The Era of Nuclear Commerce: Introduction to the Nuclear World
December 18, 2014
This article is part one in an editorial series on the legal, economic, and military dimensions of the nuclear industry and nuclear commerce in the 21st century.
There are two distinctive possibilities for creating energy in nuclear physics; the widely used process of nuclear fission and the experimental process of nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fission is the process of splitting the nucleus of a heavy atom (target nucleus) into two or more lighter atoms (fission products) when the heavy atom absorbs or is bombarded by a neutron. This reaction creates energy and in turn generates heat, which in a nuclear power plant (NPP) can be used to boil water which in turn drives a turbine with the steam created. The source material which is used in nuclear fission is uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium-239, which is retrieved from uranium´s natural state “238.”
The concept of nuclear fusion has been a discussion and experimental topic for over 50 years, and consists of creating nuclear reactions between light elements from heavier elements. This concept and its discussed technology has several big advantages, including an almost infinite supply of energy, rather small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactive waste, no possibility of an accident with significant off-site consequences (since the collapse of the plasma at any time would instantly stop the fusion reaction and therefore, would produce no residual heat) and lastly, no concern for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, because there is no requirement for such materials and technologies in nuclear fusion. However, scientists have yet to construct a self-sustaining fusion reactor. The words of a Nobel laureate for physics, Pierre- Gilles de Gennes, sum up the problem in a very elegant way: “We said we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don`t know how to make the box.”
The currently most promising experimental fusion reactor is being built in France, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The project is run by seven member entities- China, EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The first full-scale fusion tests are not planned to start before 2027 and the project is facing plenty of technical difficulties due to the challenging and overwhelming nature of the task at hand. But it is important to remember that if the idea of nuclear fusion is realized, we are looking at practically endless energy source, environment, and budget friendly with very little negative consequences.
Nevertheless, despite the many positive and promising sides there are to nuclear power, nuclear inconveniences and the threats they hold are what people most commonly associate nuclear power with. Although this deep-rooted fear is very understandable, if not balanced with information of what NPPs are capable of in relation to other sources of energy the public mass will continue to relate it with:
- Safety incidents such as Chernobyl/UKR, Three Mile Island/USA or Fukushima/JPN.
- Nuclear waste management
- Radiation exposure
- Military applications of nuclear technology and WMDs (weapons of mass destruction)
- Terrorism through WMD or on NPPs.
Military Applications of Nuclear Technology
Like many other great scientific and technological breakthroughs, nuclear energy has its roots in the military sector. The first CP-1 reactor, built by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, was a crucial step in what was later known as the Manhattan Project. The rest is history. With the introduction of a nuclear weapon to the world the safety of humanity and planet as a whole suddenly became dangerously questionable, since the damage done with the deployment of a nuclear weapon is immensely overwhelming. The development of this weapon came at a great cost, with nuclear testing taking place on the geopolitically less important sites all over the world and escalated to the point where nuclear weapons stockpile dangerously approached the 100,000 limit. After gaining momentum in the midst of the Cold War, the trend of nuclear testing is nowadays on a very insignificant level, especially considering the level it was on some 30 years ago:
But a decrease in frequency of nuclear testing does not mean that the military side of the atomic energy is becoming any less significant in the contemporary world of politics and power-play among states. Exactly because of the immense capability of a nuclear weapon this should come as no surprise. But, lucky or not, this capability is also the main driver between two conflicting forces; deterring political opponents and extreme caution when handling threats with this arsenal. Mutually assured destruction (with deliberate or coincidental, but nevertheless very suitable acronym MAD) is a concept nobody should forget, even (especially) past 1991, for its strange balance of fear of mutual annihilation, when having sufficient configurations and quantities of nuclear weapons is still very much applicable for the world more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Nuclear warheads up to this day form a completely legitimate fear of many people when thinking of the non-peaceful nuclear possibilities. At the moment, these are most commonly associated with contemporary instability in the Middle East, creating regional insecurity due to the fact that Israel and Pakistan are undeclared nuclear powers with many others having clear ambitions. All the periodic disputes between South and North Korea are burdening the nations of both countries in the highly sensitive and difficult geopolitical neighborhood. The North has become an undeclared nuclear power, of uncertain types, configurations and quantities of the bomb, which additionally burdens the neighbors. All this combined is making confidence-building measures conducted by their allies nearly impossible and efforts to achieve it an obsolete undertaking.
Nevertheless, some continue to argue that being a nuclear warhead state generates safety to a country and its people whilst maintaining national pride and extending nuclear protection onto its allies. But one must also take into consideration the political implications and the implications of perpetual nuclear arms race for the international political balance. Therefore, nuclear deterrence is mostly viewed as a direct cause for the nuclear culture which dehumanizes opponents, exaggerates threats to national securitym and downplays the consequences for human life and the environment as a whole.
When it comes to the legal framework on nuclear weaponry, different international treaties (such as, for example, the START treaties) managed to bind the two most prominent nuclear forces, the United States and Russia (as a successor to the dissolved Soviet Union) to commit themselves to a world with fewer nuclear warheads and reduce their stockpile by almost four times (although it is questionable how much was this a step out of altruism and pacifism and to what extend was it caused by economic calculations, considering the major expenses connected with maintaining an active nuclear warhead). The nuclear weaponry in numbers today looks as follow.
The Other Side of the Military Nucleus
Along with the prominent military application, the peaceful application also rapidly picked up speed after WWII in the form of nuclear energy. The foundation for an international focus on peace in regards to nuclear power has its core in U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech “Atoms for Peace” in 1953:
“I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new – one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use. That new language is the language of atomic warfare.”
