Peace and the nuclear industry: are "atoms for peace" possible?

By Lynn McDonald | 1994-09-01 12:00:00

President Eisenhower's famous "atoms for peace" speech at the United Nations General Assembly, June 1953, gave many the hope that the terrible technology unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 could be redeemed by its transformation into peaceful uses, including such noble aims as cheap energy for the poor of the Third World. Eisenhower argued for "more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace."

This did not happen, of course. Instead, his speech launched the domestic nuclear industry, which developed in tandem with the nuclear arms race. Indeed, in the next decades vast numbers of nuclear warheads were stockpiled, more lethal weapons and delivery systems were engineered, and more and more countries joined the "nuclear club."

Nuclear-generated power failed to be either cheap or safe. Not even the most advanced industrial countries have managed to produce it without massive state subsidies-subsidies that crowd out the search for safe, renewable alternatives and energy efficiency. No country has found a solution to the problem of radioactive waste disposal, a matter Eisenhower never addressed, but one of acute interest to ordinary citizens.

The proposal to recycle nuclear material, from now superfluous bombs, to fuel Canadian Candus is a reincarnation of Eisenhower's "swords into ploughshares" vision. The United States National Academy of Sciences has proposed that up to 100 million tons of weapons-grade plutonium could be burned up in regular power-generating reactors in as little as 10 years. Canada's Candus are considered ideal for the task, more readily adaptable than other types of reactors and (says the NAS) safer.

The prospect of deriving economic benefit from the highly toxic and radioactive plutonium from 4,500 unwanted nuclear warheads is tempting, but daunting problems remain. First are the opportunities for terrorists, from ordinary gangs intent on ordinary money extortion to nation-states seeking to solve any kind of problem with their neighbors. A nuclear bomb can be made with 10 kilos of plutonium. It could be a substantial threat even without an effective delivery system: dropping plutonium dust into a ventilation system could cause death and disease on a scale we do not care to consider.

The prospect of such terrorism made the United Kingdom's Royal Commission on Environment Pollution in the 1970s cautious about moving into the "plutonium economy." Although the chair of that commission, Brian Flowers, was in principle pro-nuclear, he urged postponement of such a critical step for "as long as possible." (Sixth report, recommendation 45) "The problems of safeguarding society against these hazards could become formidable (p. 81)."

They constituted a "central issue in the debate over the future of nuclear power (p. 82)."

Recycling plutonium from weapons into Candus would not substantially reduce the amount of plutonium to be dealt with, nor would it solve the problem of safe disposal. The spent fuel remaining would still be extremely toxic and long lived, while we know of no place on earth where it can be sure to be isolated from the biosphere for millions of years. As the Flowers' Commission acknowledged, "plutonium-contaminated waste... must be contained essentially forever (p. 60)," becoming a "legacy of risk and responsibility to our remote descendants (p. 80)."

It is surely time to acknowledge that there can be no safe domestic nuclear industry, that the expansion of the domestic industry will unnecessarily risk proliferation into nuclear weapons, and that the peaceful atom is an illusion.

Nuclear power, in fact, fails all the tests of sustainable energy:

uranium is itself in finite supply, so that reliance on it as a replacement for fossil fuels only postpones the switch to renewable sources, and nuclear power, more than any other energy source, breaks the rule of not producing wastes that are not biodegradable.

Its use in Canada raises particular issues of social justice. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited is actively promoting an international high-level radioactive waste dump on aboriginal land near Meadow Lake, Sask. More generally, it happens that aboriginal lands, in Australia and the American Southwest as well as in Canada, are the sites of large uranium deposits, so that First Nations' peoples have been disproportionately affected by the pollution associated with uranium mining.

Canadians are often unaware of how complicit we have been in the international arms race and, hence, how responsible we are for the accumulation of nuclear weapons as well as spent fuel from domestic use. Did we not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and even renounce the development of our own independent "force de frappe," the first nation that could have developed its own nuclear bombs but chose not to? True, yet:

Canada is the world's largest producer of uranium, over 80% of which is exported.

Much of this exported uranium finds its way into weapons production. "Depleted uranium," left over after the commercially valuable one-sixth is removed, can be and has routinely been transformed into plutonium 239. This can be used either directly as a nuclear explosive or as a trigger for the fission-fusion-fission H-bomb.

