Myth-busting

John Carlson from the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office states: “I have pointed out on numerous occasions that nuclear power as such is not a proliferation problem – rather the problem is with the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies …”

Carlson’s claim is false and disingenuous:

* Power reactors have been used directly in weapons programs.

* Power programs have facilitated and provided cover for weapons programs even without direct use of power reactor/s in the weapons program − not least by justifying the acquisition and use of enrichment and reprocessing technology.

* Power reactors produce large volumes of weapons-useable ‘reactor grade’ plutonium and can be operated on a short irradiation cycle to produce large volumes of weapon grade plutonium.

Claims made about power reactors also ignore the fact that research and training reactors, ostensibly acquired in support of a power program or for other civil purposes, have been the plutonium source in India and Israel. Small volumes of plutonium have been produced in ‘civil’ research reactors then separated from irradiated materials in a number of countries suspected of or known to be interested in the development of a nuclear weapons capability – including Iraq, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, and possibly Romania. Pakistan announced in 1998 that a powerful ‘research’ reactor had begun operation at Khusab; if so, the reactor can produce unsafeguarded plutonium. (The links between research reactor programs and nuclear weapons are addressed in detail in Green, 2002.)

Some nuclear advocates (e.g. Prof Barry Brook from Adelaide University) claim that the weapons ‘genie is out of the bottle’ and that we therefore need not concern ourselves about the proliferation risks assocated with an expansion of nuclear power. However:

* Only 5% of the world’s nations have produced nuclear weapons − so that particular genie is not out of the bottle.

* About 25% of the world’s nations have the capacity to produce significant quantities of fissile (explosive) material for nuclear weapons. In a large majority of cases, the fissile material production capacity arises from the operation of power reactors or research reactors.

According to Ian Hore-Lacy from the Uranium Information Centre: “Happily, proliferation is only a fraction of what had been feared when the NPT was set up, and none of the problem arises from the civil nuclear cycle.” That claim ignores the widespread use of ostensibly civil facilities and materials in weapons programs.

Some nuclear advocates claim that the ‘reactor grade’ plutonium routinely produced in power reactors cannot be used in weapons. The claim is false and in any case it ignores the potential to operate power reactors on a short irradiation cycle to produce large volumes of weapon grade plutonium.

The IAEA claims that: “The large scale production of plutonium for nuclear weapons has always been through specially designed plutonium production reactors.” This ignores the use of ‘research’ reactors used to produce plutonium for weapons in India, Israel and possibly Pakistan, and it ignores North Korea’s ‘Experimental Power Reactor’ and the use of power reactors to produce plutonium for weapons in India, the UK, possibly France, and possibly Pakistan.

The IAEA (1997) claims that: “The availability of plutonium for weapons is not dependent on continued civil nuclear power activities.” However, civil nuclear programs are a potential source of plutonium for states which want plutonium or want more than they already have.

Nuclear proponents sometimes attempt to downplay the significance of the dual-use capabilities of nuclear facilities and materials by noting the dual-use capabilities of many non-nuclear materials. For example, steel has a myriad of military and civil uses, and planes can be used as missiles. This overlooks the problem that nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive potential – far more destructive than conventional weapons and considerably more destructive than other Weapons of Mass Destruction’. It ignores the fact that there are typically a myriad of pathways to the production of conventional, chemical and biological weapons, whereas for nuclear weapons the are just a couple of fundamental choices − pursuit of highly-enriched uranium and/or plutonium, and a dedicated (sometimes secret) weapons program or the pursuit of weapons under cover of a peaceful program.