The world's energy sources are running low. Nuclear energy has the potential of becoming the most effective type of energy the world has ever seen. It is the safest, cleanest, cheapest, and most efficient type of energy. Yet, it carries the risk of a reactor meltdown and lots of harmful released radiation. Power plants are not the only source of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons produce a much more deadly type of energy. Some argue that nuclear weapons are essential to the safety of the world and proliferation is not at all a big problem. Not true. Nuclear weapons have killed hundreds of thousands of people and have the potential of destroying most life on Earth. More and more countries are obtaining and developing nuclear weapons. Should we stick with the advantages of nuclear energy or should we get rid of all nuclear-energy-related equipment in fear of catastrophe? Let's examine the different viewpoints.
There has been much debate on nuclear energy. The issues can be best summarized as follows:
Ever since the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, many people have wondered about nuclear weapons and the risk they pose to the world. It is known that there are more than enough nuclear weapons in existence today to kill everyone in the world. Many countries have nuclear weapons, and the threat of a nuclear war brings fear to many. Some people believe that it is necessary to have nuclear weapons. Others believe that all nuclear weapons should be disposed of and further manufacturing of them should be deemed illegal by international law. Still others are content with the existence of nuclear weapons, but seek stricter methods to control their use. Here, we examine some facts about nuclear weapons and differing viewpoints.
Concern about the spread of such weapons dates back to World War II. After the detonation of the two U.S. atomic bombs over Japan in August 1945, the United States understood how massively destructive these weapons could be. The United States also realized the powerful security value of nuclear weapons. Through the threat of nuclear retaliation, the United States could deter almost any nation from attacking it or its allies.
These security benefits were not ignored by other nations. In 1949, the Soviet Union, head of the Warsaw Pact alliance in Eastern Europe, became the second nation to develop and test a nuclear weapon. Thus began the nuclear arms race. In the ensuing years, the two superpower foes built the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. But they managed to refrain from using them, a restraint that was tested most severely during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that brought the United States and the Soviet union to the brink of war. Ironically, many experts believe that nuclear weapons have helped prevent such an outcome: neither side dared risk initiating hostilities that could lead to a devastating nuclear strike.
Today, with the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, concern over the threat of a nuclear confrontation has shifted to other nations, primarily those of the Third World. In 1974, India became the sixth nation to test a nuclear device. And in 1979, U.S. satellite photos revealed that Israel, in collaboration with South Africa, also may have tested a nuclear device. Both Israel and India, located in volatile regions with long histories of war and agression, apparently sought nuclear weapons for many of the same reasons as the United States and the Soviet Union--to increase their security and protect their borders.
In the Middle East, the tiny nation of Israel has long been embroiled in conflict with its surrounding Arab neighbors. Terrorism and uprisings stemming from Arab-Jewish differences mark the region as one of the most unstable in the world. Since 1948, Israel has been directly invovled in six wars or invasions flanked by traditional enemies--pakistan and China. Here, regional disputes frequently erupted over the possession of Kashmir, a territory north of India now divided and occupied by all three nations.
The idea of these volatile nations possessing nuclear weapons has prompted much concern among the United States and other Western nations. They fear that a nuclear device in the hands of an irrational, militaristic dictator in Syria, Pakistan, or other Third World state could be used to threaten neighboring enemies, the United States, or one of its allies. They are concerned, too, with the possibility of a crude nuclear device falling into the hands of terrorists, who could then detonate it or use it as a form of blackmail.
But many Third World nations suspect of developing nuclear weapons assert that they should be allowed to obtain them for the same reason the United States and Russia have them: to defend their territories as best they can. As Iran's vice president, Sayed Ataollah Mohajerani, stated in 1991, "Since Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons, we, the Muslims, must cooperate to produce an atomic bomb, regardless of UN attempts to prevent proliferation." Arab leaders argue that their nations are victims of a double standard: the West condones the ownership of nuclear weapons technology and materials, but the United Sates, Russia, and others but denies it to Arab states. Arab states assert that they, too, would never use the weapons, but would merely have them to deter their enemies.
The North Koreans, who CIA Director Robert Gates warned may be only a few months away from building an atomic bomb, did it all by themselves. "Things that were very difficult for the smartest people in 1943 are easy for ordinary people now," says Richard Garwin, a former nuclear-weapons designer. He also implied something along the lines of if the North Koreans can do it, anyone can do it.
