Putting the Nuclear Genie
Back in the Bottle
Theodore B. TaylorPO Box 662, Wellsville, NY 14895
Tel: 716-593-3084 Fax: 716-593-6347
Presented at the University of California at Santa Barbara
May 1, 1996
At the same time negotiations of an international nuclear weapon abolition treaty should start immediately in the appropriate United Nations organizations and perhaps others. I join others now pressing for completing these negotiations by 2000, and for elimination of all nuclear weapons and the means for making them no later than 2010.
A frequent objection to the choice now of this kind of time table for completing abolition of all nuclear weapons is that it will take decades to dismantle all the world's nuclear warheads at the maximum rate that is possible with the existing facilities for doing this. I have two responses. The first is to propose rapid expansion of these facilities as needed to accomplish the global dismantlement in less than ten years. The other response is to suggest two stages of disablement of the warheads. The first might be to enclose individual warheads or clusters of them in extremely heavy containers that would take major cooperative efforts for, say, months to re-open without safely destroying or seriously disabling the warheads. This is another example of a challenging but extremely interesting technical problem connected with nuclear abolition.
Details of internationally monitored systems for dismantling nuclear warheads have been proposed in some detail. An important issue has been the provision of international assurances that, once identified for elimination, the warheads are, in fact, safely taken apart, the non-nuclear components destroyed, and the special nuclear materials securely stored for ultimate disposal. This must all be done in ways that assure that no special nuclear materials are secretly removed or withheld from secure internationally monitored storage. It also needs to be done without revealing secrets of nuclear weapon design beyond authorized people from the owner country. The principle of containment can be maintained in ways that assure that these criteria are met. Although warhead dismantlement has not yet been done under direct international, or even bilateral controls, rather detailed studies show that this can be done effectively and quickly-that is within less than 10 years to dismantle all the world's warheads.
International assurances that all warheads and special nuclear materials belonging to each country have been revealed and made available for disposal must be as technically effective as possible, but probably can never be perfect. Further assurance of adherence can result from what Joseph Rotblat has called "Societal Verification." That would build on worldwide popular acceptance of a severe taboo against violating an abolition treaty. It would also establish specific ways for whistle blowers to reveal cheating while being effectively protected against reprisal for blowing the whistle. Substantial and much publicized rewards for whistle blowing that reveals real attempts to cheat can probably help considerably.
How can the plutonium and enriched uranium from warhead or bulk material stockpiles be safely and permanently disposed of? The answer that applies to enriched uranium is straightforward. It can be mixed with sufficient natural of depleted uranium to render it unable to sustain a fast nuclear chain reaction. The required concentration of uranium-235 to do this is about 6%, nearly ten times its concentration in natural uranium. This would require substantial re- enrichment of the uranium-235 to provide the kind of uranium necessary for making nuclear explosives.
Solving this problem for plutonium is much more difficult, because there is no way to denature" plutonium with any of its isotopes in such a way as to make the plutonium unusable as the key material for nuclear explosives. Several possibilities for making the plutonium very difficult to retrieve for making weapons are being investigated and proposed, but much more work is needed to find the least dangerous way to dispose of the plutonium permanently. Among these possibilities are chemical processing to embed the plutonium at low concentration in a glassy substance the would be difficult to process, perhaps spiking the mixture with radioactive fission product wastes to make the plutonium even more difficult to extract after arduous removal from deep underground burial. Another possibility, which looks very difficult but still interesting is destruction of the plutonium by fission by neutrons produced in targets of very high current proton accelerators. Still another possibility that is looked at now and then, but never enough to be able to assess definitively, is disposal in space, or, more specifically, in the sun. I've looked at this last possibility enough to feel sure that it cannot be ruled out simply on the grounds of likely launch failure, if the designers pay close attention to ways to assure containment of the plutonium under all conceivable accident circumstances.
Effective enforcement of a global ban on all nuclear weapons will be much more difficult in a world in which nuclear power flourishes than one in which it is also abolished. This prohibition could include a ban on possession or production of any of the materials required for nuclear explosives-now specifically plutonium or enriched uranium. This would remove the need for any distinctions between peaceful and military uses of these materials. It would also strengthen the reliability of systems for detecting violations regarding the allowed presence of special nuclear materials by being able to emphasize detection of any of these materials being transferred from where they are supposed to be to where they are not, rather than accurate measurement of all transfers of these materials.
