from "Nuclear Power and the Environment"
-- 1976 report by Sir Brian Flowers, nuclear physicist --
the Sixth Report of the U.K. Royal Commission on the Environment
Sir Brian Flowers is a highly regarded British nuclear physicist who worked both in his country's nuclear weapons program as well as in its civilian nuclear power program. He was appointed by the government to conduct an inquiry into the long-term environmental implications of nuclear power, within the context of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
What follows are verbatim excerpts from the "Flowers Report" -- the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, entitled "Nuclear Power and the Environment". They specifically address the range of issues related to the use of plutonium as a fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. Although Sir Brian has always been and remains pro-nuclear, his perceptions were profoundly influenced by the evidence presented during the public inquiry which he conducted. His observations are still relevant today. They are well worth reading.
The dangers of the creation of plutonium in large quantities in conditions of increasing world unrest are genuine and serious.
We should not rely for energy supply on a process that produces such a hazardous substance as plutonium unless there is no reasonable alternative.
Plutonium appears to offer unique potential for threat and blackmail against society because of its great radiotoxicity and its fissile properties. The construction of a crude nuclear weapon by an illicit group is credible. We are not convinced that the Government has fully appreciated the implications of this possibility.
The unquantifiable effects of the security measures that might become necessary in a plutonium economy should be a major consideration in decisions on substantial nuclear development. Security issues require wide public debate.
There should be no commitment to a large nuclear programme . . . until the issues have been fully appreciated and weighed in the light of wide public understanding. A procedure for consultation is required to this end.
Spreading the Bomb by Using Plutonium
Nothing would be more disruptive to the environment than nuclear warfare, and we feel bound to comment on the spread of civil nuclear power in relation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.... [para. 165]
[Many countries] are in the process of acquiring nuclear reactors, and with them the material [plutonium] with which nuclear weapons may be made. Although the plutonium cannot be extracted without the use of an elaborate reprocessing plant, there are plans to install such a plant in a number of these countries.... Even if irradiated fuel is sent abroad for reprocessing,the countries concerned are likely to require that the plutonium be shipped back in pure form. It will, of course, be subject to safeguards, such as those prescribed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But a number of the nations are not parties to this treaty, and even those that are can terminate their commitments on three months notice whenever unforeseen events have placed the vital interests of the state at risk. In the last resort, international inspectors can operate only by the consent of individual governments, and this might be withheld on short notice. There is nothing to stop the manufacture of all the non-nuclear parts of a nuclear bomb, and of facilities that would permit the returned plutonium to be fabricated into a suitable chemical and physical form when required.... [para.166]
... Our conclusion [is] that the spread of nuclear power will inevitably facilitate the spread of the ability to make nuclear weapons, and, we fear, the construction of these weapons. In reality, total agreement on a comprehensive international control system for the products of civilian nuclear power that are relevant to the construction of nuclear weapons would be possible only in a climate of general disarmament, and the prospects for this are receding rather than improving. It has been argued that the possession of these weapons by the USA and the USSR has been a powerful force for mutual toleration, but however true this is it would be folly to suppose that proliferation would necessarily lead to a similar balance and restraint in relations between other nations. Indeed, we see no reason to trust in the stability of any nation of any political persuasion for centuries ahead. The proliferation problem is very serious and it will not go away by refusing to acknowledge it. [para. 167]
We are acutely aware that concern about the large-scale use of nuclear power, and the concomitant threat of plutonium in a civilian context, may appear misplaced in relation to what many would see as a much greater threat, that growing arsenals of nuclear weapons may one day lead to nuclear war. The implications of civil nuclear development are qualitatively different, however, and are not to be seen as a mere increment in the nuclear threat. The connection between civil and military uses of nuclear power is obvious; there is the possibility that great expansion of civil use would make more difficult the eventual acceptance and introduction of measures to secure nuclear disarmament. [para. 500]
Many people ... see a great threat in the potential attraction of plutonium to terrorist or criminal organizations.
One reason for theft would be the value of the element: if plutonium-fueled reactors become common then it will be traded internationally. One kg of plutonium can produce as much energy in a power station as 1,700 tonnes of oil, currently worth about 80,000 pounds.
The other reason would be because of its potential use in a terrorist weapon, which would have enormous psychological impact. It could be disseminated into the atmosphere with conventional explosives, when it would pose not only acute and long-term radiological hazards to those who inhaled the airborne particles, but would contaminate large areas of land. Decontamination would be very costly ... ; several hundred thousand pounds per gram of dispersed plutonium.
