The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,729 Subscribers

Article Post

Nuclear power for weapons? Mark Z. Jacobson's proliferation of errors

In a new paper, Mark Z. Jaconson rejects consideration of nuclear power technology as a post carbon energy source:

we do not consider nuclear energy (conventional fission, breeder reactors, or fusion) as a long-term global energy source. First, the growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or enrich uranium for nuclear weapons . . . and a large-scale worldwide increase in nuclear energy facilities would exacerbate this problem, putting the world at greater risk of a nuclear war or terrorism catastrophe . . . The historic link between energy facilities and weapons is evidenced by the development or attempted development of weapons capabilities secretly in nuclear energy facilities in Pakistan, India, Iraq (prior to 1981), Iran , and to some extent North Korea.

Jacobson’s statements here are misleading to the point of disingenuousness in several respects. It is possible to produce nuclear power without the use of enriched uranium, and it is almost inconceivable that Jacobson does not know this. If he truly unaware of natural uranium thermal reactors, he has no business pretending to have enough knowledge to form valid judgements about nuclear technology. Natural, unenriched uranium can be used as a nuclear fuel in power reactors that use graphite or heavy water as moderators. All Canadian power reactors are designed to operate with natural uranium, thus enriched uranium is not required by a nuclear power industry. The first American reactors built during World War II, used natural uranium fuel.
Secondly, Jacobson fails to differentiate between low enrichment uranium used in civilian power reactors, and high enrichment uranium. Low enrichment uranium (under 20% U-235) is not used in nuclear weapons, as Jacobson no doubt knows, so his failure to note this distinction should be counted as a deceptive argument.
Jacobson asserts that there is no proliferation proof nuclear technology and that the spread of civilian nuclear power generating facilities will inevitably lead to the spread of nuclear weapons. But he provides no proof that this is true. Not only have nuclear powers not produced weapons from plutonium derived from power reactors, but the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union all used heat from purpose built plutonium production reactors to generate electricity. I repeat there is no instance in which any of the five recognized nuclear powers, have used plutonium from a civilian power reactor in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Nor is there any instance of nuclear weapons proliferation in which a weapon was manufactured through use of plutonium from a civilian power reactor.
Plutonium from civilian reactors differs from plutonium from made for purpose reactors. It is explosive, but it poses big problems for weapons designers, and while explosive, it may explode with a force that is far weaker than the force created by plutonium from a weapons production reactor. Reactors intended to produce plutonium for weapons are simple to design and cheap to build. Building a plutonium weapons production reactor is not beyond the capacity of even an economically backward country like North Korea. Thus the risk of a would be proliferating nation using plutonium from civilian power reactors to build nuclear weapons is quite low.
It has also alleged that while plutonium from civilian power reactors might not be useful to a nuclear weapons program, the technically trained staff of civilian nuclear power programs would be so useful to would be proliferates. it has been asserted that the very existence of such staff’s increases proliferation risks. However, it should be noted that nations which have produced nuclear weapons have not drawn on personnel associated with civilian power reactor programs, although in some instances such personnel were recruited from indigenous nuclear research programs. However, the successful proliferation programs of Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa recruited most or all of their weapons program personnel from outside the nuclear research field. Thus it would appear that recruitment of nuclear weapons development specialists is not related to presence of local civilian power facility staffs, and that the absence of such staffs would inhibit the development of local proliferation programs.
Jacobson, in effect, argues that by avoiding the construction of civilian power reactors, the likelihood of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war can be diminished or even prevented,. This argument contains multiple flaws. First it is unlikely that a large scale international buildup of nuclear power can be prevented. Both China and India have announced policies involving the construction of hundreds of reactors, while an increasing number of states including France, Sweden, Korea, and Japan produce a significant percentage of their electricity through the use of nuclear power, and except for Sweden plan significant expansions of their nuclear power industry.
Even if American the outlawing of civilian power reactors were to become a goal of American foreign policy, it is exceedingly unlikely that the United States could enforce this policy on independent minded states like France, India and China. France and Japan already exports reactor technology, and it is inevitable that South Korea, China and India will do so as well. Again there seems little that the United States could do to prevent the global spread of civilian nuclear technology. Thus preventing the growth and spread of civilian nuclear power technology appears to be feasible and thus not an effective tool to prevent nuclear proliferation. But even if it were possible for the United States to prevent the growth and spread of civilian nuclear technology, the probability of nuclear proliferation would not decrease. Most states which have developed nuclear weapons technology have done so without the air of a civilian nuclear power industry. The successful nuclear weapons development programs of South Africa and Pakistan included the development U-235 separation technologies. Neither of these programs were expensive.
But what of Jacobson’s claim that

the development or attempted development of weapons capabilities secretly in nuclear energy facilities in Pakistan, India, Iraq (prior to 1981), Iran , and to some extent North Korea.

