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Megawatts and Megatons:
A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?

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Richard Garwin
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AAK: What new conclusions or arguments does Megawatts and Megatons bring to the public debate on atomic energy ?

RG: We offer three novel observations in support of nuclear power:

First, in terms of global warming, nuclear energy is a far better choice than fossil fuels. For example, burning coal to generate electricity releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which can remain there for over forty years. This excess carbon dioxide enhances greenhouse warming, in each year contributing as much heat to the earth's surface as was initially generated by the plant! Nuclear power plants, which generate no carbon dioxide, would contribute less to the greenhouse effect over forty years than a coal-burning plant would in a single year.

Second, contrary to popular opinion, the world faces no shortage of its primary nuclear fuel, uranium metal. The world's oceans contain more than four billion tons of uranium, one thousand times the existing high-grade terrestrial resources. Furthermore, extracting this material would be economically feasible. We encourage the current administration to support further research into sea-water uranium and to determine the cost of a large-scale program.

Finally, we recount and support recent developments in commercial reactor technology. Even if, as we argue, existing reactors have reached adequate safety thresholds since the days of Three Mile Island, we encourage aggressive development of and investment in cheaper, safer, and more efficient generations that produce less waste. International commercial cooperation has resulted in novel reactor designs which offer stronger protection against accidental contamination or meltdown. We encourage the current administration to add federal support to these projects; the safety and environmental benefits of nuclear power will not materialize unless its capital cost is reduced by a factor of two or more. To us, the change in Russian law in 2001 to allow the influx of spent commercial reactor fuel for disposition in Russia is a favorable innovation. But we would prefer to see the client have a choice as to whether the fuel is directly disposed of (without reprocessing) into the mined geologic repository, or whether it first has the plutonium removed. The second is far more costly if new plants must be built, and does not significantly ease the disposal problem--if at all.

Despite our support for nuclear power, we encourage the current administration to accept our analysis that it comes--whether through routine operation or by an unexpected disaster--with a quantifiable cost in human lives. We estimate 35,000 people worldwide will die prematurely from the aftereffects of Chernobyl. The damage, however, is less than that imposed by the coal-fired plants that currently provide half of all American electricity. Coal plants emit sulfur oxide, responsible for much of acid rain and for lung disorders; heavy metals such as mercury; and radioactivity present in the 3 million tons of year consumed annually by each large coal-fired power plant. About 5% of the coal ash is used for making concrete for dwellings; on the same basis that leads to the estimate of premature deaths from the one significant civilian nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, 2000 people die each year from radiation in their homes from the ash contained in concrete.

AAK: Vice-President Dick Cheney chaired a Presidential Development Group on National Energy Policy which released its report in May 2001. What is your opinion of the Cheney Report's strikingly positive treatment of atomic energy, which puts it at the center of America's twenty-first century energy policy?

RG: We agree that nuclear power can supply an increasing percentage of American energy needs. The Cheney Report argues the environmental and economic advantages of nuclear power as a sustainable energy source and calls for increased international cooperation and redoubled scientific research into the reduction and treatment of high-level nuclear waste.

We welcome the report's consideration of nuclear energy's problems and future potential and view it as an important vote of confidence. In past decades, the public's view of nuclear energy has been dominated by two particular events: the meltdown of a reactor core at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and a catastrophe in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, in which radioactive material from a power plant was ejected into the atmosphere and spread over vast regions of Europe and Asia. Although the specter of large-scale disaster and the unresolved question of the ultimate disposal of radioactive waste still loom large in American public opinion. In France, eighty percent of electrical energy is obtained from nuclear plants. There, electrical power in general and the nuclear power industry in particular is a monopoly of the state. It is well run and less subject to criticism in the French political system. Recent official reports, however, have for the first time raised questions about the economic and environmental wisdom of certain choices, such as the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The French nuclear industry never speaks of spent fuel as "waste", but as something to be put into underground laboratories. Yet not a single ton of spent commercial reactor fuel there (or in the United States) has been subject to ultimate disposition.

Considered against the fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas--nuclear power offers the promise of cleaner air, reduced greenhouse emissions, sustainability, and the potential for increased output to match our escalating energy demands.

