Despite decades of scientific endeavour, the ‘splitting of the atom’ was once thought impossible. The atom was considered the smallest building block of the universe and indivisible. In 1919, Ernest Rutherford disproved that theory by demonstrating a nuclear reaction between nitrogen and alpha particles. The nature of certain types of radioactive metals and their ability to release huge amounts of energy eventually became the focus of intense research and development. In his 1970s book, 'Nuclear Power', Dr Walt Patterson dryly notes that if two hemispheres of metal are brought sharply together, the result will either be a dull clunk or, alternatively, and catastrophically, everything within a reasonable distance will be evaporated in a ball of fire and raw energy. In the case of the latter, the metal will have been plutonium, not that the information would be of any use to the person wielding the hemispheres. The power of the split atom was a secret no longer and its applications for good and bad have constantly dogged human development and issues of war and peace ever since. What we face today is the unintended consequences of our own actions. By exporting civil nuclear technology, we and other nuclear nations knowingly make the proliferation of nuclear weapons more likely and sensitive knowledge becomes more easily available to nation states, hostile and friendly alike. If a country has civil reactors it can also, if it so chooses, eventually develop nuclear weapons. The genie is out of the bottle and it is impossible to put it back.
The immense energy release of nuclear fission bombs was initially demonstrated in 1945 in New Mexico, when the USA tested the first plutonium implosion bomb. A few weeks later a uranium bomb devastated Hiroshima followed by a plutonium bomb which levelled Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of people died from the blast, from the searing heat, from being crushed by falling buildings, or dying from exposure to radiation in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear explosions or weeks, months, and years later as a result of radiation poisoning. Even as the spoils of war were being negotiated, the UK began building the Windscale complex on a former munitions site in Cumbria in order to produce plutonium for its embryonic nuclear weapons programme and for supply to the USA. The building of the UK Magnox fleet of reactors which followed in the 50s and 60s was driven more by the need to produce spent fuel from which plutonium could be chemically and mechanically separated than it was for the electricity it could supply to the grid. The Magnox sites collectively produced, at their peak, only the same amount of electricity as two large coal-fired stations. The much-repeated myth that nuclear power was 'too cheap to meter' was a convenient mantra behind which to hide the real purpose of the plants.
Today, thousands of warheads of far greater explosive power than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki exist in the world. The very possession of nuclear weapons by nine nations (the UK, France, the USA, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) threatens the peace and security of hundreds of nations, some of which have their own aspirations to join the nuclear weapons club. As the UK government tries to balance the need to reduce climate change impacts from fossil fuels, they argue with flawed logic that nuclear power is a valuable if not essential tool in our armoury to fight its effects, apparently ignorant of or unwilling to accept the clear and unavoidable links between the civil and military applications of nuclear technology.
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the main international treaty controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, is growing increasingly inadequate. As the volume of nuclear material increases in line with the number of operational nuclear plants, so the ability of security processes and procedures to secure it from diversion proportionately decreases. The plutonium economy which the government seems determined to foist on the UK will see the far greater accessibility of plutonium as it is transported from Sellafield where it is stockpiled to fuel fabrication facilities and then in Mox fuel form to the point of use in the proposed new reactors dotted around the country.
Any nation which develops nuclear power for civil purposes can develop its own nuclear weapons programme. Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India are all nuclear armed states which have not signed or which have withdrawn from the NPT. The other nuclear armed states – the UK, France, Russia, China and the USA, who are also permanent members of the UN Security Council – have attempted to make their nuclear club so exclusive as to bar others from entry, but they have failed. While enthusiastically extolling the ‘virtues’ of civil nuclear power and energetically promoting nuclear technology, countries like the UK are wilfully turning a blind eye to the unpalatable truth that they are promoting nuclear weapons around the world. The hypocritical stance the UK and some other countries insist on adopting on nuclear weapons and nuclear technological development is increasingly threadbare and hypocritical and invites growing ridicule. The cold truth is that by ‘burning’ uranium in a reactor core and then reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel, plutonium is produced. Enrichment of uranium 235 to a point where it is sufficiently fissile to sustain a chain reaction in a reactor produces nuclear bomb grade material. It is estimated that there are 1,900 tonnes of plutonium in the world, sufficient to produce over 200,000 nuclear warheads. The UK is a cheerleader for the export of nuclear technology. Its blinkered approach and its touching faith in international safeguards will come back to haunt it – and us – one day.
It is high time we recognised and acknowledged that the links between civil and military applications of nuclear technology cannot be separated, no matter how hard we believe we can keep them apart, no matter how vigilant we are in policing the spread of nuclear weapons technology nor assuming that ‘friendly nations’ will not turn at some future point into Anglophobes. The best way out of this dilemma, if we wish to ensure that we turn the heat off rather than screw down the lid on the pressure cooker even more tightly, is to do away with nuclear weapons and lead by example. To increase the stakes by retention of nuclear arms and to threaten the lives of millions of innocent people in order to keep the peace by threat of mutual destruction is not only immoral and illegal but is surely the way to madness. Instead of mutual destruction, the nuclear states must pursue the goal of mutual disarmament.