Remarks of Paul Leventhal
President, Nuclear Control Institute
NCI 20th Anniversary Conference

April 9, 2001

Nuclear Power and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons:
Can We Have One Without the Other?


Good morning, I am Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, and I want to welcome you to NCIs 20th anniversary conference, Nuclear Power and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons---Can We Have One Without the Other?

NCI got started 20 years ago on a spring day like today when I landed a $7,500 contribution from an anonymous member of the Rockefeller family. Wade Greene, the Rockefeller program officer who has been so helpful to a number of non-profit organizations represented here today, called it a stimulative grant to encourage giving by other foundations. But I had just lost my job on Capitol Hill, when the majority of the Senate switched to the party other than the one my boss and subcommittee chairman, Gary Hart, belonged to. So, I wasted no time and applied the Rockefeller check to renting a desk in the corridor of a small law firm located in a town house a block away from here, on N Street. With the desk came a posh conference room, suitable for holding meetings with other NGOs with an interest in plutonium and proliferation, and NCI was born.

In those days, NCI stood for The Nuclear Club Inc. The name was too clever by 5/8ths. But we used it anyway in a full-page New York Times ad, on Sunday, June 21, 1981, to launch our fledgling organization. The ad, which you will find in your folders, posed the question, Will Tomorrows Terrorist Have an Atom Bomb?---a question, unfortunately, still highly relevant today, as is the answer. NCIs name has changed, but our mission---to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to nations, or to groups---remains the same.

The ads creator was Julian Koenig, an original member and still a member of our Board. He is a Madison Avenue legend, now retired, whose credits included Volkswagens original Think Small campaign and the naming of Earth Day.

At first, Mr. Koenig expressed reluctance about joining our board, but I assured him that NCI would have to solve the plutonium problem in five years, or he and I probably wouldnt survive to talk about it anyway. I was wrong on both counts. We havent solved the problem. We are still around to talk about it. To paraphrase Faulkner, NCI has endured, if not prevailed. We are all still here to talk about the role of nuclear power, plutonium and other associated proliferation risks---that is the purpose of our meeting today.

Those of you familiar with NCIs work probably detect something different about todays program. When we planned this conference---and here I wish to acknowledge the contribution of Marvin Miller of MIT, a long-time technical adviser and all-around shmoozer for NCI---we discussed whether we should look at nuclear power in a broader context: Do we need nuclear power? How essential is it? This is a policy area that Nuclear Control Institute has not ventured into before. Although some in industry and bureaucracy conclude that our opposition to civilian use of plutonium and the other nuclear weapons material, highly enriched uranium (HEU), means that we are opposed to nuclear power, we are in fact not an anti-nuclear organization. We have maintained a policy of neutrality on nuclear power and steer clear of efforts to shut the industry down. We are anti-plutonium and anti-HEU, not anti-nuclear.

Our purpose today in examining the need for nuclear power, and the possible alternatives to it, is the current push by industry and apparently by the Bush Administration to revive nuclear power and to expand it in response to growing concerns about electricity-supply shortages and global warming.

To underscore this point, todays Washington Post quotes Vice President Cheney as saying, We need to build 65 new power plants for the next 20 years, and my own view is that some of those ought to be nuclear, and thats the environmentally sound way to go.

We strongly believe that such an initiative should not go forward without first examining whether there is an irreducible proliferation risk associated with nuclear power, and whether this risk is serious enough to change current commitments to nuclear power.

If the nuclear industry refuses to end its love affair with plutonium, especially now that it is widely acknowledged that plutonium is not an essential fuel because of the abundance of cheap, non-weapons usable uranium, then the world may well be better off without nuclear power. In that case, we should look to alternative sources of energy and to energy conservation and efficiency measures. Even if industry gives up plutonium, there are still severe proliferation dangers associated with the prospect of cheap, efficient enrichment technology and with potentially limitless sources of uranium.

So, we will be examining two sets of questions today:

We have called on a world-class set of experts to address these questions, and we also have an expert audience representing a full range of views that should keep the speakers on their toes. NCI has always sought to be inclusive and to invite opposing viewpoints to be represented at its conferences. This approach sometimes generates heat, but also light. We ask the speakers to keep to their time limits and the questioners to be succinct and to the point. We have a number of issues to cover in one day and can only do so if concision is king.

I want to highlight some of NCIs concerns about the proliferation and security risks of nuclear power and about the way these risks are now being addressed. I hope these points help to inform and to stimulate the discussions that follow.

