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Concluding Comments: The Peaceful Atom in the 21 st Century

One of seven Bear G strategic bombers which
were eliminated at the Chagan air base in Kazakhstan.

The visible and invisible atom have come together as one atom in the 21 st century. The technology of nuclear power, isotope separation, and fuel fabrication has become all too easy to develop. Nations that wish to develop peaceful or military nuclear capabilities face only international ostracization should the wish to pursue atomic technologies. The United States and Russia, the two nations who triggered the nuclear age, have little control over proliferation, in fact hold much of the blame for it. In the US policy makers have adopted the position that various international treaties to regulate nuclear technologies apply to other nations but not the the US. Both the US and Russia intend to invigorate their peaceful nuclear programs, and both have attempted to embark on the development of the next generation of nuclear devices, all the while claiming to be against proliferation. Iran and Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan and India have embarked on extensive programs. The only question is which country will be next to development what additional nuclear technology.

At the beginning of the 21 st century, scientists in the Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, in the US and Russia, England, France and Germany all have significant traditions of research in nuclear physics. They have extensive nuclear power programs on which the nations rely to produce a large share of electrical energy. Nuclear power, their scientists correctly argue, does not produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Nor do they emit nitrogen or sulfur oxides or particulates from burning coal, lignite or oil. Yet to maintain nuclear energy programs the engineers and scientists must also determine how to handle nuclear waste, the deal with the danger of the transport of nuclear fuel and spent fuel rods, and to lessen the threat of terrorist acts against those facilities and the nuclear fuel.

Yet three major safety issues must be resolved before nuclear energy finds a safe home. These issues date to the dawn of the nuclear age and reflect the failure of nuclear engineers to follow through on promises they have made concerning the alleged safety of nuclear power from its first days. First, enginers asserted that reactors were safe. The large number of incidents, accidents and explosions -- not only Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Ukraine -- indicate that the ’inherently safe’ reactor remains a technology of tomorrow. Second, in order to keep capital costs low, officials have located reactors in parks close to major urban centers. This keeps transmission costs down, but has left many urban areas around the globe vulnerable to disaster. If an explosion occurred at an East European site, for example, how could nearby residents evacuate in an orderly fashion and where would they go? What of the transportation of fuel rods in and spent fuel and radioactive waste out of nuclear power stations?

Third, the intractable problem of nuclear waste plagues the industry. At civilian power reactors around the globe, spent fuel rods are held in temporary storage in basins of water or above ground in concrete casks until such time as a repository is found for them. Russia has established a program to import the spent fuel rods to generate billions of dollars toward nuclear renewal in Russia. The nations of Eastern Europe still maintain agreements with Russia to purchase fuel from Russia and store waste in Russia.

The nuclear waste problem is especially great in the military sector where -- in the name of national security -- officials ordered high and low level radioactive waste to be stored in temporary facilities, many of which have begun to leak and leach radioactivity into the land, water and air. From Hanford, Washington, and Savannah, South Carolina, where the US produced plutonium and tritium, to Krasnoiarsk, Tomsk, Cheliabinsk and Sverdlovsk in the former USSR, millions of gallons and thousands of tons of waste have accumulated for which there is as yet no feasible storage safety from more contamination or risk of terrorist act. In the USSR, unmitigated disasters at Lake Karachai, Kyshtym and elsewhere have resulted in the expulsion of more radioactivity into the environment than at Chernobyl. At Hanford, the US first used ’once-through’ plutonium production reactors where the cooling water entered the reactor and was released directly into the Columbia River without adequate cooling or removal of radioactivity. To this day, Indians along the Columbia have high exposure to radiation because of their traditional reliance on salmon from the river as a major food source.

Parallel to and paradoxical with the peaceful atom with its power to give scientists new tools to produce energy, conduct medical diagnostics and so on has been the creation of a closed, top secret side of nuclear science. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, much of the research has been conducted in closed military establishments with armed guards and fences to keep unauthorized personnel out. In fact, much more of nuclear research has been classified than unclassified, invisible to most of us, and visible only to those with special clearances. In the USSR and other authoritarian regimes, entry to virtually the entire nuclear establishment required special permission, passes, declarations, investigations and the like. Only a few journals were widely accessible, and they too had strict censorship requirements. Of course, given the potential military applications of nuclear knowledge, governments must restrict access. But even democractic societies have shielded the visible atom. The United States used the classification of ’top secret’ to deny access to epidemiological and environmental data needed to assist veterans of nuclear units and facilities to gain appropriate health care and compensation. Under the administration of George W. Bush, the United States government has proceeded to reclassify documents clearly of no national security interest -- and at the cost of $8 billion annually and more.

The East European nations have never tested nuclear weapons. Unlike the US, the former USSR, France and China, England, and now Pakistan, India and several other nations, they have not released radioactive fallout through atmospheric tests, harming the inhabitants of the world. They must, however, deal with the fear of many residents of Europe that a reactor accident may occur that will have consequences as great as those of Chernobyl. Chernobyl was not a nuclear bomb. But fallout from a reactor accident would have serious consequences. Hence, as scientists and policy makers of East European nations consider the future of the Peaceful Atom and the requirements put on them by the IAEA and the European Union, they must also honestly face public opinion about the dangers associated with nuclear energy. The danger is real, if perhaps exaggerated. But to ignore the public concern, or to discount it, would be to follow the path of the Peaceful Atom Under Socialism. A truly Peaceful Atom requires accountability to the public, a public who embraces the atom, not because they are told through propaganda programs that it is wondrous, a panacea for future energy needs, a solution to agricultural and industrial production problems, but because policy makers and scientists engage them openly.

The Paradoxical Atom | Rise of the Nuclear Age | From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Cold War | The Industrial Atom | Chernobyl and Beyond | Concluding Comments


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