Nuclear Power: The Driving Force Behind Nuclear Weapons

by Lorna Salzman

The development of commercial nuclear power in the United States began as an offshoot of the military nuclear weapons program and became a convenient means of attracting public attention away from that program (and, not incidentally, of employing vast number of scientists, engineers and technicians left over from the weapons program).

But commercial nuclear power development quickly diverged and accelerated, with the help of vast Federal subsidies, tax benefits, economic incentives, and exemption from liability; according to a Battelle Laboratory study, these subsidies total to date well over 40 billion dollar, even though nuclear energy provides at this moment less energy than firewood in this country.

Fissionable materials for the weapons program in this country after the war were produced by highly enriched uranium and by production of plutonium in special military reactors. Until now, commercial spent fuel was not reprocessed for the domestic military weapons program (an exception was the West Valley N.Y. reprocessing plant, Nuclear Fuel Services, a Getty Oil subsidiary, which operated for six years at a financial loss, some of whose spent fuel by-products — plutonium-239 —were apparently exported for use in foreign nuclear weapons manufacture).

But abroad the picture was and is quite different. Because most nuclear energy programs in both the western industrial nations and the less developed nations are under control of the national governments, public participation has been much less than here. In western Europe awareness and opposition is at a high level but without the opportunity to alter national energy policy or halt nuclear power development; in the less developed countries, energy policy, like all policies, is made by the technocratic and power elites unilaterally. These programs have not been indigenous but rather are the results of deliberate efforts by the industrial nations' financial, economic and political controlling interests to hook these nations into the complex and costly infrastructure of commercial nuclear energy. Through active exports of tools and technology, training programs, financial assistance, ostensible >>safeguards>>, the intent was to make less developed countries dependent on western nuclear technology, financial institutions, and bureaucratic control.

In their anxiety to promote nuclear energy worldwide, the industrial powers have in effect established a competition for who can sell the most the fastest and the cheapest. For the U.S. this became crucial as the demand for new electric capacity dropped, the price of electricity soared, and inflation beset labor, materials and construction (and public opposition increased). Hundreds of planned reactors in the U.S. have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed; the reactor division of General Electric has always operated at a loss, and it is safe to say that the fission >>dream>>— really a nightmare—is nearing its end domestically. The industry's only hope, therefore, is to revive itself through the export of nuclear technology. Towards this end, the government and related agencies have devised financial,promotional and scientific schemes, all of which are in the end supported by American taxpayers.

One fatal flaw exists, however: the fact that possession of nuclear fuel and technology directly provides purchasers with the capability of manufacturing nuclear weapons. According to the Congressional Research Service and others, ...>>The present and future problems of proliferation appear to originate mainly with the nuclear supplier nations of the free world ...Any industrial nation which wishes to make nuclear weapons can do so without external aid so long as it can get uranium ores>>.

The route to nuclear weapons can be through establishment of reprocessing facilities, which separate out unfissioned uranium and plutonium-238 from irradiated reactor fuel, through high enrichment of uranium-235; through the new technique of isotope separation of uranium-235 and uranium-238. In turn, reprocessing inevitably leads to initiation of a fast breeder reactor program utilizing uranium-238 and plutonium-239, with the hopes of obtaining additional plutonium to fuel other reactors. This is what France is doing today.

Both president Ford and Carter implemented a policy of foregoing commercial spent fuel reprocessing, but the Reagan administration has expressed its desire to reverse this and by so doing would make absolutely clear to U.S. citizens the direct link of nuclear energy to nuclear weapons. But even if reprocessing does not occur, this country continues to promote and export nuclear fuel, reactors, technology, and training programs to less developed countries all over the world, including many that we do not even trust to handle nuclear materials. President Carter proposed to bring back spent fuel from these nations so they would not be able to reprocess the fuel and extract plutonium for weapons construction; this raised the question of just why we were providing nations we cannot trust with nuclear technology in the first place).

Some of the ways the United States is abetting nuclear proliferation worldwide

1. Nuclear exports. Not counting foreign component sales, Westinghouse and G.E. have sold 53 reactors abroad but the actual number is far higher due to joint ventures with European and Japanese concerns which also benefit U.S. reactor suppliers. The U.S. dominates the enriched uranium market and had a monopoly on uranium enrichment until 1974. France, Germany and Canada, however, are now the chief competition, with Framatome supplanting Westinghouse as the leading reactor supplier, followed by Kraftwerk Union. These countries as well as the U.S. are also providing reprocessing technology to other countries. Canada is now entering the export market vigorously, hoping to replace the U.S. light-water reactor that uses low-enriched uranium (and potentially provides much more plutonium for eventual reprocessing).

