The Doomsday Industry: doomsayers and their agendas

A year ago, the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock were moved back, from five to six minutes before midnight. This suggested faint hope in the hearts of the clock’s keepers, the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What gave them hope was the rhetoric of the current U.S. president, who, in addition to resurrecting arms limitation talks with Russia appears to have been the first president ever to call for a nuclear-free world.

I mentioned at the time that the Bulletin was being a bit naïve: presidential rhetoric had not changed the Iran or Pakistan or North Korea situations—and those situations threatened billions of people.

At best, the much-touted rhetoric about a nuclear-free world has proved to have had absolutely no effect on those countries. The Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea situations have become worse in the year since the Bulletin moved the clock back. Iran continues to enrich uranium, the nuclear-armed Pakistani regime continues to prove daily it cannot control the violent extremists who seek to overthrow it, and North Korea has admitted it is enriching uranium in addition to making plutonium. If anything, the clock hands should have gone forward, not back.

Not only that, it was obvious at the time that these problems were nowhere close to being solved. Do the Doomsday Clock keepers not realize that superpowers-in-collision is not the only or even the biggest nuclear threat?

Moreover, how exactly is a nuclear-free world supposed to emerge? According to the Bulletin, the United States, its moral leadership in the world suddenly restored (it had lost that leadership during the Bush years), reduces then eliminates its nuclear arsenal. So do all other nuclear-armed countries. Why do they do this? Well, because the United States did.

Let’s assume that things actually did play out like that. Would the world be safer? It will be safer only if, after the last bomb is dismantled, the world magically forgets that there exists an explosive that is literally millions of times more powerful than conventional chemical explosive.

If we expect the world to forget that, we might as well also expect it to forget you can make a Molotov Cocktail with gasoline. I’m sorry to say, but the energy in the uranium nucleus became obvious to everybody when Lise Meitner published her correct interpretation that Otto Hahn’s neutron bombardment of uranium had split some uranium atoms—that was in early 1939. We cannot expunge that record, it’s part of science. And we can’t roll back time.

Nor will countries stop fighting one another. They will always strive for a tactical or strategic advantage. For a country that feels it faces an existential threat from a bigger and stronger enemy, the temptation will be too strong; the nuclear option will always be available. Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea have pursued nuclear weapons because they feel they face such threats.

In fact, consider what would happen if the US eliminated all its nuclear weapons tomorrow. Japan, South Korea, and probably Taiwan would go nuclear the day after that. All of these countries possess in abundance the technical and engineering expertise required to make nuclear bombs. All three have enemies that pose existential threats. The only reason they have not built weapons is because they are under America’s nuclear umbrella. If that umbrella were to disappear, they’d do what they had to do.

This ought to be obvious to anybody who gives the problem a little bit of critical thought. But for some reason, this notion that America is the agenda-setter on all things nuclear still prevails.

And it is pervasive. Take the issue of whether to recycle used nuclear fuel from civilian power reactors. All self-styled anti-proliferation advocates furiously oppose recycling. America stopped recycling in the 1970s and didn’t even begin talking seriously about it again until George W. Bush’s second term. Opponents came out of the woodwork, many voicing their opinions in the pages of the Bulletin. America must maintain its moratorium on recycling, they said, because its moral example would serve as a guide to other countries. According to them, if America resumed recycling the floodgates would open. Everybody and his brother would start recycling. Anti-proliferation activists claim there is a direct line between the civilian nuclear electricity industry and nuclear weapons. So if recycling were to expand around the world, then, according to the anti-proliferation crowd, everybody and his brother would have access to bomb material.

I shake my head when I hear such assertions. The UK, Russia, and France have been recycling nuclear fuel for decades; in fact France has intensified recycling during the US’s self-imposed moratorium. Nuclear utilities in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium have for years sent their used fuel to France for recycling. The French utility, EDF, sends reprocessed uranium to Russia for recycling. Japan is building a new recycling facility, with French help. On January 7 of this year, India began operation at its third civilian fuel recycling plant. China also recently signaled its intention to recycle nuclear fuel.

These developments utterly refute the notion that other nuclear countries even care whether the US recycles nuclear fuel or not, much less are inclined to follow the US example. Apparently they have all simply decided it makes sense, and have proceeded to do it.

