A modest proposal for changing the conversation about nuclear proliferation

A modest proposal for changing the conversation about nuclear proliferation: the standard view of nuclear proliferation risk might be completely backwards

One perennial aspect of the battle over nuclear energy is the question of proliferation risk. Advocates of nuclear energy say that the spread of nuclear power plants does not necessarily have to accelerate the spread of nuclear weapons. Opponents say that this proliferation risk can never be eliminated because any nation that gets a nuclear power plant will have the potential to build nuclear weapons.
Could it be that we have defined this problem in the wrong direction? After all, seventy years into the nuclear age, the record shows that an unexpected thing happened on the way to Armageddon. The feared nuclear war between the superpowers never happened, and a nuclear weapon has never been accidentally detonated, in spite of many nightmarish near misses and “broken arrow” incidents. In contrast, nuclear power plants have a record of devastating accidents, the most famous of which are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Of course, deliberate weapons tests were crimes against the biosphere and the marginalized ethnic groups who were downwind. Furthermore, the front end and back end of the nuclear weapons industry have left a trail of accidents and environmental contamination. I’m just leaving these issues aside here in order to make a point about nuclear power plants. While the IAEA and the international community were (and still are) preoccupied with what turned out to be a failed attempt to stop weapons proliferation, the beginning of the end of the Cold War came with the explosion of the Number 4 Reactor at Chernobyl.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Unit 4 ruins, 1986
 This was the occasion when it should have been obvious to all that the proliferation risk goes in the other direction. Fukushima should have been enough to drive the point home. The best reason to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons is that they present an unacceptable risk of the proliferation of nuclear power plants. Just look at the historical record of how these two technologies came to various countries.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, 2011
The bombs came first in 1945, then the nuclear power plants came a decade later under the deceptive banner of “atoms for peace.” Now we have about 400 nuclear power plants throughout the world, and each one of them is essentially a nuclear fuel and nuclear waste production facility, with years of accumulated waste usually sitting above ground in long-term storage. The recent failure at the disposal site in New Mexico has cast doubt on underground disposal as a solution for nuclear waste. Each power plant is a large dirty bomb in waiting. Each one could potentially cause a large-scale social and ecological catastrophe if it were struck by a natural disaster or an act of war or sabotage.
As we look at the record of individual countries, we see that several have built power plants under the cover of building a nuclear arsenal for deterrence and self-defense. In the case of the USA, the USSR, China, France, and the UK, this was the duplicitous strategy. Other countries like Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and many others were much bolder. They didn’t even bother to express any peaceful intention of just wanting a deterrent. They boldly went straight to nuclear power plants.
Israel and North Korea are the only two countries that have nuclear weapons but no nuclear power plants. They had the good sense to not trust themselves and tied themselves to the mast as they sailed past the siren song promising cheap and clean electricity. Pakistan has also been fairly restrained for a nation in possession of nuclear weapons, having only two plants in operation. We could call these three the axis of self-restraint. They have not let their nuclear arsenals proliferate into dangerous fleets of nuclear reactors, and their geopolitical circumstances make the reasons obvious. They have enough cause to take seriously the possibility that hostile actors might target a nuclear power plant as a way of dealing a blow that could be as calamitous as a nuclear detonation.
However, there is no guarantee that these three shining examples of global leadership will always be so sensible. A guarantee of safety could come only from the hardening of a global taboo against the possession of nuclear weapons--not for the usual reasons that everyone is rightly afraid of, but for the less acknowledged reason that nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable risk of nuclear power plant proliferation.

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