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Promoting the Peaceful and Preventing the Military Uses of Nuclear Energy

Vienna Austria

No place could be more appropriate for that re-examination than Japan, because Japan is among the very few countries which have consistently and successfully tamed the atom to use in medicine, in agriculture and, above all, to give a substantial and independent energy base for its growing standard of living and its fast expanding industry. When today we rejoice in the phenomenal growth of Asian economies and the rising standard of living it brings to billions, we might do well to remember that this evolution began in Japan and that important elements - apart from education, hard work and stability - were the privilege of early demilitarization and a determined use of peaceful nuclear power. We should ask ourselves whether this recipe is not one that the world at large could and should follow.

In Japan no place could be more appropriate than Hiroshima for this discussion. The spectre of nuclear war between great powers, which has haunted the world ever since the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is at last losing its grip on us. The discussion is no longer about mutually assured destruction but about how we can do away with existing nuclear arsenals and how we can prevent new nuclear weapons from coming into being. Certainly the use of armed force at national and regional levels is not over, but cold war and containment are no longer the dominant factors they once were. They are giving way to commercial competition and co-operation, negotiation and integration. In this new era disarmament must go hand in hand with renewed efforts to help the hundreds of millions who live in deprivation, with efforts to uphold human rights, and to maintain cultural diversity, with efforts to protect the environment from mindless destruction and efforts to consolidate and develop regional and global institutions, notably the United Nations system.

Those who work in the nuclear field must contribute their thinking and expertise especially to two vitally important items on this new world agenda: the practical elimination of nuclear weapons and the safe and expanded use of nuclear energy for health, development and environmental protection. I shall address the second issue first. Promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy

There are an ever increasing number of beneficial and peaceful applications of nuclear energy in medicine, agriculture and industry. While all of them require full attention to radiation protection, only a few of them evoke any resistance. In particular, as we all know, As we all know public concern is focussed on nuclear reactors and the disposal of nuclear wastes. Thus, the successful promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy requires, inter alia, understanding those concerns and meeting them or showing that they are not well founded. I shall leave aside the many other peaceful uses of nuclear energy and address the issue of nuclear power.

There is no doubt that the accident at Three Mile Island and the disaster at Chernobyl have had a heavy impact on public opinion regarding nuclear power and that there is a continuing preoccupation with nuclear safety especially in many reactors of older Russian design.

It would also appear that mass media, ever in search of what can attract the public's attention, by disseminating any news which play on the public's fears of anything connected with radiation, actually help to confirm and amplify these fears. It is true that in many countries where there is no immediately compelling need to add further electric capacity - as is the case in many industrialized States - the public will also resist further fossil fuelled plants and large hydro schemes. In East Asia, however, where electricity demand is growing fast and it is understood that a higher standard of living depends directly upon responding to this demand, the public seems ready to cope with whatever concern it may feel and accept an expansion of nuclear power in the same way as it accepts other sources of electricity. Nonetheless, public acceptance of or resistance to nuclear power does not depend only upon the presence or absence of strong demand for electricity. Even in the face of a strong need for more electricity the expansion of nuclear power at present would meet insuperable resistance in several industrialized countries - not only those few, like Austria, Denmark and Ireland, which have made rejection of nuclear power a policy. To take a recent example, Finland, with a largely pro-nuclear government, with four existing nuclear units with an absolutely superb safety and production record, needs additional electric power. Yet, the Finnish Parliament last year rejected a government proposal for more nuclear power. By contrast, France, with a relatively comfortable electricity balance based on a large and well-functioning nuclear sector, continues to build nuclear power plants without much public concern. There is not one simple explanation as to why nuclear power is accepted or rejected. Each community has its own history and power situation and must decide in its own constitutional way what energy sources it will rely on.

Nuclear power must first of all compete with other power sources on its own economic, safety and reliability merits. The rapid expansion of nuclear power in East Asia and the slow but continued growth in some other countries, like France, shows that competition on these grounds alone is possible. Today, it is imperative, however, that the comparisons between different energy sources also take their respective health and environmental impacts into account. This necessity ought to lead to a renewed interest in nuclear power. Indeed, the global climate change that is presently foreseen as a result of the excessive emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, notably CO2 and methane, would appear to make an early revival of nuclear power crucially important. It is curious that few of the many governments, international authorities and non-governmental groups who are deeply engaged in the question of global warming have highlighted this point. In my view this has given a certain Alice in Wonderland character to what should be a serious public discussion. Let me give illustrations.