Did it open the floodgates to proliferation? No. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, who all send used fuel to France for recycling, don’t have weapons today. We know this because they are part of Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community. Euratom has a system of safeguards, based on inspections similar to those of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, these countries are signatories to Agreement 78/164/Euratom with the IAEA. This was supplemented by Additional Protocol 1999/188/Euratom, which entered into force on 30 April 2004. The Additional Protocol gives inspectors great access to a country’s nuclear installations, and makes it very difficult for that country to develop weapons. In the case of the countries just mentioned, it shows they are not pursuing weapons.

It is obvious that countries that recycle nuclear fuel (1) do so regardless of the US decision not to, and (2) are not using recycling to get weapons material. This is so obvious that it begs the question: why do anti-proliferation activists so strongly oppose recycling in the US? It is safe to say that they are almost all against nuclear technology in general. Proliferation is one of the four legs that support the anti-nuclear table. The other three are safety, waste, and cost. When you hear objections to nuclear energy, they almost always stand on one or more of those legs.

So the real question is, why do they oppose nuclear power? Well, they have agendas. And though these agendas are dressed up in hyper-moralistic language, they are banal. Self-styled anti-proliferation advocates, many of them entrenched in universities and single-purpose “foundations,” have made careers out of being experts in the issue. Foundations and NGOs depend on funding for their livelihood. Some, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, have drawn many millions of dollars into their coffers by milking an emotional response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This has helped them become multinational organizations with lobbying clout that rivals that of big oil companies.

And speaking of big oil companies: many of the Big Environment lobbies have developed business alliances with nuclear energy’s business competitors in the fossil fuel industry. In Ontario, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance gets funding from the gas industry to call for the closure of the provincial coal-fired and nuclear plants and their replacement by gas-fired plants. The OCAA skillfully uses wind and solar energy as a PR tool in this campaign: it says gas-fired power is only a bridge to renewables. Every single Big Environment group in Canada says exactly the same thing. And it is exactly the same thing that every Big Environment group says around the world. Rod Adams at Atomic Insights has researched and written many excellent articles on what he calls the “Smoking Gun”: evidence of the unholy alliance of natural gas and mainstream environmentalists. Go to Atomic Insights, type “smoking gun” in the Search field at the upper left (use quotes), and have a look.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has, over the past few years, developed its own agenda. It is run by Illinois Democrats, and supports a president who is himself an Illinois Democrat. Hence, that president can do no wrong on any file, including nuclear energy. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but I don’t like it when allegedly scientific publications put their partisan agenda ahead of objective coverage of an important topic. Especially when they have chosen to give preference to a side of the debate that is based on facile intellectual reasoning and narrow corporate interest.

The civilian nuclear industry is mankind’s best hope for ensuring the peaceful expansion of nuclear energy and fighting weapons proliferation. Those who oppose the nuclear industry are actually facilitating weapons proliferation, by starving the international inspections regime of funds. I’ll elaborate in upcoming posts.

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12 years ago

I regard the hostile reaction to Iran as George Bush’s anti-nuclear legacy – one which continues under Obama. There was no real need to immediately demonize the efforts of Iran to initiate nuclear power efforts, and it reinforced and perpetuated the myth that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are intimately linked. There are real steps that the IAEA, properly funded, can do to verify and assist the efforts of more countries to reap the benefits of nuclear power while assuring the world that these activities are not cover for a nuclear weapons development program.

Having said which – if a reasonably industrialized country has decided that its future goals and security require nuclear weapons, it will develop them (independent of nuclear power, as usual), unless the international relations downside is higher than seems credible. Especially since the impetus towards a nuclear weapons program may include the perception of isolation in a hsotile environment – how would more isolation and more hostility make an argument to stop?

The other observation is that nuclear weapons states do not generally feel the need to immediately send their nuclear warheads in every direction. In fact their behaviour seems to improve as they no longer feel as vulnerable but have a more secure position that desperate acts of nuclear destruction would only imperil.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Joffan

Joffan: well argued, especially your point about a well-funded IAEA. Shutting down the civilian industry in rich countries like the US and Canada would reduce funds to the IAEA, since those funds come in part from the NRC and CNSC, which in turn get a big part of their funds in the form of license fees from reactor operators.

I have to disagree though about Iran. It wasn’t Bush who “reinforced and perpetuated the myth that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are intimately linked”—Bush just called Iran out for doing what it was doing: pursuing a secret weapons program, with stolen centrifuge designs it bought from Pakistan.

It is Iran that has been perpetuating that myth, by claiming its right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy while conveniently failing to mention that the centrifuges were secret and undeclared until somebody squealed.