Nuclear Homegrown Nuclearity

January 19, 2024
By M. Susan Lindee | Perry World House

M. Susan Lindee is the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

In late 2022, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center staged a two-week, virtual wargame involving a wide range of US-allied military, scientific, and defense experts—both hawks and doves—in the European Union (EU), Ukraine, Romania, and the United States. The game ended badly when reactors at a nuclear power plant occupied by enemy forces (in this game, Russian) exploded. The game suggested that uncertainties about technology, risks, and strategies in these new kinds of threats may paralyze decisionmaking, with profound military consequences. It also suggested that US-allied nuclear decisionmakers are unprepared for new kinds of nuclear risk.

Today, we face novel challenges that have converged. Global warming is no longer in the future. And nuclear power constitutes a vast network of regional military and diplomatic risks that are serious enough to be a necessary part of any theorizing about contemporary nuclear policy. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants in operation today—with more under construction—dispersed across 32 countries ranging from the traditional superpowers to Romania and Finland. Nuclear accidents and crises of all kinds, involving weapons but also power plants and production facilities, since 1945 can be understood in strategic terms. Nuclear power plants around the world are vulnerable to failure with potentially devastating regional disruption, and nuclear engineers, all of whom know how to produce a meltdown, can be understood as potential saboteurs. We might even consider nuclear power plants eminently usable or thinkable nuclear weapons, suited to contemporary conflict in ways that actual nuclear weapons (open, acknowledged, with all their potential ramifications) are not. Power plants can be coaxed into a disruptive meltdown in ways that might obscure responsibility. They are also domesticated or homegrown nuclear risk generating technologies, ready to be used in place, at low cost to the aggressor, to damage the country that built and maintained them at significant cost. 

The nuclear power system has its origins in Atoms for Peace, which began as a PR bid by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in December 1953—four months before the US Bravo weapons test accident involving a hydrogen bomb in March 1954. The two events were linked. In the fall of 1953, the United States was planning significant new nuclear testing and development. The “peaceful” initiative was expected to reduce the political damage of these plans. No nuclear power plants had yet been developed or constructed (that did not happen until 1957), and, for some of Eisenhower’s advisors, electricity alone was not sufficient justification for undertaking the expense, and taking on the geopolitical risks, of sharing nuclear technologies and fissile materials. They saw that “Atoms for Peace” could pose future military risks, and the whole plan would be expensive. But the political advantages could compensate for the many disadvantages: Countries which gained access to nuclear power through the United States were expected to be tethered to the US, as allies. Eisenhower thought the program would induce a “feeling of participation in the struggle of East and West.”

Ultimately, Eisenhower’s United Nations (UN) Atoms for Peace speech suggested that nuclear power plants could prevent war by generating prosperity. Nations struggling with poverty, disease, and economic stagnation would experience economic uplift, as a result of “abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas.” The energy would “make the neglected parts of the world flourish. In just a few years they could make more progress than in many centuries before.” More quietly, some hoped access to nuclear power would discourage many nations from pursuing nuclear weapons. 

In a retrospective essay on the Atoms for Peace Program—30 years after it began—General Electric (GE) nuclear engineer Bertram Wolfe concluded that the program had indeed reduced nuclear threats by providing a “unique inducement” to nations to forego the development of their own nuclear weapons systems. In his account, the program facilitated non-proliferation.

Political Scientist Albert Wohlstetter (called by some the “Clausewitz of the nuclear age”) conversely claimed instead that Atoms for Peace was producing a “nuclear-armed crowd” as a direct result of “the incoherence of current US policies,” specifically those policies around sharing technology. He cited the relatively careless distribution of plutonium, the sharing of expertise, the generous (sometimes free) training of aspiring nuclear engineers no matter where they came from or what their political loyalties were, and the cheap but risky policies that made all radioactive materials used in generating atomic power the sole property (to use and then dispose of) of the receiving country. In a 1976 essay for Foreign Policy, he pointed out that building a power plant involved the use of both fissile uranium (in particular, uranium-235) and fissile plutonium (especially plutonium-239) in forms concentrated enough to need no isotope separation. With only a modest amount of chemical separation, these materials could become part of a weapon. Instead of protecting the world from nuclear weapons, he proposed Atoms for Peace was making them easier to acquire, and even training a generation of mostly young men in how to make them.

