Proliferation is not a technical issue

DV82XL has made a compelling case on the non-significance of the proliferation issue. If readers are interested I could try to assemble the arguments. For today, this latest comment on BNC gets right to the bottom line:

We have to get it through everyone’s head that there is no stopping any nation that is intent on fabricating nuclear weapons short of military intervention. Endless hand wringing about vulnerabilities in the fuel cycle are a waste of time and effort.

Furthermore, and country that has the technical wherewithal to fabricate MOX or PuThO fuel or has stocks of Pu that need re-burning in the first place, is a nuclear weapons state, or has had the ability to make nuclear weapons for some time and has chosen not to.

Proliferation is not a technical issue.

4 thoughts on “Proliferation is not a technical issue

  1. Nuclear energy is in and of itself, not a proliferation risk. So far none of the countries “illegally” producing their own nuclear weapons to date have leveraged their nuclear power sectors in any meaningful way. However all of them were driven by extreme geopolitical pressure in their perceived need for a N-weapon capability.

    No country has ever proceeded with a nuclear weapons program, just because it was able to. There has to be a really strong perceived need for this capability, that when present is enough to carry the task through as much international pressure as can be applied short of military.

    Look at those countries that have acquired the Bomb after the US did, even England and France were under a great deal of pressure not to arm, but did so despite both being very economically and politically in debt to the US at the time, and both were rebuilding after having been damned near burnt to the ground. Much of the friction between DeGaul and the Americans was rooted in the French pursuing nuclear weapons against American pressure not to.

    Israel and South Africa mounted programs because they recognized they were vulnerable to invasion, India needed a deterrent against Chinese incursions into Kashmir and to draw a line in the sand with Pakistan, who in turn looked at India to the East, Communists to the North, and Fundamentalists to the West and knew their armed forces could not successfully defend the country with conventional weapons alone. All of these States faced sanctions, that truly hurt domestically, India in particular was desperate for more nuclear energy, and found itself cut off from the world in this matter at a very critical time. Even North Korea’s program is motivated more by fear than by self aggrandizement, irregardless of propaganda to the contrary.

    Meanwhile countries like Canada, Japan, Germany, Brazil, South Korea could build a deliverable weapon inside a year should they want to, and several other nations could mount programs which could do the same within five if pushed, yet they don’t. Even South Africa dismantled their weapons as soon as the threat diminished. The reason is because this is a cripplingly expensive capability to acquire and maintain and no nation will do so without its back to the wall. Even the Big Five are effected by this and most of the push for nuclear arms reduction is motivated by financial pressure more than ideological.

    This whole idea that proliferation is some sort of accident waiting to happen, and that unchecked will lead to a domino effect is pure fantasy based on the overactive imaginations of Cold War strategists like Herman Kahn who were working in a historical vacuum. Outside of the pronuclear power community, the issue of weapons proliferation seems to be locked in theories first put forward by him in the 1960’s; theories which events since that time have proven wrong. Recall, it was assumed by those theories there would be more than a dozen new nuclear weapons States by the turn of the century and this is obviously just not so. Even if the question of supplying weapon-grade fissile material is removed, it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a weapon. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars, and the idea that such a project could be carried out by surreptitiously stripping power reactors of their fuel belongs in pulp novels, not in any rational discussion of the issue.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Is the following simplified summary reasonable? In your comments you have pretty-well covered #1:

    1. if a nation-state “X” is sufficiently determined to acquire nuclear weapons capability, then only military intervention might stop them.

    2. given such determination, state “X” will not leverage civilian nuclear power facilities because there are cheaper, faster paths to weapons-grade material. E.g., to simply buy or build a research reactor.

    Turning around the widespread emotional proliferation fears is a challenge. I thought it was positive that Berkeley’s prof. Per Peterson took on the burden of being co-chair of the Generation IV Proliferation Resistance and Physical Protection Working Group. Whether or not he has any personal concerns about civilian facilities increasing proliferation risk, he has been carefully arguing for specific technical and institutional strategies to counter proliferation threats. I’m guessing that Peterson concluded that, left alone to worry about proliferation, governments will impede nuclear power progress by over-regulation and sanctions. So its best to try to demonstrate to them specific solutions to their list of threat-worries. For Peterson arguments see e.g., Nuclear Energy for the Developing World, and Proliferation Resistance And Physical Protection Evaluation Methodology Development And Applications.

    Personally my worry is that technical arguments can’t counter the non-rational fears of rogue nuclear weapons. And Peterson’s nuanced arguments leave the non-technical confused and still worried — like the non-rational fears of radiation are not damped by professional discussions of long term exposure to very low levels of ionizing radiation.

  3. You have summarised my argument correctly.

    Per Peterson and I have had several exchanges on this issue. He has asserted during those discussions that there is a risk of proliferation with current designs, but he has never gone into detail, suggesting that it would be a breach of security for him to do so. I find this idea doubtful, however I do recognize that Per can’t speak freely, and I have left it at that.
    The proliferation issue is one of the most enduring hot-button items in the nuclear power debate. There are, I believe, two reasons for this: the first is that there is a self-perpetuating proliferation bureaucracy that needs this problem to justify its own existence, and second, antinuclear forces know well this is an area where nuclear energy’s staunchest supporters will consistently shoot themselves in the foot whenever the topic is brought up.
    Proliferation has nothing to do at all with nuclear power, or any other nuclear technology. This is because the total effort needed to carry through from the mine to the bomb, a surreptitious program of atomic armament on a scale sufficient to be a military threat, or to make it a temptation to evasion, so vast, and the number of separate difficult undertakings so great, and the special character of many of these undertakings so hard to conceal, that the fact of this effort is impossible to hide. Those countries that did produce atomic weaponry (post NPT) did so with the help or the tacit permission of other NPT signatories because it suited them to do so, in some cases, right under the nose of international inspectors. Those countries that mounted programs without this ‘understanding’ from the dominant nuclear states were swiftly shut down without much fuss. But the bottom line is that at no point did any of this hinge on technological or engineering factors or the type of civil reactors in use anywhere.