2. Propaganda, promotion and training. Through the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA), a sub-agency of the United Nations, ostensibly established to conduct international safeguards, nuclear energy has been vigorously promoted and world nuclear scientists and engineers. The IAEA has many flaws, not the least of which is the fact that it cannot detect incipient diversion of nuclear materials but only after-the-fact detection, and that a nation is not required to place all of its nuclear facilities under IAEA inspection. Thus, secret reprocessing facilities could operate anywhere in the world without the IAEA knowing of them. About one third of the IAEA budget comes from the U.S. but only about 20% of the total budget goes for safeguards. No fulltime onsite inspectors are deployed, and it relies on materials accounting rather than physical inspection. The IAEA cannot deal with nonstate adversaries such as terrorists, subversives or fanatics; even if it detects diversion of nuclear materials, no tough international sanctions exists to deter others.

3. Hoax of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Aside from the fact that three major nuclear superpowers have not signed the NPT (France, India and China), the Treaty has a builtin contradiction. Those who sign the Treaty agree to forego weapons manufacture and stockpiling but in exchange they are guaranteed >>fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy>>. (They can withdraw from the Treaty with 3 months' notice if they wish). In view of the fact that the IAEA cannot detect the existence of secret reprocessing or weapons manufacture facilities, this guarantee to Treaty signers of nuclear technology completely undercuts the intent of the vow to forego weapons manufacture.

4. Export-Import Bank loans. The export-import bank provides subsidies in the form of low-cost loans to foreign countries to encourage them to purchase American products. The subsidies for nuclear exports are greater than for any other single category of U.S. exports, according to the Council of Economic Priorities study >>Power Politics: The Nuclear Industry and Nuclear Exports>> Ex-Im serves two functions: to bail out ailing American industries, and to further U.S. international strategies and goals. Since 1974, ten less developed countries have received Ex-Im financing totaling 5 billion dollar to buy 18 of our reactors, none of which they could have otherwise afforded; among beneficiaries of Ex-Im aid are many repressive countries, including the Philippines (where G.E. exported a reactor for construction near an active volcano), South Korea, and Taiwan. The Shah of Iran was also a recipient of 620 million dollars in the early 1970's, which was used to purchase U.S. armaments. Ex-Im functions by providing loans at very low interest rates (6%), combined with private banks' commercial rates, which functions to lower the total loan interest. Ex-Im gets repayment, however, only after the private banks are repaid; thus if a loan is defaulted, it is the U.S. taxpayers who pick up the tab.

5. International fuel cycle center. The nuclear superpowers, ostensibly concerned about nuclear proliferation and the problem of safeguards, are now discussing international fuel cycle centers which would concentrate enrichment, fabrication, reprocessing and radioactive waste storage facilities in one or more site under international control. However, these presents sever political and safety problems because they would sanction the production and use of plutonium and would make multiple facilities even more vulnerable to sabotage or terrorism. They would in no way eliminate the problems associated with transport of fuel to and from reactors. By their very nature they would make usable plutonium available to other nations and an item of ordinary commerce, thus relieving terrorists of the difficulty of reprocessing spent fuel. Finally, they would undercut movements in less developed countries to develop indigenous, safe, less costly energy sources by consolidating control, financing, and supervision in the hands of a limited number of industrial superpowers who, in the end, would be the chief beneficiaries.

Why we must shut down the nuclear power/weapons industry and terminate all nuclear exports.

While a nuclear freeze and eventual disarmament of the Soviets and the U.S. are vitally important, the continued export of nuclear technology on the other hand only exacerbates the threat of a nuclear conflagration. Such a nuclear outbreak, in the near east or anywhere in the world could lead in turn to involvement of the superpowers and an all-out war. If we desire to prevent nuclear war, we must counteract the threat at all the sources. It would be folly to freeze U.S.-Soviet arms with one hand, and with the other continue to hand out to all comers the means to manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons.

How to disarm the world

Establish an international renewable energy institute to disseminate information, technology, personnel, and low-cost loan programs to enable less developed countries to develop renewable appropriate energy sources; end the promotional and training role of the IAEA and limit it to safeguards only; end the pretense that nuclear safeguards are or can be effective to any significant degree; reduce the proliferation threat at its source by phasing out nuclear weapons stockpiles and commercial nuclear power plants.

Source: FOE-Link, 2/82.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.