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The Nuclear Chain – Splitting Atoms, Hairs and Personalities

March 21, 2011

The Nuclear ChainIt is no coincidence that one speaks of the civilian and military use of nuclear energy. There is nuclear energy on the one hand and on the other there is the way it is used. It can create a nuclear explosion or it can be harnessed to make electricity, but intrinsically, it is the same thing.

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima, many people around the world asked the question: after what the Japanese had suffered from the military use of nuclear energy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, why did they invest so greatly in the civilian use? Indeed, it is surprising that the original distaste for all things nuclear was lost in the sixties, when Japan began building nuclear power plants to beat the band. More than just about any other country, except perhaps France, the Japanese seemed to think nuclear energy was the best thing since sliced bread. And while just about everyone else (except the Russians) was shifting away from the plutonium economy, saying that it was too dangerous and too expensive, Japan began using MOX and expanding its reprocessing facilities.

Yet this inexplicable splitting of the collective personality into nuclear good and nuclear bad is not just a Japanese phenomena. Attend any Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), you will hear the same weird belief that nuclear energy is bad in weapon form, but good if you plug it in and run your kettle off of it. A whole institution has been built on this lie that was part of the 50s propaganda “Atoms for Peace”, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Nuclear energy is not good or bad, in my view. What I condemn is the human arrogance and ignorance that leads us to think that we can control a force as massive and potentially destructive as this, or that the risks inherent in harnessing it as a source of electricity are calculable. Chernobyl showed us how humans make mistakes. Fukushima has made it abundantly clear that we are not in control, and that we are pitiful in the face of nature’s ability to determine our fate. The disaster that hit Japan was bad enough, but did we need to compound it by adding our own stupidity to the equation by building nuclear reactors on fault lines?

It starts at the front end with the mining of uranium. Locked up in rock, uranium was not meant to be taken out of the earth – so we are wisely advised by the indigenous peoples of the world, who have lived on top of uranium-filled rock for centuries. Remove it from its natural habitat and it becomes dangerous, releasing particles that, when breathed in, can cause cancer.

After being processed, the uranium then has to be enriched. Again, the difference is minimal. Once you have the technology to enrich, then you can choose how much you enrich your uranium – roughly, 3-5% for nuclear power, 20% for medical isotopes, 85-90% for weapons. The only thing that stands in your way is the view that there is nuclear good and nuclear bad. And a treaty. But you can choose not to sign the treaty in the first place, or use it to get the nuclear technology and then leave the treaty. So far, so good (or bad).

The chain does split into two different branches when you get to putting your enriched uranium to use – you can put your enriched uranium into a nuclear power plant and make electricity with it, or you can enrich it a bit more and make nuclear weapons. (By the way, you can also use the by-product of the enrichment process, depleted uranium, to make weapons as well.)

When it gets to the question of waste, however, it gets more complicated. What should you do with it all? Rather than just throwing it all away (and where should it go?) you can reprocess it. And because you’ve successfully made plutonium by burning your uranium in a nuclear reactor, you can separate this out and, bingo, you have the stuff to make MOX. Or nuclear weapons. Japanese politicians have repeatedly reminded the world that they had enough plutonium stockpiled that they could easily make a whole load of nuclear weapons, should they be so inclined. What stopped them? The view of nuclear good and nuclear bad.

When it comes to Iran, there is only nuclear bad in the eyes of the West. It was the conflict with Iran that really started to shake the foundations of Article IV of the NPT that says everyone has a right to use nuclear energy “peacefully”. Actually, the discovery in the early 90s that Iraq had hidden a well-developed military nuclear programme successfully behind its “peaceful” programme while remaining an NPT member was the first major wake-up call. Then the lid blew on A.Q. Khan’s network and people began to realise that the proliferation of nuclear energy could lead and had led to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The good, the bad and the ugly.

What we forget is that while the intention may be peaceful, the energy itself is not. The difference between “peaceful” and “military” use is no more than a hair’s breadth. From outside, it is hard to see the difference, you have to send in the IAEA to inspect, probe and interrogate. Still, we don’t really know whether Iran’s nuclear programme is good or bad and the IAEA is still looking for actual (rather than circumstantial) evidence.

Instead of splitting hairs over whether there is a difference between nuclear energy and nuclear energy, we should begin to understand the connection between all the aspects of the nuclear chain. There is an inextricable link that binds uranium mining, enrichment, nuclear power, reprocessing, nuclear weapons, radioactive waste and fallout together. When we talk about one, we should not forget all the others. They add up to make an ugly picture of death and destruction, of incalculable risk and contamination.

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