New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


A Nuclear Colloquy: Lowry and Ford on “The Nuclear Bazaar”


Dr. David Lowry is an independent research policy consultant specializing in nuclear issues, working with politicians, NGOs and the media.  He is a former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre [EPIC] in London.   His text below, which he recently submitted to NPF, is the written version of his presentation to a workshop on “Challenging NPT-backed Nuclear Power Expansion” at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) annual conference in London on October 9, 2010.

Dr. Ford’s comments in response to Dr. Lowry’s remarks follow the text below.

Avoiding Atomic Armageddon:

Why we should not rejoin the nuclear bazaar

by Dr. David Lowry

The venerable veteran Labour politician, Tony Benn, who once was responsible for the British nuclear power programme when he was Technology Minister in the late 1960s, when recently asked  by The Times if he had made any  political mistakes in his life, responded:

“Yes, nuclear power: I was told it was, when I was in charge of it, that atomic energy was cheap, safe and peaceful.  It isn’t.” (Times Magazine, 11 September 2010)

A serious problem for today’s politics is both Conservative ministers and their Labour opponents have not learned from Tony Benn’s conversion on the road to energy sustainability, and do support new nuclear.

How was it that thinking politicians like Tony Benn could have originally got nuclear power so wrong in the 1960s and 1970s?

In post-war Britain, after the United States had started the Nuclear WMD Cold War by detonating two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, many nuclear scientists wanted to  put their  intellectual  expertise in  atomic science to the  public good, so horrified were they  over the nuclear attacks  on Japan.

The British Atomic Scientists Association (BASA) – founded in 1946 – set about trying to bring good news, in contrast to nuclear weapons deployment, about atomic discoveries and developments to the  public, even sponsoring a mobile exhibition called “The Atomic Train” which moved from city to city, town to town, seen by hundreds of thousands of  enthusiastic  members of the  British public.  BASA also published a regular edition of Atomic Scientists News, which became Atomic Scientists Journal, with a widespread readership among teachers, journalists and professionals, including MPs [members of Parliament].

It was absorbed into New Scientist in 1956, the same year the plutonium production reactors at Calder Hall on the Sellafield site – then called Windscale, operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – were opened by  the young Queen Elizabeth, on 17 October that year, 54 years ago.  Her Majesty told the assembled crowd of dignitaries, including representatives of almost 40 nations:

“This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community….”

She went on to add

“It may well prove to have been among the greatest of our contributions to human welfare that we led the way in demonstrating the peaceful uses of this new source of power.”

But false words had been put into the mouth of Her Majesty.  Calder Hall was not built or designed to be put to civilian – or peaceful – uses.  Here is what the UKAEA official historian Kenneth Jay wrote about Calder Hall, in his short book of the same name, published to coincide with the opening of the  plant.  [He referred to] “[m]ajor plants built for military purposes, such as Calder Hall.” (p.88)  Earlier, he wrote: “… The plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant, to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power.” (p.80)

Exactly 26 years ago this month, the CND Sizewell Working Group, in evidence to the Sizewell B Public Inquiry, demonstrated in detail how plutonium created in the first generation of Magnox reactors, scaled-up versions of Calder Hall, also produced plutonium put to military uses … in the United States.

Just over a year after Britain first tested its own atomic bomb, on 3 October 1952, U.S. President Eisenhower delivered to the U.N. General Assembly in New York what has turned out to be one of the most misguided speeches ever made by a world leader.  This was the notorious “Atoms for Peace” speech, on 8 December 1953. It was crafted at the height of the Cold War, and purported to be an “atomic swords into nuclear energy ploughshares.”

The President opened saying:

“Never before in history has so much hope for so many people been gathered together in a single organization. Your deliberations and decisions during these sombre years have already realized part of those hopes. But the great test and the great accomplishments still lie ahead ….”

He went on to assert:

“The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension, at least in comparative terms, of the extent of this development of the utmost significance to every one of us. Clearly, if the people of the world are to conduct an intelligent search for peace, they must be armed with the significant facts of today’s existence. ... [M]y country’s purpose is to help us move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men every where, can move forward toward peace and happiness and well being.”

And [Eisenhower] unveiled to a rapt audience [his plan that]:

“The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”

He proposed creation of a fissionable (explosive) nuclear materials storage bank and an international atomic energy agency:

“The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods where by this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.”

And he closed with these high-fluting words:

“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world--its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

Eisenhower’s PR team went into overdrive after the speech, being instantly distributed in 10 languages, with key excerpts being included in 350 US-based foreign language   newspapers. TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, were deluged with articles explaining the case for spreading nuclear technology worldwide. The US Government used the official US Information Agency and the Voice of America radio station (the American equivalent to our own BBC World Service) to propagandise the speech.

