Understanding the Connections between Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

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Understanding the Connections between Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

by Hattie Nestel - 08/04/2006

Capitalizing on fears of global warming and severe climate changes has created a launching pad for the U.S. government and nuclear related industries to promote nuclear power. The rationale for this new push to an otherwise dying industry is that nuclear power doesn’t emit carbon dioxide and can therefore put an end to global warming. The U.S. government is pouring billions into promoting nuclear power. It has rewritten laws and created profitable incentives to corporations willing to build new nuclear power plants. It also has relaxed previous standards to allow large “uprates” of power to existing plants and 20-year license extensions for aging, failing, accident riddled reactors. Why is the government now trying to resuscitate an industry that has been a monumental financial and environmental failure since its inception? A look into our nuclear history can be helpful in understanding this new nuclear agenda.
Secrecy and half-truths have accompanied the nuclear industry since its birth and today’s propaganda is consistent with that history.
The entire Manhattan project, which created the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was secret. After the 1945 bombings half-truths and critical omissions were official policy. President Harry Truman acclaimed the detonation of the Hiroshima bomb. He stated it had hit a military target. Actually, Hiroshima was a large city and the bomb exploded at 8:15 A.M. as the children were going to school and parents were going to work. He mentioned that the bomb had an equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT power but never mentioned that this bomb was different, in that it released ionizing radiation. He failed to mention the tens of thousands of civilian deaths and the agony of the Hibakusha, survivors who were slowly dying from radiation induced burns and other radiation induced trauma. Relief workers and relatives flocked to Hiroshima to assist the victims, ignorant that they were entering a highly radioactive zone. They became ill, joining the sick and dying from radiation exposure.
President Truman’s official spin, which has become the national historical memory, is that dropping of the atomic bombs had ended the war and saved millions of American lives. The bomb became the symbol of victory and was celebrated throughout the country.
One Australian war correspondent, Wilfred Burchett, arrived in Hiroshima September 2 and later described what he saw as a “death-stricken planet”. He noticed a dank, sulfurous smell everywhere. He visited a hospital where he observed that patients were developing purple skin hemorrhages and losing their hair. Every day he saw more patients dying although they hadn’t been injured. They suffered in the final stages of radiation disease evidenced by fever, extremely low white-cell counts, nausea and gangrene. Burchett’s article was first published in England and then around the world, September 5, 1945. Following this publication his camera was confiscated and General McArthur had him expelled from Japan. September 19, 1945 a sweeping press code of censorship regarding the true nature of the bombing was established. Reports from Hiroshima were prohibited, and Japanese newspapers were forbidden to reveal that they were being subjected to censors.
In spite of the censorship, the New Yorker and Life Magazines commissioned John Hersey to write about the effect of the bombing of Hiroshima on the civilian population. The book, “Hiroshima”, was printed in entirety in the August 31, 1946 issue of the New Yorker magazine and was an immediate sellout. It was then published by the Book of the Month club and then Alfred Knopf in book form and translated into many languages, with the exception of Japanese due to American censorship. This book was a rare exception to the official secrecy of the effects of the bombs on innocent Japanese civilians.
The first American nuclear “guinea pigs” were thousands of U.S. Marines and Navy Seabees assigned to Hiroshima to clean-up rubble after the bombing. They were reassured that there was no danger. They wore no protective clothing, drank city water and were not provided with radiation –dose badges. Returning home, these veterans developed terminal illnesses affecting their bone marrow and blood production associated with radiation exposure. They were consistently ignored and denied treatment by the veteran’s services. Through illness and death they suffered and died with government denial and lack of care and compensation. . Later, declassified surveys of actual radiation levels showed that these workers had received over 10 times the radiation safety standard including minute alpha particles capable of lodging in human bone marrow, lungs and other organs.
Shortly after the Occupation began, a Japanese research council sent a film unit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to record the physical and medical effects of the bomb. When they were halfway through the project, a cameraman was arrested and the director was ordered to stop all shooting and his footage was seized. Occupation officials then banned all filming in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The only exception to the no filming order was an American film project under the direction of the U.S. Strategic bombing survey. They hired a Japanese film crew who shot thousands of feet of footage and created a documentary entitled, “The Effects of the Atomic Bombs Against Hiroshima”. The finished film was shipped to the U.S. May 5, 1946, locked in a vault entitled “Top Secret” and never shown to the American public. In the late 1960’s it was returned to Japan.
Outright censorship did not end until 1949 and approved scientific papers could not be published until 1951. Survivors in Japan did not understand what had happened because radiation is tasteless, odorless, and invisible.
