Nuclear energy


While virtually the whole world stands against the development and use of nuclear weapons, attitudes vary when it comes to the development and use of nuclear energy. Proponents of nuclear energy tout it as a form of clean ”energy since it releases virtually none of the harmful CO2 emissions associated with fossil fuel. However, construction of nuclear power plants does emit great amounts of CO2, as construction instruments and processes, such as trucks, cranes, front-end loaders, etc., rely on other sources of energy - especially fossil fuels.

In addition, the health and environmental costs of nuclear energy are horrific. The possibility of accidents, such as that of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the potentional for horizontal nuclear proliferation, the damaging effects from the entire nuclear cycle, from uranium mining to nuclear waste, all indicate that the risks of nuclear energy far outweigh the benefit.

Nuclear energy is a hot button political issue. Iraq and North Korea managed to develop clandestine nuclear weapons programs under the guise of "peaceful" nuclear energy, only for their weapons programs to be discovered later. (Iraq's program was dismantled mostly through the Gulf War and the ensuing inspections by IAEA.)

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom opposes the use of nuclear energy. The Reaching Critical Will project seeks to provide you with all of the information you need to deepen your understanding of this controversial issue. Below you'll find all the facts you need to know about nuclear energy technology, its environmental consequences, its political and historical background, and the current issues surrounding it today. You will also find helpful links to more in-depth information on the particular aspects of nuclear energy and politics.

Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Nuclear energy is problematic at each stage of its cycle:

1. Uranium mining. Uranium is extracted from underground and open pit mines. For every ton of uranium oxide produced, thousands of tons of wastes, or tailings, are left behind. Often the tailings are simply dumped on the land near the mine and left to the effects of the elements. Wind carries radon gas and radioactive dust from these tailings for many miles. Contaminated rainwater enters the soil, the watershed, and, eventually, the food chain, endangering the health of people, animals, and the planet. Uranium mining on indigenous and tribal peoples' lands has devastated local communities and environments in North America, Australia, Africa, and Asia.

2. Enrichment. After mining the uranium mineral is refined to uranium oxide, called yellowcake. This natural uranium is processed and then enriched. Industrial processes enrich uranium by concentrating the amount of its fissile isotopes to 3% or more for use as reactor fuel. Uranium can be further enriched for use in nuclear weapon—the technology used to enrich uranium to 3% is the same as is used to enrich it to 20%, the level necessary for use in a nuclear weapon.

3. Reprocessing. Reprocessing is a chemical reaction that separates plutonium and uranium from fuel which has been irradiated in reactors. The plutonium is important for weapons production, while the uranium is basically a byproduct that can be recycled as fuel. Because reprocessing is also part of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, reprocessing is a key link between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons production. Thus, the existence of a reprocessing plant is what gives a country the ability to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Four-fifths of the plutonium in the world today has been produced by commercial nuclear power reactors. This spread of plutonium through nuclear power has increased the number of potential nuclear weapons states to 46. The five declared nuclear weapons nations—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are only one-ninth of the real "nuclear club". (Jan Thomas et al, Safe Energy Handbook, Plutonium Free Future, Santa Barbara, CA: INOCHI, 1997.)

4. Radioactive waste. By the year 2000, the nuclear industry had created 201,000 tons of highly radioactive irradiated (used) fuel rods. Waste from nuclear energy production must be safely and securely stored for between 10,000 years and 240,000 years in order to prevent health and environmental disasters from radioactive contamination. None of the 44 countries with nuclear reactors has a solution to the waste problem. The wastes are either kept in "temporary", above-ground storage facilities or buried in shallow pits. Wastes have been dumped directly into the ground, lakes and oceans of the world. A 2003 MIT study projected that, if the world expands its nuclear energy production to 1,000 gigawatts by 2050 (an increase of 2% per year), a new storage facility equal to the currently planned capacity of Yucca Mountain would have to be created somewhere in the world about every three to four years to permanently store the spent nuclear fuel. (John Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz et al, The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.) Also see How Stuff Works' illustrated explanation of nuclear energy production.

