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Nuclear power and nuclear weapons always inextricably bound together

RICHARD BELL: Nuclear power heightens peril of nuclear weapons, RICHARD BELL https://www.thechronicleherald.ca/opinion/local-perspectives/richard-bell-nuclear-power-heightens-peril-of-nuclear-weapons-367646/In his Oct. 12 column, “Four parties’ climate change platforms blowing smoke; nuclear power offers way forward,” Bill Black says he wants to “have an honest conversation about climate change after the election.”

We could start by having an honest conversation about nuclear power.

I don’t disagree for a second that climate change poses an existential threat to the survival of the human species. But in his enumeration of a few of the problems with nuclear power, Black leaves out the biggest one: nuclear weapons. They are an existential threat to the survival of the human species right now.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear power have been inextricably bound together from the dawn of the atomic age. In the 1950s, the United States pushed a program called “Atoms for Peace,” acting as if it were possible to disentangle the peaceful uses of nuclear technology from the manufacture of weapons.

The problem here is that the atoms don’t know the difference between war and peace. When you train nuclear physicists, there’s not one textbook on atoms for peace and a different textbook on atoms for war. Giving people the knowledge and technology to build and operate nuclear power plants gives them almost all the knowledge they need to make at least crude nuclear weapons.

Once you know the physics, the only real limitation is getting your hands on enough fissile material to make a weapon. The world has been very fortunate thus far that making large enough quantities of fissile material is extremely expensive, something that only nation states have managed to finance, so far.

If you want to see how peaceful nuclear power leads directly to nuclear weapons, you have only to look at Canada’s role in India’s nuclear weapons program. India exploded its first nuclear weapon on May 18, 1974, using plutonium from a 40-megawatt CIRUS research reactor that Canada had donated under a plan to promote development. A condition of the donation was that it be used for peaceful purposes only — a condition that the Indians claimed to have met by declaring the blast a “peaceful nuclear explosive.”

The last thing we should be doing is spreading nuclear technology more broadly, since, in the end, such a policy will only increase the number of nations with nuclear weapons and make the threat of a nuclear war even more serious.

Black could also spend some time reading the history of attempts to rein in the dangers of nuclear proliferation caused by the spread of nuclear power plants.

He mentions, for example, that we could reduce the risk of proliferation by “providing a safe facility for other countries’ handling of spent fuel.” (Countries bent on going nuclear can extract plutonium from spent fuel.) There have been efforts to internationalize the control of nuclear materials, like having spent fuel handled in one place, since the United States floated the Baruch Plan at the United Nations in 1946. Every effort to establish such a “safe facility” has failed. There is nothing on the horizon to suggest that a new effort would succeed.

Nuclear power is a technology that has never matured. Each plant is a one-off, with construction cost overruns soaring into the billions in some of the most recent reactors, like the French one at Flamanville that was originally priced at $5.5 billion, and a few days ago reached $20.8 billion.

From the 1950s onward, nuclear power proponents have insisted that the “next generation” of nuclear power plants would finally solve all the problems that had bedevilled the industry thus far. But with each passing decade, the “next generation” has failed to deliver. Nuclear power turns out to be a fiendishly demanding and difficult way to boil water.

There is also plenty of evidence that the rapid drop in the price of renewable electricity from wind and solar is already competitive, if not cheaper, than new nuclear. As noted energy analyst Amory Lovins concluded in a 2017 paper published in The Electricity Journal, “Subsidizing distressed nuclear plants typically saves less carbon than closing them and reinvesting their saved operating cost into several fold-cheaper efficiency.”

Richard Bell lives in Musquodoboit Harbour. He is editor of the monthly newspaper, the Eastern Shore Cooperator. He is also co-author of the Sierra Club Book, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset, originally issued in 1982. Sierra Club Books commissioned an electronic update of the book on its 30th anniversary.

October 26, 2019 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, weapons and war

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