The Myth of Peaceful Nuclear Power

Author of this post Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up. His website is

Karl Grossman


President Barack Obama’s declaration June 4 in his speech in Cairo that “any nation–including  Iran–should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power” ignores a central issue. There is no “peaceful nuclear power.” Nuclear weapons and nuclear power are two sides of the same coin.

Physicist Amory Lovins and Attorney L. Hunter Lovins wrote in their seminal book, Energy/War: Breaking the Nuclear Link: “All nuclear fission technologies both use and produce fissionable materials that are or can be concentrated. Unavoidably latent in those technologies, therefore, is a potential for nuclear violence and coercion which may be exploited by governments, factions.

“Little strategic material is needed to make a weapon of mass destruction. A Nagasaki-yield bomb can be made from a few kilograms of plutonium, a piece the size of a tennis ball.

“A large power reactor,” they note, “annually produces”hundreds of kilograms of plutonium.”  Civilian nuclear power technology, they conclude, provides the way to make nuclear weapons, furnishing the material and the trained personnel.

Indeed, that’s how India got The Bomb in 1974. Canada supplied a nuclear reactor to be used for “peaceful purposes” and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission trained Indian engineers. And lo and behold, India had nuclear weapons.

“Human society is too diverse, national passion too strong, human aggressiveness too deep-seated for the peaceful and warlike atom to stay divorced for long,”? oceanographer Jacques Cousteau emphasized. “We cannot embrace one while abhorring the other; we must learn, if we want to live at all, to live without both.”

The organization Beyond Nuclear (, on whose board I sit, focuses on this connection. The organization warns that the “insistence on supplying the technology, materials and know-how for civilian nuclear programs perpetuates the danger that nuclear weapons may also be developed–with speculation over Iran a case in point.”

“The “unofficial” nuclear weapons states all developed weapons from civilian nuclear programs,” it notes. “At least 32 additional countries could do the same using uranium and plutonium from their civilian programs.”

The only real way to end the threat of nuclear weapons spreading throughout the world is by putting an end to nuclear technology. Such a move might seem radical but consider the even more radical alternative: a world in which scores of nations have nuclear weapons.

There are parts of the earth designated “nuclear-free zones.” If we are to have a world free of the terrible threat of nuclear weapons, this designation should be extended to the entire planet: no nuclear weapons, no nuclear power.

To keep using carrots and sticks, by trying to juggle through the 2lst Century to prevent nuclear proliferation, we are on the road to inevitable nuclear disaster. A nuclear-free world is the only way humanity will be free of the specter of nuclear war.

Is it possible to put the atomic genie back into the bottle?  Anything people have done, other people can undo. And the prospect of massive loss of life from nuclear destruction offers the best of reasons for doing so.

In Prague in April, Obama, in a remarkable declaration, said: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

That’s only half of what needs to be done. There needs to be a world, too, without the nuclear power plants that provide the means for any nation–or terrorist group–to get nuclear weapons.

What about controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency?  The IAEA was formed as a result of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech before the UN in 1953.  He proposed an international agency to promote civilian atomic energy and, at the same time, to control the use of fissionable materials a dual role paralleling that of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In 1974, the AEC was abolished after Congress concluded that the two roles were a conflict of interest. But the IAEA–set up in the AEC’s image and riddled with the same conflict of interest–continues to operate.

With its mission “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy,” it unabashedly boosts nuclear power at the same time it tries to police that same power.

In the last several months, I was a guest by phone on Tehran radio programs on which Iranians have insisted that nuclear power represents “progress” to which their nation is entitled. I’ve argued that it is not progress but vested interests that are the driving force behind nuclear power.

At the end of World War II, the scientists, bureaucrats and corporate contractors involved in the Manhattan Project viewed their future with anxiety. The program, created after Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin Roosevelt calling on the U.S. to develop atomic technology before the Nazis did, led to the construction of four atomic bombs, two of which were dropped on Japan. The program would continue to build nuclear weapons, but bombs don’t lend themselves to commercial spin-offs. Schemes were concocted to keep jobs and contracts, despite the enormous dangers involved with nuclear technology. These included nuclear-powered airplanes, using radiation to zap food so it could last for years, and setting off atomic devices as a substitute for TNT. And there was the scheme to use the heat of nuclear reactors to boil water and generate electricity.

In Russia, where I’ve also researched and spoken, I found similar links, this time between the vested interest of the Soviet military nuclear establishment and its civilian atomic program.

When on Tehran radio I’ve pressed the argument that eliminating nuclear technology in every country is vital if our grandchildren and their grandchildren are not to be impacted by nuclear war, other guests have not rejected it but said it is too idealistic. My response was that it is realistic

In the United States, some on the inside would eventually recognize the terrible mistake of nuclear technology.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, “father” of the U.S. nuclear navy, stated in a farewell address before a committee of Congress in 1982 that the world must “outlaw nuclear reactors.”

He said, “Until about 2 billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth: that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life–fish or anything. Gradually, about 2 billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some for some form of life to begin.

“Now,” he went on, “when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible.” Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years, and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.”

As for nuclear weaponry, the “lesson of history,” he said, is that in war nations “will use whatever weaponry they have.”

Meanwhile, today, safe, clean, renewable energy technologies render nuclear power unnecessary. These technologies include solar (for which Iran is abundantly endowed), wind (now the fastest-growing and cheapest new energy form), geothermal, hydrogen, tidal-power, wave-power, bio-fuels, hydropower and co-generation.

In the end, Einstein regretted the letter he sent in 1939 to President Roosevelt. “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I never would have moved a finger,” he wrote in Out of My Later Years. He described atomic energy as “a menace.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star