Pure fusion power, if developed as an economically attractive power source, would retain many of the technological connections with nuclear weapons, contributing to their substantial latent proliferation. I'm especially concerned about the spread of intimate knowledge of the principles of nuclear explosives resulting from the proliferation of facilities and research programs supporting the pursuit of what is called inertial confinement fusion. The idea has been around since the early 1 950s, initially in pursuit of ways to make nuclear weapons that would not require any plutoniunm or enriched uranium. This evolved into a concept for making electric power by extracting the energy from rapidly repeated small explosions energized by fusion reactions between isotopes of hydrogen. This work, which started at the Livermore nuclear weapon laboratory, was originally highly classified, and much of it still is. But plasma physicists and others in commercial enterprises in the US, and in various laboratories in other countries have for decades been publishing detailed results of working on approaches to this type of nuclear fusion. As a result, very sophisticated computer codes, material properties data needed to make them accurate, and detailed exchanges of information and excitement about ways to make thermonuclear explosions have proliferated widely through conferences and publications. Major inertial confinement fusion programs have been underway for years not only in the five announced nuclear weapon states, but also Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, India, Japan, and probably at least a dozen other countries. Humanity is in much greater need for other forms of technology, that are no where nearly as closely connected to weapons of mass destruction. I therefore argue against supplying funds for work on inertial confinement anywhere, and for at least considering a global ban on further research and development on inertial confinement fusion.
Thus the principal focus of global nuclear abolition should be on banning possession of any plutonium or enriched uranium, even of low enrichment, and the keeping of any such materials that are in storage, transport, or processing stages under international safeguards against use for any purpose. This need not interfere with medical uses of nuclear energy that can be supplied without use of the fission process, or with basic scientific research.
If nuclear power of all types is phased out within a decade or so, how can the world make up for this loss of energy?
How about greater use of fossil fuels? There are many unresolved questions about the world's reserves of fossil fuels, and the environmental consequences of continuing to use them as the world's main source of commercial energy. Perhaps most important, it is now becoming much less controversial that continued large releases of carbon dioxide from fuel fossil combustion (as opposed to combustion of biomass) will enhance climatic instabilities that are perhaps already more severe than any time in recorded history.
But there are two very attractive opportunities for shifting global energy production and use away from fossil and nuclear fuels. These are reduction in demand by using energy much more efficiently, and shifts to locally appropriate renewable forms of energy derived directly or indirectly from sunlight.
There are countless specific opportunities that show promise of economic and environmentally benign competition with fossil or nuclear fuels anywhere in the world. A few of the huge number of different attractive possibilities include energy conservation in buildings, industries, and transport vehicles; solar electrolytic or thermochemical splitting of water to make ordinary hydrogen for "hydrogen economies" or to increase production of other renewable fuels, such as methanol or methane; enclosed ponds with transparent covers for efficient photosynthetic conversion to elementary plant forms, such as algae, for subsequent conversion to fuels; wind power and pumped hydroelectric power to help meet energy demands at times or seasons when accessibility of sunlight is relatively low-to name very few of the promising alternatives.
There is plenty of space in most regions for an all solar energized world if opportunities for daily and seasonal storage of renewaable energy are appropriately used. At an overall efficiency of 15% for conversion of incident solar radiation to some form of primary energy, the world's present total demand for energy could be met using less than 0.5% of the world' s land area. Local energy self sufficiency achieved with locally collected solar radiation even looks like a real possibility in regions where annual sunlight availability is relatively low and energy consumption per unit land area is high, such as in Japan or Northern Germany. An interesting possiblity, so far little explored, is using lakes or coastal ocean regions for support of floating, very flexible solar radiation collectors designed to survive local weather or tidal extremes. This might be especially interesting near densely populated areas with relatively poor annual insolation. Thorough assessment of envronmental impacts need to be integral parts of new solar energy technology development.
The benefits of intensive, cooperative, worldwide action in response to such opportunities could be universal, huge, and prompt. Humankind now has the chance, perhaps only for a short time, to recapture and then reject the nuclear genie first released by humans 50 years ago-energy that is much easier to use to detroy than to build-and reach out together to embrace the light from our sun, which for a very long time, has sustained all life on Earth.
How about the source of power of the nuclear genie? Do you want it to remain free, or do you want to help put it back in a transparent but strong bottle?