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Nuclear Hype and Reality

In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke; Orient Blackswan, 2010; pp xv + 487, Rs 895.

Nuclear Hype and Reality

Praful Bidwai

N
ow that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is again in the limelight, it is relevant to recall that his roguish traits, most noted during the Lockerbie Pan Am plane bombing episode, have had a nuclear angle too. Gaddafi has for decades aspired to possess nuclear weapons as a currency of power and prestige. During the Janata regime, George Fernandes fervently advocated that India should transfer nuclear technology to Libya in return for its oil. This despite the fact that Libya’s nuclear ambitions were not exactly hidden by the 1970s.

Gaddafi’s Libya was for long an enthusiastic customer of the Pakistan-based A Q Khan network, which clandestinely supplied uranium centrifuge designs and components of enrichment plants to n umerous countries, including Iran and North Korea. By 1997, Libya had ordered from Khan 10,000 advanced centrifuges – enough to make up to 10 bombs a year – and designs for an enrichment plant and associated equipment.

Gaddafi’s nuclear ambitions – and the Khan network – received a decisive setback in late 2003 when Anglo-American investigators, acting on a tip, intercepted a Libya-bound ship and found nuclear equipment from the Khan network on board. By December 2003, Gaddafi was in panic. Sanctions imposed for the Lockerbie bombing were biting. Saddam Hussein had just been captured by invading US troops in Iraq. Gaddafi announced he was giving up his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. A month later, Libya formally handed over its centrifuge and weapons blueprints to US and British officials. These were contained in a plastic bag bearing the name of Khan’s tailor in Islamabad.

The secret was out. And Khan’s “Nuclear Wal-Mart” was frozen. Khan signed a long confession and made a public admission of his guilt. The rest is history.

Civilian Nuclear Power Programme

The Libyan episode belongs to one of the central agendas the present book addresses:

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 26, 2011

book review

In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke; Orient Blackswan, 2010; pp xv + 487, Rs 895.

the proliferation of nuclear weapons through the spread of technological capabilities originally acquired to support a civilian nuclear power programme. If the dividing line between civilian and military facilities and operations is thin, how can the world prevent more and more governments, and possibly sub-state groups, from acquiring weapons which kill massively, indiscriminately and brutally, and against which there is no military, civil or medical defence?

This has been a thorny issue ever since the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb began. It has not been resolved despite efforts by the Great Powers

– five of which also happen to be nuclear weapons-states (NWSs), which show no intention of disarming them – to police nuclear activities via the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to impose all manner of controls on nuclear materials transfers through the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and similar cartels.

The IAEA was established as a United Nations agency with the dual objective of promoting civilian nuclear energy and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. A huge contradiction lies at the heart of this mandate. Countries that acquire a c ivilian capability can use it to make fissile material for nuclear weapons – either through the uranium enrichment route, or the easier plutonium route, by reprocessing spent fuel from any reactor, military or civil, whether dedicated to research or to electricity generation.

IAEA “safeguards” (regime of inspections and controls) cannot guarantee complete and enduring protection against countries that are determined to acquire nuclear weapons from successfully doing so. The Agency’s auditing system for nuclear

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materials in the facilities it regularly inspects is far from perfect. Leaked classified reports from the 1980s show that “material unaccounted for” in safeguarded facilities adds up year after year to sev

eral multiples of the critical mass needed to make a nuclear bomb.

Yet another “grand bargain” was the promise by the five NWSs recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 to disarm their weapons in return for the non-nuclear states’ commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons and to subject themselves to IAEA safeguards. But the NWSs have never lived up to their part of the commitment while the nonn uclear-weapon states (NNWSs) have largely fulfilled theirs. This is not only an enormous anomaly it tempts some NNWSs to emulate the NWSs and increases the danger of proliferation which the NPT was meant to contain.

Sensitive and Lucid Account

This book’s author, Stephanie Cooke, is a journalist who has covered the nuclear industry since the 1980s. She delves into the intertwined issues of development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power with a level of sensitivity and lucidity which not many other writers have shown. Cooke’s compass is broad, but the links she deftly makes between scientists and other agents of nuclear activities, political and military leaders and their ambitions, clandestine and overt nuclear programmes, the ambiguities and duplicities of the global nuclear order, and the “Siamese twins” connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, are so strong as to appear instantly selfevident (although they are not).

Cooke establishes four propositions with great clarity. The Nuclear Age began with and was driven by parochial nationalism and political ambition. Secrecy and deception remain central to the way the nuclear establishment conducts itself everywhere. The establishment is arrogant and defies public accountability the world over.

Second, proliferation of nuclear weapons was inevitable and happened for both geopolitical and nation-specific reasons. The number of NWSs has grown from five

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to nine (including Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). As many as 40 countries have the technological capability to make these mass-destruction armaments, which represent a universal evil and can end human civilisation as we know it and exterminate all life on earth. The proliferation danger is unlikely to disappear as long as civilian nuclear commerce continues.

Third, despite all the hyperbole surrounding them, none of the claims made about the inevitable and inexorable expansion of nuclear power generation has proved true. Rather than grow massively, as was optimistically forecast, nuclear power has peaked, and its contribution to global electricity generation is falling. Nuclear power now seems set to decline. Contrary to its extravagant claims about its low carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear power cannot provide a solution to the problem of climate change. The world needs to cut emissions by 40% by 2020. But it takes 10 to 13 years to construct a nuclear reactor. Nuclear power is also extremely expensive.

