The Common Good
August 2011

Terrible Twins

by Marie Dennis | August 2011

Hiroshima and Fukushima remind us that civilian and military nuclear technology go hand in hand.

Two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are synonymous with suffering, amazing strength, and an enduring commitment to peace. Words don't come easily to describe the emotions that surface at Hiroshima: Its tombstone buildings stand on holy ground where no one can ever forget the vaporizing blast that killed tens of thousands of people instantly in 1945 -- or the long torment that followed.

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For more than 65 years, the idea that nuclear radiation would again decimate a region of Japan was inconceivable. But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in early March, the yet-unresolved accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has brought back horrific memories and fear.

After decades of stagnation, particularly in the West, the nuclear power industry had seemed ready for a renaissance. In early 2011, 440 nuclear power reactors operated worldwide; more than 60 more were under construction. Two years ago in Prague, President Obama revived the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but in the same speech advocated that the world "harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change."

Then the Fukushima accident happened: a dramatic example of the natural world out of control, even in a country with highly sophisticated technical capacity. The possibility that powerful natural events -- the mammoth earthquake and tsunami -- could overwhelm human safety precautions seems to have eluded decision-makers.

The fact that this accident happened in Japan -- where nuclear technology had generated decades of human suffering -- should have restored our lost humility, our sanity, and our commitment to live in harmony with the powerful forces of nature. Further, the relative proximity of Fukushima to Hiroshima and Nagasaki should reignite a serious debate about the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons -- a topic that has been off the table as we pursue carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuel, even as we also confront the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

A recent paper, Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Energy -- Siamese Twins or Double Zero Solution, published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, notes the close relationship between the military and civilian uses of nuclear technology: "Knowledge, materials, and technology gained from the civilian use of nuclear technology can also be of use in a military nuclear program." For example, in 2005, according to the Arms Control Association, the United States transferred tritium produced in a commercial nuclear reactor to a Department of Energy facility in South Carolina for eventual use in nuclear weapons, challenging the practice of separating civilian and military nuclear operations.

The possibility of nuclear weapons proliferation arising from a civilian nuclear program is real. The Böll article asserts that, worldwide, these proliferation risks are particularly high around technologies for "uranium enrichment, reprocessing and plutonium separation, production of plutonium," and reactors using highly enriched uranium.

How non-state actors might use stolen technology or materials is also a major concern. It would be possible for them to build a crude nuclear weapon using publicly available information and materials stolen from an existing reactor; more likely, terrorist groups might attack a civilian nuclear facility or build a "dirty bomb," which spreads radioactive material using conventional explosives.

Every effort toward the abolition of nuclear weapons is important: The New START Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, limited as they are, and Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZ), including the new NWFZ in Africa, point in the right direction. The proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would bind all nuclear powers to reduce their stocks of these materials, and the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, would move the world even closer to the peace that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so ardently seek.

A serious look at the connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power has to be part of this process.

Marie Dennis is the co-president of Pax Christi International and director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

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