Special Report: Peak Oil

Rethinking Security In The New Nuclear Age

Who would or could "step in" during a civil war in a country with sizable nuclear facilities, involving only national participants or communities, to prevent worst-case damage to its nuclear plants ?

By Andrew McKillop
Published August 03, 2010

The most basic readout from what the nuclear industrial lobby calls The Nuclear Renaissance is that national security - even the concept or present reality of nation states - has less and less credibility, when we make a rational analysis of the facts.

The real strategic role of civil nuclear power, which in "a few screwdriver turns" can enable atomic weapons, is clear. Increasing numbers of civil reactors, fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants, waste fuel centres and "plutonium repositories" create such large volumes and quantities of nuclear materials against which no country with sizable reactors has any real strategic military defence.

Conventional war, like the conventional nation states that make or "wage" war, are made less and less credible by the new nuclear threat, due to certain or assured massive or total destruction and economic damage when or if large reactors and nuclear installation are hit.

The civil nuclear power system is a giant Chernobyl-type dirty bomb in a steadily rising number of countries. Only a few types of reactor, especially underground or 'hardened' military reactors, can resist a wide-body airplane crashing on them.

Almost none will resist entirely conventional ballistic missiles, conventional artillery shells, conventional anti-tank and anti-building munitions, and infantry launched or drone launched missiles. They will also not resist worst-case seismic damage, as well as a number of other serious natural disaster conditions.

Concerning national security, however, while the concept of defensible nation states continues to exist, the threat of conventional military attack on large-sized civil nuclear installations and facilities destroys any potential of "total security".

This is whatever political leaders, opinion formers and public opinion might like to believe, for example in continuing to believe the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provides an effective safety net or shield against nuclear weapons proliferation.

We are presently promised, or threatened, by the so-called Nuclear Renaissance. This is shorthand for a return to the rates of reactor orders and completions closer to those of the nuclear industry's previous heydays and high times, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that oil shock and aftermath decade, for nearly 10 years, an average of one new reactor came on line every 17 days.

Today, as in those oil shocked days, nuclear power is assiduously promoted as a fast track to energy independence for oil and energy importer nations - who now supposedly fear global warming from burning fossil fuels almost as much as paying for imports of foreign oil.

The argument that energy security is radically improved by "going nuclear" is curious, given the massive dependence on uranium imports for nearly all nations with sizable civil nuclear power systems. Perhaps this is because uranium exporter countries are not yet seen as "regimes supporting terror", and not yet accused of charging too much for their uranium exports.

But this may change quite soon, since another big spike in uranium prices is either likely or certain.

Proliferating Dirty Bombs

The Nuclear Renaissance could or might double the world's current civil nuclear reactor "fleet" to more than 850 in up to 50 or more countries, by around 2040, based on some estimates. It will almost certainly raise reactor numbers to well above 500 in up to 42 countries by 2020 on current trends and forecasts, but some nuclear dreamers and fantasists go even further.

Indian nuclear power administrators, for example, include planners who imagine in print that the national reactor "fleet" by around 2040 could attain a total power capacity of more than 400 GW - to compare with the world's present total 373 GW from 439 reactors in 31 countries, using IAEA data.

Nuclear materials inventories, in particular plutonium and other high-activity, chemically toxic long-lived radionuclides are obviously produced in direct proportion to the number of reactors in service. Estimates by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) suggest the world's current 439 civil reactor "fleet" (excluding military reactors) generates or produces about 22.5 tonnes of plutonium each year. The Hiroshima-size atom bomb, we can note, used about 10 kilograms of plutonium.

While the nuclear lobby talks about "renaissance", this Sorcerer's Apprentice story has an evident downside closely fitting the children's fairy tale or fable. The critical need to produce enough fuel for the ever-growing world reactor "fleet", from geologically restricted world resources of uranium requires almost magical solutions. One of these fantasy solutions, still in favour with the nuclear lobby despite their total commercial failure for more than 40 years, is a hypothetical "fleet" of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs).

When or if FBRs return to center-stage, plutonium inventories, as well as quantities of other very high level radionuclides will ratchet up very fast, or to use military parlance will "proliferate". FBRs would use the high level wastes from conventional reactors to "produce more fuel than they consume". Doing this, the radioactive and chemically toxic fuel they produce would either have to be stored, or used.

If used in other FBRs, even more would be produced than consumed, enabling or making necessary the construction of yet more conventional reactors, to "burn up" this FBR-route reprocessed fuel. Under any dependent scenario for the FBR-route to escaping a very serious and easily-predictable world uranium fuel supply pinch, world stocks of extremely dangerous "dirt bomb" materials will radically increase, with each larger-sized FBR probably needing 50 tons, or more of plutonium to start operating.

