Tuesday, November 20, 2007


As it is with other important issues, the debate about nuclear power has always been mainly political and not technical. Along with the added benefits of nuclear energy and the drastically reduced risks of this energy source compared with conventional sources of energy, the problem of nuclear waste which has been the biggest bee in everyone's bonnet has also been largely technically solved. The problem has been political; politicians and reactionary anti-nuclear environmentalists comparing nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the same breath and dissuading the nation from adopting the single most important source of power that can solve our energy crisis. Thus the pro-nuclear scientists and citizens who were arguing on technical grounds- a sound and honest strategy- nonetheless failed to see the political arguments that they would have to combat in order to get their message across. This is gradually changing now, and pro-nuclear citizens are also pointing out special interest and political strawmen in the anti-nuclear energy arguments. But there is still a long way to go in educating the general citizenry for whom the word "nuclear" is deeply rooted in fear and untrustworthiness.

I have just received my copy of a new book by Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, which makes a passionate yet reasoned plea for nuclear energy. Cravens is a journalist who was previously part of the anti-nuclear movement. As she researched the topic however, she realised that almost all her fears about nuclear energy were misfounded or exaggerated. Touring various nuclear sites in the country, she reached the conclusion that nuclear energy is the single best solution for combating our global energy crisis. I will review the book as soon as I finish.

But I realised that this issue also relates to the issue of proliferation I was talking about in the last post. The idealist position advocates a little proliferation everywhere. A much safer and more rewarding view would be to advocate giving technology for nuclear power to energy-hungry nations. Not weapons but technology. In fact this was the central point suggested by the report filed by Robert Oppenheimer and others (The Acheson-Lilienthal report) after the end of World War 2. In its new incarnation, it seems it is being rewritten by a group that George Schultz and Senator Sam Nunn have set up. Sam Nunn is one of the world's foremost experts and a longtime advocate of non-proliferation.

Details of the group's report and plan have not yet been made public. But in a recent lecture recorded by CSPAN, historian Richard Rhodes said that Nunn has a plan in mind wherein every country in the world would have nuclear technology, but would be at least one year away from making a nuclear weapon. This is a sound and significant plan and sounds very similar in spirit to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Let an international body give countries nuclear material and technology, but only that which can be used for generating nuclear power. For example, material provided should be Uranium enriched only to reactor grade (4% U-235) as well as reactor grade Plutonium. Both these materials need to be significantly processed (Uranium to greater than 90% U-235) in order to make them weapons grade. In case of reactor grade Plutonium, the only way it can be used in a bomb is to use relatively large amounts of it. Any such diversion of material for weapons and the technological infrastructure needed to process it can be easily detected by a system of international monitoring, where countries have to keep detailed records of what goes in and comes out.

But for such a development to take place, countries first have to embrace nuclear energy as a solution to their energy problems. At some point or the other, every country in the world, whether fundamentalist or democratic, whether capitalist or socialist, is going to need a novel source of energy to replace fossil fuels, the deleterious effects from which affect everybody. It is only when they see great promise in nuclear power can they become amenable and even eager to partake of nuclear energy without wanting to build nuclear weapons.

Thus, the idealist position of providing nuclear technology to all nations in my opinion is intimately related to the desire of all nations to want that technology in the first place. Thus, the case for nuclear energy should become a mainstay of the case for non-proliferation of the kind that policy makers are trying to advocate. It is only by including the beneficial effects of nuclear energy in their proposals, that proponents of non-proliferation will make it easier for other countries to want to accept nuclear energy and give up nuclear weapons.

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Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Isn't this what NPT is all about- giving know-how to energy hungry nations but extracting from them a promise of not building weapons.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, the problem is that the NPT also had the requirement of the existing nuclear powers reducing their weapons to very low levels, something that has not happened at all. Even new proposals won't work until the US and Russia agree to reduce their nukes and do it really fast. I am really hoping that the Schultz-Nunn plan will have expedient measures and provisions for doing this. I believe we should scrap the NPT and have a new policy in its place that absolutely requires the US to reduce its stockpile first and foremost. I don't know how soon that will happen though, given the US's loud voice in such matters.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Manasi said...

I doubt if simply stressing upon the benefits of nuclear energy would convince or even encourage countries to give up nuclear weapons. Most countries start of with the expressed need for nuclear energy to feed their energy hungry states. However, after a while it turns into a situation of 'makadachya hatat kolit'. Of course I am generalizing here. But the truth is that even countries with a proper understanding of benefits of nuclear energy end up going for nuclear weapons sooner or later. as for international monitoring..I think the IAEA has done a decent job, and doubt if it can ever be more stringent. It would be an ideal situation where countries keep a thorough record of all that goes in and comes out. Most of them will want to cheat. We take a very morally upright stance, but even then we do not provide 100% information about what we do. We did not let the Indo-US deal include all reactors for IAEA monitoring. The deal shows how well we understand the benefits of nuclear energy, but none of us can be sure what we will do with the 'Indian uranium'. I don't think simply understanding the promise of nuclear energy will keep any country with the technology and means to want to build weapons. It will need a lot more than that. We are expecting too much goodness out of people who make these vital decisions.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

One of the problems with monitoring is that that it takes very less Pu (about 5 kg) to make a workable bomb. So the error allowed in reporting has to be extremely less. As for desires for nuclear weapons, if we make out the scenario as "Nuclear for power, otherwise not at all" then countries may embrace that option. But yes, it is very difficult to prevent some cheating, that's why the realist option sounds better. As for India, you know that I don't understand why we need to develop more weapons and have reactors prohibited from inspection.

9:28 AM  

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