It is important to recognize the central role of fissile materials as the driving force behind proliferation. Granted, any decision to go nuclear is a political one, but the capability to execute that decision is technical. It is impossible to build nuclear weapons without plutonium or HEU. Thus, it should be straightforward that the nuclear power industry imposes a menace on the world if its insists on utilizing these explosive nuclear fuels when it is possible to run nuclear power and research reactors without them. As will be discussed by the luncheon speakers and the afternoon non-proliferation panel, nuclear power programs have provided cover for actual or attempted weapons-making in a number of countries. In each case, closing the fuel cycle to extract plutonium, enriching uranium to weapons grade, or importing weapons-grade uranium to run research reactors were the quintessential elements of those programs.

    Seeking to restrict and eliminate use of these fuels was the objective of the Congressional non-proliferation initiatives of the 1970s and of the Ford and Carter administrations. But these initiatives ran into political trouble because of the fierce opposition of our European and Japanese allies, who refused to follow the U.S. example. Today, the plutonium and breeder programs in these countries are in desperate financial straits, and this situation presents the United States an opportunity to reopen these issues and to seek cooperative approaches for disposal of excess fissile materials without introducing them as fuels.

    Even the pro-plutonium British Nuclear Industrial Forum, in a recent analysis of prospects for the industry, made this statement: Proliferation is a major issue in the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear Power may become more acceptable to the public if reprocessing is shut down. Clearly, the plutonium program in Britain, as in Germany and Japan, is encountering great difficulties. I have been privileged to be the only American invited to participate in a stakeholders dialogue with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., the government-owned fuel cycle company, on its plutonium program. As a result of this dialogue, BNFL has now agreed to undertake a formal assessment of immobilizing Britains 60-plus ton stockpile of civilian plutonium as an alternative to fabricating it into MOX fuel.

    However, despite this and other opportunities for the United States to revisit the plutonium component of U.S. non-proliferation policy, transparency and gradualism still dominate U.S. policy today. But achieving transparency of the worlds plutonium stockpiles in no substitute for getting rid of them, while gradualism can be an excuse for not doing anything effective. The rapid growth of stocks of plutonium serves to illustrate this point. The growth has not been as rapid as we projected in 1983 when NCI commissioned David Albright to do his first study of this subject. At that time, we projected 600 tons of separated civilian plutonium by the year 2000. Today, because of large-scale cancellations of new nuclear power and fuel-cycle plant orders, and of the demise of the breeder reactor, the actual amount of separated, civilian plutonium is about 200 tons---still an awesome figure that approximates the amount of military plutonium in the world.

But, by way of contrast, it should be noted that stocks of civilian highly enriched uranium exported by the United States have gone down dramatically---the result of the RERTR (Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors) program, run by the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory, with relatively strong support by the Executive Branch. In this case, there is a law in effect (the Schumer Amendment) which applies a sanctions approach and bars exports of HEU except to research reactors whose operators have agreed to convert to high-density, low-enriched uranium that cannot be used in bombs. The result: HEU exports by the United States are now virtually nil, limited to relatively small amounts to support continued operation of reactors while they are in the process of conversion.

Plutonium is a different story, however. Provisions in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act 1978, which were intended to restrict commerce in plutonium derived from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel, have been circumvented by the Executive Branch.

    I t is important to note the pivotal role of Japan in all of this. Those of you familiar with the activities of NCI know that we focus attention on the Japanese plutonium program. We are sometimes criticized for doing so. Questions have been raised as to why we are so concerned about plutonium in Japan, given Japans adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to IAEA safeguards.

The answer is that Japan strongly resisted U.S. efforts to avoid commercial use of plutonium and is now the lynchpin for world plutonium commerce. Japan is the most important customer today of the European reprocessing and MOX industries. Without Japan, these industries might well be forced to shut down.

The Japanese plutonium program is losing domestic public acceptance as a consequence of a succession of nuclear accidents in Japan, as well as a scandal that developed when BNFL workers deliberately falsified quality-control data for plutonium-uranium, mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that was shipped to Japan for use in light-water reactors. Outside Japan, there is a considerable suspicion in the East Asian region as to why Japan wants to accumulate so much weapons-usable plutonium when there is a clear alternative in the form of low-enriched uranium fuel. NCI has pointed out in a detailed economic analysis that Japan could ensure its energy security by building a strategic reserve of non-weapons-usable uranium at a fraction of the cost of its plutonium and breeder programs.

NCI regards Japan as a special case, too, because, of all the civil plutonium-consuming countries, Japan refuses to acknowledge the weapons utility of reactor-grade plutonium despite many briefings on the subject by the U.S. Government. NCI commissioned the late Carson Mark, former head of weapons design at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to do an analysis of the weapons utility of reactor grade plutonium. This study eventually convinced the IAEA that reactor-grade plutonium was suitable for weapons, but unfortunately the Japanese government and industry continue to refuse to do so.