Four years later the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created as a United Nations Agency in Vienna, the centre of Cold War intrigue, to bang the drum for nuclear power across the globe.

In the same year the UK made one of its first forays into international nuclear trade, with Iraq, and [with] the opening Baghdad Pact Nuclear Centre on 31 March 1957.

According to a Parliamentary reply by Michel Heseltine in December 1992, “Iraq ceased to participate in the activities of the training centre when it was transferred to Tehran following the revolution in Iraq in 1959.”

In light of subsequent geo-political history in the region, that was out of the atomic frying pan, into the nuclear fire!

Around this time Britain also sold a single Magnox nuclear plant each to Japan and to Italy respectively.

It is also arguable that the British Magnox nuclear plant design – which after all was primarily built as a military plutonium production factory – provided the blueprint for the North Korean military plutonium production programme too!

Here is what a Conservative minister, Douglas Hogg – later infamous for his moat – told former Labour MP, Llew Smith, in a written parliamentary reply on  25 May 1994:

“We do not know whether North Korea has drawn on plans of British reactors in the production of its own reactors. North Korea possesses a graphite moderated reactor which, while much smaller, has generic similarities to the reactors operated by British Nuclear Fuels plc. However, design information of these British reactors is not classified and has appeared in technical journals.”

At the end of the 1967,  the text of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was finalised between the U.S., Soviet Union and the UK, and presented to the United Nations General Assembly next year (1968) for endorsement, with the IAEA playing an enforcement role.

CND has spent much of its campaigning time since trying to get countries to sign-up to the NPT; and signatory states to adhere to its articles.

But the Grand Bargain embodied by the NPT – the non nuclear weapon states should renounce possession of, or desire to possess, nuclear WMDs in exchange for civilian  nuclear assistance – has now become a problem in itself. Countries such as the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Japan and Russia are now promoting nuclear technology sales worldwide.

Here is a salient extract from the final document:

31. The Conference reaffirms that nothing in the Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination. … The Conference recognizes that this right constitutes one of the fundamental objectives of the Treaty.  In this connection, the Conference confirms that each country’s choices and decisions in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle policies.

Several more paragraphs underscore the agreement to massively expand nuclear trade, including scientific and technological cooperation, and sales of nuclear equipment and nuclear materials.

The NPT review conference conclusions also stated:

39. The Conference affirms the importance of public information in connection with peaceful nuclear activities in States parties to help build acceptance of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Experience of such activities by national and international bodies suggest this will be pure propaganda.

So my real concern today is that the UK policy on promoting nuclear exports will open a Pandora’s Box of problems.  Exporting the very technology used to make nuclear bombs and nuclear material such as plutonium as nuclear fuel, will put nuclear weapons capability and nuclear explosive materials into the hands of many countries – and possibly non-state terror groups – in an increasingly  insecure world.

Chris Bryant, MP, then foreign office minister, when responding to a Parliamentary debate on prospects for the Nuclear  Non Proliferation Treaty Review (on 9 July 2009) commented sagely:

“It is clearly important that we secure fissile material. One of the greatest dangers to security around the world is the possibility of rogue states or rogue organisations gaining access to fissile material.”

Only a few days later the Labour published one of the most dangerous and deluded documents issued in modern times by any democratic government – “The Road to 2010” – interestingly released under the imprimatur of the Cabinet Office, not the Foreign Office.  (The “2010” referred to the NPT Review conference held in May this year at the United Nations in New York.)  Mr Bryant asserted that it would: “lay out a credible road map to further disarmament.”

In my judgment, whatever its laudable aims on nuclear disarmament, it is in effect a blueprint for nuclear proliferation and undermines Government aims to create a more secure world.

The reason for this is the deeply misguided policy to increase nuclear exports and spread nuclear technology and material around the globe.

The “Road to 2010” is a remarkably naïve and disingenuous document, and seriously suffers from not having been subject to critical review before publication.

It appears to have been only share with blinkered nuclear industry “cheerleaders”, such as the London-based international industry lobby group, the World Nuclear Association, which in its reportage of the proliferation blueprint wrote glowingly:

“The opening paragraphs in Britain's Road to 2010 strategy set the scene: ‘Nuclear power is a proven technology which generates low carbon electricity. It is affordable, dependable, safe, and capable of increasing diversity of energy supply.  It is therefore an essential part of any global solution to the related and serious challenges of climate change and energy security.... Nuclear energy is therefore vital to the challenges of sustaining global growth, and tackling poverty.’”

All these statements are demonstrably inaccurate: yet taken together they justify the promotion of a policy that one day will, I fear, result in multiple radioactive mushroom clouds rising from centres of global cities, as terrorists carry out their ultimate spectacular.