The dispersion of a small amount of plutonium into the atmosphere with conventional explosives would pose a very serious radiological hazard since an individual dose of only a few milligrams is sufficient, if inhaled, to cause massive fibrosis of the lungs and death within a few years. Much smaller quantities [ed. note: about 1000 times smaller ] can cause lung cancer after a latent period of perhaps 20 years.... [para. 322]
There is also the risk of the construction of a nuclear bomb by an illicit group. It cannot now be regarded as beyond the capabilities of a well-organized and determined group to construct a crude but very effective weapon.
The construction of a nuclear bomb by a terrorist group would certainly present considerable difficulties and dangers to those attempting it. The equipment required would not be significantly more elaborate than that already used by criminal groups engaged in the illicit manufacture of heroin, but great care would need to be taken in the handling of dangerous materials and in avoiding accidental criticality. A substantial knowledge would be needed of the physical and chemical processes involved, of the properties of high explosives, and of the principles of bomb construction. We have been impressed and disturbed by the extent to which information on all these topics is now available in open literature. [para. 323]
There seems no reason to doubt that a sufficiently determined group with the necessary expertise could construct a very crude bomb which might explode with the force of a few tonnes of TNT. [note: see the box immediately following this paragraph ]
The amount of plutonium required could easily be carried by hand. Though extremely inefficient in nuclear terms such a device would still cause much damage and would create immediate radiation which would be lethal over a range of several hundred metres as well as dispersing radioactive material over a wide area. More doubt attaches to whether an illicit group could construct a weapon with a much greater yield, say 100 tonnes of TNT or more.
[note: see the box immediately following this paragraph ]There is some dispute about this possibility. From the discussions we have had we formed the impression that the British authorities are less persuaded than those in the USA about the credibility of the construction of such a weapon. We felt it necessary to settle the matter in our own minds and we therefore consulted eminent physicists both in the UK and the USA who are expert in the subject. Their judgment was that the construction of a bomb that would give such a yield was indeed possible, though the actual yield would be very uncertain.... [para. 324]
In 1994, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a book entitled The Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium by the NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control.
After careful consideration of the problem, the Committe concluded that a well-equipped group with access to even an inferior grade of plutonium could construct a nuclear explosive device "using a simple design that would be assured of having a yield in the range of one to ten kilotons" -- that is, having an explosive power equivalent to that of 1,000 to 10,000 tonnes of TNT -- about a thousand times greater than the explosive force considered feasible by Sir Brian Flowers in 1976.
Under no circumstances would the explosive power of such a crude home-made atomic bomb be much less than this, according to the NAS Committee; the Committee goes on to say, "While this yield is referred to as the 'fizzle yield', a one-kiloton bomb would still have a radius of destruction roughly one-third that of the Hiroshima weapon, making it a potentially fearsome explosive."
We have concluded therefore that it is entirely credible that plutonium in the requisite amounts could be made into a crude but very effective weapon that would be transportable in a small vehicle. The threat to explode such a weapon unless certain conditions were met would constitute nuclear blackmail, and would present any government with an appalling dilemma. We are by no means convinced that the British government has realised the full implications of this issue. [para. 325]
Knowledge of plutonium and the ability to use it for nefarious purposes will inevitably be disseminated as nuclear power spreads. There is no lack of demonstration in the world at present of the audacity, determination and ruthlessness of terrorist organizations. Unless we are prepared to assume that terrorism is no more than a transient phenomenon, or that terrorist groups would shrink from using the immense threat of plutonium to achieve their ends, then the future risk of such action exists and must be considered. [para. 505]
SecurityIssues in a Plutonium Economy
The problem of safeguarding society against these hazards could become formidable in a "plutonium economy". There are particular risks during transport of the element between nuclear installations, although techniques could be adopted to make access to the plutonium both dangerous and difficult. There is also, however, the risk of theft of plutonium by direct action at installations where it is stored, or by people working in the industry. Of course, many measures are taken to prevent this but it cannot be entirely ruled out. In order to counteract these risks, some people foresee the need for the creation of special security organizations which, because of the vast potential consequences of plutonium loss, would need to exercise unprecedented thoroughness and vigilance to safeguard the material....
