore options to better showcase the UK’s knowledge, expertise and facilities to the international market.”
While BIS is providing £31 m to promote nuclear technology, including exports, figures released to Parliament on 3 June this year revealed the Coalition was simultaneously cutting the budget for nuclear non-proliferation from £27,197,000 to £23,672,000, between 2012-13 to 2013-14. It also plans to cut the Capital Global Threat Reduction Programme from £6,600,000 to £5,025,000 over the same period, indicating Coalition priorities and dubious judgement.
(Official Report, 3 June 2013 : Column 954W)
DECC has also made clear it would like to convert our current “civil “ plutonium stockpile of 110,000 kilogrammes of plutonium- a nuclear warhead can be made with just 5 kgs, the size of a grapefruit- into MOX ( mixed plutonium- uranium oxide) fuel, and would like to export the substantial proportion of this across the coming decades. To make this MOX, upwards of £1billion of taxpayers money will be needed for construction of a new manufacturing plant at Sellafield
Taken together, these nuclear promotional and export strategies one day will, I fear, result in multiple radioactive mushroom clouds rising from centres of global cities, as terrorists carry out their ultimate spectacular.
This may happen after the architects of this truly mad policy are dead. Sadly, they are condemning hundreds of thousands - possibly millions- innocent citizens join them before their time.
The spectre of an uncontrolled nuclear detonation should chill us all.
As President Obama told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in the famed Watergate reporter’s book, Obama’s Wars:
“When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that [ a nuclear terrorist attack] is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes.”
He is right. And it is a big mistake to resurrect global nuclear technology and material sales.
Ironically, the two Cabinet ministers promoting our nuclear exports strategy with taxpayers’ money are both Liberal Democrat, Energy & Climate change Secretary Ed Davey and Business Secretary Dr Vince Cable, who, three years ago were elected on a Liberal Democrat Manifesto that opposed all nuclear power projects.
Their U-turn discredits political integrity and promotes global insecurity. Just who is advising these ministers?