At the same time, the collapse of the Russian economy is unleashing a flood of uranium ore and other nuclear materials into world markets. The West's attempt to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, has failed, and a new and much more dangerous era of nuclear proliferation has begun. "We should have pointed to Iraq as proof positive that the system doesn't work and that something much more aggressive must be put in place..." admits a senior U.S. official.
Now America and its allies may be facing a painful choice: Either use military force to prevent North Korea and others from going nuclear, or learn to live in a world in which nearly every nation that wants nuclear weapons has them. A white paper issued by the South Korean Defense Minsitry ominously warned that North Korea's bomb program "must be stopped at any cost." U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz says "We'd like to see a political solution to this. It's not the time to start discussing military options. But we haven't ruled anything out."
North Korea's approach to building the bomb is a case study of how a determined country can evade international controls--and without much outside help, either. The North Koreans have successfully built their own Manhatten project without any international inspection agency finding them out. They have successfully overcome every checkpoint of the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspection and monitoring efforts. And many more countries are doing this as well. Skilled technicians from the former Soviet Union are now working in Libya and Algeria. North Korea even received technical aid from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in uranium mining and assaying and had reactor operators trained by the Soviet Union as part of an IAEA-sanctioned deal.
Even designing a nuclear weapon, once the most closely guarded of all secrets, is now not a terribly difficult task for a physicist anywhere. "What's classified today is how to build a good weapon," says a senior scientist, "not how to build a weapon." Mathematical problems that challenged some of the best minds in the world during the Manhattan Project can now be solved on a personal computer. What's more, not all the best minds in the world are in the West anymore. Citizens of Taiwan, South Korea, and India, for example, account for more than 2,600 of the science and engineering Ph.D.'s awarded annually by American universities.
But with the equivalent of only 40 full-time inspectors to cover close to 1,000 declared nuclear installations, the IAEA has its hands full already. And what especially concerns many nuclear experts is the increasing ease with which a determined nation can gain direct access to the critical technologies needed to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium as well as to weaponsgrade materials themselves. Once a nation has the ability to manufacture its own highly enriched uranium or plutonium, no inspection regime is worth very much. It takes only a few weeks to make plutonium from a sealed and monitored storage depot into a nuclear bomb. Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Israel, and South Africa all have declared reprocessing or enrichment plants in operation.
The bottom lineis: the threat of nuclear proliferation is very serious and should not be taken lightly.
The problem of nuclear proliferation is grossly exaggerated. Because government confidentiality and ignorant news reporters drawing their own conclusions, the general public has been misinformed. The problem really isn't that severe and solutions are much simpler than they seem.
Very few people are actually informed enough to understand that getting the bomb is much harder that most strategists believe. It requires a wide array of advanced technology and a huge and expensive industrial infrastructure. This means that the international community continues to have "timely warning" in which to take action to stop a potential proliferator. In the process of building a nuclear weapon capability, proliferation states are highly vulnerable to cut-offs of technology and equipment, diplomatic pressure, and covert action.
Up to now, the international nonproliferation efforts have been extremely successful, especially given the meager resources that have been devoted to the task. The intellectual logic that supports a freezing or reversing of the nuclear programs throughout the world--"winning the battle"--is set out in a series of propositions.
Proposition 1 - Nuclear proliferation is a finite problem
The first and most important proposition is that the proliferation problem is finite, involving only a comparatively small number of serious problem countries, and that number is unlikely to grow in the foreseeable future. The fatalistic assumption that proliferation will continue indefinitely to all regions of the world, and that 20 or more countries will get the bomb, is not supported by either historical evidence or detailed analysis.
More importantly, for the last 10 years the proliferation problem has been limited to approximately a dozen nations. While 40 to 45 countries are sometimes cited as having the technical capability to begin a nuclear weapons program, most countries have clearly and deliberatedly opted out of the nuclear proliferation game. Not only are more than 140 countries parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty, but all but a few of those countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea) are genuine parties to the treaty and represent no nuclear proliferation problem. Many nations that were considered potential problem countries 15 to 30 years ago are no longer of proliferation concern, a testament in part to the success of the international nonproliferation regime. Today, it is remarkable to remember that Egypt, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Yugoslavia, were all once considered potential problem countries.
