Nuclear Power and
by Theodore B. Taylor*, July 1996
The two nuclear fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima
and Nagasaki each released nearly 4,000 times as much explosive
energy as chemical high explosive bombs of the same weight. Together
they killed more than 200,000 people. The energy released by the
splitting of the atomic nuclei in the cores of these bombs was
more than 10 million times the energy released by rearrangements
of the outer electrons of atoms, which are responsible for chemical
changes. For an instant after detonation of the bomb that destroyed
Nagasaki, an amount of explosive energy equivalent to a pile of
dynamite as big as the White House was contained in a sphere of
plutonium no bigger than a baseball.
This is why, a short time later, Albert Einstein
said: "The splitting of the atom has changed everything,
save our mode of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled
catastrophe." Suddenly the destructive capacity accessible
to humans went clear off the human scale of things.
About 10 years later this destructive capacity
jumped dramatically again when the United States and the Soviet
Union developed hydrogen bombs. By the 1970s, there were five
announced members of the nuclear club, and the total number of
nuclear warheads in the world had increased to some 60,000.
Since 1964, when China tested its first nuclear
explosive, further horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons
has been secret or ambiguous or both. India tested a nuclear explosive
in 1974, but claimed that is was strictly for peaceful purposes,
and has consistently denied that it has any nuclear weapons. Although
its government has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons,
there is little doubt that Israel has been accumulating a growing
stockpile since the 1960s. South Africa announced that it had
made a half-dozen or so nuclear weapons, starting in the 1970s,
but that it now has eliminated them. Other countries strongly
suspected of having at least one nuclear weapon, and the capacity
to make more, include Pakistan, North Korea, and Iraq. Commitments
have been made by Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to turn over
to Russia all nuclear weapons on their territories for dismantling.
Ukraine completed this transfer on June 1, 1996.
The immense potential destructive capacity of uranium
and plutonium can also be released slowly as energy that can serve
the peaceful needs of humans. It took about 10 years after the
first nuclear bombs were exploded for nuclear energy for peaceful
purposes to begin to be practical. Nuclear power has expanded
considerably in the last 30 years or so. The two technologies-for
destructive uses and for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy-are
closely connected. I'll discuss these connections in some detail
in this paper.
Facing the realities of the Nuclear Age as they
have become evident these past 50 years has been a difficult and
painful process for me, involving many changes of heart in my
feelings about nuclear weapons and nuclear power since I first
heard of nuclear fission on August 6, 1945. I started with a sense
of revulsion towards nuclear weapons and skepticism about nuclear
power for nearly five years. Then I worked on and strongly promoted
nuclear weapons for some 15 years. In 1966, in the midst of a
job in the Pentagon, I did an about-face in my perception of nuclear
weaponry, and have pressed for nuclear disarmament ever since.
My rejection of nuclear power, because of its connection with
nuclear weapons, took longer, and was not complete until about
Since that time I have been persistent in calling
for the prompt global abolition of all nuclear weapons and the
key nuclear materials needed for their production. Since all of
the more than 400 nuclear power plants now operating in 32 countries
produce large quantities of plutonium that, when chemically separated
from spent fuel, can be used to make reliable, efficient nuclear
weapons of all types, I have also found it necessary to call for
phasing out all nuclear power worldwide. To accomplish this while
being responsive to the environmental disruption caused by continued
large-scale use of fossil fuels, I also find it necessary to call
for intense, global response to opportunities for saving energy
and producing what is needed from renewable sources directly or
indirectly derived from solar radiation. I shall try in the rest
of this paper to explain briefly the convictions that have led
me to join others in making these calls with great urgency.