    It also ignores documented cases where nations examined the idea of starting a weapons program and then stopped on their own accord. Indeed perversely, anti-proliferation arguments try to hold these up as examples of how nations can be tempted to mount such a program, when even a cursory examination of history shows the exact opposite. Australia, Sweden, Brazil and the Argentine considered and dropped such efforts when the initial findings of these same programs revealed the facts about these weapons and allowed the leadership of these countries to consider them. All of these nations found that nuclear weapons where horribly expensive, were of limited military use in their particular strategic position, and came with geopolitical baggage that was disadvantageous to them in other domains. In the Fifties and Sixties when these states were looking at the subject, the only way to get facts was to start a program because there was no other way to obtain this information except by stealing it via espionage, but at the same time all four of these countries had legitimate security concerns about these armaments that had to be addressed as responsible governments.

    These facts do not seem to deter those who continue to flog the concept of proliferation-resistance for civil nuclear power. Indeed there seems to be an increasing number of articles in the press that hold up proliferation as a major concern, and proliferation-resistant designs are a staple of research in the nuclear power community. What this is doing of course is legitimizing the idea that nuclear power constitutes a risk of weapons proliferation in the public’s mind. Even those who know the risk is minuscule and try to argue that the technical difficulties make proliferation by the civil power route make it unlikely inevitably use arguments that re-enforce the idea, by granting the question status when they respond to it. This is a public that that a significant number takes medical advice for their children from ex-Playboy centerfolds, and think the world was created ex nilo six-thousand years ago. What use are differential arguments about the neutronics of Pu-240, Pu-249 and Pu-239 to an audience like this?

    The opponents of nuclear energy are themselves well-aware of the facts, they just don’t care. They don’t care about the facts at all, except insofar as they may be pertinent to their interest in getting away with what they say. They don’t care whether the things they assert describe reality correctly. They just pick them out, or make them up, to suit their purpose. And like fish rising to the bait, pronuclear defenders rush in to teach them the errors of their thinking and thus reinforce the idea that this debate has any legitimacy at all.

    The only way this needs to be answered is with historical fact, and constantly pushing it back into the political/diplomatic arena where it belongs and stop taking responsibility for any part of the proliferation issue. Allowing it to be framed as a technical issue, no matter how flimsy the argument might be, just serves to make the issue nuclear power’s, when in fact there is nothing that this sector can do to address it. There is also nothing that can be done to counter the lies others are telling contrary to this to the satisfaction of the only audience that counts – the public. It may be very gratifying to our inner nerd to mount an argument that shows our advanced grasp of the concepts, and our opponent’s ignorance thereof, but the only real thing that is being accomplished by this tactic is to legitimize the topic when it should be dismissed out of hand as irrelevant.

    Energy, in the commercial sense of the word, is a primary industry, as such it is indistinguishable from politics on several levels. Antinuclear forces have known this for decades and have always played the political cards well, and to the determent of those of us that support nuclear energy. We keep playing the wrong way, answering a heart with a diamond when we are holding trumps, and no mater how many times we lose the rubber we keep doing the same thing. Its time to wake up and change tactic, especially in the area of proliferation because we can take this whole line of questioning off the table forever if we just use our heads.

  4. Well argued, thanks. It’s certainly time to “wake up and change tactic”. Though I wish I knew how to take the proliferation issue off the table. One challenge is the antinuclear army will keep hammering these fears every time they get the microphone in their hand. So how do we take it off the table? The media are skilled at creating the drama of on-camera conflict. Combine that with the media’s well-worn Rolodex cards for the spokespeople of UCS, FOE, WDF. For “balance” of course. As you wrote “They don’t care about the facts at all.” Have you a strategy for taking proliferation off the table?

    It’s easy to get depressed on the topic of countering the antinuclear lobby — which is so well-funded, by the combined forces of the “environmentalist” NGO’s and all the hydrocarbon interests. The pronuclear lobby is almost an empty camp in terms of a funded, staffed media presence. Who does NPR have in their Rolodex that can represent the “pro” position? If we are lucky, they will call Stewart Brand.

    By curious coincidence, Australia has two capable pronuclear representatives. BNC’s own Barry Brook of course. Another is Dr Ziggy Switkowski, former head of ANSTO. For examples of how Ziggy handles a media forum, have a listen to The Cost of Carbon: Australia’s nuclear options. To my surprise host Robyn Williams selected three discussants who actually had knowledge of the electrical generation business. So the 54 minutes was more informative than any media event I can remember.

    By contrast, listen to this 2008 interview with Per Peterson. The interviewer was Jared Kruzek, a student of Stanford engineering prof. Margot Gerritsen’s. Dr. Peterson is deeply knowledgeable, but I don’t think his answers will persuade the uncommitted.

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