Nuclear power, warfare and global famine

Jim Green

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012,

A nuclear war using as few as 100 weapons would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production so severely that the lives of more than a billion people would be at risk, according to research findings released in April by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its Australian affiliate, the Medical Association for Prevention of War.

Working with data produced by scientists who have studied the climate effects of a hypothetical nuclear war between India and Pakistan, author Dr. Ira Helfand and a team of experts in agriculture and nutrition determined that plunging temperatures and reduced precipitation in critical farming regions, caused by soot and smoke lofted into the atmosphere by multiple nuclear explosions, would interfere with crop production and affect food availability and prices worldwide.

The report finds that:

  • There would be a significant decline in middle season rice production in China. During the first four years, rice production would decline by an average of 21% and over the next six years the decline would average 10%.
  • Increases in food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world's poorest. Even if agricultural markets continued to function normally, 215 million people would be added to the rolls of the malnourished over the course of a decade. Significant agricultural shortfalls would lead to panic and hoarding on an international scale, further reducing accessible food.
  • The 925 million people in the world who are already chronically malnourished would be put at risk by a 10% decline in their food consumption.

Dr Helfand said: "The death of one billion people over a decade would be a disaster unprecedented in human history. It would not cause the extinction of the human race, but it would bring an end to modern civilization as we know it."

Power and proliferation

The report on the catastrophic potential of nuclear warfare has important implications for the ongoing debate over nuclear power. Apologists for the nuclear industry trot out any number of furphies in their efforts to distance nuclear power from WMD proliferation, but the facts are in. There is a long history of ostensibly peaceful nuclear programs providing political cover and technical support for nuclear weapons programs − and an expansion of nuclear power can only exacerbate the problem.

Of the 10 nations to have produced nuclear weapons:

  • Six did so with political cover and/or technical support from their supposedly peaceful nuclear program – India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, North Korea, and France.
  • The other four nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, China, UK) developed nuclear weapons before nuclear power − but there are still significant links between their peaceful and military nuclear programs (e.g. routine transfer of personnel).
  • Eight of the 10 nations have nuclear power reactors and those eight countries account for nearly 60% of global nuclear power capacity.

Examples of the direct use of nuclear power reactors in weapons programs include the following:

  • North Korea's nuclear weapons tests have used plutonium produced in an 'Experimental Power Reactor'.
  • Power reactors are used in India's nuclear weapons program − this has long been suspected and is no longer in doubt since India refuses to allow eight out of 22 reactors (and its entire thorium/plutonium program) to be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections.
  • The US has used power reactors in recent years to produce tritium for use in 'boosted' nuclear weapons.
  • The 1962 test of sub-weapon-grade plutonium by the US may have used plutonium from a power reactor.
  • France's civilian nuclear program provided the base of expertise for its weapons program, and material for weapons was sometimes produced in power reactors.
  • Magnox reactors in the UK had the dual roles of producing weapon grade plutonium and generating electricity.
  • Pakistan may be using power reactor/s in support of its nuclear weapons program.

Nuclear power programs have facilitated and provided cover for weapons programs even without the direct use of power reactors to produce material for weapons. Nuclear power programs provide a rationale for the acquisition and use of:

  • uranium enrichment technology (which can produce low enriched uranium for power reactors or highly enriched uranium for weapons);
  • reprocessing technology (which separates spent nuclear fuel into three streams − uranium, high-level waste, and weapons-useable plutonium); and
  • research and training reactors (which can produce plutonium and other materials for weapons, and can also be used for weapons-related research).

The nuclear weapons programs in South Africa and Pakistan were outgrowths of their power programs although enrichment plants, not power reactors, produced most or all of the fissile (explosive) material used in weapons.

Research and training reactors, ostensibly acquired in support of a power program or for other civil purposes, have been a plutonium source for weapons in India and Israel and have been used for weapons-related research and experiments in numerous other countries including Iraq, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, and possibly Romania.

Nuclear power programs can facilitate weapons programs even if power reactors are not actually built. Iraq provides a clear illustration of this important point. While Iraq's nuclear research program provided much cover for the weapons program from the 1970s to 1991, stated interest in developing nuclear power was also significant. Iraq pursued a 'shop til you drop' program of acquiring dual-use technology, with much of the shopping done openly and justified by nuclear power ambitions.

According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq's weapons program: "Acquiring nuclear technology within the IAEA safeguards system was the first step in establishing the infrastructure necessary to develop nuclear weapons. In 1973, we decided to acquire a 40-megawatt research reactor, a fuel manufacturing plant, and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, all under cover of acquiring the expertise needed to eventually build and operate nuclear power plants and produce and recycle nuclear fuel. Our hidden agenda was to clandestinely develop the expertise and infrastructure needed to produce weapon-grade plutonium."

Power and proliferation − two sides of the same coin and a major factor to consider when weighing different energy options, all the more so in light of the report on nuclear warfare and global famine.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

The report, 'Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk − Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition', is posted at Videos are posted on youtube − search 'nuclear famine'.

More information on the links between nuclear power and WMD proliferation is posted at

Australia's bid for the bomb

In 1962, the federal Cabinet approved an increase in the staff of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission from 950 to 1050 because, in the words of the Minister of National Development William Spooner, "a body of nuclear scientists and engineer skilled in nuclear energy represents a positive asset which would be available at any time if the government decided to develop a nuclear defence potential."

In 1968, government officials and Australian Atomic Energy Commission scientists studied and reported on the costs of a nuclear weapons program. They outlined two possible programs: a power reactor program capable of producing enough weapon grade plutonium for 30 fission weapons annually; and a uranium enrichment program capable of producing enough uranium-235 for the initiators of at least 10 thermonuclear weapons per year. Three years earlier, secret enrichment research commenced in the basement of a building at Lucas Heights.

In 1969, federal Cabinet approved a plan to build a power reactor at Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. There is a wealth of evidence – some of it contained in Cabinet documents – revealing that the Jervis Bay project was motivated, in part, by a desire to bring Australia closer to a weapons capability. Then Prime Minister John Gorton later acknowledged: "We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb."

After Gorton was replaced as leader of the Liberal Party by William McMahon in 1971, the Jervis Bay project was reassessed and deferred and the Labor government, elected in 1972, did nothing to revive the project.

There has been lingering interest in developing nuclear weapons in Australia since the early 1970s − including interest in lowering the lead time for weapons production under cover of ostensibly peaceful nuclear activities. But the more important point is that the pursuit of a weapons capability waned when Australia became a nuclear weapons state − a weapons state by proxy as a result of the cementing of the nuclear alliance with the US through the construction of US military and spy bases in Australia.