After President Eisenhower´s speech The United States launched an “Atoms for Peace” program which consisted of supplying information and equipment to schools, hospitals and research institutions within the United States and around the world. But it is important to understand the non- fabricated, hidden factors behind the pretty facade of this Atoms for Peace program. Although resulting in the more widespread peaceful applications of nuclear technology, its origins could not be more military of geostrategic in nature.
After the US deployed their super weaponry on Japan and terminated two entire cities in order to bring a quick end to World War II in the Pacific, the nuclear dilemma of peaceful vs. military became startlingly clear. Very hastily, a commission was established to draw up an international control regime on nuclear power. The immediate result was the Acheson- Lilienthal report that sealed the idea of interdependence and interchangeability of atomic energy and atomic weaponry. The trust in countries worldwide in their intentions was considered not to be implicit and therefore an international regime of control needed to be established. Later on, this report was revised and presented to the UN as the Baruch Plan in 1946, and some of its provisions are clearly still alive in today`s world of nuclear legal regime:
- International control over possibly dangerous atomic energy activities;
- Control would be exercised within an international organization, that would also have mandatory power to control, license and inspect all the peaceful atomic energy activities;
- The international organization would take a vanguard in fostering the beneficial usages of atomic energy.
The preposition was not realized at the time, since the Soviet Union rejected it. Although on the surface everything seemed very altruistic, it also meant, consequently, that the US was trying to implement a very rigid system of controls (e.g. by buying up all the available uranium and thorium reserves in order to prevent the mass proliferation). Since the Fat Boy and Little Man had already done their disastrous deed, it was too little too late to play the peaceful gate-keeper to the world of atomic energy. Continuing from this point on, the Soviet Union was trying everything in their power to equalize the stakes set by the United States. In 1949 the inevitable happened, when they obtained their first nuclear weapon, realizing the American worst nightmare. Afterwards, the balance of power was set in equilibrium again and the change of strategy was needed to fit more adequately to this new reality. President Eisenhower and his advisers came to the tough conclusion that it is therefore necessary for the United States to change its policy of secrecy regarding nuclear power. The Soviet Union was able to gain a major upper hand in the propaganda race from that point on, especially in the Third World countries. If they decided to break the silence on this strange new power and be the first ones to share its secrets with the world, that could mean a devastating blow for the American influence around the globe at the beginning of the new, post-WWII world order. By launching the Atoms for Peace program, Washington was actually limiting the possibility of Soviet primacy in Third World countries. Undoubtedly, that meant that certain countries would benefit greatly in the following years by gaining access to the brave new world of nuclear power. One of the beneficiaries of this programme was Iran, which at the time still had a more favorable regime under the Shah. But, as we know, realities in world politics change constantly and it seems that this change can come even faster if you are a US ally.
This trend was abruptly cut short with the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant accident (Later investigations revealed that the critical valves were illegally and manually closed before the accident, preventing cooling water entering the steam generator system of the reactor) because of another, much more important geopolitical game gaining momentum in world politics.
The origins of this new reality were forged during the Nixon presidency, when the United States unilaterally suspended dollar convertibility to gold. This effectively tore apart the essential provisions from the Bretton Woods and introduced the wild floating exchange rates in the world monetary system for the first time. But the dollar currency needed something to make it stable again and this is where the 1973 oil crisis came, seemingly just at the right time. Oil, as we know, has since the beginning been sold in dollars only (for a brief time in British Pound Sterling, too). The shocking skyrocketing prices of crude oil ‘due to the OPEC countries’ triggered a shortage of supply increased the dollar demand by almost 400% at the time. One can see how that affected the standpoint of the Petrodollar on the monetary market. And since many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America found themselves paying four times as much for the same amount of oil supply, there came an ever louder talk about an alternative energy source to replace oil-bound industries.
This is when nuclear energy returned to the international energy spotlight. In the 1970s, many agreements were made between countries regarding nuclear energy, most notably between Germany and France on the giving end and Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan and Iran on the receiving end. This effectively envisioned the (otherwise ulteriorly motivated) spirit of the Eisenhower`s Atoms for Peace program, meaning that developed countries would help the selected developing countries establish a much more efficient and ultimately, of course, less expensive world of electricity generation. But that would, in effect, mean less dollar demand on the market. Combined with other complicated factors, regarding nuclear energy (including the financial and infrastructural overwhelming nature of these projects), that is why the “bloom from the nuclear rose” had to be taken away (and this modus-operandi has repeated many times since then…for example, in November 2000, Iraq along with Iran, Libya, Venezuela, Russia and Indonesia agreed to sell their oil in Euro currency, too. The agreement, sadly, became a dead letter, following the now infamous American attack on Iraq in 2003, that set an example for every country wanting to escape the dollar-dominated crude oil market. In this spirit, we would like to encourage the reader to reconsider the trail of American foreign policy towards the above mentioned countries ever since the year 2000) and that is why every alternative energy option has bigger-than-should-have geopolitical consequences. To put it simply, the mail problem with green/renewable energy is not complexity, expense or lack of technological solutions; the problem lies within the fact that it calls for a geopolitical breakthrough, because oil, as mentioned, represents far more than just energy. It represents “socio-economic, psychological, cultural, financial, security and politico-military construct, a phenomenon of civilization that architectures the world of controllable horizontalities which is currently known to, possible and permitted, therefore acceptable for us.” And no matter how optimistic we wish to be, this mindset-shift scenario still seems very unlikely to happen because at the moment, it is very hard to imagine anyone bringing down the American petro-security, petro-financial and petro-military primacy, because all the other major global players are also very petro- dependent: Russia, Central Asian republics, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Venezuela, etc on the supply end and India, China, Australia, South Africa, etc on the receiving end. For now, it seems that humanity has been involuntarily caught in a crude oil vicious circle.