Last week  we reviewed the excellent new documentary Countdown to Zero , released in late July, just in time for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries (Aug. 6 and 9). While we praised Countdown and hope everyone will see it, we had some questions about the film’s stand on the safety or acceptability of nuclear power (see below). We contacted the production company and some of the experts who appear in the film, and two experts, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund  and Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute  and founder of Global Zero , replied in generous detail. We wanted to share their thoughts, and to express here our gratitude for their taking the time to clarify some important concerns about how nuclear power and nonproliferation can coexist.
Some of this gets a little technical—but it’s a technical matter, after all—so you can skim the excerpts if you like. The main point is that the experts took the questions seriously and took time to answer, and their replies show they’ve been thinking quite extensively about these issues.
We wrote last week:
Countdown to Zero is excellent but not perfect. We had questions about some important practical issues that were raised but not dealt with. The film advocates bringing all world nuclear stockpiles down to zero. (Agreed.) But the film also explains that nuclear power plants produce fissile material (as in the case of Iran). So, does the film also advocate elimination of nuclear power? How is the danger posed by production of fissile materials through ordinary operation of nuclear power plants to be managed? Unless we missed something, the film said nothing about what should be done about nuclear power plants. Presumably terrorists or their would-be suppliers could also get their hands on fissile material—or is that somehow not possible? There is still the question of what to do about Iran, or what threat may be posed by Iran or other possibly hostile or unstable nations possessing nuclear power plants, or the fissile material produced by them. Would France, for example, have to shut down its nuclear power plants, the source of most of its electricity?
It turns out that we did miss something. Bruce Blair, one of the experts appearing in the film, explained in an e-mail that neither the film nor Global Zero stand in opposition to nuclear power plants. He continued:
We do however emphasize the need to strengthen safeguards against the potential diversion of “civilian” facilities to weapons purposes. Those safeguards would take various forms: more authority for IAEA inspectors to conduct inspections anytime and anywhere; multilateral partnerships in running the facilities (especially uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing centers); international management of the entire “civilian” fuel cycle from uranium mining to waste processing; and international fuel banks (nations forgo indigenous national fuel production and rely on supplies of nuclear fuel (LEU [low enriched uranium] in particular for civilian power plants) from an international consortium with spent fuel returned to the source (to guard against extracting plutonium from the waste); and new proliferation-resistant technologies such as thorium-based reactors.
In addition, new enforcement mechanisms must be developed to deal with cheaters who would break out of their NPT [Nonproliferation Treaty] obligations and begin to produce materials for nuclear weapons. [On this point, Blair wrote in a separate e-mail, “Global Zero emphasizes that safeguards must be greatly strengthened through additional protocols and international management and international fuel banks to close the NPT loophole that allows countries like Iran to pursue nuclear weapons breakout capability under the guise of a nuclear commercial peaceful program.”] A cheater would not be allowed to utilize nuclear technology provided in good faith to it during its period of compliance with the treaty. Technology assistance garnered under false pretenses would have to be surrendered.
In short, we view the civilian nuclear fuel cycle today to pose unacceptable risks of diversion and nuclear weapons breakout, and further expansion of this industry will only exacerbate the problem, and therefore it is critical to strengthen international control over the cycle.
Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione noted that although the film does not directly address the troublesome issues of cost, waste, and safety of nuclear energy, near the end it does discuss the key issue regarding proliferation. His remarks deserve to be quoted in full:
From a proliferation perspective, the problem with nuclear power is not the reactor, it is what goes into and comes out of the reactor.
The same facilities that enrich uranium to low levels for fuel can enrich it to high levels for bombs. The same facilities that reprocess the spent fuel for disposal can reprocess it to produce plutonium for bombs. This is the problem with Iran today: Not the reactor at Bushehr, but the uranium enrichment plant and the plutonium reprocessing plant. The Iranians say this is just for fuel. Do you trust them? Or, for that matter, do you trust Vietnam which, under a deal  now being negotiated with the US, would be allowed to build their own uranium enrichment facility?
