October 30, 2008

Nuclear Nightmares

This figure is from Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down. It shows the relatively small quantity--less than a ten-thousandth of the world's highly enriched uranium (HEU)--to build a crude atomic bomb.

If you can make nuclear power in abundance, you can make bombs. That is a further scary element in the energy predicament, another cudgel to crack your skull wide open.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact of 1968 (NPT) sought to resolve this question by a couple of trade-offs. Non-nuclear states were to gain access to civilian nuclear technology if they placed themselves under safeguards. The existing nuclear powers were to dedicate themselves to disarmament. Important states known to have acquired nuclear weapons--India, Pakistan, and Israel--stayed outside the treaty, but the five veto-holding powers of the UN Security Council were all signators.

Here we have an abundance of questions: Is the NPT deeply flawed or does the existing nuclear proliferation regime offer good safeguards against further nuclear proliferation? How serious is the danger posed by the spread of civilian nuclear technology? How vulnerable is it to terrorist seizure and the making of bombs? Would increasing emphasis on nuclear energy in the world make hopeless the attempt to stop nuclear proliferation? Were such proliferation to occur, how dangerous would it really be? Could we live with it, or must it be stopped at all costs? Is deterrence a workable solution to the danger of nuclear proliferation, such as it is, or are the factors that made it successful during the Cold War non-existent or weak? Which among the crisis situations over nuclear proliferation--Iran, North Korea, Pakistan--is most serious? Are peaceable solutions on the table, or must we be prepared to resort to war?

You could put the big question another way: is the danger from nuclear proliferation sufficiently serious as to pose in effect a veto against civilian nuclear power as a big contributor to addressing the energy problem?

This is like the question surrounding global warming. Is the specter raised by the scientists sufficiently serious as to debar coal from making a serious contribution to energy needs?

If you say "Yes" to both questions--we can't afford either coal or nuclear energy because of the eventual grim consequences--then the energy predicament becomes yet more acute.

Then we'd be "running out" of oil, and "running away" from potential substitutes.

That is not a likely future outcome. Under those stipulated circumstances, something would undoubtedly give way under the stress.

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