The Japanese plutonium program has also prompted strong protests from many states that are alarmed by the regular transports of MOX fuel and highly radioactive reprocessing waste that now pass close to their coastlines, en route from Europe to Japan. Japan has not been responsive to the safety and security concerns about these shipments that have been raised by the en-route states, or to their demands for environmental impact assessments, advance consultation on emergency planning, and guarantees of salvage of lost cargoes and indemnification against catastrophic consequences of accidents or attacks.

The consequence of all this is that the Japanese plutonium program is mired in controversy, both domestically and internationally. In NCIs view, it should be regarded as a special case and of special concern. If Japan should eventually decide against further use of plutonium fuel and the European plutonium industry collapsed as a result, it might then be possible to build an international consensus to eliminate commerce in plutonium as well as bomb-grade uranium.

We think Japan and the other big plutonium-producing and consuming countries do count because they set an example and a standard for the rest of the world. I will return to this subject this afternoon during the non-proliferation panel.

I also want to highlight NCIs concerns about the possibility of reactors as radiological weaponsthat is, the risk of sabotage of nuclear power plants. This is not just a Russian problem. It is an American problem, as well. Half the nuclear power plants in the United States have failed to repel mock attacks---so-called force-on-force exercises supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC refuses to take enforcement action in response to the failures, and is in the process of weakening the rules of the game in response to industry complaints. The agency even refuses to officially acknowledge the pass-fail nature of the exercises when the mock attackers reach and destroy a complete set of redundant core cooling systems. Perhaps the NRC is right. Its not pass-fail. Its pass-melt.

NCIs Scientific Director, Edwin Lyman, will have more to say on this subject at this afternoons technical fixes panel.

There is a curious historical context to this issue. It goes back to 1913, when H.G. Wells wrote a book entitled The World Set Free. In 1933, the Hungarian physicist, Leo Szilard, was thinking about this book, which he had read the year before, at the historic moment when, as he crossed Southhampton Row in the Bloomsbury section of London, he figured out the nuclear chain reaction. Wells, in this book, depicted a future nuclear war that began after atomic energy had been harnessed for peaceful purposes. But it was warfare that involved not exploding atomic bombs, but machines that spewed forth radiological poisons---the equivalent of a modern reactor meltdown.

My concern is that sobotage of nuclear power plants may be the greatest domestic vulnerability in the United States today. Many plants are not protected adequately, industry operators seem not prepared to pay the cost of doing so, and the NRC seems ill-disposed to require them to do so. It is not even certain that security of nuclear power plants against attack and sabotage can be assured by conventional, private means. This is a subject worth taking a hard look at.

It also raises the larger question of the adequacy of nuclear regulation today. It is essential to maintain strong, independent nuclear regulation free of undue industry influence. When I got into this business as a U.S. Senate staffer more than 25 years ago, my first responsibility was to handle the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. This act fissioned the Atomic Energy Commission into separate regulatory and promotional agencies, and thus transformed a weak regulatory division of the AEC into a strong, independent NRC. As I observe the NRC today, I am concerned that it is looking more and more like the old AEC regulatory division, subject to undue influence by industry and particularly by industrys powerful friends on Capitol Hill. This is also a matter deserving of close scrutiny.

When I started out, I was very much influenced by the thinking of two leading nuclear contrarians. One was David Lilienthal, who had served as both the first head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. His Congressional testimony in 1976 in opposition to U.S. nuclear exports and in support of non-proliferation legislation caused a furor among his former colleagues. He once said to me, If we assume nuclear proliferation to be inevitable, of course it will be. That made a lot of sense to me then, and still does today.


Ted Taylor, Americas most creative fission bomb designer and a member of NCIs Board, also made a concise and compelling point: Nuclear is different, he said. And to illustrate the point, he noted that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki set off an instant of explosive energy equivalent to a pile of dynamite as big as the White House that was contained in a sphere of plutonium no bigger than a baseball. That was a first-generation bomb, a technological feat now within the grasp of terrorists or radical states if they manage to get their hands on the material.


Ultimately it comes down to a test of reasonableness. Is it reasonable to assume, over time, that millions of kilograms of plutonium can be sequestered down to the less than 8 kilograms needed for such a bomb? This question, in my view, must be answered before giving any further comfort to and support of an industry that remains officially committed to utilizing plutonium as a fuel---and surely before supporting an extension and expansion of that industry in response to electricity-supply shortages and global warming.

    I close with a reminder from one of NCIs original Board members, the historian Barbara Tuchman, who in her book of the same title gave a sobering description of the march of folly that drives nations to destruction. She identified this phenomenon, one repeated throughout recorded history, as pervasive persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive. To qualify as folly, she said, it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight,(and) a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.  

On that note, let us move on to the subject of nuclear power and the alternatives.