The solution to this is discussed in Countdown. It is to put all fuel fabrication facilities under international control (as Truman proposed in 1946) or multinational control (as the Europeans do with the URENCO fuel facilities in UK, Germany and the Netherlands). And, as the film says, to guard all stockpiles of enriched uranium and move to eliminate as much of the material as possible.
Note: It is not possible for terrorists to, say, raid a power reactor and get material for a bomb. The radiated fuel is far too deadly to touch. It requires massive machinery to take the fuel out and a massive facility to reprocess it to extract the plutonium. On the other hand, terrorist could raid a research reactor in, say, Argentina, and take out the highly enriched uranium fuel that is used in many of these small reactors to produce medical isotopes. This is a major terrorist risk and is discussed in some detail in the film.
But Will the U.S. Really Agree to Multilateral Security Arrangements?
These experts’ advocacy of strong safeguards and inspections directed by international agreements and monitoring organizations all sounds good to us—we would love to see this in action—yet we worry about the realistic likelihood that nations will comply with these conditions. They know the community and the issues much better than we do, and it’s true that we’re disillusioned by too many years of Cheney-and-Rumsfeld-neocon mentality controlling things (why should the U.S. be constrained by any international agreements?), but it seems to us that the individual nations participating in such cooperative arrangements would be agreeing to surrender considerable autonomy in exchange for security. Mr. Cirincione points to Vietnam’s insistence on being “allowed to build their own uranium enrichment facility.”
These ideas are soundly reasoned and appear workable on paper, but is it politically practicable when we can’t even get the Senate to agree to formerly Republican-proposed “cap and trade” energy measures (which were originally proposed by Republicans and advocated by McCain-Palin 2008)? In the current political climate—toxic and partisan to the extreme—it is hard to imagine how the American public can be assured that conservatives’ inevitable complaints about surrender of autonomy are exaggerated. Woodrow Wilson faced the same resistance when he was urging the nation to support the League of Nations in 1919 . . . The U.S. never joined.
Bruce Blair acknowledges that it’s going to be tough to persuade American participation in multilateral nuclear security arrangements, “but a nonpartisan consensus is beginning to gell that the threat of proliferation and terrorism demand new measures. The UAE model is a good illustration of the kind of progress that we can and must make. (It is developing a nuclear power program but promised to participate in a fuel bank arrangement in lieu of its own fuel cycle effort.)”
Well, we admire their commitment to projects that may well save us all, and we pray that their sane vision prevails.
“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”
Nuclear Weapons, No. But Yes to Nuclear Power?
We ask these questions about nuclear power because, quite to the contrary of anything we would have expected “once upon a time,” we have opened our minds a little to nuclear power as a reasonable alternative to coal-powered generation of electricity. (You have to burn a pound of coal to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for 10 hours.) There are some solid, sane reasons why nuclear power plants are viewed with skepticism, but under conditions of serious and strict governmental (not private) regulation and oversight, this means of generating power can be done well. It is not the only answer, but rather one of a suite of options for alternatives to coal-burning generation of electricity, along with solar, wind, geothermal, and other methods yet to be developed to their full potential. The key consideration is that generation of electricity should not contribute further to global warming.
For more about how nuclear power just may be “the power to save the world” (at least from catastrophic intensities of global warming), see Gwyneth Cravens’s book by that title, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy . (She was a longtime skeptic and anti–nuclear power activist.)
See Countdown to Zero’s spread-the-word action page .
Valerie Plame Wilson in the New York Daily News: “A World Without Nuclear Weapons : Ex-CIA Agent Valerie Plame Wilson Says We Need to Make It Real”
Check out The Ploughshares Fund , a grantmaking foundation “dedicated exclusively to security and peace funding” worldwide for more than 25 years. See also Global Zero , founded by Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute . An organization of more than 200 political, military, business, religious and civic leaders, Global Zero is working “for the phased, verified elimination  of all nuclear weapons worldwide.”
Soon we’ll have more about the New Start treaty  signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in April. It is presently in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will be brought for a vote later this year, likely after the midterm congressional elections. (See “Hiroshima, 65 Years On .”) We spoke with a committee staffer this week and will be following up soon; we’ll keep you apprised. Stay tuned.