Latent Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
There are many possible degrees of drift or concerted
national actions that are short of the actual possession of nuclear
weapons, but that can account for much of what has to be done
technically to acquire them. Harold Feiveson has called such activity
"latent proliferation" of nuclear weapons.1 A national
government that sponsors acquisition of nuclear power plants may
have no intention to acquire nuclear weapons; but that government
may be replaced by one that does, or may change its collective
mind. A country that is actively pursuing nuclear power for peaceful
purposes may also secretly develop nuclear explosives to the point
where the last stages of assembly and military deployment could
be carried out very quickly. The time and resources needed to
make the transition from latent to active proliferation can range
from very large to very small. Inadequately controlled plutonium
or highly enriched uranium, combined with secret design and testing
of non-nuclear components of nuclear warheads, can allow a nation
or terrorist group to have deliverable nuclear weapons within
days, or even hours, after acquiring a few kilograms or more of
the key nuclear weapon materials.
Contrary to widespread belief among nuclear engineers
who have never worked on nuclear weapons, plutonium made in nuclear
power plant fuel can be used to make all types of nuclear weapons.
This "reactor grade" plutonium has relatively high concentrations
of the isotope Pu-240, which spontaneously releases many more
neutrons than Pu-239, the principal plutonium isotope in "weapon-grade"
plutonium. In early nuclear weapons, such as the plutonium bomb
tested in New Mexico in 1945, and then used in the bombing of
Nagasaki, use of reactor grade plutonium would have tended to
cause the chain reaction to start prematurely. This would lower
the most likely explosive yield, but not below about 1 kiloton,
compared with the 20 kiloton yield from these two bombs. Since
that time, however, there have been major developments of nuclear
weapons technology that make it possible to design all types of
nuclear weapons to use reactor grade plutonium without major degradation
of the weapons' performance and reliability, compared with those
that use weapon grade plutonium.2 These techniques have been well
understood by nuclear weapon designers in the United States since
the early 1950s, and probably also for decades in the other four
declared nuclear weapon states.
Reactor grade plutonium can also be used for making
relatively crude nuclear explosives, such as might be made by
terrorists. Although the explosive yields of such bombs would
tend to be unpredictable, varying from case to case for the same
bomb design, their minimum explosive yields could credibly be
the equivalent of several hundred tons or more of high explosive.3
Such bombs, transportable by automobile, would certainly qualify
as weapons of mass destruction, killing many tens of thousands
or more people in some locations.
All nuclear weapons require plutonium or highly
enriched uranium. Some use both. The required amounts vary considerably,
depending on the desired characteristics and on the technical
resources and knowhow available to those who design and build
the weapons. Estimates of the maximum total number of U. S. nuclear
warheads and of the total amount of plutonium produced for those
warheads correspond to an average of about 3 kilograms of plutonium
per warhead.4 The minimum amount of plutonium in a nuclear explosive
that contains no highly enriched uranium can be significantly
smaller than 3 kilograms.
Nuclear power plants typically produce a net of
about 200 kilograms of plutonium per year for each 1,000 megawatts
of electric power generating capacity. Some 430 nuclear power
plants, with combined electrical generating capacity of nearly
340,000 megawatts, are now operating in 32 countries. The plants
account for about 7% of total primary energy consumption worldwide,
or about 17% of the world's electrical energy. Total net annual
production of plutonium by these plants is nearly 70,000 kilograms,
enough for making more than 10,000 nuclear warheads per year.
So far about four times as much plutonium has been
produced in power reactors than has been used for making nuclear
weapons-about 1 million kilograms, most of which is in spent nuclear
fuel in storage, compared with about 250,000 kilograms for weapons.6
Nearly 200,000 kilograms of plutonium have been
chemically separated from spent power reactor fuel in chemical
reprocessing facilities in at least 8 countries (Belgium, France,
Germany, India, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States).7
This is typically stored as plutonium oxide that can relatively
easily be converted to plutonium metal for use in nuclear explosives.
Research and test reactors can also produce significant
amounts of plutonium that, after chemical separation, can be used
for making nuclear weapons. This has apparently been the route
to nuclear weapons followed by Israel and started by North Korea.