Although global climate change was one of the principal concerns at the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, few speakers at the Conference addressed the question of energy. The Framework Convention on Climate Change which was adopted by the Conference established the aim of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at levels which would not interfere dangerously with the climatic system. However, the convention does not stipulate how this is to be done. The aim of some countries to contain man-made greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 is characterized in the World Energy Council's authoritative report "Energy for Tomorrow's World" as simply unrealistic. Indeed, in all the Council's global energy scenarios for the time up to the year 2020 - even the most optimistic - there is an increase in the use of fossil fuels and an increase in CO2 emissions. To anyone looking around in the world today, it is evident that there is a global growth in reliance on the burning of fossil fuels and a global growth - not reduction - in CO2 emissions. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rhetoric is going in one direction, the reality in another!

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is looking much beyond the year 2020 and is working with scenarios up to the year 2100. Under a "renewable sources scenario" which it has before it, renewable sources, including hydro, would in the year 2100 have a share of 83% of the total energy supply - as compared to 6% commercial renewables at present. Both fossil and nuclear power would be practically phased out. Biomass would provide 50% of the world energy consumption, most of it being solid biomass used for electricity generation. One may query how meaningful such theoretical exercises are. In particular the rapidly accelerating and dominant role of renewable energies in the IPCC scenario I have referred to appears highly speculative. The World Energy Council foresees for biomass, solar, wind and geothermal power still only a very minor role even 30 years from now.

The paradoxical situation might be summed up as follows:

First, relying today for over three quarters of our energy needs on the burning of fossil fuels, we are drastically interfering with the ecological balance of the Earth by releasing into the atmosphere at a fantastic speed huge quantities of carbon dioxide taken from the very same atmosphere in the course of millions of years and stored underground;

Second, it is suggested to us that the phasing out of this enormous and risky interference should occur through the phasing in mainly of biomass, solar, wind and geothermal power - sources which after more than a decade of development contribute only a fraction of a percent of the world's energy and whose real development potential remains highly hypothetical;

Third, it is deemed inopportune at the very least by most leading participants in the greenhouse discussion to suggest that nuclear power, which now contributes about 5% of the world's energy and hardly any of its CO2, should be expanded, although it is a proven and presently available technology which could easily and rapidly expand, and which - with breeder reactors - could offer an almost inexhaustible source of CO2-free energy.

The dominant voices in the global environmental debate are so loud in their rejection of nuclear power and their advocacy of conservation and the hypothetical vastly expanded use of renewables that comments about the now existing and significant potential contribution of nuclear power are almost drowned out. Even among important groups of scientists the focus seems sometimes to be chiefly on speculative recipes. For example, reports from the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science highlight suggestions that we might shoot a thin layer of dust into the atmosphere every few years to shield the earth from too much warming. Certainly, the exploration of imaginative scientific ideas should not be discouraged but the world-wide attention given to ideas such as this is perhaps a sad sign that the nuclear option is placed on a distant, almost forgotten, back-burner.

However, there are, to be sure, statements in support of the use of nuclear power coming from quarters other than from the nuclear industry itself. Let me cite three.

The 1993 report "Energy for Tomorrow's World" by the World Energy Council states - I quote - that "nuclear power has immense technical potential" and that "there is a need to continue to seek a way of exploiting the immense energy reserves of nuclear power which is publicly acceptable across the whole fuel cycle from procurement and processing through disposal." The report also suggests that a major drive will be required to "achieve the early rehabilitation of nuclear energy" and to advance the introduction of renewable energy supplies "if a significant decline in the world's relative dependence on fossil fuels is going to occur over the next century" (page 90). To these considerations one might add the observation that already in today's world more than 400 nuclear power reactors help us to avoid some 1800 million tons of CO2 emissions that would have resulted from an alternative use of coal. This is about 9% of present total CO2 emissions (of 20 000 million tons) from fossil fuels. One might also have added the observation that the average CO2 emission per kWh in the UK, where 70% of the electricity comes from coal combustion was nearly one kilogram, while in France, where more than 70% of electricity comes from nuclear power, the CO2 emission per kWh was about one tenth of the UK value, or less than one hundred grams.

Another statement comes from the Club of Rome. More than two years ago a Club of Rome report concluded that - I quote - "the use of coal and oil is probably more dangerous to society, because of the carbon dioxide they produce, than nuclear energy. There are therefore strong arguments for keeping the nuclear option open and for the development of the fast breeder reactors ...".