However, to support a resurgence of nuclear power in the United States, a political endorsement must be matched by good science and favorable economics. We judge the one hundred existing American nuclear plants, all "light-water" reactors, to be adequately safe if operated properly. The disposal of spent reactor fuel should be handled by competitive, commercial mined geologic repositories in Russia, China, the United States and Australia, thereby separating the radioactive material from the biosphere until the potential radiation hazard has been reduced by the natural radioactive decay, and reducing the potential for acquiring the weapon-usable plutonium in these materials. The repository is a set of shafts and corridors mined deep into rock in a suitable environment so that water will not bring the radioactivity to the surface. Reactor fuel rods in heavy steel canisters are suitable for such disposal, as is the radioactive material separated by reprocessing--in the form of glass cast into stainless steel "logs" weighing as much as a ton or so.

The Cheney reports looks favorably on reprocessing of spent fuel from U.S. power reactors; a recent study by an expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences finds no merit or necessity in such an approach--certainly not in reprocessing to obtain plutonium to reduce by 20% the uranium consumption of the usual U.S. reactor. Even if the entire world's energy needs were met by nuclear power, the four billion tons of uranium naturally present in the oceans would fuel the reactors for thousands of years. If no new source of energy such as nuclear fusion were perfected in a thousand years, "breeder reactors" could be used to power the world's energy needs for 500,000 years.

AAK: In emphasizing the merits of nuclear energy in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, do you see nuclear energy as part of an energy program that includes non-fossil fuel renewable sources such as solar and wind? Why would you not suggest we focus all our resources into developing those less dangerous sources if there is still potential risk from nuclear energy?

RG: We strongly support energy conservation, with wider use of "combined heat and power" systems and hybrid (gasoline engine and battery) vehicles. We note that continued application of science and technology to solar energy will bring cost reductions. But solar and wind power are intermittent and require storage. They are extremely important for dispersed populations, but useful for large agglomerations only with transmission lines like those used for nuclear power. Our book is about nuclear power and nuclear weapons; we discuss other energy sources simply to provide a context. We quote authorities in the field to the effect that the conceivable solar-generated power worldwide would be limited to about half the world's current consumption of electricity. "More power to them!" we say; let's push the limits.

AAK: Do you agree that National Missile Defense, already a priority of the Bush administration, would significantly enhance American national security, and do you feel that the development of such a missile defense is the best use of our resources in terms of the potential risks we face? How do the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 affect or support your positions on this question--should those attacks lead to a reconsideration of or should they serve as a concrete support for a national missile defense?

RG: The most striking characteristics of current threats to American national security is their sheer diversity. For example, surpassing the threat of attack from "rogue" nuclear states, America faces the substantial--if unintentional--risk of bombardment from Russia. Six thousand ex-Soviet warheads on a thousand missiles currently remain on high alert, standing by to be launched on minutes' notice. Russian leaders depend on a decaying early warning network for crucial information about an ongoing attack. Malfunctions and gaps in this system, increasingly common byproducts of Russia's shrunken military budgets, increase the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. Amazingly, these thousands of warheads, poised on a dubious hair-trigger and carrying enough combined explosive power to destroy both the United States and Russia many times over, are not seen as a major threat.

In our view, "rogue-state" ballistic missiles--the centerpiece of current discussions about missile defense--represent a less urgent threat than existing Russian stocks. In July 1998, I served on the nine-member Rumsfeld Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. The final classified report, released also as an unclassified, public Executive Summary, identified three "rogue nations" that could pose future threats to the United States. In the judgment of the committee, North Korea, Iraq, or Iran might build, within five years, crude intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking U.S. territory. These missiles could carry nuclear or biological warheads which had been developed independently, purchased, or stolen from another state. The Bush Administration and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set defense against this form of attack as their first priority--despite the fact that the Rumsfeld Report of 1998 specifically identified the short-range ship-launched missile threat against U.S. coastal cities as sooner, more accurate, and easier to mount than would be an ICBM threat. It is the nuclear explosive or the biological warfare agent (say, anthrax) which causes the damage; would that it could be delivered only by ICBM and not by aircraft, or ship, or short-range missiles!

Current military budgets favor the continuation of a Clinton-era program, in which interceptor rockets would be launched from American soil. After satellite detection of a missile launch, rockets would attempt to intercept the incoming warheads "midcourse," i.e., in the vacuum of space. Under existing plans, the interceptor would detect the warhead thermally and then collide with it in space, destroying the nuclear payload. In our view, such a program is so tenuous that it would require full cooperation from the attacking nation--in the form of shared information about the ICBM's design and possible counter-measures--in order to succeed.