And fourth, nuclear energy has turned into a “planet-threatening enterprise”, which physicist Freeman Dyson describes as “disturbing the universe”. This enterprise requires “a peculiar sovereignty” or, as author Robert Jungk called it, a “nuclear state”, which perverts and degrades democracy. Cooke argues that “it is this sovereignty, swollen to its present size, together with the radioactive entrails of the Cold War years it left behind, with which we are lumbered today.”

Nuclear Nationalism

The Manhattan Project was probably the world’s most successful secret operation. However, as Cooke shows, it was clear to some of its scientists early on that the bomb they were developing was not to be used against Germany; it would have a quintessentially political purpose rather than a military one. Cooke cites scientistturned-disarmament campaigner Josef Rotblat to quote Project leader general L eslie R Groves at an early 1944 dinner conversation with scientists.

Groves said: “You realise, of course, that the main purpose of the project is to subdue the Russians”. Groves also testified in 1954: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion in my mind but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”

The acute moral dilemma this posed was left unresolved for many scientists. Only some like Rotblat had the courage to quit the Project. That was still early days. Since then, scientists involved in nuclear weapons development have become morally numb. Indeed, in India and Pakistan, they take pride in their role and are publicly honoured.

Nuclear nationalism has proved persistent. The lure of false prestige continues to attract many politicians who collect massdestruction weapons the way medieval kings used to annex territory, as signs of wealth and progress. This can only change if public awareness of the unacceptable immorality and strategic irrationality of nuclear weapons grows and turns into a popular movement.

Power, Secrecy, Fear and Greed

The nuclear industry is unique. Says Cooke: “The civilian nuclear enterprise is more politicised than any other industry, even oil, because of its close link to nuclear weapons. Power, secrecy, fear, and greed run like currents through the underbrush.” The world has never before seen an enterprise that promises so much (e g, electricity “too cheap to metre”) and delivers so little.

Energy analyst Amory Lovins estimates the global nuclear industry has only achieved one-hundredth of its target and lost $1 trillion in subsidies, high costs and abandoned projects. This is also true of India. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had set a target of installing 43,500 MW of nuclear capacity by 2000. Ten years on, it has achieved 4,780 MW. The costs of the last three Indian reactors went 300% over budget.

Above all, nuclear power is deeply unpopular the world over because it is inherently and unacceptably hazardous. Not only is nuclear power generation the only form of energy production that can cause a catastrophic accident like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, it routinely exposes plant workers and the surrounding public to radiation through emissions, effluents and small releases. It leaves behind enormous quantities of radioactive wastes,

march 26, 2011

which cannot be stored safely and remain hazardous for thousands of years.

Nuclear reactors are highly vulnerable both to weapons proliferation and acts of sabotage, as in the Kaiga tritium contamination case. Cooke documents instances where a mentally unstable man drove a station wagon past the guards and crashed into a reactor’s turbine building. A reactor worker once carried a pipe-bomb in the back of a truck which he drove into the plant premises. Most nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to strikes by conventional bombs or aircraft, which would have devastating consequences.

Nuclear power is increasingly setting its promoters against the public, making nonsense of local democracy and disempowering the people most liable to be a ffected by the siting of reactors.

India and the Nuclear Mirage

It is a tragedy of epochal dimensions that India still chases the nuclear mirage despite its terrible experience with the nuclear programme, with its appalling performance and safety failures. The only explanation for this is the strengthening of the Indian nuclear lobby after the 1998 nuclear blasts and these weapons’ immense appeal to a morally deadened elite, coupled with new opportunities to import nuclear reactors and material, opened up by the IAEA’s approval of the US-India nuclear deal.

The DAE is cynically exploiting this to engineer a “nuclear renaissance” through massive subsidies (Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor costs more than twice as much as India’s CANDU reactor) while imposing nuclear projects on unwilling populations, uprooting them, and destroying fragile ecosystems.

Yet, the nuclear establishment claims infallibility and omniscience. It thrives on its own rosy projections. It considers itself unaccountable to the public. But as Cooke shows, nuclear czars everywhere are as error-prone and fallible as any other group of self-appointed experts. It is their “mortal hands” that operate and control this horribly destructive technology.

This book makes a compelling case against nuclear weapons and nuclear p ower. It is written in an extremely fluid and readable style. And it has a strong moral and political message, with democracy at

vol xlvi no 13

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its heart. “The problem we face with nuclear energy ultimately is not about global warming or even nuclear weapons. It is about our relationship to the atom and the extraordinary hold it has had over us for the past century, and the power structures that have evolved to support it”, with the

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-“danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”.

By promoting nuclear energy, we are “allowing a huge, secretive, self-rationalising system to take on a life of its own, backed by history, money, power, and a

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default conviction in its own inevitability.” We in India must pause and think of ways of halting the nuclear juggernaut.

Praful Bidwai (prafulbidwai@gmail.com) is a well-known columnist and writer on current affairs.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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march 26, 2011 vol xlvi no 13

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