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Paul Leventhal vs. Richard Rhodes

Excerpt from "Talk of the Nation," National Public Radio

January 4, 1994

Host: Ray Suarez

PL: Paul Leventhal; RR: Richard Rhodes; RS: Ray Suarez

Paul Leventhal (PL): I would just want to make the point that the path to non-proliferation has been paved by the special cases, the special exceptions that the U.S. has been prepared to make to certain nations for political or strategic reasons. Israel has been mentioned, Pakistan has been mentioned. Even Iraq was a special case at one point when it was our proxy in the war against Iran, and we let a lot of things go and looked the other way for a considerable period of time when the Iraqis were, in fact, busily putting together their program. The first public sign of it was when Israel bombed a large research reactor---safeguarded, peaceful research reactor---that Iraq was about to start up in 1981, and Israel bombed it because it knew that the international safeguards that would be applied to that facility would be inadequate to detect an overt bomb program, or a covert bomb program, if Iraq chose to build one. And eventually Israel was proved to be correct, but of course Israel itself was a proliferating state. So it's very hard to make choices here. Invariably, political factors come into play, but again, I would emphasize the importance of building as much symmetry into the non-proliferation policy of the United States, meaning that we make deep reductions in our armaments, we dismantle our warheads, we even dispose of the material in those weapons. But then, I think, we should call upon Japan to exercise restraint in the acquisiton of weapons-usable plutonium for its peaceful program, because South Korea for a moment isn't going to stand by and let Japan acquire that much material without responding in kind, and then you have a ready weapons capability on both sides of the Sea of Japan.

Richard Rhodes (RR): You know, we really need to get into what I think is the central issue here, that we haven't clarified, Mr. Leventhal. That is, that the same technologies that allow us to generate electricity---that have led South Korea recently to order 16 new nuclear reactors for their country, for example---is technology that, in its other guise, can lead to the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The question in my mind is whether you can technologically fix that problem. I don't think so. I think you can only politically fix that problem. One looks at Iraq and realizes that, although they had a plutonium production program, they also---extraordinarily, and to everyone's great surprise---reached back 50 years for technology that would allow them to separate uranium to make a uranium bomb.

PL: Right.

RR: So, the possibility of making nuclear weapons is there in the world for any country with a certain amount of annual income. The question really is, can you solve that by limiting the circulation of plutonium, or do you solve it finally by resolving the political disputes that underlay the decision?

Ray Suarez (RS): But if the technical resource, Mr. Leventhal, is gold, or whether it's tungsten, or chromium, or anything, if the have's tell the have-not's that they can't have it, we've seen with strategic resource[s], time and time again, another parallel market grows up in that thing. And while the nuclear proliferation treaties may not have been successful over the years in limiting the spread of some of these materials, at least it's tried to impose a structure on them, because I think it may be impossible to totally eradicate the circulation of these materials around the earth.

PL: I guess my response to your point, and the one just made by Mr. Rhodes, is that it has to be a combination of political and technological measures. You cannot rely totally on political measures because if you do, and nations are then free to accumulate large stockpiles of unnecessary plutonium---and I just want to make that point clear, in response to the point just made about the presumed necessity to use plutonium to produce electricity with nuclear power plants. That's not true. These plants run on low-enriched uranium, and it's only when the plutonium is separated, extracted in reprocessing plants, from the used uranium fuel of those plants. It is generated in these reactors as a waste by-product.

RR: Indeed.

PL: And the question is, do you dispose of it as waste, or do you recover it for recycling as fuel? Now, the argument used to be made that there's a shortage of uranium, and that the breeder reactor is the obvious next generation of reactor, a plutonium-fueled reactor that would indeed produce more plutonium than consumed. Both of those assumptions have proved to be false. Uranium is now in oversupply in the world, and will be for the indefinite future. And the breeder has proven to be extremely difficult and uneconomical technology, and it is now clearly seen as a potential proliferator which, by the way, produces not so-called "reactor-grade" plutonium, which is of less quality for weapons---still can be used for weapons, but is not as good as weapons-grade. The breeder reactor produces as a by-product weapons-grade plutonium. So my point is, you want to avoid the technologies that can be avoided, you want to shape "Atoms for Peace" in a direction that avoids the use of atom-bomb materials, since they can be avoided, and then develop an international, highly verifiable regime that does not include the production or utilization of atom-bomb material, and verifies the absence of that material and the absence of technology, or the acquisition of technology, for producing atom-bomb material. That would be a very big firebreak against proliferation, and that's something you do not have in place today, largely because the nuclear industry, supported by very powerful government bureaucracies, want to continue to promote the production and use of these highly dangerous materials.

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