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The Dawn of a New Nuclear Age? August 13, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, Politics, Society, South Africa.

Wrote this for August version of The Big Issue. Read this and then buy the real thing on the street.

The Dawn of a New Nuclear Age?

For decades any self-respecting Bond-villain either manufactured or at the very least stole atomic weaponry. But they were always thwarted. In a recent episode of theTV drama series 24, the villains (now terrorists) made and detonated a nuclear bomb in California. Is this pure fiction about to become reality?

On the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (6 & 9 August 1945, respectively) and at a time when the power of the atom is in the news more than at any time since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the end of the
Cold War, the reality of a suicide nuclear bomber is a pertinent question. The answer will come as a shocking surprise.

Some experts believe that the threat of a nuclear attack by rogue governments or international terrorists is inevitable. Recently, MIT professor and author Hugh Gusterson wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “Russia has enough highly enriched uranium lying around to make tens of thousands of Hiroshima-type bombs… Expecting none of Russia’s uranium to get into terrorist hands is as realistic as expecting the United States to end illegal immigration or the heroin trade. Borders are porous, and the folks
guarding all that uranium in Russia are not paid very well.”

Since the ‘90s about 40kg of weaponsusable uranium and plutonium have been stolen from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. In 1997 a Russian team of inspectors found the I N Vekua Physics and Technology Institute in
Sukhumi, Georgia, abandoned and 2kg of enriched uranium missing. A year later Russian security forces stopped workers at a nuclear facility in Chelyabinsk Oblast from stealing 18.5kg of similar material.

Nuclear security issues are not just a problem in Eastern Europe. In 2002, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) fined the owners an atomic power plant in Connecticut US$288 000 (R2m) for failing to account
for two missing nuclear fuel rods. This year undercover investigators from the US Government Accountability Office
set up a bogus company and obtained a licence from that same NRC that allowed them to buy radioactive nuclear materials for a so-called “dirty” bomb.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei says “the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database has, in the past decade, recorded more than 650 cases that involved efforts to smuggle [nuclear and radioactive] materials”. He told the Washington Post that “a terror group could acquire a stolen nuclear weapon, or enough material to develop a crude nuclear weapon”.

Al Qaeda is known to have tried to obtain nuclear materials and in September last year called for nuclear scientists to join its ranks. In November, British intelligence officials said they believed that Al Qaeda is determined to attack the UK with a nuclear weapon: “we know the aspiration is there, we know the attempt to get material is there, we know the attempt to get technology is there”.

To build such a weapon might be easier than most of us imagine. It has been estimated that 19 appropriately skilled people with access to about US$10-million (R70m) could assemble a nuclear device in a year – a proposition certainly not out of the question for someone like Osama bin Laden.

The prospect of unpredictable governments and ruthless international terrorists arming themselves with atomic weapons are not the only worries. Security experts are increasingly nervous about possible attacks on nuclear power facilities and radioactive materials in transit.

A 2004 UK Parliamentary Office of Science and
Technology Report entitled Assessing the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities makes for sobering reading. “Nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand some forms of terrorist attack, such as large aircraft impact… Published reports suggest that, in a worst case scenario, the impact of a large aircraft on certain facilities could cause a significant release of radioactive material with effects over a wide area.” In the aftermath of 9/11 these are chilling revelations.

The planned increase in the number of nuclear power plants will lead to increased production and transportation of radioactive materials and a growing number of hard-to-secure nuclear targets for direct terrorist attack and theft of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In July 2006, Tom Parry, a reporter for the UK Mirror, planted a fake bomb on a train transporting highly radioactive nuclear waste while it was parked at a North West London railway depot.

Fans of atomic energy tend to gloss over the connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, but in the words of Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Hannes Alven, “the military atom and the civil atom are Siamese twins”. Indeed, there are signifi cant historical, technological and geopolitical links between the two.

The various components of a civil nuclear program, including uranium enrichment facilities and nuclear power reactors, are capable of producing the materials necessary to build
nuclear warheads. According to El Baradei, “if a country with a full nuclear fuel cycle decides to break away from its nonproliferation commitments, a nuclear weapon could be only months away”. Which is precisely why the USA is so agitated about Iran’s attempts to establish a civil nuclear power infrastructure.

The fact that such geopolitically significant countries as Russia, India and most importantly China have embarked on massive atomic energy investments which guarantee them access to many nuclear weapons in the future, means
that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the USA would even consider throttling back its own nuclear power project.

This is not to say that every countryhas chosen the nuclear route. In July,German chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her country’s commitment to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2021. In Germany this decision was only reached as a result of massive and sustained popular discontent over atomic energy.

Whether or not a similarly public outcry will convince our own government to choose a non-nuclear future is yet to be seen. To what extent South Africa’s ambitions as a regional and African power player have influenced the government’s present atomic energy drive is diffi cult to estimate.

Globally and locally, it would appear though, that the nuclear fat lady has already sung.

Still think there’s no connection between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons? Here’s a recent story that suggests otherwise.


1. Enid - August 13, 2007


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