The third statement I want to quote is by the Government of Japan. In a document submitted last December to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development it is stated - I quote - that "Japan should promote development and utilization of nuclear power on the assumption of safety assurance, regarding it as an energy source which does not release CO2." It is gratifying that at least one important government breaks the curtain of official silence about nuclear power and global warming. There is a certain risk that political parties and governments which are in fact positive or at least open to the nuclear power option simply for fear of alienating some voters remain completely silent on the issue, leaving discussion to vocal anti-nuclear groups. This could result in the option being unavailable one day when it may be needed to meet compelling demands for additional power capacity. One conclusion to be drawn is that scientists, and engineers and others familiar with the nuclear power option must speak up so that the public can obtain a balanced picture of both the potentials and problems of nuclear power. It should be understood, for instance, that if industrialized countries, which have the economic, scientific and technological capacity to expand their reliance on nuclear power used this capacity, the pressure on fossil fuels would diminish to the benefit of developing countries, Although these countries are the most energy hungry, nuclear power is, for the most part, not a viable option for them today, because it is very demanding in technological infrastructure and in capital.

Let me conclude that public discussion, with an active participation by scientists and engineers, is needed for a wide nuclear revival. However, there are also a number of other things that this group could and should do to enhance the use of nuclear energy.

The first and foremost, of course, is to ensure consistently good operation of existing nuclear plants. Much has been attained in this sphere in the last ten years. The notion of a nuclear safety culture to be emulated by all countries, is generally accepted and is propagated and assisted at the international level by the IAEA as well as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). There is now every prospect that an international convention on the safety of nuclear power plants will be adopted this year under IAEA auspices. Through this convention, States will bind themselves to a number of important safety principles and accept participation in periodic peer review of implementation of the obligations under the convention. This convention may be expected to be followed later by the elaboration of another, similar convention on the safe disposal of nuclear waste. The international legal infrastructure relating to nuclear safety is thus slowly growing beyond the familiar instruments on civil liability, physical protection and notification and assistance in the case of emergencies.

While we can now register over 6000 reactor years with the Chernobyl accident as being the only one which has caused significant off-site radioactive releases, there is still concern that safety improvements are not taking place quickly enough in many older power reactors of Russian design. Scarcity of resources in the former Soviet Union and too slow assistance from abroad are the reasons. It is essential that all concerned accept their responsibility. There is a compelling common interest in ensuring that no further accident occurs. At the IAEA we are at present particularly concerned about the situation at Chernobyl, where two reactors are still in operation and where many skilled operators have left. A special meeting will soon be held in Vienna on this subject.

A second important area of activity is the further development of nuclear power technology. The nuclear recession which still prevails in many countries in the Western industrialized world does not encourage expensive investment in such development. However, we should be aware that the emergence of advanced types of reactors might do much to increase acceptability of nuclear power. When public opinion does recognize the need to expand the use of nuclear power, as I trust one day it will, it should find that technology in this field as in others has not been standing still.

Many new demands are being placed upon the next generation of reactors. Their safety should be such that no plans are needed for the emergency evacuation of people living in their vicinity. They should be economically competitive and easier to operate than present reactors. With a renewed acceptance of the nuclear power option, new functions can be foreseen for nuclear energy. The fast growing number of huge cities around the world could be supplied with electricity from reactors which are located not too far away. Regions which must increasingly rely on the desalination of sea water could look to a new option. Heat producing reactors could have wide industrial use and reactors could be used for district heating in the cold regions of the world.

Japan is taking a prominent part in the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors. This is far sighted and may one day pay off well. The high temperature gas cooled reactor is an interesting example. Even the much maligned breeder reactors may one day be warmly welcomed. It is true that the economic case for breeders is not present today - with uranium prices at a very low level, and it is true that the use of plutonium raises special security demands. However, looking toward the next century the experience that a few countries, including Japan, France and Russia, are gaining in the design and operation of breeders may turn out to be valuable - for themselves and for the world as well.

