James Lovelock and the big bang

August 3, 2007

British scientist James Lovelock, famous for his Gaia theory of the earth as a self-regulating organism, was in Adelaide on July 7-8, speaking at the Festival of Ideas. He has researched across a range of disciplines and has much of interest to say. But on the topic of nuclear power, Lovelock is inaccurate and irresponsible.

"Modern nuclear power stations are useless for making bombs", Lovelock told the ABC's Lateline program on May 30, 2006. That is in stark contrast to comments last year by former US Vice-President Al Gore, who said: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons' proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program ... if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

Which of these climate campaigners is right — Lovelock or Gore?

A typical nuclear power reactor produces about 300 kilograms of plutonium each year, sufficient for about 30 nuclear weapons. There is no dispute that this "reactor-grade" plutonium can be used in weapons, though the use of weapon-grade plutonium increases their reliability and destructive force.

Power reactors can also be used to produce weapon-grade plutonium, which is ideal for nuclear weapons. All that needs to be done is to shorten the amount of time that the nuclear fuel is irradiated in a reactor. This results in a higher percentage of plutonium-239 relative to other, unwanted, isotopes, such as plutonium-240, 241 and 242.

A typical power reactor can produce hundreds of kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium annually and just a few kilograms are required for one weapon as powerful as that dropped on Nagasaki.

The proliferation risks associated with nuclear power are not just hypothetical. India uses power reactors in its nuclear weapons program (although research reactors have been the main source of plutonium). Under a proposed nuclear agreement between India and the United States, India has announced that 14 of its power reactors will be subject to international safeguards inspections, but a further eight will not be safeguarded and can be used for weapons production.

North Korea's nuclear bomb test last October used plutonium produced in a so-called "experimental power reactor". The US uses a power reactor to produce tritium, which is used to increase the destructive force of nuclear weapons. The US has also published details of a successful weapon test in 1962 using reactor-grade plutonium.

Australia's nuclear history also demonstrates the link between nuclear power and weapons. On several occasions in the 1950s and 1960s, federal cabinet received submissions arguing that one "advantage" of nuclear power reactors is that they inevitably produce plutonium that can be used in weapons.

From 1969 until his resignation in 1971, Liberal PM John Gorton pursued a plan to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the NSW coast. He later acknowledged that the reactor was to produce not just electricity but also plutonium for potential use in weapons. The Jervis Bay plan was scrapped by Gorton's Liberal successor, Billy McMahon.

Nuclear power programs have indirectly supported a number of weapons programs by providing a rationale for acquiring uranium enrichment plants, research and training reactors, or reprocessing plants. Five of the 10 countries to have developed nuclear weapons did so under cover of a "civil" program: India and Israel use research reactors to produce plutonium for weapons; South Africa and Pakistan acquired enrichment technology and produced highly enriched uranium bombs; and North Korea used its "experimental power reactor" for plutonium production.

Iraq's nuclear weapons program from the 1970s to 1991 illustrates the indirect links between power and weapons.
Iraq never actually built power reactors, but its professed interest in nuclear power facilitated the acquisition of a vast amount of nuclear technology and expertise, which was put to use in the weapons program. It was later described in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a "shop-till-you-drop" weapons program, with much of the shopping done openly.

According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq's weapons program: "Acquiring nuclear technology within the [International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants, and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium."

Iraq's nuclear weapons program continued until the 1991 Gulf War, yet the IAEA failed to detect it, or its use of "safeguarded" research reactors to produce materials used in tests of "dirty" radiation bombs. The Iraq debacle prompted efforts to tighten the safeguards system, but the current IAEA director-general, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, characterises those efforts as "half hearted".

Nuclear power is the one and only energy source with a repeatedly demonstrated connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To deny that connection — as James Lovelock does — is inaccurate, irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

[Dr Jim Green is an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth.]

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