Proposition 2 - Nuclear proliferation is reversible
A third proposition is that nuclear proliferation is not a one-way street. Reversing the tide is possible. Indeed, U.S. policy interventions both in the mid-1970s and recently have already succeeded in shortening the list of active problem states from approximately a dozen to about seven.
In the 1970s, the United States forced South Korea and Taiwan to take steps which reversed their nascent nuclear weapon programs. In the early 1980s, the United States took steps that have had the effect of significantly reducing Libya's nuclear proliferation potential. With the substantial recent progress made in diffusing the nuclear competition between Argentina and Brazil, these two long-time problem states have moved into the category of probable success stories. The complete implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, if achieved, could force Iraq into remission for a substantial period. With international attention focused on Iraq, rebuilding a covert nuclear weapon program there will be far more difficult than it was in the past.
South Africa's signing of the Nonproliferation Treaty could set an even more remarkable precedent. If South Africa ratifies the NPT, presents a credible accounting of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to the IAEA, and places its entire stockpile under safeguards, it would become the first case of real nuclear disarmament in history--South Africa would be the first former de facto nuclear-weapon state.
In short, active policy initiatives taken by the United States, by other nonproliferation leaders, and by domestic political leaders opposed to nuclear weapon development within various problem countries have created a new category of states that are "in remission."
Proposition 3 - Nuclear export controls can control states with advanced capabilities
The fifth pillar of the winning strategy is the conclusion that nuclear export controls have substantial utility even against states with advanced industrial capabilities. At a minimum, export controls ensure that a nuclear weapon program will be correctly identified as such early on. In every known case, export controls have forced proliferating countries to take steps in acquiring equipment and materials that clearly label their effort as being directed toward a military program. There is no need to set up a covert purchasing system or to acquire various specialized equipment if one wants only a peaceful nuclear power program. While proliferating states may hide behind the peaceful atomic rhetoric, informed government officials in dozens of countries now have sufficient intelligence and analytical capability to differentiate between peaceful and military adtivities.
Proposition 4 - The U.S. has several opportunities to solve this "crisis"
The final tenet of the winning strategy is simply that we are now faced with several golden opportunities that may never come again. First, the United States has an unprecedented opportunity to show the world through its own actions that nuclear weapons are only useful for deterring the use of nuclear weapons, not for extended deterrence. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the United States no longer requires extended deterrence to protect its vital interests in Western Europe. The current conventional balance on the Korean peninsula is sufficiently stable (from the West's point of view), that the United States could consider quietly removing U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea. Similarly, some retired naval officers have concluded that fighting efficiency of the fleet could be improved if tactical nuclear weapons were removed from our surface ships.
As a result of all of these factors, it is now time to think "big" concerning a multilateral initiative to "solve" the proliferation problem in these key states. One first step would be to put together an international coalition and a package of incentives to convince these states to STOP (simultaneously terminate operation and production) at all their nuclear facilities that produce unsafeguarded weapons-grade material. A STOP initiative would be an excellent multilateral confidence-building measure. The fundamental value of a STOP approach is that it would serve as a first step to bring countries that have already proliferated and are unwilling to immediately roll back their nuclear programs into the arms control arena, capping their nuclear weapon potential. A STOP initiative would be easier to verify that a nuclear-weapon-free zone proposal because a state would only have to show that a specific facility was no longer operating. This could be done in a variety of ways, including the use of the technical means of third parties, without initially going through the politically difficult step of applying full-scope IAEA safeguards. A STOP agreement could be made for a limited time period and continued if other states in the region took parallel steps which the initiating state believed would be needed before the initiative were made permanent.
Nuclear power isn't dead. It runs France and will soon run Japan. The United States relies on it, with some 110 commercial reactors generating about one-fifth of the nation's electricity, more reactors than any other country in the world. Electricity from nuclear fission continues to be the most comprehensive source of energy available to meet growing U.S. demand--the cleanest and the safest of major sources. Some people will find these statements scandalous. Others will welcome them as nothing less than common sense and plain truth. So, here we offer two opinions:
The "danger" of nuclear energy has been completely overblown by the public and the press. People are confusing nuclear power plants with atomic bombs just because they both work on the principle of nuclear fission. It is as if some nuclear opponents believe that abolishing the lesser evil (radiation from malfunctioning nuclear plants) will somehow reduce the greater evil (the bomb). This exercise in futility illustrates how hopeless and helpless most people feel about the clear and growing danger of atomic war. Atomic electricity, on the other hand, is not yet beyond the reach of corrective public action. As a surrogate for the bomb, atomic energy can be fought, protested, and possibly defeated, even though such a victory would not resolve the issue of the presence of atomic weapons.
