Nuclear Proliferation

There are a few reasons that nuclear power isn't all that widespread in terms of worldwide usage. The United States, along with countries that developed nuclear weapons because of the Cold War (Russia, China, Britain, and France), were in large part already developed enough to have an energy infrastructure built off of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, most of the world doesn't already have that infrastructure - but as they develop and their energy needs increase, the nuclear option is pretty limited because the big countries don't want everyone to have nukes.

So we're left with a few questions.

Is it good to prevent most countries from obtaining nuclear weapons? There are a couple issues here - obviously, some countries (we're not naming names) might be tempted to use them aggressively, but on the other hand, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea already have nuclear weapons. All of those countries have the potential to get into an armed conflict pretty easily and quickly (or, in one case, are already in a sort of armed conflict - lookin' at you, Israel), yet there haven't been any nuclear exchanges, well, ever. And it seems like the Mutually Assured Destruction policy of the Cold War didn't end the world - might it be a good thing for everyone to have nuclear weapons and therefore no one wants to use them?

Well, that could be a real bad idea - first, it makes it much easier for a small group to get their hands on one and blow up a city somewhere (for further information, see every post-Cold War action-thriller movie ever). Second, it'd really only work well if every government on Earth was pretty stable, which they clearly are not. Living on the West Coast, I'm a little worried about the possibilities of a certain someone flinging a nuke at the US as a parting shot.

And there is something to be said for us becoming complacent about nuclear weaponry. I'm young enough to not really remember the Cold War, and I was certainly not alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My sense is that the idea of nuclear devastation has basically dropped out of our collective minds. It seems impossible. In this kind of a culture, it's easy to wonder aloud whether there's really a danger anymore.

At the same time, it is worth wondering how much a right some countries have to prevent other countries from developing nuclear weapons. Does fairness even come into play at the level of international politics? Should it?

Before I get going on philosophical arguments concerning political power structures that I don't know nearly enough about, let's move on to our next question: is nuclear power great enough to risk nuclear proliferation?

Well, is it?

Nuclear reactors are capable of generating a lot of energy. But, because they have such a potential to go wrong, they're really quite expensive. Some people are trying to change that - pebble bed reactors, for example, might be one way to go - but on the whole, they're expensive. And not clean.

Let's go backwards a little bit. How easy is it for countries to get nuclear weapons from a nuclear reactor? Not that easy - nuclear weapons, to be at all efficient (and not weigh as much as a skyscraper) need to use refined uranium or plutonium. Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, can (and should) use much less concentrated material. In order to make a weapon, in other words, you've gotta refine the hell out of your nuclear fuel. In order to do that, you have to do something like seperate U-235 from U-238 (also known as depleted uranium) - and the only difference between them is that u-238 is heavier by three neutrons. That's not a lot, and hence, it's very difficult to create what's called weapons-grade material.

But countries can obviously do it - North Korea, for example. And even though enrichment facilities can be detected by the world community, it's still not all that clear how a nation can be convinced to put down their nuclear weapons.

(The case of North Korea is also interesting because when they were accused of creating nuclear weapons, they voluntarily withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, India, Pakistan, and Israel never even signed it - so in the end, how useful is the treaty? (I guess that depends on how many nations would have nukes if there was no treaty. Hm.))

So is every nuclear reactor a gamble that some nation might acquire nuclear weapons? In a general sort of way, yes - although the world is developing a lot of different methods of preventing that sort of thing, ranging from diplomacy to embargos to Israel's semi-regular bombing of reactors they think might be generating weapons-grade material.

In the end, I can't personally get too worked up over nuclear proliferation concerns, if only because I don't think building reactors in developing nations is really the right way to go. In fact, as we improve our other alternative energy technologies (mostly solar), we may be able to move towards closing the book on nuclear weapons - and if that means sacrificing power from nuclear fission, well, I don't think anyone'll hear me complain.

Next up: reactors are really expensive anyway.

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