Although use of highly enriched uranium in nuclear
power plants has been sporadic and rare, substantial quantities
have been used for R&D purposes-as fuel for research and test
reactors, and in connection with development of breeder reactors.
Principal suppliers have been and now are the five declared nuclear
weapon states. It has been estimated that the world inventory
of highly enriched uranium for civil purposes is about 20,000
Although this is dramatically smaller than the
more than 1 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium associated
with nuclear weapons, it may be extremely important to some countries
that are secretly developing the technology for making nuclear
Facilities for enriching uranium in its concentration
of the isotope U-235 to the levels of a few percent needed for
light water power reactor fuel can be used for further enrichment
to high concentrations used for making nuclear explosives. The
technology for doing this is proliferating, both in terms of the
numbers of countries that have such facilities, and in the variety
of different ways to carry out the enrichment.
The continuing international spread of knowledge
of nuclear technology related to nuclear power development is
an important contributor to latent nuclear weapon proliferation.
Some of the people who have become experts in nuclear technology,
whether for military or civil purposes, could be of great help
in setting up and carrying out clandestine nuclear weapon design
and construction operations that make use of nuclear materials
stolen from military supplies or diverted from civil supplies,
perhaps having entered a black market.
An example of highly advanced latent nuclear weapon
proliferation is the nuclear weapons development program that
started in Sweden in the late 1940s. It remained secret until
the mid-1980s, when much detail about the project started becoming
publicly available. It included hydronuclear tests of implosion
systems containing enough fissile material to go critical but
not enough to make a damaging nuclear explosion. The objective
of the Swedish nuclear bomb program was to determine, in great
detail, what Sweden would need to do if the government ever decided
to produce and stockpile nuclear weapons.9 I have no reason to
believe that Sweden has ever made that decision. I would not be
surprised, however, if many other countries with nuclear reactors
or uranium enrichment facilities that could be used to supply
needed key nuclear materials have secretly carried out similar
programs of lesser or perhaps even greater technical sophistication
Bombardment of Nuclear Facilities
Another type of latent proliferation that I find
especially worrisome is the possible bombardment of nuclear facilities
that thereby would be converted, in effect, into nuclear weapons.
Military bombardment or sabotage of nuclear facilities, ranging
from operating nuclear power plants and their spent fuel storage
pools to large accumulations of high level radioactive wastes
in temporary or long term storage, could release large quantities
of radioactive materials that could seriously endanger huge land
areas downwind. Electric power plants and stored petroleum have
often been prime targets for tactical and strategic bombing, and
sometimes for sabotage. In the case of operating nuclear power
plants, core meltdowns and physical rupture of containment structures
could be caused by aerial or artillery bombardment, truck bombings,
internal sabotage with explosives, or by control manipulations
following capture of the facility by terrorists. For orientation
to the scale of potential radioactive contamination, consider
strontium-90 and cesium-137, two especially troublesome fission
products with half-lives of about 30 years. The inventories of
these radionuclides in the core of a typical nuclear power plant
(1,000 electrical megawatts) are greater than the amounts released
by a 20 megaton H-bomb explosion, assuming half the explosion
energy is accounted for by fission.
Inventories of dangerous radioactive materials
can be considerably greater in a waste or spent fuel storage facility
that has served the needs of many nuclear power plants for many
years. In some cases it may not be credible that chemical explosives
could release large fractions of such materials and cause them
to be airborne long enough to contaminate very large areas. In
such situations, however, the explosion of a relatively small
nuclear explosive in the midst of the storage area could spread
the radioactive materials over huge areas.
Perhaps the greatest extent of latent proliferation
of nuclear weapons is represented by nuclear power fuel cycle
facilities that can become enormously destructive nuclear weapons
by being bombed by military forces or terrorists.