Fast-forward fifty years. The Smithsonian Museum curators wanted to have an exhibit of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb and fully explore the decision to use the bomb and its effects. However, veterans groups balked, claiming that the planned exhibit was pro-Japanese and dishonored U.S. servicemen. Both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the exhibit. What resulted was an extensive and loving tribute to the Enola Gay. The bombing mission and the men who flew it were acclaimed as heroes. The exhibit did not contain one photograph of the victims. There was no mention of the radiation and the Hibakusha, (survivors) who continue to suffer and die from the radioactive fallout. Censorship continued under the guise of patriotism.
The United States has never officially acknowledged that the bomb was not necessary to bring an end to war. Many government officials and military personnel have admitted Japan was willing to surrender and the dropping of the bomb was unnecessary. William D. Leahy, Fleet Admiral, U.S. Navy said, “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan…. In being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” Despite statements like this from high-ranking officials, there have been no apologies from the U.S. government.
The nuclear imperative continued with atmospheric testing at the Nevada test site and many Pacific Islands. In 1954 a bomb called ”Bravo” exploded at the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. This was the first practical deliverable hydrogen bomb test and created a much larger blast than anticipated. It resulted in a blast nearly 1,000 times more powerful than that of the Hiroshima bomb. The mushroom cloud rose 40 kilometers into the sky and had a diameter of 1220 kilometers after 10 minutes. The fallout contaminated a fishing vessel called the Lucky Dragon sparking an international incident. One crewmember of the boat died, and Japanese monitors found 457 tons of tuna contaminated by the fallout. Untold thousands in the Marshall Islands were also contaminated. Over 16 years, the United States exploded 106 nuclear weapons in the Pacific.
From 1946 until 1962 atmospheric testing took place at the Nevada test site. At least 250,000 servicemen and tens of thousands of downwinders surrounding the Nevada test site were exposed to radioactive fallout from those tests. There was no disclosure of the danger and no protection. There was no systematic study or monitoring of the fallout. In 1960 the first official study of radioactive fallout was begun. However, when the Knapp report released in 1963, it was immediately classified. When it was finally declassified and made public it revealed that at the Nevada Test Site over 1,000 kilotons equivalent of Iodine-131 were released. When veterans from these tests filed claims for service-connected radiation sickness, the Veterans Administration stated the servicemen had been exposed to harmless, “low-level” radiation and all claims were denied.
`To deflect mounting criticism of the bombings and contamination that followed the Bravo test and the possibility that Russia would demonstrate the “peaceful use” of the atom before the United States, President Eisenhower launched the idea of the “peaceful atom” in 1953. During an address to the United Nations, he portrayed this power as “too cheap to meter”. Eisenhower said nothing about enormous nuclear weapons buildup and a formal first-use policy directive, which held that the U.S. “will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions in the event of war”.
The link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons was undeniable. The Atomic Energy Committee stated in 1954 “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and development of atomic energy of bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent”. In 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, calling on the nuclear nations to begin disarming and attempting to stop the expansion of nuclear weapons around the globe. In 1977 President Carter effectively banned all commercial reprocessing in the U.S. as a non-proliferation measure. President Reagan lifted the ban. In 2005 Congress awarded $50 million to the U.S. DOE to make a new waste-processing plan. This reverses over 30 years of U. S. Policy against recovering plutonium from civil reactors and indicates the Bush/Cheney agenda to return to full-scale production of new nuclear weapons.
In reprocessing, spent fuel rods are broken open and the outer cladding is dissolved in nitric acid. Plutonium is separated out for use in nuclear weapons or for fuel in a breeder or mixed oxide nuclear reactor. Reprocessing creates stockpiles of nuclear-weapons usable plutonium. The spent nuclear fuel rods and liquid reprocessing waste are called “high level radioactive waste”. It must be kept secure for hundreds of thousands of years. Every nuclear power plant annually generates 20-30 tons of high-level nuclear waste. The waste will remain a hazard for at least 12,000 human generations. (NIRS factsheet). The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment summarized the connections between the plutonium economy and the potential spread of nuclear weapons: “Reprocessing provides the strongest link between commercial nuclear power and proliferation. This overlap of the nuclear fuel cycle and the infrastructure required to produce nuclear weapons makes nuclear power unique among all sources of electricity. It is this connection to the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons that has always been kept out of the public discourse”. Internal engineering assessments in direct opposition to nuclear power were classified and the scientists were marginalized.
