Pope Benedict XVI, visiting the U.S. next week, has urged the abandonment of nuclear weapons, citing the genuine proliferation concerns this lethal and immoral technology represents. But during a public address last July in Italy, the Pontiff expressed a widely-held but erroneous assumption: that the spread of civilian nuclear technology can help to alleviate poverty and even contribute to “peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world.”
The Pontiff’s remarks were influenced by his on-going endorsement of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an organization that clings to the disingenuous view that a country offered nuclear power technology will happily split the atom to make electricity while promising not to develop nuclear weapons. However, because the technology required for “peaceful” nuclear power is a short step away from that needed to make nuclear weapons, surrender to the latter temptation is the most likely outcome.
This probability has been made crystal clear by the international anxiety over Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran insists it is for “peaceful” energy purposes. But no one can be sure. Enriching that same uranium to 80% or higher gives Iran nuclear bomb-making capability. This is the conundrum of the inextricable link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
There is precedent for the concern over Iran’s intentions. India has the bomb thanks to commercial reactor technology from Canada and engineering expertise supplied by the U.S. This not-so-peaceful use of the atom has led to a dangerously volatile situation between India and neighboring Pakistan, a country that also acquired nuclear weapons through its civilian program.
At least 13 Middle Eastern countries are interested in nuclear energy, once again leading to speculation that weapons production may be on the hidden agenda. Spreading commercial technology around the world also increases the odds of diversion or theft of nuclear material, even small amounts of which could be used for a deadly “dirty bomb.”
Every civilian nuclear reactor produces enough plutonium each year to make at least 40 atomic bombs. Reactors, with their highly radioactive waste fuel pools, are sitting-duck targets and were considered as such in the original Al Qaeda 9/11 plans according to the 9/11 Commission report.
The radioactive waste generated by each reactor is so dangerous for so long – tens of thousands of years or more for some isotopes – that no acceptable storage or management solution has been found. Radioactive waste continues to languish at the reactor sites or, in some cases, is transported across the globe to be reprocessed in France, the U.K. and Japan. This dirty and contaminating chemical separation process produces more waste, some of which is discharged into the seas.
Daily operation of nuclear power plants results in routine releases of radioactivity. The National Academy of Sciences has declared there is no safe dose of exposure to radiation, no matter how small. However, U.S. federal agencies have established “acceptable” – but by no means “safe” – levels of exposure, based on what would be allegedly tolerable for a robust young male adult. The more serious impact to a pregnant woman and her unborn child has been ignored.
The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor continues to impact the health of children born in the region today. The Chernobyl disaster produced fallout with “400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer,” reported National Geographic in August 2006.
Nuclear power is no panacea for poverty either. The industry has been heavily subsidized by taxpayers since its inception and Florida Power and Light, a nuclear utility, recently estimated the price tag for just one new reactor at a staggering
$9-12 billion. Solar and wind power and other renewable energies, combined with energy efficiency and conservation measures, could provide more electricity at less cost, especially in poorer countries lacking the expensive infrastructure required to support a nuclear power program.
Proliferation of civilian, as well as military, nuclear technology, can lead to acts of aggression that could provoke war. Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and attacked a nuclear facility in Syria last September. Concerns that the Bush administration will authorize war against Iran over its nuclear program grow greater with the resignation of Admiral Fallon, former chief of the Central Command, who advocated diplomacy and restraint.
Pope Benedict’s devotion to the sanctity of life surely demands that he take the lead in calling for the total abolition not only of nuclear weapons, but of the futile and frightening offspring it has spawned. There can be no more moral stand than rejecting forever the continued use of an energy source that has the capacity to cause death, disease and destruction to so many human beings.