In Mortal Hands

Backhoe machinery detail

Stephanie Cooke’s In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age is a four hundred page account of the major problems with the global nuclear industry, both civilian and military. It argues that the costs associated with both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have been hidden by self-interested governments and organizations, and that nuclear energy should not be part of our future energy mix, despite concerns about climate change and energy security. The book’s unceasingly critical position leaves one longing for a more comprehensive account, where arguments in favour of nuclear energy would at least be more comprehensively rebutted. Nonetheless, Cooke’s book does a good job of reminding the reader of the many special dangers associated with nuclear energy, and the risks associated with re-embracing it, due to our concerns about fossil fuels.

In Mortal Hands argues convincingly that most of the costs associated with nuclear energy are hidden, and not borne by the utilities that provide it or the people that use it. These costs include wastes, contaminated sites, decommissioning of plants and related facilities, risks of accident, nuclear proliferation, providing targets to enemies and terrorists, routine radioactive emissions, the redirection of capital and expertise from potentially more positive uses, and the further entrenching of secrecy and self-serving pro-nuclear entities within government and industry. Certainly, the issue of secrecy is an important one. Along with concealing costs and subsidies, it is demonstrated that the nuclear industry has misled policy-makers and the public about the risks associated with the technologies, timelines and costs associated with the emergence of new technologies like reprocessing and ‘breeder’ reactors, and the number and severity of nuclear accidents. The industry knows that another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island could undue their anticipated ‘renaissance,’ so they are arguably less likely than ever to disclose accurate information on dangers, or on incidents which do occur. Governments that authorize, encourage, and fund new nuclear facilities will be in a similar situation, in terms of the harm awareness of risks and accidents could do to them politically.

Cooke raises a number of important points about regulation, both nationally and internationally, and the conflicts that exist between commercial pressures to get reactors sold and keep them running and concerns about safety and proliferation. None of the big nuclear states has a good record on preventing sales to states secretly working on nuclear weapons. Lack of toughness on the part of international and national regulators is a major reason why countries like Israel, South Africa, and North Korea have been able to use the cover of civilian nuclear programs to get themselves nuclear weapons. Lack of rigour is also clearly evident in nuclear programs, in terms of making sure facilities have been built and operated properly, bombs are secure, and the massive contamination is avoided.

The book is arguably weakest in its discussion of technical matters, which are not discussed at great length or in a way that seems entirely credible and convincing. Opportunities to elaborate and justify claims made about technical matters are often missed, and the book includes at least a few claims that seem likely to be erroneous. For instance, Cooke misrepresents where most of the energy in a thermonuclear explosion comes from, and fails to point out that the START-II agreement never went into effect. More than a discussion about the physics and engineering of nuclear technology, this book focuses more on the regulatory, political, and economic aspects. While that might annoy those with more technical inclinations, it is probably the right approach for a volume with the ultimate intention of informing public policy choices about whether to use nuclear energy for electricity production.

Cooke’s response to the question of how the energy currently being provided by nuclear plants could be replaced is especially unsatisfying. Essentially, it is: “Wind energy is growing very quickly, and perhaps distributed microgeneration could be the solution.” Some consideration of scale, such as that provided by David MacKay, is essential here. Small wind turbines on the roofs of houses as not a viable alternative to gigawatts worth of reactors. At the very least, those who advocate using renewables in place of nuclear need to recognize the enormous scale of deployment that would require, and the various associated costs. While Cooke’s book does not provide a sufficiently broad-minded basis for reaching a final judgment on nuclear energy, it is a convenient antidote to some of the current industry messaging that new plants will be safe and cheap, proliferation isn’t much of a concern, and even Chernobyl wasn’t so bad.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

15 thoughts on “In Mortal Hands

  1. The nuclear age
    Cautionary tales

    Apr 30th 2009
    From The Economist print edition

    EACH generation is condemned to grapple anew with the possibilities and perils of splitting the atom and destroying humanity. Assuming a predicted “nuclear renaissance” survives the economic downturn, will nuclear power one day be so developed that it fulfils its promise by helping to save the planet from climate-change disaster? Can the other sort of apocalypse be more safely averted by “getting to zero”, banning the bomb even as knowledge to build it spreads?

