The Nuclear Threat—Over At Last?
“PEACE on Earth seems more possible now than at any time since World War II.” This optimistic appraisal by a news correspondent at the end of the 1980’s was based on the fact that significant disarmament agreements and unexpected political upheavals had finally ended the Cold War. But was the nuclear threat, so characteristic of the former superpower confrontation, also over? Were lasting peace and security actually within grasp?
The Perils of Proliferation
During the Cold War, while relying upon a balance of terror to keep the peace, the superpowers agreed to permit the development of nuclear know-how in pursuit of peaceful ends but to restrict its use in making nuclear weapons. In 1970 the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty took effect; it was later ratified by some 140 nations. Yet, potential nuclear powers, such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Israel, have refused to sign even to this day.
In 1985, however, another potential nuclear power, North Korea, did sign. So when it announced its withdrawal from the treaty on March 12, 1993, the world logically reacted with uneasiness. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel noted: “The notice of withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty creates a precedent: There is now the threat of a nuclear arms race, starting in Asia, that could become more dangerous than was the bomb rivalry between the superpowers.”
With nationalism giving birth to new nations at an amazing rate, the number of nuclear powers will probably increase. (See box.) Journalist Charles Krauthammer warns: “The end of the Soviet threat does not mean the end of nuclear danger. The real danger is proliferation, and proliferation has just begun.”
Bombs for Sale
Would-be nuclear powers are eager to gain the prestige and power these weapons offer. One country is said to have bought at least two nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan. This former Soviet republic officially lists the warheads as “missing.”
In October 1992 several men were arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, with seven ounces [200 gm] of highly radioactive cesium, enough to poison an entire city’s water supply. A week later, seven smugglers were caught in Munich with 4.9 pounds [2.2 kg] of uranium. The discovery of two nuclear smuggling rings within two weeks startled officials, since only five such cases had been reported worldwide for the entire previous year.
Whether these individuals were intent on selling to terrorist groups or to national governments is unknown. Nevertheless, the possibility of nuclear terrorism is growing. Dr. David Lowry of the European Proliferation Information Centre explains the danger: “All a terrorist needs to do is send a sample of highly enriched uranium to a reputable authority for testing, saying we have so much and here is the proof. It is like a kidnapper sending off the ear of a victim.”
Peaceful “Time Bombs” and “Death Traps”
When 1992 began, 420 nuclear reactors were engaged in the peaceful pursuit of producing electricity; another 76 were under construction. But over the years, reactor accidents have led to reports of increased illness, of miscarriages, and of birth defects. A report says that by 1967 incidents at a Soviet plutonium plant had caused the emission of three times as much radioactivity as did the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Of course, this later incident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 1986 is what grabbed the headlines. Grigori Medwedew, deputy chief nuclear engineer at the Chernobyl plant during the 1970’s, explains that the “gigantic mass of long-lasting radioactivity” flung into the atmosphere “is comparable to ten Hiroshima bombs as far as long-term effects are concerned.”
In his book Tschernobylskaja chronika, Medwedew lists 11 serious nuclear reactor incidents in the former Soviet Union by the mid-1980’s and another 12 in the United States. The latter included the shocking accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island. Of that event Medwedew notes: “It struck the first serious blow against nuclear energy and dispelled illusions about the safety of nuclear energy plants in the minds of many—but not in the minds of all.”
This explains why mishaps still occur. During 1992 they increased in Russia by almost 20 percent. After one of these incidents, in March of that year at the Sosnovy Bore power station in St. Petersburg, Russia, radiation levels rose by 50 percent in northeast England and reached double the maximum permissible level in Estonia and southern Finland. Professor John Urquhart of Newcastle University admits: “I cannot prove that it was Sosnovy Bore which caused the increase—but if it wasn’t Sosnovy Bore, what was it?”
Some authorities claim that Chernobyl-style reactors are flawed in their design and are simply too dangerous to operate. Nevertheless, over a dozen are still being used to help fill the huge electricity demands. Some reactor operators have even been accused of turning off safety override systems in order to boost power output. Reports such as this terrify countries like France, which uses nuclear plants to produce 70 percent of its electricity. Another “Chernobyl,” and many plants in France might be forced to close permanently.
Even “safe” reactors apparently become unsafe with age. In early 1993, during a routine safety check, over a hundred fractures were found in steel piping in the reactor at Brunsbüttel, one of Germany’s oldest. Similar cracks have been found in reactors in France and Switzerland. The first serious accident at a Japanese plant occurred in 1991, age having been a possible contributing factor. This bodes ill for the United States, where some two thirds of the commercial reactors are over a decade old.
Nuclear reactor accidents can happen anywhere at any time. The more reactors, the greater the threat; the older the reactor, the greater the danger. Not without reason did one newspaper dub them ticking time bombs and radioactive death traps.
Where Should They Dump the Garbage?
People were recently surprised to find a riverside picnic spot in the French Alps blocked off and guarded by police. The newspaper The European explained: “Routine checks ordered after the death of a local woman from beryllium poisoning two months ago revealed levels of radioactivity at the picnic site which were 100 times higher than those in the surrounding area.”
Beryllium, a remarkably light metal produced by various processes, is used in the aircraft industry and, when irradiated, in nuclear power stations. Evidently a factory producing beryllium had discarded waste from the dangerous irradiating process on or near the picnic area. “Beryllium dust, even when not irradiated,” noted The European, “is one of the most toxic forms of industrial waste known.”
Meanwhile, some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste were reportedly discarded over a period of 30 years into the waters off the coast of Novaya Zemlya, used by the Soviets as a nuclear test site during the early 1950’s. Additionally, radioactive sections of nuclear submarines and parts of at least 12 reactors were dumped into this convenient garbage bin.
Whether intentional or not, nuclear pollution is dangerous. Of a submarine that sank off the Norwegian coast in 1989, Time warned: “The wreck is already leaking cesium-137, a carcinogenic isotope. So far the leakage is considered too small to affect marine life or human health. But the Komsomolets also carried two nuclear torpedoes containing 13 kg [29 pounds] of plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years and toxicity so high that a speck can kill. Russian experts warned that the plutonium could spill into the water and contaminate vast reaches of ocean as early as 1994.”
Of course, disposing of radioactive waste is not a problem unique to France and Russia. The United States has “mountains of hot garbage and no permanent site for storing it,” reports Time. It says that a million barrels of deadly substances sit in temporary storage with an ever-present “danger of loss, theft and environmental damage from mishandling.”
As if to illustrate this danger, a nuclear waste tank at a former weapons plant in Tomsk, Siberia, exploded in April 1993, raising specters of a second Chernobyl.
Obviously, any cries of peace and security sounded on the basis of a supposed end to the nuclear threat are not well-founded. And yet peace and security are near. How do we know?
[Box on page 4]
12 and Still Counting
DECLARED or DE FACTO: Belarus, Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, United States
POTENTIAL: Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Syria, Taiwan
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Even the peaceful use of nuclear energy can be dangerous
Background: U.S. National Archives photo
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Cover: Stockman/International Stock
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U.S. National Archives photo