Monday, June 05, 2006

The Nuclear Nightmare: It will never end.

A friend of mine told me that he had discussions with the Non-Proliferation people and that he shared their concern over "where the spread of nuclear weapons would end". I told him I did not share their concern. So he asked me where I felt it would end and I replied that the spread of nuclear weapons will not end.

The great Leo Szilard prophetically warned the American national security council before Hiroshima - "The greatest secret is that this can be done. By using the weapon on Hiroshima you let that secret out. Once it is out - there will be no way to stop this."

I agree with Leo Szilard.

Let me further qualify my position.

Technology proliferation is the norm in human societies. The laws of nature are not proprietary and as long as human failings exist - the will to exploit the laws of nature to produce weapons will always exist. The only thing that can prevent the collapse into complete anarchy is to reinforce the idea of rational choice.

Perhaps my friends were just trying to humor the friendly NPA idiot that was talking to them. It is difficult to imagine an Indian taking advice on rationality from the very people who brought this nightmare into reality.

One must never forget that it is the mullah-like obsession with "norm based approaches" by the NP community that has incentivized and legitimized the creation of the nuclear black market.

One has to leave aside the trappings of ideology and look at some cold facts:

1) The poor choices made in the energy field (the emphasis on inefficient use of carbon resources in the West) have imposed a high environmental cost which has to be managed. Even if Americans expect the world to just put up with their high rate of carbon dioxide emission - I don't think Americans will like having to live in a world where India and China pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning coal to make electricity. Neither will the American oil giants be happy to see India and China competitively bidding for control over middle eastern oil resources. A large fraction of the apparent prosperity enjoyed in the US relies heavily on the being able to dictate the price of oil. If that is lost - a bubble will burst with painful economic effects. The US has to change its pattern of energy utilization and it has to ensure that countries like India and China follow in suit.

2) The US (and the Russians) have huge stocks of radioactive waste. Mostly generated in the process of maintaining a ridiculously oversized nuclear weapons stockpile. This waste defies the ability of all known storage technology. The experiments at WIPP and Carlsbad are a sign of the times to come. Without proper storage the risk that this waste will fall into the hands of someone with harmful thoughts is very very high. Higher still is the possibility that the containment on the waste will fail and cause an environmental catastrophe. A rational alternative would be to somehow convert as much of this waste into an energy resource as possible. This would require the use of very advanced breeder technology that is currently unavailable. Also given the size of the waste stockpile - this technology will have to be developed in the US itself.

3) The aforementioned facts predispose us towards the use of nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Other alternatives do not provide the same quality of generation and do not provide an answer to the problem of large stocks of nuclear wastes from the American and Russian nuclear programs. Nuclear power especially the kind that relies on a closed fuel cycle like the one proposed by Homi Bhabha is ideal for reducing dependence on carbon based sources and minimizing radioactive wastes. A gradual shift towards nuclear power in the next 30 years both in the West and in India and China could achieve sharp reduction in global CO2 emissions.

I agree that a reliance on nuclear power presents certain proliferation scenarios, I list them below:

1) The Nuclear Armed State: A nation that adapts civilian nuclear technology for military use and creates a nuclear arsenal which it uses to bolster its international stature. This is *always* going to happen. The international system creates an economic pecking order - and someone has to be on the bottom of it. As long as the top nations weild nuclear weapons - a nation in the dumps will only naturally associate the acquisition of nuclear weapons with international status. Given how fickle the international environment is - it should come as no surprise that at least some nations will act on the impulse to build a nuclear arsenal even if its population has to "eat grass".

2) The Nuclear Armed Non-State actor: An apparently irrational group of people that have access to a weapon or nuclear material which may be used in a dirty bomb. In my opinion this is a fiction i.e. Nuclear-Armed Non-State actors are only created with a bankrupt Nuclear Armed state provides weapons to a group of individuals to act as its proxy in the international arena. The objective behind such a move is to create the grounds for a deniable nuclear strike on any target of choice and to create leverage (with or without international status) .

3) The Nuclear Armed Nutcase a.k.a The "Nuclear Boy Scout": This is an individual who assembles a nuclear weapon without even rudimentary safeguards. The weapon itself has poor yeild and functions as a very effective dirty bomb. The motiviations of such a person are by definition irrational. A scenario in which such an individual makes a working nuclear weapon is largely implausible in the foreseeable future. A more serious risk stems from the potential to make a dirty bomb. This risk is already quite high due to the availability of radioactive sources in smoke detectors, medical waste and other commercially available products. The presence of large stocks of radioactive waste from a weapons program or from a once-through LWR reactor cycle only increases the risks of this happening. By contrast a close loop fuel cycle minimizes the risk.

So that's that.

Lets get one thing very straight - you cannot stop the spread of this knowledge or technology. There are risks and there will always be risks - you just have to learn to live with them.


At 4:00 AM, Blogger BangaloreGuy said...

Agree with your overall theme.
A nuclear weapon is the ultimate weapon to have in your arsenal, and to deny your adversary.

But technology spreads fairly esaily, irrespective of curbs.

And yep, the nutcase with nukes, or a non-state actor with nukes are impossible unless a nuclear state hands it over to them.

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