The issue of waste from nuclear power still looms large in the public debate. However, it is not of the same dimension as the issue of operational safety and it is likely to be of limited duration. Once suitable sites have been selected and appropriate installations have been built, problems are unlikely to arise. The operation of waste disposal installations is not very complicated. Nevertheless there are some matters in the area of radioactive waste which deserve particular attention. First, it is known that the handling of nuclear waste in the military sector in the US and Russia has had serious deficiencies. This must be remedied over time and in a planned manner. Second, it is important to get on with the selection of sites which are suitable for waste disposal and, in doing so, to consult the local population. Experience from several countries, including France, shows that acceptance is by no means unattainable when full information is patiently given to the public and the potential benefits to the local communities are explained. Third, despite the fact that there exist today fully satisfactory methods of managing and disposing of all levels of radioactive waste, it is desirable that research and development continue. Just as we may expect a new generation of power reactors offering new and positive features, new methods of waste handling may emerge which may be less costly or, perhaps, shorten the time span during which the wastes remain radioactive.

The concept of "alternative energy" has been much in fashion. We should coin the term "alternative waste". Nuclear waste is an alternative to the waste from burnt fossil fuels. If the wastes from burnt fossil fuels could be managed and disposed of as safely as the waste from nuclear power, our global environment would not be endangered. It is the wastes from burnt coal, oil and gas - not the waste from nuclear power plants - that cause acid rains and greenhouse gases. These wastes are so voluminous that they cannot be contained and buried. Sites for the ultimate disposal of these wastes are not selected. They are our atmosphere and the surface of our earth.

Preventing the military uses of nuclear energy

After decades of nuclear arms races, the world is beginning to descend the arms spiral. Russia and the United States have agreed to cut the number of their nuclear warheads from some 65 000 together to around 3000 each. Although even this number still represents a formidable destructive potential, it points to a decisive turning of the tide and indicates that the nuclear-weapon States no longer consider nuclear armed conflicts between themselves to be realistic. The great powers appear to feel that they have no choice in this new era but to co-operate and to bridge differences which inevitably arise. Although the Security Council of the United Nations is not immune to paralysis through a veto, common action is now routinely and sincerely sought and often achieved. This, too, augurs well for the future.

In this situation many new questions arise with a specific bearing on the nuclear sphere.

A current problem is the safe dismantling of redundant nuclear warheads and the storing, managing and eventual use or disposal of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium regarded as excess to defence requirements. It must be verified that the material does not go back to military use. President Clinton has declared that the United States will place recovered material under the control of the IAEA and we expect considerable quantities of such material to be placed permanently under safeguards already this year. While the recovered enriched uranium is expected to be transformed into low enriched uranium and made into fuel for light water reactors, there is still considerable discussion about the future of the recovered plutonium: whether it is to be used in special dedicated reactors, or as MOX fuel in light water reactors or be mixed with nuclear waste and disposed of as such. In either case international verification of such peaceful use and disposal of such material will be much more demanding than simply verification of storage.

It is in the context of the proposals to place excess HEU and Pu under safeguards that a discussion has started about the Pu which will come back from the reprocessing of spent power reactor fuel - e.g. from Japan - and which is already under safeguards. Although efforts will be made to limit the quantities which have to be temporarily stored, special measures are being discussed to enhance confidence and transparency in all aspects of the transport, storing and use of plutonium.

With a growing surplus of plutonium and highly enriched uranium connected with nuclear weapons, it is not surprising that attention is now turning to revived proposals for a universal prohibition of the production of further fissionable material for use in weapons or other nuclear explosive devices - a so-called cut-off. Such a ban would prevent the dismantling of nuclear weapons being offset by the simultaneous production of fissionable material for new weapons. If universally accepted and not limited to the declared nuclear-weapon States, such a ban would also put a cap on any further production of fissionable material for weapons in the so-called threshold States, i.e. in India, Pakistan and Israel. Verification of a universally accepted cut-off would require a very extensive effort, as reprocessing and enrichment plants and - probably - all nuclear reactors in declared nuclear- weapon States and in India, Pakistan and Israel may have to be safeguarded.

It has been argued that participation by India, Pakistan and Israel in a cut-off agreement, although preventing these States from producing any further fissionable material for weapons, would legitimize whatever stocks of such material they might have had when joining an agreement. I do not find this argument very convincing. There is no reason to let the best - no nuclear weapons - be the enemy of the good - no further material for nuclear weapons.

A complete ban on nuclear testing is at long last under serious negotiation in Geneva. Its conclusion and universal acceptance would give a powerful signal that the era of further nuclear weapon development is over. It would also give a powerful boost to the non-proliferation treaty by eliminating one inequality between its non-nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons parties.