However, the NPT has failed to stop proliferation or disarm existing nuclear weapons from the five original nuclear weapons countries. Mohamed El-Baradei stated in 2005 at an NPT Review conference, “As long as some countries place a strategic reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, other countries will emulate them. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking otherwise.” He further stated, “The technical barriers to mastering the essential steps of uranium enrichment-and to designing nuclear weapons-have eroded over time, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that the control of technology, in and of itself, is not an adequate barrier against further proliferation.”
The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review states “Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide the military options to deter a wide range of threats…” The 2006 National Security strategy notes that “safe, credible and reliable nuclear forces continue to play a critical role” in deterrence and defense. It reveals that the U.S. is planning to develop a new land-based ICBM for deployment by 2020, a new submarine launched missile for deployment by 2030, and a new intercontinental heavy bomber for deployment by 2040.
Although the U.S. aggressively promoted the commercial use of nuclear power after Eisenhower’s “Peaceful Atom” announcement in 1953, most utilities did not see nuclear power being a profitable investment. C. G. Suits, Vice President and Director of Research at General Electric had stated in 1950 “ The economics of atomic power are not attractive at present, nor are they likely to be for a long time in the future. This is expensive power, not cheap as the public has been led to believe.” To offset this hesitation Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act in 1957 limiting the liability of operators of nuclear facilities in the event of a catastrophic accident. Large government subsidies-over $77 billion between 1948 and 1998- kept the industry afloat.
However, price overruns continued to exceed predictions and the economics of nuclear power continued to grow worse.
As failures, costly delays and the 1979 near meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred, the nuclear power industry ground to a halt. A total of 121 reactors had been cancelled by 1992.
In 1985 Forbes magazine reported “The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale. The utility industry has already invested $125 billion in nuclear power, with an additional $140 billion to come before the decade is out, and only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money was well spent.”
The last reactor was ordered over 30 years ago and took 23 years to complete. The technical problems that had always beset the industry had resulted in so many accidents and lawsuits that no corporation would invest in building a new plant. It was a uniform conclusion throughout the industry that nuclear power was not a viable financial risk.
As the Price Anderson Act enticed corporate upstarts to invest in commercial nuclear power in 1957, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is the carrot being held out to promote corporate investments in nuclear power today. President Bush directed the Department of Energy to work on changes to existing law that will reduce uncertainty in the nuclear plant licensing that will protect the first four new nuclear power plants against delays. This Act allows allocations of up to $580 million over the next three fiscal years for research on new reprocessing and transmutation technologies. This act expands “insurance” to the first six new reactors. It also allows the Department of Energy to reimburse utilities for costs they incur due to failures to comply with schedules and litigation that delays the commencement of full-power operations. The first two reactors to be built would have 100% of these costs covered up to $500 million per plant. The next four would be eligible for 50% of these costs up to $250 million. This “insurance” program effectively punishes the NRC for doing its job well, (as holdups will cost the government money), and will have a negative impact on the safety of the next generation of reactors. February 2006 the Bush Administration launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a major initiative to promote the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. and around the world.
Despite such enticements, investors hesitated. A new selling point was needed. The fear of global warming could overcome the fear of nuclear power. To promote nuclear power the nuclear history with all its dangers and monumental failures would be ignored. The sole focus would be low carbon emissions compared to coal, oil or natural gas.
Contradicting the claims that nuclear power is a “green”, clean, safe and reliable source of energy are the well-known pitfalls of the industry. Mining, milling, reprocessing, enriching and transporting uranium relies extensively coal, gas and oil despite the claim that nuclear power uses no fossil fuels. Contributing to global warming are the millions of gallons of water used to cool the hot radioactive core. A typical 1000-megawatt pressurized-water reactor takes in 20,000 gallons of river or lake water per minute for cooling the core. It returns 5,000 gallons per minute to the same body of water and releases the rest into the atmosphere as vapor. (Vermont Yankee is permitted to discharge 543 million gallons per day). This extremely hot water is then released as steam vented through the stack or into the river. If the water source dries up, as it is doing throughout the world, the nuclear industry will be forced to shut down. Federal subsidies, radioactive emissions, waste disposal, vulnerabilities to attack or accidents as well as nuclear weapons proliferation are not mentioned. The most dangerous and least exposed feature of nuclear power is that it is the only energy source that connects it directly to nuclear weapons technology and proliferation.