Can the Nuclear Power-Nuclear Weapon Connections
Given the rapidly increasing rate of worldwide
latent proliferation of nuclear weapons, what can be done to assure
that it does not lead to considerable surges in active proliferation
of nuclear weapons?
Shifts from latent to active nuclear weapon proliferation
may be detected or discouraged by application of the International
Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) nuclear diversion safeguards. IAEA
safeguards are applied to parties of the Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) that are not nuclear weapons states. But the IAEA has authority
only to inspect designated (or in some cases suspected) nuclear
facilities, not to interfere physically to prevent a government
from breaking its agreements under the treaty if it so chooses.
Furthermore, a major function of the IAEA is also to provide assistance
to countries that wish to develop nuclear power and use it. Thus
the IAEA simultaneously plays two possibly conflicting roles-one
of encouraging latent proliferation and the other of discouraging
As we have seen, a nation's possession of plutonium,
whether in spent fuel or chemically separated, or its possession
of highly enriched uranium or of facilities capable of producing
it, need not depend on a government's decision to acquire nuclear
weapons. Such a decision might be made secretly or openly at any
time government leaders conclude that threats to their security
or ambitions of conquest warrant breaking safeguard agreements;
at that point they can quickly extract the key nuclear materials
needed for a few or for large numbers of nuclear weapons.
Various proposals have been made for developing
nuclear power in forms that are less prone to diversion of nuclear
materials for weapons than present nuclear power systems. None
of these proposals avoid the production of substantial quantities
of neutrons that could be used for making key nuclear materials
for nuclear weapons, however. And none avoid the production of
high level radioactive wastes, the permanent disposal of which
is still awaiting both technical and political resolution. Furthermore,
such concepts, once fully developed, would require decades for
substitution for the present types of nuclear power systems.
Increasing alarm about global climatic instabilities
caused by continued release of "greenhouse gases," particularly
carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels, has stimulated
many advocates of nuclear energy to propose widescale displacement
of fossil fuels by nuclear power. Such proposals would require
building thousands of new nuclear power plants to achieve substantial
global reduction in combustion of fossil fuels. This would greatly
compound the dangers of destructive abuse of nuclear energy.
In short, the connections between nuclear technology
for constructive use and for destructive use are so closely tied
together that the benefits of the one are not accessible without
greatly increasing the hazards of the other.
This leaves us with a key question: If nuclear
power technology is too dangerous - by being so closely related
to nuclear weapon technology - and fossil fuel combustion must
be reduced sharply to avoid global climatic instabilities, what
can humans do to meet their demands for energy worldwide?
Efficient Use of Renewable Energy
The economically attractive opportunities for
using energy much more efficiently for all end uses in any of
the wide variety of human settings are now so widely set forth
that they need no further elaboration here. Although such opportunities
generally exist for use of all kinds of energy sources, their
detailed nature can depend on the specific type of energy provided
for end use.10
Among the many possibilities for economical renewable
energy is hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water, using solar
electric cells to provide the needed low voltage, direct current
electrical energy. Recent advances in lowering the production
costs and increasing the efficiency of photovoltaic cells make
it likely that vigorous international pursuit of this option could
allow production and distribution of hydrogen for use as a general
purpose fuel, at costs competitive with the cost of natural gas.11
Solar electric cells can also supply local or regional
electric power for general use, using generators or fuel cells
fueled with stored hydrogen, or pumped hydrolelectic storage,
or windpower to meet electrical demands at night, on cloudy days,
or in winter. Using such energy storage or windpower makes it
possible to provide and use hydrogen to meet all local demands
for energy in any climate.