Furthermore, as I have argued for years inside and outside the government, a nation with the resources and technical skill to build ICBMs and nuclear or biological warheads could also devise effective countermeasures. One such possibility would be to divide the payload into dozens or hundreds of smaller anthrax-loaded "bomblets," which would fall separately through space to spread their deadly germs over an entire city. Current plans for interception, based on a few-to-one ratio between interceptors and attackers, could not contend with such numerous targets. Another effective countermeasure would enclose the nuclear warhead in a large balloon; the interceptor would collide harmlessly with the balloon, failing to destroy the much smaller warhead inside. Or, the warhead could be placed in a small balloon accompanied by identical empty decoy balloons. The interceptor would have no way of discriminating between harmless empty balloons and the one containing the warhead. Our book discusses these problems in some detail; further information is available in an archive of some of Garwin's papers, at http://www.fas.org/rlg.

As a more practical alterative to mid-phase interception, we advocate destroying an attacking missile in its boost phase, when countermeasures are far more difficult. Interceptors could be launched from land or sea, within one thousand kilometers of the ballistic missile launch site. In the case of North Korea, the United States could use ships located in the Sea of Japan or, operating jointly with Russia, land-based missiles south of Vladivostok. Iraqi ICBMs could be intercepted in boost phase from a single base in Turkey, a NATO member state. Such a defense could not, however, protect against ICBMs from Russia or from China. Both countries are geographically far too large for short-range, land- or sea-based interceptors to reach boost-phase ICBMs.

Tellingly, there is little military enthusiasm for the Bush administration's pet project, defense against the rogue-state ICBM threat. The threat of attack by ballistic missile is modest compared to other means of delivering nuclear or biological weapons. Bloated expenditures on mid-course national missile defense threaten to exclude other programs from defense budgets, reducing the nation's ability to counter more serious threats. The only way to address genuine American security needs is to terminate expensive, ineffective programs like mid-course intercept in favor of a proposal with a reasonable chance of success: boost-phase intercept.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing more than 6000 people, belie the argument that our foes are too inept to be able to fashion simple countermeasures such as anthrax bomblets or an enclosing balloon. And the much-heard argument pre-09/11, that we have an annual operating budget of $11 billion to guard our borders against unwanted people or goods (but zero operating homeland missile defense) is shown as sophistry. It is not the "input" of money, but the "output" of security which is the measure of value. Analysis should replace debating points; 6,000 dead--more than twice the number who died at Pearl Harbor--is a terrible toll, but only a tiny fraction of the number likely to die if we value ideology above security.

AAK: Implementation of a National Missile Defense would violate the current Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between Russia and the United States. Either the treaty would need to be renegotiated or scrapped. How do you see the impact of an NMD on our relations with Russia and other countries such as China, and have they given any signals as to their positions on the U.S. moving forward with such a policy?

RG: Treaties are a tool toward security, and not an end in themselves. But the same can be said of contracts in business. The 1972 U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty specifically allows its lapse after six-months warning by one Party that the continuation of the treaty would imperil its "supreme national interest." China is not a party to the ABM Treaty, but its actions consequent to the scrapping of the Treaty should be considered in deciding on the course of action. The Rush-Bagot Treaty limits naval armaments on the Great Lakes to four ships of less than 100 tons. The treaty is still in force, but largely ignored as a matter of interpretation.

It is clear that for many in the United States the elimination of the ABM Treaty is a long-sought goal in itself--irrespective of its security impact. We judge that it would be a simple matter to obtain Russian accord on an interpretation or modification of the ABM Treaty (a "protocol" to the treaty, which is like a codicil to a will) which interprets the ban on deploying a "defense of the national territory" against "strategic ballistic missiles in flight trajectory" as referring to "strategic ballistic missiles (of a Party to the treaty) in flight trajectory". Another option is to add to the list of permitted ABM systems (one for each side) specific agreed systems. As indicated in our book, these would include ABM systems jointly operated by Russia and the U.S., and in addition, specific boost-phase intercept systems deployed on land or sea near Korea, Iraq, and perhaps Iran.

As of August, 2001, Russia complains that the Bush Administration in all its discussions with the Putin government has never indicated specifically what it wants to build. The course of negotiations is never easy to predict, but there is reason to believe that Russia would endorse certain programs such as boost-phase intercept, which could provide effective defense against what is claimed to be the design threat--ICBMs in the hands of one of the three "rogue states."