Unintended Consequences

Liberated from the uranium fuel supply pinch, nuclear boomers can dream in print and out loud that they have the Final Solution to all energy limits or fuel shortages of any kind, that would or could bar mankind's route to Universal Prosperity. This essentially cornucopian dream is - extremely ironically - the result of a fusion of supposedly total opposite world views.

In the deep Cold War period of extreme American defence of capitalism, and extreme Soviet defence of totalitarian state control, through the 40 years from the late 1940s until 1989, both regimes placed all their military faith in nuclear weapons. Both also linked civil and military nuclear, then fused them into a nuclear technological utopia.

This ideology-spanning facet of the "all nuclear solution", joining civil and military in a seamless web makes it unsurprising that China and India, and other big states, or would-be big states are today fully embarked in the Nuclear Renaissance.

Certainly for the Big Five UN Security Council "declared nuclear" weapons-owning states, any pretense that civil nuclear, and military nuclear are not 100% linked and interdependent is simply a waste of time. All started their "nuclear story" with a feverish race to develop nuclear weapons, then made a "few screwdriver turns" to spinoff and start their civil nuclear systems.

Despite this, by a strange form of mass schizophrenia among the political elites of these states, the reality of dirty bomb capability in each and every large sized reactor, anywhere on earth, is stoically denied.

Denied or not, this reality eats deep into the fond and false idea of "totally defendable" national territories, and the linked illusion of high-level, almost total national security. Far worse, this "permanent denial" of the functional interdependence of civil and military nuclear has very likely favoured the most proliferative-possible, most vulnerable-possible civil nuclear systems, both in the "old nuclear" countries, and in the "new nuclear" states.

In both cases, the historic reality of international wars, started by one nation and fought against another nation, is obsolete. Any state or nation with sizable nuclear installations on its home territory is vulnerable to devastating attack using entirely conventional, non-nuclear weapons of the type possessed by dozens of states and nations, today.

This reality hides an even more dangerous one: who would or could "step in" during a civil war in a country with sizable nuclear facilities, involving only national participants or communities, to prevent worst-case damage to its nuclear plants?

If we ask the key question: "Can we be certain this reality is understood by our political elites and opinion formers who control the press and media?" there is no sure answer.

The End Of Nations

Many writers, historians and analysts describe the fully globalized economy as a certain near-term future "death sentence" for the nation state. Nuclear power proliferation can be presented as setting the exact same No Future end for "classic nation states" simply because the war-making "prerogative", or historical trend and instinct of nation states, disappears.

While the possession of large nuclear reactors and facilities can serve as a "kamikaze last-ditch" defence strategy against military invasion and occupation, they also serve as pre-positioned enemy weapons for hostile opponents not necessarily wanting to invade and occupy.

The "asymmetric" potential is almost open-ended, which to be sure should generate new life for the already tired "Bin Laden industry" of technology-and-terror potboiler books, films and docu-dramas. Much worse however is the reality of the civil nuclear threat. This is already massive and increases each day that existing reactors continue operating, new reactor building projects are started, plutonium is produced, and wastes accumulate.

Ceasing and abandoning the national illusion and national security illusion is the next and massive step unless deciders pursue their classic head-in-sand route, and the civil nuclear overkill threat is simply ignored and denied for another day.

That is until we wake up to hear the "incredible and fantastic" worst case has happened, in the shape of purposeful military attack on large civil nuclear installations, either through international war, or national civil war.

Andrew McKillop is a writer and consultant on oil and energy economics. Since 1975 he has worked in energy, economic and scientific organizations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. These include the Canada Science Council, the ILO, European Commission, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and South Pacific, and the World Bank. He is a founding member of the Asian chapter of the International Association of Energy Economics. He is also the editor, with Sheila Newman, of The Final Energy Crisis (Pluto Press, 2005).


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By Karantov (registered) | Posted August 03, 2010 at 17:01:02

So a couple comments.

A) What does this have to do with Hamilton or urban renewal?

B) Your beginning of the article asked the question Who would or could "step in" during a civil war in a country with sizable nuclear facilities, involving only national participants or communities, to prevent worst-case damage to its nuclear plants ?

No where in your post did you bother to provide us with an answer other than to say basically, "get rid of them all".

C) Really seriously. Get a grip. Your paranoid delusions serve no purpose whatsoever. I could spend all day ripping your speech apart, (this is pure propaganda, there is not attempt at logic), but I frankly got more and better things to do with my time.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2010 at 17:51:03

RTH is big on energy issues, especially peak oil, and in that context we need to bring this stuff up.