From the media and from some international public discussion, one might get the impression that as the world progresses toward nuclear disarmament the risk of a spread of nuclear weapons to further States has paradoxically been growing. The discovery that Iraq - an NPT State - was pursuing a sizeable clandestine programme for the enrichment of uranium to use in nuclear weapons was a severe shock raising the questions of whether there are other clandestine programmes and whether guarantees can be created against such developments.

Some new dangers can, indeed, be identified but so too can a number of positive developments. Let me first focus on the dangers. At the time the NPT was concluded, the concern was that the more industrialized countries might use nuclear energy for military purposes. This has not been the case. Japan and other advanced industrial nations have not sought their security in these weapons. Today, however, more developing countries are reaching a technological level that might enable them to make nuclear weapons. Iraq was secretly trying. India, Pakistan and Israel - not parties to the NPT - are deemed by most observers to have the capacity for the military use of nuclear energy. At present, an ominous question mark is attached to the DPRK which has adhered to the NPT but which - despite Security Council requests - is rejecting effective IAEA inspection, especially in the plant built for plutonium separation.

Another new concern about proliferation is linked to the changes in and the break-up of the former Soviet Union. It may be hoped that the risks identified are short-lived and that not only Kazakhstan and Belarus but also Ukraine will join the NPT and will, with appropriate economic and security arrangements, transfer any nuclear weapons on their territories to Russia. With the active co-operation of these countries the IAEA is preparing for safeguards inspection of all nuclear facilities in them.

Another risk is that nuclear material, know-how and experts might trickle out to States or groups potentially interested in making nuclear weapons. The response to this risk lies in strengthened regulatory control in the States of the former Soviet Union and in increased alertness against smuggling. So far, none of the many instances of smuggling which have come to light has involved nuclear material of types or quantities which give rise to proliferation risks. But there is no room for complacency.

The new risks of proliferation which I have mentioned have an important counter-balance in new commitments to non-proliferation. Argentina and Brazil have opened the whole of their nuclear programmes to each other and to IAEA inspection. If - as we now have reason to hope - Cuba joins the Tlatelolco Treaty, the whole of Latin America could soon become a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. In Africa, South Africa has become the first State in the world to roll back from a nuclear weapon capability and to request IAEA verification of the termination of its weapons programme. If, as recently declared, Algeria adheres to the NPT, the path would be open to Africa becoming a second nuclear-weapon-free continent.

In the Middle East, the peace process offers some hope for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Indeed, it is hard to see how the peace process could be complete without a well verified nuclear-weapon-free zone or zone free of all weapons of mass destruction. The IAEA has been asked to assist the parties in exploring the necessary verification arrangements.

A special arrangement involving India and Pakistan and several other countries, may also be needed as part of the efforts to free the world from military applications of nuclear energy.It is too early to speculate on the arrangements necessary for a world in which no single nation can threaten others with the use of nuclearweapons. The genie is out of the bottle. Until the United Nations has developed as an effective security system - and we are far from that situation - the five declared nuclear-weapon States are unlikely fully to abandon their capacity. There is much, however, that can and should be done to promote non-proliferation before we reach that advanced level of global organization.

Above all, it is important that the major States continue the policy of detente. Since the end of the cold war tremendous progress has been achieved, e.g. in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Mozambique, Namibia and Ethiopia, Lebanon and the Middle East, Cambodia. But there are still areas of large scale or limited armed conflicts, e.g. Bosnia, Somalia, Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan. As security interests drive arms races, including nuclear arms races, detente is the first barrier against nuclear proliferation. In this respect, we might perhaps dare to be optimistic. We seem to be in an age of negotiated settlements of conflicts - whether about territory, economics or even human rights.

A second barrier to proliferation may lie - as we have learned from failure in the case of Iraq - in more effective controls over exports of nuclear material and equipment. A third barrier may lie in verification so effective that it will help to deter States from any secret military uses of nuclear energy. In this regard, too, experience in Iraq has helped us to make progress. The safeguards system of the IAEA has been considerably strengthened. In the case of the DPRK it was the use of the latest techniques which led the IAEA to sound the alarm and, in that case, it is not detection and verification techniques that are in question but rather the means available for inducement and enforcement. However, further consolidation and development must occur in the field of verification of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and under future agreements relating to nuclear disarmament and arms control. Greater national nuclear transparency vis-a-vis the safeguards system and in full co-operation with that system may lead to stronger assurance that nuclear installations subject to safeguards are used for exclusively peaceful purposes.

Last update: 26 July 2017

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