While Wohlstetter foresaw the wider distribution of actual weapons, he did not foresee a rather different possibility—the one accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima bring to mind. Neither looks like a bombing, but both generated profound political chaos, in the USSR (did Chernobyl lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union? Gorbachev proposed it did) and in Japan (which is still wrestling with the global economic impact: release of waste water controversy, China’s rejection of Japanese seafood, and so on). The nuclear-power promoting World Nuclear Association minimizes the risks of plant meltdowns—saying that they are no different from other kinds of technological disasters—but history suggests otherwise. We know from Chernobyl, Fukushima, and even the relatively minor event at Three Mile Island on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, that nuclear power plant failures can have devastating regional and political consequences, even in the absence of high levels of radioactive contamination. They can animate social and political disruptions that bear a close resemblance to those generally desired in military campaigns.

Consider Fukushima Prefecture, which is no longer a major agricultural center. Driving through the region in 2021, I saw fields full of solar panels where there had once been crops.  Many cities and towns have not returned to their former population levels. Had the accident escalated, it could have forced an evacuation of Tokyo (it came close—and this evacuation is difficult even to imagine) and disrupted national life and economic systems even more profoundly, with global consequences. If Fukushima taught us anything, it is that a nuclear power plant failure can wreak havoc, threaten major urban centers, disrupt political systems, and have long term, devastating ecological, economic, regional consequences (still 40 years and $600 billion to go on that clean up). A standard bombing run even now generally accomplishes much less. Remember the ball-bearing theory of air power strategy? A well-placed power plant, disabled in a hostile attack and spewing radioactivity, is likely to be significantly more effective.

As the world experiences climate change, nuclear energy industry proponents have argued that their technological system is the only solution. But the fragile vulnerability of nuclear power plants raises key questions. They are in practice hydraulic technologies that cannot be expected to emerge undamaged from tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and other climate events—much less from sabotage. And when they fail, if they fail, they generate far more costly long-term damage than a failed natural gas energy plant, or solar or wind power farm, or even a coal plant.

Meltdowns can be produced using the everyday working knowledge of any not-particularly-distinguished nuclear engineer—knowledge now widely distributed in both the rich and the poor world. Causing a plant to fail might be as simple as interfering with the electrical grid—all plants depend on access to the conventional grid to maintain cooling systems. Most power plants furthermore do not have serious security systems for access control. Should they be fortified? Set in protected perimeter spaces? Should there be an international rules consensus about the management of nuclear power plants when and if they are taken over by hostile armed forces? Nuclear facilities are included as in the “special protection against attack” provisions of Article 56 of the Geneva Protocol in 1987, as “works or installations containing dangerous forces,” but this article does not address the protection against attack of nuclear power facilities, and it leaves room for “military necessity.”    

When Russian forces took over the shuttered Chernobyl ruin, with its sarcophagus, its tragic 1000 square mile exclusion zone and its continuing risk of “going critical,” and later seized the still functioning Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Putin used these spaces to effectively threaten the world. Such threats are a key enterprise in the nuclear order. Now, the UN atomic watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that Zaporizhzhia is surrounded by anti-personnel mines. “Having such explosives on the site is inconsistent with the IAEA safety standards and nuclear security guidance and creates additional psychological pressure on plant staff,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the agency’s director general, said in a statement in July. Ukraine’s military intelligence has claimed that Russia is planning a “large-scale provocation” at Zaporzhzhia; Russia countered that Ukraine was planning a false flag event with radioactive materials. 

These events demonstrate that nuclear power plants can be configured as part nuclear threat.  They do some of the work of provocation, which is a crucial part of the logic of the nuclear system. This provocation can be achieved at relatively little expense to those generating the threat.  Built and maintained by the enemy, they are cheap weapons (the attacking force incurs no expenses to produce them)—finally a case in which nuclear power plants seem to be cost-effective, for one’s enemies. They are also a richly confusing, an “almost” nuclear act that stops short.

In his account of The World Without Us, in 2007 Alan Weisman notes that “if everyone on Earth disappeared, 441 nuclear plants, several with multiple reactors, would briefly run on autopilot until, one by one, they overheated” and eventually “possibly half would burn and the rest would melt.” The resulting radioactivity “would be formidable, and it would last, in the case of enriched uranium, into geologic time.” For “whatever life remained on the surface,” deep “self-interment would be blessing.” Weisman’s description of Chernobyl, the “world’s biggest nuclear waste dump,” details the ruin of rich farmlands, the continuing development of cracks in the sarcophagus, and the future clouds of radioactive dust to be produced in “the world without us.” His evocative description captures the irony of looking to nuclear power to solve an environmental crisis produced by population growth and energy production. Nuclear power is its own ecological disaster, “profitable” only if the unsolved problems of nuclear waste and the profound military risks of the system itself are overlooked.   

If in 1953 atomic energy power plants were going to solve problems of poverty and bipolar tension, as its promoters expected, in our time it is invoked to promise quick, painless salvation of a different kind. Accepting either premise involves not noticing some important things.