Politics of Nuclear Energy


1. Atoms for Peace. Dwight Eisenhower’s landmark speech made to the United Nations General Assembly on 8 December 1953 addressed the world’s widespread fear and discontent over recently developed atomic technology and weapons. His speech proposed that a nuclear regulatory agency be created, which led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Eisenhower sought to transform nuclear technology into a peaceful and humanitarian pursuit by focusing on nuclear energy development; however, his promotion of nuclear energy led to its proliferation through the US and the world. Full text of Atoms for Peace
For more information, see articles by the Arms Control Association and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

2. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Developed as a means to curb and control the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials, this treaty entered-into-force in 1970. While imposing restrictions on nuclear weapons development, Article IV of the NPT establishes access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes as an “inalienable right. ” Please see the full text of Article IV and further discussion of Article IV and its legacy.

3. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT, negotiated by the Conference on Disarmament and presented to the UN General Assembly in September 1996, is the first treaty to ban all nuclear explosions. The CTBT took an important leap forward in disarmament legislation by including nuclear test explosions in the ban. What is particularly interesting about the CTBT is that it can only enter into force once all 44 states with nuclear energy reactors sign and ratify the treaty regardless of whether they have, or are pursuing, nuclear weapons. This requirement, established in Annex II of the CTBT, was an unprecedented acknowledgement of the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy capabilities. As of yet, this Treaty has not been ratified by all Annex II states.

Current Controversies

Countries such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have brought the connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons into the international spotlight. As the media coverage grows around these stories, it is important to remember the cold hard facts about the types of nuclear technology each country actually possesses. Please visit the IAEA's site for a profile of each country, or Reaching Critical Will’s own annual shadow report for more comprehensive information.

After the first Gulf War, IAEA inspectors discovered a clandestine nuclear weapons program in Iraq, which Iraq had maintained was intended strictly for peaceful nuclear purposes. The IAEA, operating under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (a weak verification regime mandatory under the NPT), had failed to effectively detect Iraq’s clandestine program. This IAEA failure led to the development of the Model Additional Protocol, a much more stringent and intrusive inspections regime. More and more States are beginning to support the idea of the Model Additional Protocol as a precondition to the NPT Article IV entitlement.

Doubts over Iraq’s nuclear weapons program during the second Bush administration lead to further IAEA inspections. While the United Nations and many States around the world wanted to continue inspections, the second Bush administration felt that inspections would not be able to provide conclusive answers. As a result, the US decided to initiate the current war without approval from the UN.

For more information, please see the Arms Control Association.

North Korea
The events surrounding North Korea’s attempts at developing nuclear weaponry from nuclear energy capabilities illustrates the dangers of nuclear energy proliferation. One particularly interesting aspect of the US’s reactions to North Korea’s nuclear developments is in how markedly different it is from its reaction to allegations about Iraq’s nuclear development.

Under the NPT, all countries are allowed to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses, under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). They are also allowed to enrich uranium to the level needed to make fuel for nuclear power, again under the IAEA's monitoring. However, the same technology can be used to enrich uranium further in order to make nuclear weapons. Whether or not Iran is secretly developing or intending to develop nuclear weapons, by hiding its uranium enrichment programme for 18 years from the IAEA Iran has violated the NPT and alarmed the international community.

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

FACT: The phenomenon known as global warming has been documented by scientists. CO2 build-up in the atmosphere causes solar energy to be trapped thus raising the average global temperature and causing potentially harmful climate and ecological change.

FACT: A reduction of CO2 emissions generated by human activity is necessary to slow or at least reduce the contribution of human activity to this ecologically menacing phenomenon.

FACT: 70% of world electricity comes from Fossil Fuels. About 16% of the world’s electricity comes from Nuclear Power and 14% from Renewable Resources.

FICTION: Increased use of nuclear energy should be the solution to dependence on fossil fuels and thus help reduce global CO2 emissions.

FACT: Nuclear power usage has environmental, health, and security risks that make it an undesirable substitute for fossil fuels. Many sources of renewable energy do not pose such great risks, and thus should be explored.

FICTION: Nuclear power is a Clean Source of Energy that can safely and effectively be used to produce electricity without CO2 emissions.

FACT: Research has shown that taking into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle, between 34 and 60 grams of CO2 are emitted per generated kilowatt hour (kWh). Estimates place the CO2 per unit of energy at 4-5 times higher than the average quantities of CO2 produced from renewable energy sources.

FACT: Nuclear energy is not a clean source of energy because it produces massive amounts of toxic, radioactive waste. In the US, this currently amounts to 2,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste per year.

FACT: Waste from nuclear energy production must be safely and securely stored for between 10,000 years and 240,000 years in order to prevent health and environmental disasters from radioactive contamination.

FACT: The Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl disasters caused environmental, economic, health, social damage to the areas and communities in the regions.