China has been satisfied for years to have some 20 ICBMs which can reach the continental United States with massive nuclear warheads. These missiles are in silos and could be destroyed by U.S. missiles; hence China has long had a development program to replace or supplement the fixed-site ICBMs with mobile missiles that cannot be destroyed preemptively by a U.S. strike. But there is little urgency visible in this program. Since an avowed goal of many of the supporters of NMD deployment is protection against the Chinese missile threat, it would be difficult for Chna to ignore a U.S. NMD system. At times Chinese officials have indicated that if the U.S. NMD had 200 interceptor missiles, China would build 220 mobile ICBMs. In addition, we judge (as did the CIA in a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate) that China would have effective countermeasures against an NMD such as the mid-course system now under development.

AAK: How can we prevent excess nuclear materials from Russia from getting into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations?

RG: Loose weapon-usable nuclear materials represent an enormous threat to American and global security. Under existing arms reduction treaties, the United States and Russia will soon have each removed fifty tons of plutonium from disassembled nuclear weapons. In the wrong hands, a tiny fraction of this plutonium could facilitate the rapid construction of illicit new arms. The metal is far more portable and more difficult to account for than a discrete warhead. Further, although the warheads themselves are afforded at least a minimal level of protection, the raw plutonium is wrongly perceived to be less attractive to thieves or proliferators. In light of existing flaws in the Russian program for monitoring and guarding nuclear materials, loose plutonium represents an unprecedented international risk.

It takes less than six kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium to make a primitive nuclear explosive. One such device, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II, killed more than 100,000 people. Weapon designs from the 1950s, more portable and easily deliverable than their wartime predecessors, give greater explosive yields with less plutonium. In a near-worst-case scenario, fifty tons of excess Russian plutonium could yield 10,000 new nuclear weapons. The worst case, paradoxically, may be that one ton would be used to make 200 nuclear bombs.

Excess uranium from disassembled nuclear warheads is easier to use than plutonium for military purposes. The simplest fission device, like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, requires about sixty kilograms of highly-enriched uranium; the 500 tons under contract could be converted into 8,000 such weapons. Using more advanced designs, the same amount could yield more than twenty thousand explosives. Over the next fifteen years, the United States will take delivery of the remainder of five hundred tons of highly-enriched military uranium from Russia, blended to low enrichment for use in American commercial reactors. We advocate paying some of this money up front, so that the full 500 tons of highly enriched weapon uranium is blended within months to a 20% level such that its theft no longer poses a security risk.

A joint US-Russian Commission on the Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, on which I served in 1996 and 1997, adopted a "dual-track" approach to the plutonium problem. One track, known as vitrification, would render excess plutonium more secure by mixing it with highly radioactive nuclear wastes in a steel-encased glass ingot and burying it in the Yucca Mountain repository. In the other track, weapons-grade plutonium would be converted to fuel for American nuclear reactors. Under normal operating conditions, plutonium fuel is mixed with highly radioactive nuclear wastes and could then be buried in the same repository. Although Russia has shown little interest in vitrification, it has plans to use excess plutonium in its own reactors.

Cost, however, is a major factor. Excess weapons-grade uranium can be diluted with natural uranium for use as ordinary reactor fuel, yielding a net commercial profit. However, it costs substantially more to convert warhead-grade plutonium into reactor fuel than to mine, purify, enrich, and prepare uranium from scratch. Therefore, the private-sector corporations involved in nuclear energy would need government subsidies. Having rejected a $6 billion proposal to convert excess plutonium into reactor fuel, the Bush Administration is unwilling to consider the cheaper vitrification approach. At the same time, Russia is determined to keep its weapons-grade plutonium for use in breeder reactors, thereby producing even more excess plutonium.

It lies clearly in American and allied interests to reduce, as quickly as possible, the availability of Russian weapons-grade plutonium. Economically, strategically, and politically, the United States must assume the leadership role in any non-proliferation regime, although its economic allies can be expected to do their share. The Bush Administration is ready to spend more than $100 billion on a ballistic missile shield. In our opinion, existing loose nuclear materials represent a much greater threat to national security than potential "rogue" missiles. We judge it far more responsible for the Bush administration to review its priorities and support--at a substantially lower price tag--the prophylactic measure of Cooperative Threat Reduction.