We have absolutely no idea what the world map will look like in 50 or 100 years. Sprinkling reactors across the globe is irresponsible on a global scale. Civilian nuclear technology was developed from military reactors, and as such, virtually all of them can be re-tooled to produce weapons-grade isotopes. That's why it's always so hard to tell whether Iran and North Korea are making bombs or not. And even if people aren't building A-bombs and H-bombs, all it takes is a weather balloon and a hand grenade to afflict truly massive areas with a bizarre and unexplained rise in cancer rates.

They said deep-sea oil drilling was safe, too. And that highlights the problem, better than anything else I could point to. If a big disaster does hit, and results in a wide-scale ban on nuclear reactors, uranium mines or spent fuel storage? How will we keep the lights on?

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By cPan (anonymous) | Posted August 04, 2010 at 11:38:21

Did anyone else read the January 2010 issue of Wired? R Martin wrote about how nuclear power from Thorium was more efficient and had much less toxic waste, but that the researchers developing reactors for it in the 60's were shut down because governments wanted the plutonium from uranium reactors to make weapons. I read it and got all excited, but haven't heard anything since; no one I know's heard of it.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 04, 2010 at 16:29:35

That's why it's always so hard to tell whether Iran and North Korea are making bombs or not. - Undustrial

Perhaps it is not as difficult as they would like us to believe Undustrial?

Link 1

Link 2

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2010 at 17:07:35

I still say that complaining about nuclear power is letting the better be the enemy of the good. If global warming really is the world-ending threat we think it is, then the risks of nuclear power are worth it.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 04, 2010 at 19:25:45

Excellent point Kiely, I should have worded that differently. Still, the point holds - nuclear power gave nuclear weapons to Pakistan, India and China (with a fair bit of help from AECL and Canadian Taxpayers). And if any of them decide to go at it (and there was that decade where it looked like Pakistan and India would go off at any minute) then North Korea and Iran will be nothing but collateral damage.

Thorium does hold promise, as it's a lot harder to weaponize (once upon a time the idea of a uranium bomb was ridiculous too - kinda like making gunpowder out of lead). Still, virtually every other "alternative" energy source (if you can call it one) holds many advantages that just aren't possible with nuclear - decentralized local-scale generation. Even coal has more potential for it (would have been how it was always done if Edison Electric hadn't figured they could make more money with massive power plants). As ludicrous as clean coal programs are, they're still worlds more plausible than any nuclear waste storage systems I've yet heard of. Carbon capture sites might leak, but they aren't endothermic (how do you store something hot for a millennia without cracking?) or radioactive.

We in the first world, especially North America, use an unbelievable amount of energy. We don't need to replace it, we just need to stop. Us environmentalists have been proposing very simple ways to cut massive, cumulative percentages for decades, most of which would save us money. As power companies have known for a decade or two now - it's almost always cheaper to get people to cut back consumption than to build new capacity. Witness virtually every other article on this site right now (the stadium debate) to see how little energy consumption factors into city planning decisions.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 05, 2010 at 13:33:06

Still, the point holds - Undustrial

True, I am not a fan of nuclear power. My point is we need to be careful that the calls of "They're building a nuke!" don't lead the world down the same path as the supposed WMDs did in Iraq.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 05, 2010 at 15:55:06

I really wish I had transcripts of some of the arguments I got in before the Iraq War on the subject.

"I can't wait till they find those weapons and prove you #$&^%ing hippies wrong!!!".

Still waiting.

The thing is, if I were the leader of a "Rogue State" the lesson I'd take from the Iraq War is that if Saddam had managed to stash a few warheads, or even a good few clouds of poison gas, the few hundred thousand troops parked right over the border in Kuwait might have hit a few more bumps in the road.

And the thing is, Iran and North Korea do have reactors, which could breed weaponized materials. Iraq didn't, and neither did Afghanistan. Then again, Iran and North Korea have Air Forces, too, something else neither had.

We have no idea what the world map will look like in a few decades, but we know some rough times are coming. What if a nuke-equipped post-Tar Sands Alberta separates and becomes a Christian Fundamentalist State? Spreading around "build your own nukes" kits just isn't responsible.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 05, 2010 at 16:50:32

I really wish I had transcripts of some of the arguments I got in before the Iraq War on the subject. - Undustrial

Oh me too Undustrial. "None of what you hear and half of what you see"... and the other half of what you see should probably be scrutinized as well these days.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted August 05, 2010 at 23:09:12

The one quote which really described war perfectly for me was one from Chomsky about how they used to measure death tolls in a range between double the US estimate and half of the VC estimate, and that it turned out to be very reliable.

I read a lot of Orwell before the War on Terror, and though I always loved Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, I must admit that I never really understood Nineteen Eighty Four until watching it all in action.

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