The term “nuclear energy facilities” is usually understood to refer to nuclear power plants, although occasionally laboratories, research reactors or uranium processing plants are referred to as nuclear energy facilities. Jacobson fails to define nuclear facilities, thus what he meant by the term is at best ambiguous, but in only one instance did the nuclear energy facilities even remotely involve nuclear powered electrical generation complexes. In most instances national proliferation efforts are not centered on indigenous nuclear research facilities.
Several successful proliferation programs have been aided by other countries:

* France provided Israel with a plutonium production facility upon which the Israeli nuclear weapons program was built.

* Canada provided India with a reactor capable of producing weapons grade plutonium.
* China provided Pakistan with U-235 and weapons technology

* North Korea provided Syria with a plutonium production facility apparently identical to its own.

Criminal organizations have provided states with proliferation tools:
* A.Q, Kahn provided Pakistan with detailed plans of uranium separation centrifuge technology
* The A.Q Kahn gang provided Iran with uranium centrifuge technology
* The A.Q. Kahn gang provided Lybia with a U-235 separation factory
In addition the North Koreans found declassified plans for a reactor capable of producing weapons grade plutonium in the United Kingdom. Ironically the plans were declassified as a part of the Atoms for Peace program during the 1960’s.
The nuclear weapons programs of India and South Africa used some resources from Civilian nuclear research programs. But only India had a power reactor program as it developed its nuclear weapons program.
Mark Z. Jacobson asserts that there is no proliferation proof nuclear technology and that the spread of civilian nuclear power generating facilities will inevitably lead to the spread of nuclear weapons. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union all used heat from purpose built plutonium production reactors, to generate electricity, but there is no instance in which any of the five recognized nuclear powers, have used plutonium from a civilian power reactor in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and there is no instance of nuclear weapons proliferation in which a weapon was manufactured through use of plutonium from a civilian power reactor. Plutonium from civilian reactors differs from plutonium from made for purpose reactors. It is explosive, but it poses big problems for weapons designers, and while explosive, it may explode with a force that is far weaker than the force created by plutonium from a weapons production reactor. Reactors intended to produce plutonium for weapons are simple to design and cheap to build. Building a plutonium weapons production reactor is not beyond the capacity of even an economically failing country like North Korea. Thus the risk of a would be proliferating nation using plutonium from civilian power reactors to build nuclear weapons is quite low.
It is also alleged that while plutonium from civilian power reactors might not be useful to a nuclear weapons program, the technically trained staff of civilian nuclear power programs would be so useful to would be proliferates. it has been asserted that the very existence of such staff’s increases proliferation risks. However, it should be noted that nations which have produced nuclear weapons have not drawn on personnel associated with civilian power reactor programs, although in some instances such personnel were recruited from indigenous nuclear research programs. However, the successful proliferation programs of Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa recruited most or all of their weapons program personnel from outside the nuclear research field. Thus it would appear that recruitment of nuclear weapons development specialists is not related to presence of local civilian power facility staffs, and that the absence of such staffs would inhibit the development of local proliferation programs.
It should be clear by now in only one instances of nuclear proliferation did an indigenous civilian nuclear power industry play a causal role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. In most instances the the nations which acquired nuclear weapons did not possess civilian power reactors.
It should be pointed out that nations which possess and operate civilian power reactors conform to the current nuclear non-prlliferation agreements. Thus paradoxically, the possession of civilian power reactors is inversely associated with proliferation risks. Nations which do not possess civilian power reactors are the nations most likely to develop nuclear weapons contrary to international agreements.
Thus the contention by Mark Z. Jacobson and others that preventing the spread of civilian nuclear technology will contribute significantly to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is contradicted by a considerable body of available evidence. The risk of nuclear proliferation exists whether or not nations possess civilian nuclear power plants, and the available evidence suggests that nations that which possess power reactors are actually less likely to seek to acquire nuclear weapons than nations which do not posses them. Thus Jacobson erred when he argued that the spread of civilian power technology would lead to the spread of nuclear weapons and the increased risk of nuclear war.

Content Discussion

No discussions yet. Start a discussion below.