James Lovelock, famous for his “Gaia Theory” of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, was in Adelaide last weekend speaking at the Festival of Ideas. He has had a fascinating career across a range of disciplines and he had much of interest to say. But on the topic of nuclear power, Lovelock is inaccurate and irresponsible.
"Modern nuclear power stations are useless for making bombs," Lovelock told ABC's Lateline television program last year.
That is in stark contrast to comments made last year by former US Vice President Al Gore: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program," Gore said. "And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."
So which of these climate campaigners is right - James Lovelock or Al Gore?
A typical nuclear power reactor produces about 300 kilograms of plutonium each year, sufficient for about 30 nuclear weapons. There is no dispute that this “reactor-grade” plutonium can be used in weapons, though the use of weapon-grade plutonium increases their reliability and destructive force.
Power reactors can also be used to produce weapon-grade plutonium which is ideal for nuclear weapons. This could hardly be simpler - all that needs to be done is to shorten the amount of time that the nuclear fuel is irradiated in a reactor. This results in a higher percentage of plutonium-239 relative to other, unwanted isotopes such as plutonium-240, 241 and 242.
The proliferation risks associated with nuclear power are not just hypothetical.
We know that India uses power reactors in its nuclear weapons program (although research reactors have been the main source of plutonium). Under a proposed nuclear agreement between India and the United States, India has announced that 14 of its power reactors will be subject to international safeguards inspections but a further eight will not be safeguarded and can be used for weapons production.
North Korea's nuclear bomb test last October used plutonium produced in a so-called “Experimental Power Reactor”.
The United States uses a power reactor to produce tritium, which is used to increase the destructive force of nuclear weapons. The US has also published details of a successful weapon test carried out in 1962 using reactor-grade plutonium.
Australia's nuclear history provides another demonstration of the link between nuclear power and weapons. On several occasions in the 1950s and '60s, federal Cabinet received submissions arguing that one “advantage” of nuclear power reactors is that they inevitably produce plutonium which can be used in weapons.
From 1969 until his resignation in 1971, Prime Minister John Gorton pursued a plan to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the New South Wales coast. He later acknowledged that the purpose of the reactor was to produce not just electricity but also plutonium for potential use in weapons. The Jervis Bay plan was scrapped by Gorton's successor, Billy McMahon.
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