A common criticism of direct use of solar energy
for meeting most human demands for energy results from a belief
that the areas required are so large as to be impractical. This
criticism is generally not valid. An overall efficiency of 15%,
in terms of the chemical energy stored in hydrogen divided by
the total solar radiation incident on the ground area used by
solar cell arrays, is likely to be routinely achievable with flat,
horizontal arrays. At a world annual average insolation rate of
200 watts per square meter, the total area required to meet the
entire present world demand for primary energy of all types (equivalent
to an annual average of about 10 trillion watts) would be about
0.4 million square kilometers. This is less than 0.4% of the world's
land area-much less than the annual fluctuations in the area devoted
to agriculture, and comparable to the area used for roads. Even
in Belgium, with perhaps the world's highest national energy consumption
rates per unit land area and lowest solar radiation availability,
present demands could be met by solar hydrogen systems covering
less than 5% of the country's land area. Vigorous response to
cost-effective opportunities for saving energy could lower considerably
the land area requirements for solar energy anywhere.
A Global Shift From Fossil and Nuclear Fuels to
Consider the benefits of a rapid worldwide shift
from dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power to vigorous
pursuit of opportunities for using energy much more efficiently
and providing that energy from renewable sources.
If nuclear power is phased out completely, it will
become possible to outlaw internationally the possession of any
key nuclear weapon materials, such as plutonium or highly enriched
uranium that can sustain a fast neutron chain reaction, along
with any facilities that could be used for producing them. This
would not require a global ban on basic research in nuclear physics
nor the use of selected, internationally controlled accelerators
for production of radionuclides for medical and industrial applications.
A global ban on materials capable of sustaining
nuclear explosive chain reactions would make it unnecessary to
distinguish between alleged peaceful uses of these materials and
uses that could be threatening. It would greatly increase the
likelihood that violations of a ban on all nuclear weapons would
be detected technically and by people who can report violations
of the ban, without having to determine the intended uses of the
materials and production facilities.
A complete phaseout of nuclear power would help
focus the world's attention on safeguarding nuclear materials
and safe, permanent disposal of all the nuclear wastes and spent
nuclear fuel, separated plutonium, or other stockpiles of nuclear
weapon materials that had been produced before nuclear power is
completely phased out. All such materials could be internationally
secured in a relatively small number of facilities while awaiting
ultimate safe disposal. Although the quantities of these materials
are already very large, applying the needed safeguards to them
would be much easier than in a world in which nuclear power continues
to flourish worldwide. The job would be finite, rather than open-ended.
The costs of safe, environmentally acceptable, permanent disposal
of nuclear weapon materials and nuclear wastes-costs that are
now unknown, but are very large-would be bounded.
Concerns about safety and vulnerability of nuclear
power plants and their supporting facilities to military action
or acts of terrorism would disappear.
In anticipation of a phaseout of nuclear power
and sharp curtailment of combustion of fossil fuels, research,
development, and commercialization of renewable energy sources
could be greatly accelerated by a shift of national and international
resources toward them and away from dependence on nuclear power
and fossil fuel systems that are inherent threats to human security
and our global habitat.
Global Nuclear Abolition
It troubles me more deeply than I can express
that my country continues to be prepared, under certain conditions,
to launch nuclear weapons that would kill millions of innocent
bystanders. To me, this is preparation for mass murder that cannot
be justified under any conditions. It must therefore be considered
as human action that is out-and-out evil. The threat of nuclear
retaliation also is a completely ineffectual deterrent to nuclear
attack by terrorists or leaders of governments that need not identify
themselves or that are physically located in the midst of populations
that have no part in the initial attack or threat of attack. In
short, we humans must find alternatives to retaliation in kind
to acts of massive and indiscriminate violence.
These alternatives must focus on ways to deter
use of weapons of mass destruction by determining who is responsible
for such attacks or threats of attack, and bringing them to justice.
One hangup that many people have with global nuclear
weapon abolition anytime soon is that nuclear technology is already
too widely dispersed to allow accurate and complete technical
verification of compliance, using currently available verification
methods. Another widespread hangup is that malevolent national
leaders might threaten to use secretly withheld or produced nuclear
weapons to force intolerable demands on other countries if they
did not face certain devastating nuclear retaliation to carrying
out such threats.
