Nuclear Energy is Not a Controllable Technology from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the elimination of nuclear energy Nuke Info Tokyo No. 108
60th anniversary of the atomic bombing
Two years after the bomb was dropped, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, said, “physicists have known sin and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” However, it is necessary to separate the discovery of nuclear fission in the realm of science from the process which followed in the realm of technology to turn this into an atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons teach us that it is not enough to simply shrug our shoulders and say that scientists and technologists will always try to find an application for the latest knowledge.
This year it is sixty years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I believe that international opinion is now strongly against nuclear weapons. However, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May ended in failure, and more and more countries are eager to pursue uranium enrichment and reprocessing, despite the fact that these technologies can be used to produce the material for nuclear weapons. Of course this is all related to international politics, but if we just lay the blame there, we will never find our way to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Rokkasho and nuclear proliferation
As discussed in the first article in this edition of NIT, Japan is looking to continue to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle under the new nuclear policy currently being developed. This policy involves extracting 8 tons of plutonium per year when the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is fully operational, despite the fact that Japan already has 43.1 tons of plutonium1 and nobody knows whether the fast breeder reactor will ever become operational. There is no clear use for this plutonium, so the question is being asked, “what does Japan intend to do with such a large quantity of plutonium?” This is essentially the question that was raised in a new paper by Frank Barnaby and Shaun Burnie, Thinking the Unthinkable: Japanese nuclear power and nuclear proliferation in East Asia2. This paper, published jointly by CNIC and Oxford Research Group, was written to mark the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing and was released at anti-nuclear conferences held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the beginning of August.
The Japanese government takes the position that its use of nuclear energy is for exclusively peaceful purposes. To those who question this, the government replies that the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is covered by strict IAEA safeguards. However, the above paper argues that it is impossible to safeguard Rokkasho3. Even with the most up-to-date safeguards technologically available, “the potential material unaccounted for (MUF)…will be around 50 kg per year.” In other words, the potential material unaccounted for amounts to about one nuclear weapon’s worth of plutonium per month. It will be impossible to know whether it has been diverted, or whether it is lost somewhere inside the plant.
The report also warns, “Not one country that has initiated a nuclear weapons programme since 1945 has done so on the basis of a democratic debate.” If the political conditions in Japan take a turn for the worse, it could develop nuclear weapons “within six months”.
On 4 September, Fukushima Prefecture hosted an international symposium in Tokyo to consider the nuclear fuel cycle (see photos on previous article – Governor Sato standing). The forum included ten panelists, three overseas members (Christian Kueppers from Germany, Frank von Hippel from the USA, and Mycle Schneider from France) and four Japanese members of the ICRC review (see previous article), plus three pro-reprocessing Japanese experts. In the limited time available, the following three themes were debated: ‘safety and environmental compatibility’, ‘energy security and nuclear non-proliferation’, and ‘economics and the cost of a change of policy’. For each theme the presentations of those opposed to reprocessing were convincing.
Regarding the non-proliferation theme, they questioned the rush to start up the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, given Japan’s plutonium surplus and the lack of any clear use for it. Why not stop and thoroughly debate the issue? The proponents of reprocessing responded to this question by saying that Japan’s reprocessing technology has been accumulated as part of a long-term plan over a long period of time and that it must not be thrown away now. They also said that Japan’s reprocessing program is proliferation-resistant because plutonium is not extracted by itself. Rather, it is mixed with uranium and fabricated into MOX fuel. In regard to the first point, the opponents pointed out that the technology will not be lost by pausing now. Mycle Schneider, of France, also contrasted the practical failings of reprocessing in other countries with the very theoretical and unrealistic attitude towards this technology of the proponents of reprocessing in Japan. In regard to the second point, allow me to quote Barnaby and Burnie again:
“The use of MOX increases the risk of nuclear-weapon proliferation. The necessary steps of chemically separating the plutonium dioxide from uranium dioxide and converting the dioxide into plutonium metal that can be used to fabricate nuclear weapons are relatively straightforward.”
Cartoon by Shoji Takagi
Let us return to the words of Robert Oppenheimer quoted at the beginning of this article. Whether or not existing technologies, or technologies under development, should be accepted is something that the whole society should decide. When making such a decision, the first thing that should be considered is whether or not these technologies can be controlled. In some cases, even after a thorough debate, it may be impossible to judge until the technology is actually tried out. In those cases, the technology must be checked from time to time in the light of developments since it was introduced.
Technology involving radioactivity and the use of radiation has the potential to do irreversible damage to life systems. Development of such technology could even lead to the extinction of the human species. The lesson of history since the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bomb is that there is no distinction between the military and the civilian use of plutonium. This is not an area to be pursued out of scientific curiosity. The top-secret development of nuclear weapons and the imposition of the nuclear fuel cycle without proper debate are very similar acts.
Japan should withdraw from this highly dangerous policy, euphemistically referred to as the “peaceful use of nuclear energy”. It should not start up the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. Giving up reprocessing now would be a first step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Yukio Yamaguchi (CNIC Co-Director)
1. The latest figures were released on September 6th and will be covered in detail in the next edition of NIT.
2. Click here to read this paper
3. Clear here for a more detailed analysis (in Japanese) by CNIC Co-Director, Nishio Baku, based on reports by IAEA and Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. technologists.