December 2002

Nonessential Nukes, November 26, 2002
By Edwin S. Lyman and Paul L. Leventhal

[Posted 02/12/2002]

'Peaceful' fuels are potential deadly weapons.

There is growing alarm over a gathering storm of nuclear dangers: terrorists pursuing homemade atomic bombs, Iraq capable of going nuclear as soon as it acquires smuggled nuclear material, India and Pakistan embarked on a nuclear arms race, North Korea acknowledging a new nuclear weapons program, Japanese political leaders openly boasting of nuclear weapons capability as Japan prepares to open a huge plutonium plant.

These threats have a common thread. Each reflects the outcome of a long history of missed opportunities by the United States and other nuclear suppliers to halt commercial production and use of explosive nuclear materials. These materials are "peaceful" fuels for nuclear reactors, but they are also suitable for making nuclear weapons. Access to them or to the technologies for producing them provides the wherewithal for nations and groups to go nuclear.

Today the amount of plutonium in civilian nuclear power programs rivals that in nuclear arsenals, and bomb-grade uranium remains the fuel of choice for operators of research reactors. The ability of international inspections and national physical protection measures to keep these fuels from being diverted or stolen is problematic at best. Even if these were essential fuels, needed to keep the lights on, factories running and medical science advancing, they would be too dangerous to use. But they aren't essential: Nuclear power and research needs can be met without the weapons-suitable fuels, because low-enriched uranium fuels, unsuitable for weapons, are readily available or under active development.

The current generation of nuclear power reactors already operates on low-enriched or natural uranium. Plutonium fuels are being introduced simply to draw down surpluses that never should have been created in the first place. Development of the plutonium-fueled breeder reactor provided the original rationale for producing civilian plutonium, but the breeder has caused enormous cost and safety problems everywhere it has been tried, and it should be abandoned. Continuing efforts to convert research reactors from bomb-grade to low-enriched uranium fuels should be accelerated and completed. Of equal importance is the need to get rid of the explosive fuels already produced. This can be accomplished by denaturing bomb-grade uranium into low-enriched fuel for power reactors -- something already being done with 500 tons of surplus Russian weapons uranium -- and by disposing of plutonium (which cannot be denatured) in highly radioactive or highly diluted waste.

But two great obstacles stand in the way of eliminating the commercial use of explosive nuclear materials. First is the average citizen's unwillingness to dwell on the dangers of nuclear explosives going astray. Who, after all, wants to contemplate his own nuclear annihilation? Yet unless there is a popular push on governments to adopt available solutions, there can be little hope of stemming the flows of these city-busting explosives.

Second is the reluctance of nuclear experts and policymakers to acknowledge and deal aggressively with a global cancer of their own making. Diplomatic efforts begun by the Ford and Carter administrations to steer the world clear of civilian use of plutonium and bomb-grade uranium were mostly abandoned after they met fierce resistance from the nuclear industry and bureaucracy both at home and abroad. Having failed to prevent the unnecessary spread of explosive nuclear fuels, policymakers now seek to make a virtue out of managing them. But as the situation with India and Pakistan suggests, controlling nuclear weapons made from civilian fuels could be an exercise in managing the unmanageable, with horrific consequences. Managing these fuels once they are obtained by Saddam Hussein or by terrorists is out of the question.

The United States and Russia are ideally positioned to lead the way as they prepare to dispose of tons of surplus weapons plutonium. But their nuclear bureaucracies share a devotion to plutonium, and they now plan to introduce weapons plutonium as fuel in their commercial power plants. Moreover, a program to convert all research reactors in the world to low-enriched fuel is now threatened by a plan to import Russian weapons uranium for use in some U.S. research reactors instead of having it denatured. These are precisely the wrong examples for the world and raise risks of nuclear terrorism in both countries.

The situation has the makings of what the late historian Barbara Tuchman described in "The March of Folly": the pursuit of disastrous policies contrary to self-interest. To qualify as folly, she wrote, "a policy must have been seen as counter-productive in its own time" and "a feasible alternative course of action must have been available."

Calamitous nuclear folly on a global scale can still be averted. Alternatives to explosive nuclear fuels are readily available. If we are to avoid a world awash in nuclear weapons, we must stop the folly and pursue the alternatives.

Edwin S. Lyman is president of the Nuclear Control Institute. Paul L. Leventhal is the institute's president emeritus and co-editor of the book "Nuclear Power and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Back to contents