Depleted uranium is responsible for about half the explosive power in the world's nuclear arsenals, yet there are no international security measures regulating depleted uranium stocks. Canada's uranium exports, since 1965, have had to be for peaceful purposes. But, since most reactors require "slightly enriched uranium" as fuel, customers have it enriched in a weapons-producing country possessing the necessary facilities. (Canada has no such plant of its own.) The military then help themselves to the left-over depleted uranium, five-sixths of the amount initially delivered.

Similarly, the spent fuel from small research reactors, which bear the charmingly innocuous name of "Slowpoke," may end up in weapons. Since Canada has no uranium enrichment plant it purchases the "highly enriched uranium" required for its research reactors from the United States. Fuel rods returned to the United States (for credit on the next purchase) have subsequently been used for military production, notably at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina.

Some depleted uranium is used to increase the effectiveness of conventional armaments, especially bullets and tanks. Canadian uranium so used is now polluting the soil and water in the Persian Gulf.

Candu reactors produce, as well as more plutonium, more tritium than other types of reactors. A radioactive form of hydrogen, tritium is an environmental pollutant. It can cause cancer and genetic defects in humans and other animals. Tritium is also the secondary explosive in H-bombs. Ontario Hydro markets tritium worldwide, ostensibly for commercial uses. Yet there is fear that stolen or purchased tritium can be diverted into military uses.

Canada's early involvement in weapons production was even more overt. We refined all the uranium, at Port Hope, for the Manhattan Project. Canadian uranium was used for years in American bombs. Wesupplied Britain with its first militarily usable supplies of plutonium. The pilot work for its plutonium separation plant at Sellafield was done at Chalk River. French experts similarly learned how to separate plutonium in a secret wartime laboratory in Montreal.

As an act of international aid to a developing country, Canada gave India the research reactor it used to produce plutonium for its first atomic bomb, which it justified as a "peaceful nuclear explosive," not a weapon. Canada has since sold reactors, at bargain basement rates thanks to generous tax subsidies (via the Export Development Corporation), to Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan. Canada has contributed substantially to the proliferation of weapons-producing capacity.

The Campaign For Nuclear Phaseout

The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout was founded in 1990 as a coalition of environmental and other public interest groups. It has some 300 groups in support, including unions, women's organizations and church groups, as well as conventional environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Conservation Council of Saskatchewan, Concerned Citizens of Manitoba, and People Against Lepreau 2. It seeks the phaseout of the domestic nuclear industry in Canada and the end of exports of nuclear reactors and uranium.

In the last Parliament it supported a private member's bill to phase out the domestic nuclear industry and exports of reactors and uranium. The Mulroney government machinery succeeded in crushing the bill at second reading (contrary to its commitment to allow free votes on private members' bills), but forcing parliamentary attention to the issue for the first time in years. The Conservatives, before being elected, had promised a public inquiry on the nuclear industry, which never materialized.

The campaign was active in the promulgation of the "Summerside Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Future" of 1993, which links concerns both for peace and the environment:

The nuclear genie must be put back in the bottle. It can be done, because nuclear power has been proven uneconomic, unsafe and unnecessary. Nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity, and have no place in an equitable society. We stand on the edge of a new world, that will proudly rid itself of nuclear weapons, and that will renounce its unwise commitment to nuclear power and other non-renewable energy sources."

The campaign is now supporting legislation to end subsidies to the nuclear industry, an industry which nowhere has been able to survive without massive tax support. It has recently launched "RIP"-the Radioactive Inventory Project -to document the extent and nature of nuclear hot spots across the country. Focusing on the formidable costs of cleanup and waste maintenance should help make the case against the industry. Any subsidies granted, it is argued, should be directed to clean up activities such as decommissioning and nuclear waste maintenance, not to financing new reactors or uranium mines. Any international aid, similarly, should go to helping developing countries avoid the nuclear option and move more directly to safer, renewable sources of energy and more efficient use.

A new Parliament affords new opportunities: a government desperate to save money; a substantial Reform Party caucus antagonistic in principle to tax subsidies; and an official Opposition with no historic commitment to the nuclear industry, considerable bad experience with the nuclear option in Quebec, and many members fundamentally opposed to it.

The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout hopes to have significant participation by peace organizations and their supporters in this next phase to raise the crucial issues of non-proliferation and disarmament as well as those of environmental protection.

Thanks to Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility for material and advice.)

Lynn McDonald is chair of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Guelph. She is a former MP and NDP environment critic. She is a member of the steering committee of the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout. For further information contact the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, 1 Nicholas St., Suite 620, Ottawa, Ont., K1N 7B7. Tel/fax: (613) 789-3634.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1994, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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