The only major disaster involving nuclear power plants has been the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviet scientists have since then admitted that the reactors at Chernobyl were mismanaged and lacked many important safety features. Since then, however, all power plants have been equipped with state-of-the-art safety implementations and no other disasters have occured. The power plants in existence today are extremely safe--much safer than other types of energy-producing plants.
But even though this disaster killed a considerable number of people, it serves as no competition to other industries. For example, the chemical industry has a vast inventory of toxic wastes. The automobile industry, with their ubiquitous and unhealthy smog, causes 50,000 deaths a year. In fact, the coal power industry, a competing source of power with nuclear power plants, produces evident damage from acid rain and kills about 30,000 people per year with air pollution. In fact, all the deaths that will eventually be caused by the Chernobyl disaster, the largest ever nuclear disaster, comprise less than the number of deaths caused by coal-burning pollution each year. With regards to all major energy sources, nuclear energy is by far the safest, cleanest, and most efficient. One ton of uranium produces more energy than is produced by several million tons of coal or several million barrels of oil.
Current energy resources such as coal and oil are becoming extremely depleted and will run out in the near future. Their best replacement is nuclear energy. The 110 nuclear power plants in the United States produce about one-fifth of the nation's electricity as of now. It has been shown that nuclear energy is the safest, cleanest, cheapest, and most efficient energy source. Much of the safety issue has been blown out of perspective mainly because of the fear of an ignorant public. Also now, a much better waste site is being built. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing to worry about--that could never be the case for anything. The point is that nuclear energy, overall, is the most effective type of energy and its dangers have been overblown.
Nuclear energy has caused many disasters and is extremely dangerous. The nations of the world now have enough nuclear bombs to kill every person on Earth several times. Disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island clearly illustrate the catastrophic potential of nuclear reactors. The disaster at Russia's Ural mountains shows the destructive potential of nuclear waste. Even the damage to people caused by radiation isn't treatable with current medical technology. Even if nuclear energy is an effective source of energy, now is simply not the time to implement it.
The two strongest nations--Russia and the United States--have about 50,000 nuclear weapons between them. What if there were to be a nuclear war? Or what if nuclear weapons were launched by accident? Nuclear explosions produce nuclear radiation. The nuclear radiation harms the cells of the body which can make people sick or even kill them. Illness can strike people years after their exposure to nuclear radiation. Because more and more countries are obtaining nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear weapon being detonated has become so great as to be unbearable .
In 1979, the cooling system failed at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Radiation leaked, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. The program was solved minutes before a total meltdown would have occured. Fortunately, there were no deaths. In 1986, a much worse disaster struck Russia's Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This time, a great deal of radiation leaked. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to the radiation. Several dozen died within a few days. In the future, thousands more may die of cancer caused by the radiation.
Nuclear reactors also have waste disposal problems. Reactors produce nuclear waste products, which emit dangerous radiation. Because they could kill people who touch them, even in future years, nuclear waste cannot be thrown away like ordinary garbage. Currently, many nuclear wastes are stored in special pools at the nuclear reactors. The United States plans to move its nuclear waste to a remote underground dump during the late 1990s. In 1957, at a dump site in Russia's Ural Mountains, several hundred miles from Moscow, buried nuclear wastes mysteriously exploded killing dozens of people.
Many of the victims in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl died of diseases (particularly cancers) caused by radiation. There are no known medical technique to determine the amount of radiation a person has been exposed to. In addition, there are only replacement techniques available to treat these cancers. For example, lukemia (cancer of the blood) can only be "cured" with a bone marrow transplant to replenish the body's supply of white blood cells. At a major disaster such as Chernobyl, it would be impossible to get willing donors with specific blood types to all the thousands of cancer victims. With the threat of a nuclear meltdown and no relatively effective treatment technology available, the nations of the world cannot take the risk of having nuclear power plants.