Archive for the ‘Nunn’ Category

Power to save the world…in two ways

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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To proliferate or not?

November 20, 2007

One of the central questions debated among nuclear policy thinkers- perhaps the central question- is whether the world will be a safer place by allowing a little nuclear proliferation or by aiming for complete disarmament. This is essentially a debate between realists and idealists the way I see it. The idealist approach is not wrong. But the realist approach may be more feasible.

The realists say that nuclear weapons are here to stay. But they put great faith in the concept of deterrence and contend that if every nation in the world has a few nuclear weapons, all of them will be deterred and the threat of nuclear war will actually reduce. The realists also think that the potential threat from nuclear weapons can also limit the extent of conventional warfare.

The realist way of thinking is not new. After the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, AEC Chairman David Lilienthal and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convened meetings to discuss and propose a daring plan called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Their report started out by saying that nuclear technology can be obtained and used by anyone, no matter how much the United States would like to think of it as a secret. In such a scenario, it is better to provide the know-how to states and then have an international body keeping an official watch on these states so that such a situation is much safer than states developing such technology clandestinely. The existence of an international nuclear energy watchdog who kept a check on all states was key to the proposal.

The plan looked radical then; it would unfortunately be viewed as radical now. Naturally given the antagonistic political atmosphere of the times, the plan was not accepted without a great deal of modification by the administration and not surprisingly, promptly rejected by the Soviets.

The idealist way of thinking says that no matter if the realistic position works to some extent, it has fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that even if the probability of a nuclear war is extremely low, what if a madman decides to use his weapons? The very existence of nuclear weapons means that we will have to face the consequences of them being used, even if the probability of such a use is low. Secondly, the distribution of nuclear weapons does not exactly solve the problem, but pushes it under the rug. The peace such a situation entails can only be an uncertain, strained peace.

I have always been in two minds when it comes to this debate. I agree to a large extent that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that it better to have an states possess them and then have an international body keep an official watch on them, rather than to have states clandestinely develop them. Right now, about 30 countries have the material and technology to build a crude nuclear bomb virtually with their bare hands. This knowledge cannot be taken away from them. I also think the realist position is strengthened by the existence of something that the original realists did not have to consider- nuclear terrorism. In the light of this plausible catastrophe, it becomes even more important to stop states from developing nuclear technology clandestinely and passing it to terrorists. We have seen several instances of such proliferation involving Iran, North Korea and especially Pakistan. Pakistani scientists have been known to have briefed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri on WMDs. A. Q. Khan’s nuclear black market is well-known. From the realist point of view, it is far better to have nuclear material accounted for and officially distributed and tracked to stop it from falling into terrorist hands. The problem with the realist plan is that it depends on an unbiased system of international cooperation where countries don’t browbeat or lobby the international body to advance their interests. As we know from the examples of the UN and the IAEA, this seldom happens and more often than not such a policy results in the existence of certain nations who wield even bigger influence than the international body on key matters. Realism will also, just like the idealistic scenario described below, need the US and Russia to largely dismantle their nuclear fleet to level the playing field.

On the other hand, the idealistic position if it can be realised sounds blissful indeed. A world free of nuclear weapons. The idealists have a point when they say that only a world free of these weapons would have gotten completely rid of the possibility of them being used, no matter how small. Also, the idealistic scenario is not completely idealistic. After all, many countries have renounced their nuclear programs for various reasons. They have felt comfortable with their conventional forces, have decided to send out positive messages to other nations, have prospered in trade with nations that otherwise would not trade with them, and have obtained reassurances that the nuclear powers will help them out in case of an imagined emergency. The idealistic position seems to call the realistic position of assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be inevitable into serious doubt. The idealistic position also seems to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

For the idealist position to succeed, many problems would have to be solved. Treaties, viewed as unrealistic by many and condescendingly rejected by others, will have to be enforced. Countries will have to become much more cooperative. The illusion that only by having more nuclear weapons than your neighbor would make you safe needs to disappear. Most importantly, the two countries which have the largest numbers of weapons, the US and Russia, need to start on an expedited program of dismantling them. This program needs to have the urgency of the arms reductions programs in the late 80s. Such programs should aim to bring down the number of weapons on each side to perhaps a thousand, a goal that seems very far from the tens of thousands of weapons currently in their arsenals.

But the idealist position is on the table precisely because for many it does not sound idealistic. Former Secretary of State George Schulz and Senator Sam Nunn are drafting a radical proposal, perhaps similar to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The proposal necessarily needs to have a crash program for reducing US and Russian arsenals down in a few years. Then only will it gain enough weightage to dictate what to do in the rest of the world.

In the short term, the realist proposal seems to be feasible. Unfortunately, it will completely defeat the idealistic proposal of having a weapons-free world. I wish we could in fact implement the idealist plan. It might even be feasible to a limited sense. I think events in the next few years will dictate if it seems feasible or not. As of now, I am leaning more towards the realistic plan. In any case, international cooperation will be necessary, and the discussion of conditions for this to happen goes much beyond the limited issue of nuclear proliferation.