This may happen after the architects of this truly mad policy are dead. Sadly, they are condemning hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, innocent citizens join them before their time.

The spectre of an uncontrolled nuclear detonation should chill us all.

As President Obama told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in [Woodward’s] new book, Obama’s Wars:  “When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that [ a nuclear terrorist attack] is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes.”

He is right.

And it is a big mistake to resurrect global nuclear technology and material sales.

-- Dr. David Lowry


I am grateful to Dr. Lowry for sharing his remarks on nuclear power promotion from the CND conference, which may indeed be of interest to NPF readers.  David and I no doubt disagree about many things related to nuclear weaponry, but we agree wholeheartedly on the importance of keeping it out of the hands of terrorists.  He might be surprised to learn that I am not entirely unsympathetic to his views on the dangers of the overhasty sharing of dual-use nuclear technology around the world.

I have been fairly outspoken, in fact, in challenging the widely-held view – which seems to have become quite the conventional wisdom in Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) diplomatic circles – that Article IV of the NPT confers or demonstrates the existence of a legal “right” for any country to acquire any dual-use nuclear technology it wants provided only that it permits the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) periodically to check that such technology isn’t being used for illicit purposes.  Such a view is not legally crazy, but such a “rights”-privileging reading is not required either by the text or the negotiating history of the NPT, and is in fact inconsistent with this history and with the structure of the Treaty.

As I see it, the conventional view of Article IV would turn its provisions into a sort of “poison pill” that will be – and is being – used to undermine the NPT by providing an excuse for the proliferation of “virtual nuclear arsenals” and the creation of an ever-growing number of “latent” nuclear weapons states hovering on the edge of weaponization.  If the “Nonproliferation Treaty” is really to be a genuine nonproliferation treaty, this cannot be what the law requires us to accept.

Significantly, I think, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Just as the conventional view is not required by the Treaty, so my own view – that neither technology transfer nor indigenous development is an unqualified legal “right,” and that their permissibility for non-nuclear weapons states is a contextual determination that hinges upon the proliferation risks any particular technology is likely to entail – not in any way inconsistent with the Treaty.  (And it’s a lot more consistent with nonproliferation!)

As I spelled out in a long manuscript entitled “Nuclear Technology Rights and Wrongs” – published this year in Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a book released by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center – I do not believe that there exists an unqualified “right” to uranium enrichment and/or plutonium reprocessing (ENR).  Instead, the legal norms embodied and reflected in the NPT allow the spread (or restriction) of such technology to be addressed as a policy judgment, based upon such things as proliferation risk and the likely economic benefit that transfers or development are likely to bring.

So I agree with David at least that it is indeed very possible to share the benefits of nuclear technology stupidly and dangerously, and that the world has done so too often in the past.  I think I am less willing than he is simply to close the door on all types of nuclear technology, for there may yet be approaches that present few enough proliferation risks that they may sanely be shared in the interests of providing carbon-free power to consumers in the developing world and elsewhere.  (There is talk these days, for instance, of the potential of small and relatively inexpensive nuclear reactors that will use only single load of fuel during their lifetime, and which are intended to deny their possessors any role in refuelling or access to spent fuel at all.)

As a rule, I’m sceptical of magical “silver bullet” answers that stress the alleged “proliferation resistance” of any particular clever technology and thus propose to spread it around willy-nilly.  Nevertheless, it is also true that some technologies really do entail much more proliferation risk than others – and that the world seems likely to be stuck with some expansion of nuclear power generation whether one likes it or not.  It makes sense, therefore, to push such transfers that do occur toward less risky approaches.  I’m open to argument.

But I have been emphatic that the world has been far too cavalier in its approach to the proliferation of ENR technology, that conventional views of Article IV are making this problem much more intractable, and that we need to do rather better if we are to avoid catastrophe.  Whether one contemplates a world of “virtual” nuclear weapons states poised for an escalatory spiral of “wildfire” proliferation, or increased odds of terrorist access to fissile material as it is produced ever more widely around the world, unchecked ENR proliferation does not seem to be in the interest of international peace and security

It is my understanding that the Obama Administration is presently in the midst of a big internal argument over how to approach this issue – particularly with regard to whether to insist upon “no-ENR” pledges in U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries.  (The Bush Administration got such a promise from the United Arab Emirates, but other countries are now resisting entreaties from Obama officials.  The question now is how hard the United States should push for no-ENR promises, and whether there is any other way to achieve this goal.)  There is also talk, among some members of the incoming Republican majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, of trying to pass laws requiring such conditionality.

If David and his friends at CND wish to discourage the proliferation of risky dual-use nuclear technologies, these may be debates it is worth trying to influence.  The year 2011 could be an interesting one.

-- Christopher Ford

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