Power to save the world…in two ways

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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