6 May 2014, Vol. 12, No. 7
Editorial: Nuclear risks
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
At every NPT meeting, time is devoted to the Treaty’s so-called third pillar, which guarantees the “inalienable right” to nuclear energy. Putting aside the problematic nature of this phrase—considering that inalienable rights are based on the concept of natural law—the “peaceful uses” pillar of the NPT is highly challenging for the other two pillars of disarmament and non-proliferation. Nuclear technology—for energy or weapons—comes with severe safety and security risks. Whether we look at the disaster at the Fukushima power station, the breach of Y-12 by an 82 year old nun, or the near-misses with the use of nuclear weapons, it’s quite clear that the risks of nuclear technology far outweigh any perceived benefits.
The effects of nuclear accidents “do not respect national boundaries;” even countries that have chosen to exclude nuclear power from their energy mixes are “still susceptible to suffering damage as a result of a nuclear accident elsewhere,” noted Mr. Ballard from New Zealand. And accidents will happen. The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station is but one example of this. The devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences of that disaster are still being felt, and will be for generations to come.
But reactor accidents are not the only risk to human health and the environment posed by civilian nuclear programmes. “Nuclear power can never be 100% safe,” noted Ms. Wörgötter of Austria. Accidents, the long-term effects of the nuclear fuel cycle, and the combination of safety, security, and proliferation concerns mean that “nuclear power is neither a viable option in efforts to promote sustainable development nor to address climate change.”
In addition to safety risks, there is the challenge to security. So far, security challenges have focused almost exclusively on civilian programmes and facilities. Yet as Ambassador Motto Pinto Coelho of Brazil highlighted, all stockpiles of military nuclear material are exempt from multilateral control mechanisms. 98% of highly-enriched uranium stocks and 86% of separated plutonium stocks are possessed by nuclear-armed states. He explained that this concern has led Brazil and others to address this issue at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, arguing that it is impossible to disassociate the quest for nuclear security from disarmament. “A world that accepts nuclear weapons will always be insecure,” he argued.
From the production and storage of fissile materials to the stockpiling and deployment of nuclear weapons, safety and security risks are inherent in nuclear technology. Evidence provided by recent reports from Eric Schlosser, Article 36, and Chatham House on risks in the nuclear weapons complex demonstrate just how vulnerable the facilities, materials, equipment, and personnel are.
In July 2012, three peace activists broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The facility holds the US supply of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. They hung banners, strung up crime scene tape, hammered off a small chunk of the HEU materials facility inside the most secure part of the complex, and splashed their own blood on the bunker wall. The activists argued in court that their nonviolent actions were meant to draw attention to the immoral and illegal possession of nuclear weapons.
After the break-in, the complex was shut down, security forces were re-trained, and contractors were replaced. The activists have since been sentenced to time in prison. Sister Megan Rice, a nun who is now 84, received a sentence of 35 months, while her two colleagues, Michael Walli (64 years old) and Greg Boertje-Obed (59 years old) received 62 months. Sister Megan is currently being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, just a few miles away from the UN.
This incident highlights the security risks associated with facilities dealing with nuclear materials and nuclear weapons. But it also highlights the broader risks of asserting that nuclear power is a “safe” or “clean” source of energy or that nuclear weapons bring security or strategic stability. “The world does not need nuclear arsenals for security, peace and survival,” argued Ambassador Aisi of Papua New Guinea. “What we need instead is to see the divestment of resources in this area and to put them to sustainable development of humanity rather than preparing for Armageddon.”