Finding a place in peace and war

The New Nuclear Danger - Tritium on Ice
March 21, 2003

These are two very dissimilar books, written by authors with very different backgrounds, but each has the same motivation: to draw attention to serious errors of judgement by recent US administrations, particularly in the nuclear field. In their view, President Clinton made mistakes and errors of omission in nuclear policy, but his shortcomings fade into insignificance compared with the hiatus created by the current Bush administration.

Kenneth Bergeron's Tritium on Ice puts one in mind of one of those "smart" bombs or missiles that can seek out and destroy a specific target with minimum collateral damage. Helen Caldicott's The New Nuclear Danger is more of a cluster bomb, which engulfs a large area with firepower, sometimes indiscriminately.

Bergeron is a physicist who worked for 25 years on the safety of commercial nuclear reactors. His book focuses on a very specific principle, one that evolved from Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations in 1953 - that the peaceful application of nuclear power (chiefly electricity production) should be separated completely from the development of nuclear weapons.

A new US policy, formulated in the Clinton years, of modifying up to three commercial electricity-generating reactors to produce military tritium, is a clear violation of this principle, according to Bergeron. This planned change in practice is what stimulated him to write Tritium on Ice: The Dangerous New Alliance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power .

Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is an essential component of thermonuclear devices (H-bombs). What is not so well known is that small amounts (grams) of tritium, are incorporated into nearly all atomic (fission) weapons to boost their yield. An especial problem with tritium is that it has a half-life of only 12.5 years, so any stockpile diminishes by 5.5 per cent each year through natural processes, necessitating a continuous source of new material. The US stopped manufacturing tritium when the last defence production reactor at Savannah River was closed in 1988, and since then it has relied on supplies of the isotope extracted during the decommissioning of the US nuclear arsenal.

The official view is that this source will begin to be exhausted from about 2005. But the distinguished analyst Frank von Hippel has calculated that tritium from decommissioned weapons will be sufficient for US military needs until 2029, possibly longer. However, the official view is the one that counts.

The US Department of Energy in 1995-97 explored three possibilities for producing tritium: in a commercial light-water reactor; in a proton accelerator; and in an existing DoE test reactor known as a fast-flux test facility. It was found that the cost of the second option would exceed the first by up to seven times and the third option could not produce the quantities required.

Two reactors at the Sequoyah station, and another at Watts Bar, have been chosen by the US government for modification to produce tritium while continuing to generate electricity for public sale. The reactors are all operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an organisation that, in a sense, is already in the public sector.

In further defence of its decision, the DoE points out that a dual role for government reactors is not a precedent: the Hanford N reactor, for example, was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium, but also sold steam for electricity generation. (In like manner, in the UK, the Calder and Chapel Cross reactors were designed from the start to have a dual role: to produce plutonium and tritium for weapons, and to generate electricity for the national grid.) US officials also argue - surely with tongue in cheek - that as tritium is not a fissionable material, capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction, it is not classified as a special nuclear material and hence not subject to the prohibitions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

Bergeron goes on to point out that the three TVA reactors earmarked for modification into tritium-producing facilities are especially unsuited for this purpose. These reactors were of a particular Westinghouse design, which incorporated as a safety feature an ice-condenser containment chamber (hence the "ice" in the title of the book). Unfortunately, ice-condenser containments have, Bergeron says, serious design flaws.

Tritium on Ice is an excellent book that deserves to be widely read by experts and lay people alike. I would have liked Bergeron to have dealt with the tritium issue more widely and covered how the isotope is generated in other nuclear weapon states. He might have tackled such questions as Britain's future tritium supply after the closure of the Chapel Cross reactors. Finally, I have to admit that after the actions of the Bush administration in the nuclear field, how the US generates tritium is not at the top of my concerns.

Caldicott's book is a tour d'horizon of the history and politics of such recent US decisions and actions. Its full title, The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex , is a little puzzling. Is she implying the Bush administration itself constitutes the new danger? It is not clear.

Caldicott is a medical doctor who is well known in the anti-nuclear field.

She has received many honours and the Smithsonian Institute, no less, voted her one of the most "influential women of the 20th century". If she really stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Marie Curie, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa, then this makes reviewing her book a daunting prospect.

It is unashamedly polemical, at times quite shrill and occasionally unbalanced. For example, Caldicott makes frequent reference to a nuclear conflict causing a "nuclear winter", a concept that has long been discredited. She also greatly exaggerates the dangers associated with the use of depleted uranium in anti-tank shells in, for example, the Gulf war and Kosovo. Nevertheless, provided that some of her assertions are treated with caution, the book provides a valuable and vivid summary of the appalling state of international affairs in the nuclear field and pays especial attention to the confusion and damage wreaked by the Bush administration.

Bearing in mind the narrowness of the margin of the Bush election victory in 2000 (assuming a margin even existed), it might have been hoped that the new president would have adopted conciliatory and moderating policies.

Instead, as Caldicott points out so graphically, under Bush's leadership there has been a massive shift to the right in US politics. Manifestations of this include: criticism of the UN light-arms negotiations; opposition to measures to prevent militarisation of space; failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; abandonment of the Biological Weapons Convention; rejection of the Land Mines Convention; abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; redefinition of the nuclear weapon protocols to permit tactical battlefield usage; exemption of the US from the World Court on Human Rights; withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions. And now the promotion of a highly ill-advised armed conflict with Iraq.

Anyone wishing to explore the background to some or all these issues could do much worse than read The New Nuclear Danger . Perhaps we should at least be thankful that Bergeron and Caldicott are still free to express anti-government views, although the anti-civil-rights measures taken following September 11 2001, make one wonder how long such freedoms will prevail. America won independence partly because of the madness of our George III. It is ironic that it now seems to be losing its way through their own George II.

Jack Harris is vice-chairman of British Pugwash. He spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry and is a fellow of the Royal Society.

The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush's Military-Industrial Complex

Author - Helen Caldicott
ISBN - 1 56584 740 7
Publisher - New Press
Price - £10.95
Pages - 263

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