    Nuclear debates are seldom well-informed, whether on the streets, in the media or in cabinet rooms. Scientists use off-putting jargon. Politicians do not bother to know enough to ask the right questions. Stephanie Cooke, an American writer, has done them all a favour. Her command of the diplomatic detail is just occasionally less sure (for example, the Start-2 arms-cutting treaty between America and Russia never actually came into effect). But this is an otherwise highly readable tale of the atom’s problems and possibilities, blending the author’s scientific and technical fluency with the human stories, achievements and doubts of those who built the bomb, and those who later hoped to tap the civilian benefits of nuclear power. What emerges is a cycle of expectation, breakthrough, mishap and false promises. Unless better understood, it is in danger of being repeated.

  2. By June 1948, after 31 months of brisk construction, the first of the Chelyabinsk-40 “breeder” reactors was brought online. Soon bricks of common uranium-238 were being bombarded with neutrons, resulting in loaves of pipin’-hot weapons-grade plutonium. In their haste to begin production, Soviet engineers lacked the time to establish proper waste-handling procedures, so most of the byproducts were dealt with by diluting them in water and squirting the effluent into the Techa River. The watered-down waste was a cocktail of “hot” elements, including long-lived fission products such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137–each with a half-life of approximately thirty years.

    In 1951, after about three years of operations at Chelyabinsk-40, Soviet scientists conducted a survey of the Techa River to determine whether radioactive contamination was becoming a problem. In the village of Metlino, just over four miles downriver from the plutonium plant, investigators and Geiger counters clicked nervously along the river bank. Rather than the typical “background” gamma radiation of about 0.21 Röntgens per year, the edge of the Techa River was emanating 5 Röntgens per hour. Such elevated levels were rather distressing since that the river was the primary source of water for the 1,200 residents there. Subsequent measurements found extensive contamination in 38 other villages along the Techa, seriously jeopardizing the health of about 28,000 people. In addition, almost 100,000 other residents were being exposed to elevated-but-not-quite-as-deadly doses of gamma radiation, both from the river itself and from the floodplain where crops and livestock were raised.

  3. The Monju nuclear reactor leak

    CHRIS SALZBERG, HANAKO TOKITA, & staff with Global Voices Online
    January 25, 2008 [updated:January 31, 2008]

    Following an announcement this week that the Japanese fast breeder nuclear reactor Monju would be reopened, activists have leaked suppressed video footage of the disaster that led to its closure in 1995.

    The infamous sodium spill, an accident that long ago earned itself a place in the history of nuclear power in Japan, has returned one more time to haunt government and industry officials with images they hoped would never return.

    Named after the Buddhist divinity of wisdom, Monju, located in Japan’s Fukui prefecture, is Japan’s only fast-breeder reactor. Unlike conventional reactors, fast-breeder reactors, which “breed” plutonium, use sodium rather than water as a coolant. This type of coolant creates a potentially hazardous situation as sodium is highly corrosive and reacts violently with both water and air.

    On December 8th, 1995, 700 kg of molten sodium leaked from the secondary cooling circuit of the Monju reactor, resulting in a fire that made headlines across the country. Although the accident itself did not result in a radiation leak, many argue that the sodium spill itself came very close to breaching Monju, a catastrophe which would have spilled plutonium into the environment.

    Following the fire, officials at the government-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), operators of Monju, first played down the extent of damage at the reactor and denied the existence of a videotape showing the sodium spill. Later, they released still shots only, showing things like intact pipes and clean floors and claiming that there had only been “a minor leakage in the secondary sodium loop [that had] caused some fumes”. While short videos were released, these were edited to hide the full extent of the damage. Further complicating the story, the deputy general manager of the general affairs department at the PNC, Shigeo Nishimura, 49, jumped to his death the day after a news conference where he and other officials revealed the extent of the cover-up.

    Starting from September of last year, Nishimura’s family brought the story back to light in a trial against the PNC at Japan’s High Court. It is in this context that a never-before-seen video (the so-called “2 o’clock video”), which shows men in silver “space suits” exploring the reactor in which sodium compounds hang from the air ducts like icicles, has finally come out, first described a group called News for the People in Japan (NPJ) and also by Japanese lawyer Tokyodo at his blog.

  4. Japan: Plutonium and Pacifism

    Japan is a highly developed, first world economy. It is no secret the country has the expertise to manufacture a uranium-based nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks. Perhaps the biggest restraint on any potential Japanese nuclear weapons program comes from the country’s uranium enrichment complex’s being geared toward civilian nuclear fuel production. Civilian fuel only requires uranium enriched to the point that 3.5 percent to 5 percent of its makeup is of the fissile isotope of uranium, aka U-235. Weapons-grade uranium must be at least 90 percent U-235. Concentrating U-235 to that level is difficult — just ask Tehran. Japan certainly has the skill and capital to address the complication should it wish to launch a large-scale weapons program, but that would take time — not to mention thousands of cascading centrifuges that would raise lots of uncomfortable questions.

    The MOX facilities, however, would allow a more stealthy approach to a nuclear weapons program. By establishing a steady supply of plutonium, Japan could likely launch a large-scale plutonium-based weapons program in a matter of days, attracting only minimal scrutiny. Japan is not about to slam broadside into the international community by pursuing such a weapons program, much less cause mushroom clouds to sprout overnight here and there, but the MOX program will allow it to do so should Tokyo’s politics change. And with Japan steadily whittling away at the constitutional restrictions requiring its foreign policy to proceed along pacifist lines, this ability is bound to make Japan’s Asian neighbors more than a little nervous.

  5. Kazakhstan in nuclear bank offer

    Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has offered to build a nuclear fuel bank on its territory.

    He made the announcement in a joint press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is visiting Kazakhstan.

    The idea was first proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, and is supported by both the United States and Russia.

    The US allocated $50m (£33.5m) to the project in 2007.

    “Regarding the creation of a nuclear fuel bank for nuclear energy, Kazakhstan could consider the possibility of hosting it on its territory, as a country which signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and voluntarily refused to have nuclear weapons,” said Mr Nazarbayev.

  6. “Sweden has a long tradition of domestic nuclear power, with its first nuclear reactor built in the late 1950s. The country’s geography makes it extremely vulnerable to Germany and Russia, the other two Baltic Sea powers. But during the Cold War, its long-standing neutrality policy — developed in the early 19th century following a number of disastrous entanglements in wars on the European continent — left Sweden outside of NATO’s security blanket. This forced Stockholm to develop a military-industrial complex and a nuclear capability as a deterrent. Its reactor at Agesta, now closed down, was in fact widely believed to be set up to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

    However, for Stockholm the issue is also one of energy security. Sweden has no significant fossil fuel resources of its own, and hydropower is largely tapped to its maximum. Without a purely domestic means of expanding its electricity supply, Sweden would become dependent on its neighbor Norway — or worse (from Stockholm’s perspective), on Russia. Sweden has generated roughly the same amount of electricity since its last nuclear reactor came online in 1985 — indicating that the country has been unable to expand its electricity generation capacity by other means.”

  7. Clinton: U.S. Confident in Pakistan’s Control Over Nuclear Weapons

    By Mary Beth Sheridan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, October 11, 2009; 1:56 PM

    LONDON, Oct. 11 — Top U.S. and British officials said Sunday they believed that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were secure, after a stunning insurgent attack on the South Asian country’s army headquarters.

    “We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military’s control over nuclear weapons,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after a meeting with her British counterpart, David Miliband.

    The leading suspects in the weekend attack in Rawalpindi are Pakistani insurgents allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The fact that the assailants wore army uniforms and made it into such a heavily guarded site raised questions about their infiltration of the armed forces.

  8. British nuclear weapons are assembled at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Burghfield where work goes on around the clock. The procedures probably mirror those carried out at the US nuclear weapons assembly site, Pantex. At Pantex there are many sub-assembly bays where explosives are worked and shaped and a smaller number of main assembly bays where the explosives are placed around the fissile material. It is at this second stage that an accidental detonation of the explosives would lead to a release of plutonium. The main assembly bays at Pantex have 2-ton blast doors and the roofs are covered in 6 m of gravel . This gravel is there to absorb some of the plutonium which would be dispersed in an accident. The conspicuous large half-domes at Burghfield may be of a similar design.

    Every Trident warhead will be assembled at Burghfield. They are also expected to be dismantled here when they are retired. If there are problems with the weapons while in service the whole stockpile would have to be taken back to Burghfield, modified and reassembled – this happened in the 1980s with Chevaline warheads.

    Assuming that the stockpile target is 300 Trident warheads, then the assembly bays at Burghfield will be used on at least 600 occasions for assembly and dismantling. If the warheads had to be returned for modifications then this would rise to 1200 operations. This suggests that there is a significant chance of an explosion which would disperse plutonium. Despite the protection provided by the assembly bay design there would be a major health risk to personnel within the establishment and to the local population downwind of an accident.

    During assembly the tritium element is added. In a handling accident there could be a release of tritium which would be a serious problem for those in the immediate vicinity and a health hazard for the local population.

  9. 10% of US Energy Derived From Old Soviet Nukes

    “The New York Times reports that about 10 percent of electricity generated in the United States comes from fuel from dismantled nuclear bombs, mostly Russian. ‘It’s a great, easy source’ of fuel, said Marina V. Alekseyenkova, an analyst at Renaissance Bank and an expert in the Russian nuclear industry that has profited from the arrangement since the end of the cold war. But if more diluted weapons-grade uranium isn’t secured soon, the pipeline could run dry, with ramifications for consumers, as well as some American utilities and their Russian suppliers.'”

  10. Fear and Public Perception

    This 1996 interview with psychiatrist Robert DuPont was part of a Frontline program called “Nuclear Reaction.”

    He’s talking about the role fear plays in the perception of nuclear power. It’s a lot of the sorts of things I say, but particularly interesting is this bit on familiarity and how it reduces fear:

    “You see, we sited these plants away from metropolitan areas to “protect the public” from the dangers of nuclear power. What we did when we did that was move the plants away from the people, so they became unfamiliar. The major health effect, adverse health effect of nuclear power is not radiation. It’s fear. And by siting them away from the people, we insured that that would be maximized. If we’re serious about health in relationship to nuclear power, we would put them in downtown, big cities, so people would see them all the time. That is really important, in terms of reducing the fear. Familiarity is the way fear is reduced. No question. It’s not done intellectually. It’s not done by reading a book. It’s done by being there and seeing it and talking to the people who work there.”

  11. NRC Relicensing Old “Zombie” Nuclear Plants

    “In the Dec. 7 edition of The Nation, Christian Parenti details what he considers to be the real problem with nuclear power as a solution to carbon emissions in the US: Not the high cost of new nuclear power, but rather the irresponsible relicensing of existing nuclear power plants by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The claim is that the relicensed plants — amounting to more than half ot the 104 original 1970s-era nukes in the US — operate like zombies beyond their design lifetimes only because of lax regulation spurred by concern over carbon dioxide emissions. But these plants are actually failing, as demonstrated by a rash of accidents. And some of the ancient plants are now being allowed to operate at 120% of their designed capacity. There is a video interview with Parenti up at Democracy Now.”

  12. “Building a nuclear weapon has never been easier. NATO’s Michael Rühle provides step-by-step instructions for going nuclear, from discretely collecting material to minimizing the fallout when caught. These simple steps have worked for the likes of Israel, Pakistan or North Korea, and your country could be next.

    Tired of being bossed around? Want your neighbors to treat you with more respect? Want to play in the majors? If so, you have to have your own nukes.

    Impossible? Not really. Granted, if your country is a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), as most countries are, the constraints on your bomb building are considerable. Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are difficult to circumvent. And the IAEA can no longer be fooled as easily as in the 1980s, when it failed to uncover Saddam Hussein’s military nuclear program in Iraq despite regular inspections.

    The IAEA’s increased awareness means that you have to be imaginative. Here are some steps to consider.

    First, begin developing a civilian nuclear program. Under the NPT, you are not only entitled to a civilian nuclear program, you may even ask for help from the IAEA. The IAEA will provide you with the basic ingredients and much of the know-how for a military program. Moreover, you can legally buy reactor fuel, and thus do not have to acquire it by performing hair-raising stunts like those the Israelis pulled in 1968, when they had to hijack a ship carrying uranium after France stopped its supplies.

    As you start building your civilian nuclear infrastructure, which should include nuclear plants to produce plutonium and/or uranium and appropriate nuclear research facilities, aim for the full fuel cycle: mining, milling, conversion, enrichment. This allows you the greatest possible independence — which you may need later, once you are caught or go public. And let there be no mistake: You will get caught.

    But the notion of getting caught need not concern you at this stage. You will need to build research and nuclear enrichment facilities at several sites. Some will be publicly declared sites, i.e. they can be inspected by the IAEA. Other facilities, however, will remain secret, preferably underground or in mountainous areas (you did not forget to buy advanced drilling equipment, did you?). It is within these military facilities that enrichment of reactor-grade uranium to weapons-grade levels, as well as plutonium reprocessing will take place. If you are not too concerned about raising international suspicions, you can be so bold as to invest in other nuclear activities as well, such as nuclear submarine propulsion. Dubious? Yes. Illegal? No — ask the Brazilians. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *