SYDNEY – Months after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima compounds the humanitarian tragedy and impedes recovery. The damaged reactors and spent-fuel ponds contain around ten times as much nuclear fuel as did the Chernobyl reactor that exploded in 1986. In three reactors, the fuel has melted, almost certainly through the reactor vessels; primary containment structures have been breached; explosions have torn away the secondary containment (the buildings); radioactive releases continue; and closed-loop cooling has not been re-established.
More than 100,000 tons of highly radioactive wastewater now flood the facility to capacity, as water continues to be poured in to prevent further massive radioactive emissions. The spent fuel in pools adjacent to each reactor, containing more radioactivity than the reactors themselves, has also been severely damaged, has leaked radioactivity, and is still without needed stable cooling. The spent fuel at the Reactor 4 caused a hydrogen explosion and fire on March 15.
As a result, large amounts of radiation, on a scale comparable to Chernobyl, have already been released into the air, earth, and ocean. Further releases will continue, probably for years.
And yet, while the Fukushima disaster is attracting overdue global attention to nuclear safety and security, and provoking a reconsideration of nuclear power, its implications for nuclear weapons remain largely unremarked. The nuclear reactions that drive reactors and weapons are the same, as are the radioactive products that are dispersed by wind, rain, and water if released, with the same lack of respect for borders and the same indiscriminate long-term cancer and genetic hazards.
At Fukushima, a perfect storm – a massive earthquake and tsunami, multiple vulnerable coastal reactors with spent-fuel ponds in the same buildings, inadequate barriers, loss of power, and back-up generators situated too low – may have seemed a remote possibility. But was it really? Problems had occurred at similar reactors before. Fukushima’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had a poor safety culture and a long history of falsifying and covering up inspection and safety data.
No nuclear reactors are designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.0. Yet there were 11 earthquakes greater than 8.5 last century, and only 11 years into this century, there have been five. Almost all were followed by tsunamis. The seawall at Fukushima was designed for a tsunami no higher than 5.7 meters. Yet the same coast was devastated by a 38-meter tsunami in 1896, and again by a 29-meter tsunami in 1933.
Moreover, no nuclear reactors are built to withstand an attack like that of September 11, 2001 – which was also unforeseen. The aircraft that crashed in a Pennsylvania field was, it should be recalled, less than ten minutes away from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.
Fukushima has highlighted how vulnerable spent-fuel ponds are to direct damage or disruption of power, water, or pumps for cooling. These pools contain vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity, typically in a simple building, without multiple engineered layers of containment. Each of the world’s 437 nuclear power reactors and associated spent-fuel ponds are effectively enormous pre-positioned radiological weapons, or “dirty bombs.”
Moreover, the world is wired with 22,400 nuclear weapons. Around 1,770 of them in Russia and the US, and a further 64 in France and 48 in the United Kingdom, remain on high alert, ready to be launched in response to a perceived attack with only minutes for verification and decision. Recent history is peppered with a litany of false alerts and near misses, each unforeseen, each a combination of technical and human failure. The growing potential for a nuclear disaster by cyber attack adds to the existential danger.
We now know that just 100 relatively “small” Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons, less than one-thousandth of the global nuclear arsenal, could lift millions of tons of dark smoke high into the atmosphere. There, it would abruptly cool and darken the planet, slashing rainfall and food production in successive years – and thus causing worldwide starvation on a scale never before witnessed. This could result from the arsenals of any of the ten currently nuclear-armed states, with the exception of North Korea.
Intent, miscalculation, technical failure, cyber attack, or accident could cause the nuclear escalation of a conflict between India and Pakistan, in the Middle East (embroiling Israel’s nuclear weapons), or on the Korean peninsula. Such outcomes are at least as plausible or likely – if not more so – than a massive earthquake and tsunami causing widespread damage to four Japanese nuclear reactors and their adjacent spent-fuel ponds.
Any country that can enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors has everything it needs to enrich uranium further, to weapons-grade strength. In a nuclear reactor, 1-2% of the uranium fuel is inevitably converted to plutonium. This can be separated through chemical processing and used to build a bomb, as Israel, India, and North Korea did – and as many fear that Iran is seeking to do.
Currently, there is no restriction on any country building a uranium-enrichment plant or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium. As we have seen, safeguards alone are not up to the job. We will not prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons and their eventual use, much less achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, without strict international control of all uranium enrichment, and without banning the separation of plutonium from spent fuel.
That which cannot be controlled must be prevented. Today, that means preventing the threat of climate change and eradicating nuclear weapons. But we cannot afford efforts to address one challenge that end up aggravating the other. Attempting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through nuclear energy, thereby fueling the dangers of the ultimate global incendiary – nuclear war – could be the most tragic of all miscalculations.