In May 2006. Al Gore was asked by Grist magazine what he thinks about nuclear power. He replied: “There are serious problems that have to be solved, and they are not limited to the long-term waste storage problems and vulnerability- to- terrorist attack issue. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that both of these problems can be solved. We still have other issues. For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. …And we’d run short of uranium, unless they went to a breeder cycle or something like it, which would increase the risk of weapons-grade material being available.” Uranium supplies are becoming less accessible and prices have increased 600% in the last 5 years. If the world went completely for nuclear power, the uranium supply would be exhausted in three years. ( NIRS)
Nuclear power plants were originally designed and licensed to operate for up to forty years. However, as of January 31, 2006, 40 reactors had received twenty-year license extensions. The Energy Information Agency now predicts that there will likely be no nuclear power plants retired before 2025, and that the net generating capacity will increase. Vermont Yankee, a 34 year-old reactor has been granted permission to boost its power by 20% and is filing for a 20 year license extension, which, according to the Energy Information Agency’s prediction, is a forgone conclusion which is not based on any safety or reliability assessments.
Many of us feel we don’t have the scientific ability to understand nuclear power and we rely on the “experts”. Without some understanding of at least three essentials –fission, radiation and the inextricable link between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation-we might be misled into thinking nuclear power will best meet present and future energy needs.
The fission process creates nuclear power. When fissioning takes place, it splits the uranium or plutonium atom. This produces radioactive fission fragments and activation products. The atomic structure of fission fragments is unstable. These are variant forms of the ordinary chemicals, which are the building blocks of all materials and living things. These created chemicals have the capability of releasing ionizing radiation in the form of X-rays, alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays or neutrons. Excess fission can cause a chain reaction, which means it can cause chemicals in the air, water or other materials to change their structure and become radioactive. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for all the newly formed radioactive chemicals to return to a stable state. In a nuclear power plant the nuclear plant itself becomes unstable and must eventually be dismantled and isolated as radioactive waste.
After fissioning, the fuels rods are said to be ‘spent’. They contain the greatest concentration of radioactivity of any material on the planet earth. The spent fuel rods contain gamma radiation emitters so they must not only be isolated from the biosphere, but they must also be shielded with water and thick lead walls. Direct human exposure to spent fuel rods means certain death. Spent fuel is accumulating at the rate of 10,300 tonnes per year, containing 70 tonnes of plutonium from 31 countries worldwide. Most plutonium remains embedded in spent fuel and is stored at reactor sites. Maintaining control of plutonium presents a major challenge.
It doesn’t take an accident for a nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into our air, water or soil. It is part of everyday routine operations, permissible by federal regulation. Permissible does not mean safe. Radioactivity is measure in curies. An average operating nuclear power reactor will have approximately 16 billion curies in its reactor core. This is the equivalent long-lived radioactivity of at least 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. Besides their ability to give off ionizing radiation, many of the radioactive particles are biologically toxic. Radioactive lead can cause brain damage. Plutonium can be attracted to the bone causing bone cancer. Cesium mimics potassium and can damage the muscular structure. Strontium 90 also is absorbed as though it was calcium. Every person on the planet has strontium 90 in their bodies resulting from above ground testing of nuclear weapons. Iodine 129 will enter the blood and also affects the thyroid gland and can contribute to mental retardation. Every exposure to radiation increases the risk of damage to cells and DNA. The cellular damage caused by internally deposited radioactive particles becomes manifest as a health effect to a particular organ. Individual breakdown occurs at our weakest point. Some radioactive effects are only seen in children of exposed persons since the damage may have been to the sperm or ovum. Tritium, which is essential to nuclear weapons, is also produced in nuclear reactors. Tritium is a known carcinogen, which also produces congenital malformations. So much Tritium has been detected leaking from nuclear power plants that the NRC is intending to test groundwater and aquifers adjacent to all 103 nuclear power plants for tritium leakages.
The use of tritium in nuclear weapons makes it possible to build smaller, yet more powerful weapons. Currently all the weapons in the U.S. arsenal make use of tritium as a vital component. May 6, 1999 Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that TVA’s Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear power plants in eastern Tennessee would be modified by the DOE for the production of tritium to be used in the U.S. arsenal. Both of these reactors were built as commercial power reactors with the sole intention of supplying electricity to the consumer market. This marks a blurring between civilian power plants and military production reactors, which plays out as a double standard, that the world’s nuclear club will take very seriously. (Nukewatch, a quarterly newsletter of the Progressive Foundation has listed many accidents and tritium leaks reported at nuclear power plants around the country.)
All 103 nuclear power plants in the U.S. store their waste on-site since there is no repository or dump willing to take high-level radioactive waste. A serious blow to the nuclear industry was just dealt by the Ninth U.S. Circuit court of appeals ruling against the NRC to permit more radioactive waste on-site at two California nuclear power plants. The judges ruled that acts of terrorism can no longer be deemed remote or speculative and adding more waste on-site is a danger to the community. The on-site storage was always supposed to be temporary until a permanent repository opened. It has been fifty years and still no permanent repository exists or is likely to be created. As increases in power are granted and licenses extended, the amount of on-site storage increases. This fuel is about one million times more radioactive when taken from the reactor that when it was loaded. Vermont Yankee has about 35 million curies of cesium on site. (Compare that to 2,000 curies of cesium in the Hiroshima bomb).
As early as 1950 R.A.M. Sievert, a famous Swedish radiologist stated, “there is no known tolerance level for radiation”. The USA has been polluted with nuclear industries since 1943.
The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 continued the U.S. policy of not acknowledging the problems of radioactive emissions on health. Reporting the official spin, The New York Times April 15, 1980 story was entitled, “Three Mile Island: No Health Impact Found”. The paper dismissed the infant mortalities and stated the damaged fetal thyroid study had been biased. Three days later they ran another story charging, “those scare stories about radiation damage from the accident at Three Mile Island look increasingly far fetched”.
Hermann Muller, a Noble Prize winner published a paper in 1964 “Radiation and Heredity” spelling out clearly the genetic effects of ionizing radiation on the human species. Muller predicted the gradual reduction of the survival ability of the human species as several generations were damaged through exposure to ionizing radiation. These defects leave the individual less able to cope with ordinary stresses and hazards in the environment. This may lead to termination of the family line through infertility or death prior to reproductive age.
The National Academy of Sciences in 2005 confirmed Mullers theses, that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation BEIR V11)
In 1981 Robert Minogue research director for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated that the “Atomic Energy Commission officials knew very well the biological effects of low-level radiation in the 1950’s. They can’t use ignorance as an excuse”. But the nuclear policy makers continued to keep the truth from the public.
Why resuscitate an industry that has been a financial failure, is vulnerable to catastrophic accidents, is a constant source of dangerous radioactive emissions, commits 12,000 human generations to safeguard the waste and keeps the capacity to build nuclear weapons in place?
Why not fund proven safe, sustainable energies as much of the world is already doing?
Understanding the political motivations behind the drive to develop nuclear power helps to explain the significant disconnect between supposed benefits and actual dangers.
If we reject nuclear power what will be a safe, sustainable and economically viable alternative?
One of the most overlooked and unacknowledged answers is energy efficiency. It is well known that energy efficiency and conservation can easily decrease our usage by between 25% and 45%. Energy efficiency improvements are seven times more effective at reducing greenhouse gases, per dollar spent, than nuclear power. Tax credits and subsidies for insulation, energy efficient refrigerators, compact fluorescent light bulbs and simple devices such as clotheslines instead of dryers are needed.
Wind power is now a sophisticated industry, growing worldwide at 25% to 35% per year. The United States lags far behind Europe in wind usage, although it is easily available and cost effective.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory report shows that between 99% and 124% of the nations electricity can be supplied by renewables by 2020.
Looking at all the power failures throughout the United States due to faulty equipment or excessive demands on available sources it is clear that decentralized solutions are called for. Solar panels on houses and businesses, windpower in local communities and other sustainable, already available technologies can answer our needs.
With locally produced energy we will not have to fear radiation and nuclear accidents. We won’t have to fear depleting uranium supplies, increasing demands, and rising costs. We will not be generating carbon dioxide and other dangerous contaminants. We won’t be footing the bill for an electricity source that is in reality a source for nuclear weapons production. We won’t be living near a facility that can instantly become a weapon of mass destruction. We won’t need costly, ineffective evacuation plans. We won’t need guarded high-level radioactive dumps. The ghostly dead zone created by Chernobyl will not become commonplace.
Instead of billions for a dying and dangerous nuclear industry, we must see that our tax dollars subsidize sustainable energies and we ourselves must commit to conservation and energy efficient lifestyles.
Some of the above has been taken directly from the sources.
Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell 1995 published by Avon Books
Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation by Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon 1982 Publisher Dell Publishing Company

No Immediate Danger: Prognoses for a Radioactive Earth by Rosalie Bertell 1985 published by the Women’s Press
Insurmountable Risks: The Danger of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change by Brice Smith A Report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research 2006 published by IEER http:///www.ieer.org
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, by Gar Alperovitz, 1993
Nuclear Power is Not the Answer by Helen Caldicott, 2006
Nukewatch : Nukewatch@lakeland.ws
Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) nirsnet@nirs.org
Nuclear Issues Papers : Heinrich Boell Foundation info@Boell.org
Public Citizen website http://www.energyactivist.org

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