The nuclear weapons tests that North Korea carried out two weeks ago, on May 25, reminded us once again that nuclear power technology remains the most dangerous technology mankind has ever created. With regional tensions rising, the ASEAN region, with nuclear ambitions of itself, is warned that treading the nuclear path is a dangerous way to go forward.
Currently four countries, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have serious plans to develop nuclear power, but Malaysia and Myanmar have also expressed interest. With the exception of the latter, there is no doubt that none of these countries' governments intend to use nuclear power for any other than peaceful purposes. But history has pointed out again and again that there is no guarantee for nuclear power to be restricted to peaceful uses. With the 1995 Bangkok Treaty the ASEAN declared itself Southeast Asia a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ), but clear safeguards systems to enforce this are not yet in place. Besides, such treaties, are typically marked by double standards and serious loopholes, as with the case of the Non Proliferation Treaty.
There are five recognized nuclear weapons powers in the world today, all of which are members of the NPT, the most important attempt at curtailing the spreading of nuclear weapons. But the NPT which came into force in 1970 and has 187 members, has failed to keep the world safe from a nuclear threat. While some countries, known to possess nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, India, and Israel, are not members of the NPT at all, others have violated the treaty by pursuing nuclear weapons or by withdrawing their membership after already having built up a nuclear infrastructure which could then be used for purpose of weapons production.
It is important to understand here the very fine line between civil and military nuclear programmes and in fact in most countries, such as France, the US and Russia, civil programmes were preceded by military ones. A nuclear fission weapon needs either highly enriched uranium (HEU), like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or plutonium, such as the one that destroyed Nagasaki. Plutonium, which is the man made result of nuclear fission, is extremely hazardous in even minute quantities. Today both are created in civil nuclear programmes. Even though there are some differences between what is referred to as reactor and weapons grade plutonium and HEU, it is also widely recognized that the former can be used to create powerful nuclear explosive devices just as well. J. Carson Mark, a US expert on nuclear weapons, who headed the Theoretical Division at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory for decades, for example, stated that “the difficulties of developing an effective design of the most straight forward type is not appreciably greater with reactor-grade plutonium than those that have to be met for the use of weapons-grade plutonium". As for HEU, while ideally the uranium would have to be enriched to at least 80%, even uranium enriched to over 20% can be used to build a relatively simple explosive device.
By mid-2008, global plutonium stockpiles had reached 500 tonnes of which about half is civilian with the remainder in nuclear weapons and other military stocks. Civilian plutonium continues to grow but this growth has slowed down in past years due to problems with reprocessing plants in the UK (Thorp at Sellafield) and Japan (Rokkasho). Only a few countries, notably India, Pakistan and Israel are believed to be still producing fissile materials for weapons use. Global HEU stocks reached about 1900 tonnes by mid 2008.
Plutonium makes up around 1% of spent nuclear fuel. It is separated for use in civil nuclear reactors by reprocessing. Reprocessing poses one of the most serious proliferation concerns. The plutonium is mixed with conventional uranium fuel in what is called MOX (mixed oxide) fuel. MOX fuel is classified under international IAEA regulations as Category-1 'direct-use' weapons material. Functioning commercial reprocessing facilities currently exist in only two countries: The UK and France. Just this year, the world witnessed the largest MOX fuel transport ever, containing 1,8 tonnes of plutonium, enough to create 225 nuclear weapons, from France to Japan. These type of shipments pose unacceptable and unjustifiable environmental, proliferation and public health risks. Reprocessing is often mentioned as the possible answer to future depletion of uranium resources as well as to the unresolved problem of nuclear waste storage. If anything, this seems to show the degree of desperation of an industry which, even after 50 years, still cannot solve one of its most persistent problems: how to deal with radioactive waste. Reprocessing poses a tremendous proliferation concern and is incredibly expensive, hardly the kind of solution the world is looking for.
After more than half a decade, the nuclear industry still finds itself at the center of proliferation and environmental concerns. Nuclear power brings with it by a whole new set of problems, for which the ASEAN region is not prepared. If terrorist or extremist groups get their hands on radioactive material the consequences cannot be foreseen. And as last week's event in North Korea has shown, the fear of a renewed nuclear arms race also remains. Japan, with a significant civil nuclear fleet but a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons, was called upon by some of its senior officials last week to start allowing nuclear weapons in order to counterbalance North Korea's nuclear show-off. Mr Nakagawa, a conservative politician quoted in Kyodo News, hit the nail on the head: "It is common sense worldwide that in a purely military sense it is nuclear that can counteract nuclear." When one state owns nuclear power technology, others usually follow suit. Even if states have the best intentions, the possibility to develop nuclear weapons always lurks in the background.
Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two sides of the same coin. The ASEAN should vie for proven safe renewable energy technologies that support sustainable economic growth and provide safe jobs for millions of people.
(This piece is by Tessa de Ryck, regional nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia)