Reducing the Global Nuclear Risk
October 23, 2012
The times we live in are dangerous for many reasons. Prominent among them is the existence of a global nuclear enterprise made up of weapons that can cause damage of unimaginable proportions and power plants at which accidents can have severe, essentially unpredictable consequences for human life. For all of its utility and promise, the nuclear enterprise is unique in the enormity of the vast quantities of destructive energy that can be released through blast, heat, and radioactivity.
To get a better grip on the state of the nuclear enterprise, we convened a group of prominent experts at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The group included experts on nuclear weapons, power plants, regulatory experience, public perceptions, and policy. This essay summarizes their views and conclusions.
We begin with the most reassuring outcome of our deliberations: It’s the sense generally held that the U.S. nuclear enterprise currently meets very high standards in its commitment to safety and security. That has not always been the case in all aspects of the U.S. nuclear enterprise. But safety begins at home, and while the U.S. will need to remain focused to guard against nuclear risks, the picture here looks relatively good.
Our greatest concern is that the same cannot be said of the nuclear enterprise globally. Governments, international organizations, industry, and media must recognize and address the nuclear challenges and mounting risks posed by a rapidly changing world.
The biggest concerns with nuclear safety and security are in countries relatively new to the nuclear enterprise, and the potential loss of control to terrorist or criminal gangs of the fissile material that exists in such abundance around the world. In a number of countries, confidence in civil nuclear energy production was severely shaken in the spring of 2011 by the Fukushima nuclear reactor plant disaster. And in the military sphere, the doctrine of deterrence that remains primarily dependent on nuclear weapons is seen in decline due to the importance of nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda and terrorist affiliates that seek destruction for destruction’s sake. We have two nuclear tigers by the tail.
When risks and consequences are unknown, undervalued, or ignored, our nation and the world are dangerously vulnerable. Nowhere is this risk/consequence calculation more relevant than with respect to the nucleus of the atom.
FROM HIROSHIMA TO FUKUSHIMA
The nuclear enterprise was introduced to the world by the shock of the devastation produced by two atomic bombs hitting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Modern nuclear weapons are far more powerful than those early bombs, which presented their own hazards. Early research depended on a program of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In the early years following World War II, the impact and the amount of radioactive fallout in the atmosphere generated by above-ground nuclear explosions was not fully appreciated. During those years, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted several hundred tests in the atmosphere that created fallout.
A serious regulatory weak point from that time still exists in many places today, as the Fukushima disaster clearly indicates. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (aec) was initially assigned conflicting responsibilities: to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons for the United States to confront a growing nuclear-armed Soviet threat; and, at the same time, to ensure public safety from the effects of radioactive fallout. The aec was faced with the same conundrum with regard to civilian nuclear power generation. It was charged with promoting civilian nuclear power and simultaneously protecting the public.
Progress came in 1963 with the negotiation and signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (ltbt) banning all nuclear explosive testing in the atmosphere (initially by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom). With the successful safety record of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, domestic anxiety about nuclear weapons receded somewhat. Meanwhile, public attitudes toward nuclear weapons reflected recognition of their key role in establishing a more stable nuclear deterrent posture in the confrontation with the Soviet Union.The nuclear safety picture looks relatively good; the same cannot be said of the nuclear enterprise globally.
The positive record on safety of the nuclear weapons enterprise in the United States — there have been accidents involving nuclear weapons, but none that led to the release of nuclear energy — was the result of a strong effort and continuing commitment to include safety as a primary criterion in new weapons designs, as well as careful production, handling, and deployment procedures. The key to the health of today’s nuclear weapons enterprise is confidence in the safety of its operations and in the protection of special nuclear materials against theft. One can imagine how different the situation would be today if there had been a recognized theft of material sufficient for a bomb, or if one of the two four-megaton bombs that fell from a disabled b-52 Strategic Air Command bomber overflying Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1961 had detonated. In that event, a single switch in the arming sequence of one of the bombs, by remaining in its “off” position while the aircraft was disintegrating, was all that prevented a full-yield nuclear explosion. A close call indeed.
In the 26 years since the meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Soviet-era Ukraine, the nuclear power industry has strengthened its safety practices. Over the past decade, growing concerns about global warming and energy independence have actually strengthened support for nuclear energy in the United States and many nations around the world. Yet despite these trends, the civil nuclear enterprise remains fragile. Following Fukushima, opinion polls gave stark evidence of the public’s deep fears of the invisible force of nuclear radiation, shown by public opposition to the construction of new nuclear power plants in close proximity. It is not simply a matter of getting better information to the public but of actually educating the public about the true nature of nuclear radiation and its risks. Of course, the immediate task of the nuclear power component of the enterprise is to strive for the best possible safety record. The overriding objective could not be more clear: no more Fukushimas…