Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ron Smith: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

The project of abolishing nuclear weapons has attracted a great deal of passionate support down through the years but the debate has been typically characterised by imprecision in specifying what the end state would be and how it would be maintained. A sequence of possible measures might be envisaged. As a first stage, all nuclear explosive devices (warheads) would be separated from their delivery systems and then broken down. The core fissile material would then removed and safely held or destroyed. It is taken as axiomatic that merely de-alerting nuclear strike systems, or separating the warheads, would not amount to nuclear disarmament, though it could be seen as a measure that would increase security. In such a case, it would simply be a matter of how long it would take to reconnect the warhead with its delivery system.

Removing the fissile material would be different, but how different would depend on what is done next. If the components of the weapon (the weapon ‘pits’) were merely held close-by the difference might be small. Assuming the party whose material it is, has access to it, it would, again, be merely a question of how long. The assumption here is that the nuclear material (in whatever form) is held within the jurisdiction of the sovereign-state that owns it and that, whatever undertakings have been given, they could assert themselves if they thought it essential to do so. This would apply even if the material in question is subjected to deep geological ‘disposal’.

There is however a way round this difficulty and that is to insist that the fissile material in question is converted into civilian power –reactor fuel and loaded into a suitable plant. This has happened already to plutonium from the United States’ stockpile of weapons-grade material, which was sent to France in late 2004 and then returned as Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. This has now been ‘burned’ in a US reactor. Weapons grade uranium can be disposed of in the same way and in both cases the highly-sensitive fissile material cannot be recovered.

There are, however, serious problems to this project and many of these turn on the problem of verification. Clearly a global arrangement of this kind would require an extensive and extremely intrusive bureaucracy to satisfy all parties that every weapon, all pits and every scrap of fissile material had been accounted for. How easy would this be in the contemporary world? And this is only part of the problem.

The verification regime would have to make quite certain that no new weapon-suitable material came into existence. We might note here the difficulty that the International Atomic Energy Agency is having in satisfying itself about what Iran is doing. The extent of the potential difficulties may be seen from the fact that Iran was also found to be building a plutonium-production reactor in Syria, as well as all the activities it was engaged in within its own borders. This was the reactor that Israel destroyed last year.

Having uranium enrichment capability is not illegal in itself but enriching beyond the 3 to 5 per cent required for modern light-water reactor use, certainly is. Again, countries that are closing the nuclear fuel cycle by extracting plutonium from spent fuel (reprocessing), will also have the capability to extract plutonium from a production reactor that is making weapons-grade material. All these activities can be the subject of continuous monitoring (and they are in many places in the world) but in the absence of trust they represent a significant vulnerability. Monitored activities like this are also vulnerable to ‘break-out’, where the state concerned merely expels the nuclear inspectorate and uses its approved capability for overtly military purposes.

There is also the problem that much of this discussion depends upon the technology staying more or less static, which is extremely unlikely. As far as enrichment is concerned, we may now be on the brink of third generation technology. The first generation process depended upon the isotopes of uranium being separated by gaseous diffusion. In the second, the crucial process was centrifugal, with, again, numerous ‘passes’ being required to achieve the desired enrichment. In both cases the process is extremely energy intensive and the plant requirement is extensive. The third generation looks as if it will be laser-based, with separation achieved in a single pass. It will undoubtedly pose new problems for non-proliferation and even more so for nuclear abolition.

There would only be one certain answer to this and that would be to curtail or completely abandon the civilian nuclear industry. In the judgement of this writer, this would be too big a price to pay. Not only does nuclear technology provide more than 15% of the world’s electricity, but non-power (‘research’) reactors are the source of a wide range of medical and industrial isotopes, as well as semi-conductor material for our computers. Even partial restrictions on the civilian nuclear industry, such as the proposed ban on reprocessing (the ‘Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty’) would have a substantial price at a time when civilian nuclear power generation is appealing to more and more states around the world.

Given that the whole nuclear industry is not abandoned, there will be many states that have the technology and the ‘know-how’ to make nuclear weapons (whether they have had them before or not). Given a change in their security situation, the only question would be how long would it take?

The project of bringing about a world without nuclear weapons needs to answer these questions if it to become anything other than a pious dream. To this date, no such answers have been supplied. But then we do have the consolation of nuclear deterrence, about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

1 comment:

Brian Arrandale said...

Abandoning Nuclear Weapons.

Dr Smith has laid out the pros & cons very clearly; but all in all, it would come down to the one simple key word “TRUST”. Can we trust other countries not to produce or use nuclear devices?

Any abolition on such a grand scale for ALL countries to decommission, would as Dr Smith states, have to be universal. That would involve such a huge bureaucracy even if we could get all nations to agree (extremely doubtful in most cases and totally impossible in the key ones) leaving Western Countries open to a nuclear attack.

The United Nations present “administration” is already top heavy and costly, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has limited powers. It would never be able to secure total access to verify and decommissioning of any nuclear material; let alone demanding the scrapping of such “material” suitable for atomic weapons.

In New Zealand the anti nuclear brigade has assumed such powers through its continued use of a “State of Fear”, together with its indoctrination into the School Education system as to make any informed opinion impossible. In any case all political parties avoid like the plague anything to do with the word “Nuclear”, and if we are to make a comparison with the past, then there is no better example than with the actions of the 18th Century Luddites. (Almost an epidemic in today’s New Zealand)

It has become very obvious that the United Nations is incapable of dealing with the whole question of “rogue” states arming themselves with nuclear devices. No doubt our “Greens” would totally disagree with this statement as their socialistic fixation with the wrongs of capitalistic United States and the Western Alliance has become an obsession to justify their existence.

The greatest fear now facing us is NOT nuclear, but the desire and commitment of President Obama and his present administration to reduce their fiscal deficit by cutting the United States Defense spending…again shades of President Clinton’s overall strategy of some years ago. The lack of intestinal support from Western Europe has added to a lack of commitment and total military strategy.

A weak United States and a bankrupt E.U. together with a Britain lost in the vortex for power by the blackmail of a minority does not bode well, and may well take our minds from the enormity of what needs to be done to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Proving that weakness in disarming without total safeguards is a criminal act that no government should inflict upon its people.

It brings to mind the quotation by the one of the greatest military Generals of the American Civil War-- Nathan B Forrest that the “Art” of War is:-

“BEING THE FIRSTEST WITH THE MOSTEST.”

Brian Arrandale