I agree that no conceivable global verification
system or international security force for identifying and arresting
violators of an internationally negotiated and codified legal
framework for globally banning nuclear weapons and nuclear power
can be guaranteed to deter violation of the the ban. But this
is a property of any law governing human beings. The question
is not about achieving perfect global security against nuclear
violence. The question is: Which would be preferred by most human
beings-a world in which possession and threatened use of nuclear
weapons is allowed for some but forbidden for others, or one in
which they are completely outlawed, with no exceptions?
I believe the time has come to establish a global
popular taboo against nuclear weapons and devices or processes
that might be used to make them. The taboo should be directed
specifically at any action - by governments, non-government enterprises,
or individuals - that is in violation of international laws specifically
related to nuclear technology.
I also propose that as the taboo is formulated
and articulated vigorously worldwide, both informal and formal
negotiations of an international nuclear abolition treaty start
immediately in the relevant United Nations organizations. Why
not adopt a formal goal of completing the negotiations and the
codification of the associated laws and regulations before the
start of the next millennium? I would also join others now pressing
for actions that would complete the process of actual global nuclear
abolition no later than 2010.
As is the case for many examples of bringing violators
of popularly supported laws to justice, there should be frequent
official and popular encouragement, including various kinds of
major rewards, of "whistleblowers" who become aware
of violations and report them to a well-known international authority.
Such whistleblowers should also be well protected against reprisals
by the violators, including even authorities of their own country's
government. Such actions may be even more important in filling
verification gaps than technical verification procedures implemented
by an international authority.
In conclusion, I now have new and strong feelings
of hope about the future of humankind. We are collectively facing
new choices. We can continue to apply those cosmic forces -which
we discovered how to manipulate 50 years ago-to feed the destructive
competitive power struggles among humans. Or we can join together
to reject those immensely powerful forces-that are much easier
to use to destroy than to build-and reach out together to embrace
the energy from our sun, which has for a very long time sustained
all life on Earth.
1. Harold A. Feiveson and Theodore B. Taylor,
"Alternative Strategies for International Control of Nuclear
Power," in Nuclear Proliferation-Motivations, Capabilities,
and Strategies for Control, Ted Greenwood, H. A. Feiveson, and
T. B. Taylor, New York: McGraw Hill, 1977, pp. 125-190.
2. J. Carson Mark, "Explosive Properties of Reactor Grade
Plutonium," Science and Global Security, 1993, Volume 4,
3. J. Carson Mark, Theodore B. Taylor, Eugene Eyster, William
Merriman, and Jacob Wechsler, "By What Means Could Terrorists
Go Nuclear?" in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, Paul Leventhal
and Yonah Alexander, eds. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington
Books, 1987, pp. 55-65.
4. See, for example, David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William
Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium
1992, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 25-35.
5. Ibid, pp. 71-83.
6. Ibid, pp. 196-209.
7. Ibid, p. 90.
8. Ibid, p. 148.
9. Lars Wallin, chapter in Security With Nuclear Weapons? Regina
Cowen Karp, Ed., Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,
London: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 360-381.
10. See, for example, Thomas Johansson, Henry Kelly, Amulya K.
N. Reddy, and Robert Williams, eds. Renewable Energy, Washington:
Island Press, 1993.
11. See, for example, J. M. Ogden and R. H. Williams, Solar Hydrogen:
Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels, Washington: World Resources Institute,
* Theodore B. Taylor is a former nuclear weapons designer and
former Deputy Director of the Defense Nuclear Agency. He is the
author of several books and numerous articles on nuclear dangers
including "Rejecting the Nuclear Option," in Technology
Review, July 1995. Dr. Taylor received the 1991 Distinguished
Citizen Award from the International Physicians for the Prevention
of Nuclear War. He currently serves as a board member of the Nuclear
Control Institute and as a consultant to the Nuclear Age Peace