A belief that the necessary vigilance and continuity could not be adequately guaranteed in any normal organization led Alvin Weinberg [ed. note: an eminent nuclear physicist at the US Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory] to postulate a "nuclear priesthood"; this would be a dedicated, self-perpetuating body of people forming a technological élite which would be entrusted through the generations with the task of safeguarding society from the hazards of nuclear power. The idea of such a "priesthood" may seem untenable, but it is an indication of the extent of the anxiety felt by some responsible people about the hazards. Concern about security also led Weinberg to suggest that "nuclear parks" should be established. By this is meant the siting of reactors and related fuel fabrication and processing facilities in a large, self-contained nuclear complex in order to facilitate security arrangements, particularly by eliminating the need to transport plutonium.
Many people are concerned about the implications for society of the security arrangements that might become necessary in a plutonium economy. An effective security organization could not be merely passive, simply reacting to events. It would need to have an active role ... ; that is, to infiltrate potentially dangerous organizations, monitor the activities of nuclear employees and members of the public and, generally, carry out clandestine operations. It would also have to have powers of search and powers to clear whole areas in an emergency. Such operations might have to be conducted on a scale greatly exceeding what would otherwise be required on grounds of national security in democratic countries. The fear is expressed that adequate security against nuclear threats will be obtained only at the price of gradual but inexorable infringements of personal freedom.
The security measures that might become necessary to protect society could seriously affect personal liberties. The need for such measures would be affected by increasing tensions between nations. Indeed, the future risks posed by plutonium constitute a world problem that would not be solved by unilateral action.... We emphasize again that our concern here is not with the position at present, or even in the next decade, but with what it might become within the next fifty years. In speculating on developments on such a time scale, no one has a prerogative of vision. It appears to us, however, that the dangers of the creation of plutonium in large quantities in conditions of increasing world unrest are genuine and serious. [para. 506]
For this reason we think it remarkable that none of the official documents we have seen during our study convey any unease on this score. The management and safeguarding of plutonium are regarded as just another problem arising from nuclear development, and as one which can certainly be solved given suitable control arrangements. Nowhere is there any suggestion of apprehension about the possible long-term dangers to the fabric and freedom of our society. [para. 507]
We are sufficiently persuaded by the dangers of a plutonium economy that we regard this as a central issue in the debate over the future of nuclear power. We believe that we should not rely for something as basic as energy on a process that produces such a hazardous substance as plutonium unless we are convinced there is no reasonably certain economic alternative.
It may well be said that our concern on these point is premature; that there is, after all, no firm commitment to nuclear production on the scale indicated ... and that other energy sources are already being actively examined. We should not be satisfied with this response. The important thing is the attitude towards alternative approaches and the resources devoted to assessing their potential and promoting their development. The basic belief of the Department of Energy ... is that nuclear fission using the fast breeder reactor [fueled with plutonium] is the only real option for meeting our future energy needs. We fear that on this premise, there may be a gradual, step by step progression to over-riding dependence on nuclear power through tacit acceptance of its inevitability, and a gradual foreclosing of other options that might have been available had they been exercised in time. We recommend that it should be the aim of policy to lessen our dependence on fission power to the extent that this would command public acceptance in the light of a full understanding of the implications and of the issues involved. [para. 512]
We have explained our reasons for thinking that nuclear development raises long-term issues of unusual range and difficulty which are political and ethical, as well as technical, in character. We regard the future implications of a plutonium economy as so serious that we should not wish to become committed to this course unless it is clear that the issues have been fully appreciated and weighed; in view of their nature we believe this can be assured only in the light of wide public understanding. We are perfectly clear that there has been so far very little official consideration of these matters. The view that was expressed by the Department of Energy in their evidence to us was that there were reasonable prospects that the safety and environmental problems posed by nuclear power could be satisfactorily overcome and that, if this proved not to be so, other forms of energy would have to be used, or consumption somehow curtailed. We see this as a policy that could lead to recognition of the dangers when it would be too late to avoid them. More is needed here than bland, unsubstantiated official assurance that the environmental impact of nuclear power has been fully taken into account. [para. 521]
We have concluded that a special procedure is needed.... A comprehensive document setting out the issues and the evidence should be published first in draft. We envisage that much of the evidence would be prepared by the proponents of nuclear development ... but plainly other contributions would be required. The statement must not be confined to the effects of the first stage of development, but must follow through to the furthest point to which our current knowledge can attain. The social and economic, as well as the scientific, technological and environmental problems must be fully set out. [para. 523]
This publication should be followed by a further stage in which the comments made by interested agencies and individuals should be presented and evaluated. These presentations should ultimately receive independent assessment.... No doubt the introduction of such a procedure would present many difficulties which we have been unable to examine closely, but we are convinced about the need for it. The ultimate aim is clear: it is to enable decisions on major questions of nuclear development to take place by explicit political process. [para. 524]
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