John Burroughs

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is catalyzing a reassessment of the risks of reliance on nuclear power for energy generation, as illustrated by this IPS story about the United States. The results will be increased regulatory oversight and higher costs, as investors shy away. The already oversold ‘nuclear renaissance’ is definitely over.

What understandably is not currently receiving attention is the close link between production of electricity by means of nuclear reactors and the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Every nuclear reactor produces spent fuel containing plutonium, which with chemical processing can be used in weapons. And with some adjustment, as the world has learned in monitoring the Iran situation, the same facilities used to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for power reactors can produce high-enriched uranium suitable for use in nuclear weapons.

The linkage has been known from the beginning of the nuclear age. In 1946, the Acheson-Lilienthal report stated that “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.” The weapons-nuclear power connection must be part of the reassessment of nuclear power. In the view of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, while the global elimination of nuclear weapons must not be made dependent on a prior ending of reliance on nuclear power, a nuclear weapons-free world will be best sustained by the phase-out of nuclear power.

The nuclear disaster also should cause reflection on the hazards of reliance on advanced technology. US and Russian nuclear forces still are configured for quick launch, within minutes of an order to do so, in large, society-destroying, numbers. It should not be assumed that such a risky posture will forever not be subject to human error, technical malfunction, or sabotage.

Undoubtedly the disaster will give rise to renewed demands for truth-telling by the nuclear power industry and its regulators. That same demand should be extended to nuclear weapons establishments in the nine countries that possess nuclear arsenals and the many countries in nuclear-weapon alliances.

In the 1970s and 1980s, opposition to nuclear power was a generation’s entry point into opposing nuclear weapons. The same spillover effect can be expected now.