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Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

...birds of the feather...

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons: Making the Connections

There is an increasing number of people in the United States today who are standing up and speaking out against the dangers of nuclear weapons. At the same time a large number of these people are in favor of the use of nuclear power as a means of generating electricity. They believe, perhaps correctly, that the threat from the former is greater and more imminent, and further, that there is no connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The facts, however, seem to point to a different conclusion.

"Atoms For Peace"

For as long as there has been federal control of nuclear research and materials, there has been an interest in using commercial nuclear reactors as a source of materia- ls to make weapons. In the early 1950's it was recognized that the weapons program would require more plutonium than could be furnished by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). One suggestion, made by Dr. Charles A. Thomas, then executive vice-president of Monsanto Chemical Company, was to create a dual purpose plutonium reactor, on which could produce plutonium for weapons, and electricity for commercial use.3

A 1951 study undertaken by the AEC concluded that commercial nuclear reactors would not be economically feasible if they were used solely to produce electricity; they would be, however, if they also produced plutonium which could be sold. Utilities themselves were only mildly intrigued with the notion of being able to produce "too cheap to meter electricity," and only so long as someone else took over the responsibility for the waste products, and indemnified them against catastrophic nuclear plant accidents. The 1952 Annual Report for Commonwealth Edison is instructive on the former point:

"In last year's report, we announced that our com- panies, as one of four non-governmental groups, had entered into an agreement with the Atomic Energy Commission to study the practicability of applying nuclear energy to the production of power. The first year's study has been completed and a report has been completed and a report has been made to the Commission. Included in the report were preliminary designs of two dual-purpose reactor plants. By "dual-purpose" we mean that the plants would be primarily for the production of power but would also would produce plutonium for military purposes as a by-product. In our judgment, these plants...would be justified from an economic standpoint only if a substantial value were as- signed to the plutonium produced."7

It was this fact which interested utilities in getting involved with nuclear reactors. This point was again made by the AEC's director of reactor development, Lawrence R. Hafsted, who in 1951 said it was the multi-purpose reactor, "rather than the imminence of cheap civilian power which lies behind the increased interest on the part of industry in certain phases of the atomic energy business." 3

In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower, for whatever motives one wishes to ascribe to him, announced his "Atoms for Peace" program, by which the destructive force of the atom was to be harnessed for "peaceful" purposes. It was also at this time that the U.S. began offering nuclear technology and training to the rest of the world.

In 1954 utilities which were to operate commercial nuclear reactors were given further incentive when Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act so that utilities would received uranium fuel for their reactors from the government in exchange for the plutonium produced in those reactors. The plutonium was to be shipped to Rocky Flats in Colorad- o, where the federal government made plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

In retrospect it is a simple matter to see that there never was an intention to separate nuclear weapons produc- tion from the use of commercial nuclear power. In a document from the Los Alamos National Laboratory dated August, 1981, one finds this statement:

"There is no technical demarcation between the military and civilian reactor and there never was one. What has persisted over the decades is just the misconception that such a linkage does not exist." ("Some Political Issues Related to Future Special Nuclear Fuels Production," LA- 8969-MS, UC-16).4

The links are not merely historic. As recently as 1981 President Reagan proposed "mining" plutonium from the reprocessed spent fuel rods from commercial nuclear reactors. This dangerous reversal of national policy was promptly beaten down in the Senate by a 88-9 vote by the Hart-Simpson Amendment to the NRC Authorization Bill which prohibited the use of nuclear power wastes to create nuclear weapons, and which saw both utilities and environ- mentalists lobbying together for its passage.

"Commercial nuclear power has a civilian role," said Fred Davis of the Government Affairs Office of the Edison Electric Institute, "and we'd hate to see the two issues tied together. It'd make what we are trying to do more difficult." 4

The Connections

The connections linking nuclear power and weapons is more than political or historic. Consider: l FISSIONABLE MATERIALS: It is the same nuclear fuel cycle with its mining of uranium, milling, enrichment and fuel fabrication stages which readies the uranium ore for use in reactors, whether these reactors are used to create plutonium for bombs or generate electricity. In the end, both reactors produce the plutonium. The only difference between them is the concentration of the various isotopes used in the fuel. Each year a typical 1000 mega-watt (MW) commercial power reactor will produce 300 to 500 pounds of plutonium -- enough to build between 25 - 40 Nagasaki-sized atomic bombs.

One Technology

As Dr. Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado points out, "Every known route to bombs involves either nuclear power or materials and technology which are available, which exist in commerce, as a direct and essential consequence of nuclear power."2 In order to get plutonium for weapons, one needs a reactor, whether it is a "research" reactor (such as the one which provided India with the fissile material for its first atomic bomb). or a commercial reactor.

In the case of the proposed "breeder" reactors, in which more plutonium is produced than is consumed, the connection is more obvious. Since the only other use for the highly toxic plutonium is to make weapons, one can easily see where the surplus might be used. Over the years the U.S. Congress has scrapped several "breeder" reactor designs, both because of their high potential for diversion and proliferation of nuclear materials into the hands of undesirable states, and because their designs became flawed, obsolete, or not in demand by nuclear utilities. Unfortunately, billions of dollars of taxpayers money had to be wasted before breeder reactors like the Clinch River Reactor in the 1980's and the Argonne Integral Fast Breeder Reactor of 1992-94 were scrapped.

Proliferation and Terrorism

If one were to imagine for a moment that commer- cial nuclear power no longer existed, it would be obvious that the only use a country would then have for its uranium mining, milling, fuel fabrication and reactors would be to produce nuclear weapons. But because commercial nuclear power does exist, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a country is using its reactors for research, or for weapons production.

It is precisely this ambiguity which makes the proliferation of nuclear weapons from so-called "peaceful research" a certainty, and the proliferation of commercial nuclear reactors worldwide a Trojan Horse for nuclear weapons production.

Since World War II there have been several instances where countries have pieced together nuclear weapons from the fuel from "peaceful research reactors." France, China, and India have done so. Recently, it was feared that Iraq and North Korea would do likewise, a prospect which was lessened only through the direct threat or actual use of military intervention as an option.

Examination of the list of countries currently building or desiring "peaceful" nuclear reactors and the leaders of those nations does not inspire confidence for curtailing nuclear proliferation, either.

It is not just having nuclear weapons which is a threat to peace. In some instances the mere possession or attempted construction of research reactors and commercial nuclear plants has been enough to bring on the threat of war. This "provocation" was enough to justify the Israeli bombing of Iraq's French-built Osirik reactor in 1981, and was one of the alleged reasons for the Gulf War in 1991. The mere inkling that your neighbor might have the capability to make nuclear weapons suddenly becomes the justification for "pre-emptive strikes," and perhaps even full- fledged warfare.

To be sure there are international agreements and agencies set up to monitor the use of nuclear reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency is such an entity. However, not all countries have signed agreements allowing inspections by the IAEA. The IAEA itself admitted that even if inspections were allowed, it would not be able to tell if a country was using its commercial reactors to produce weapons.

It takes about 15 pounds of plutonium-239 or uranium-235 to fashion a crude nuclear device. The technology to enrich the isotopes is available for about one million dollars. It is clearly possible that terrorists could acquire both the isotopes and the technology needed to enrich them. This possibility has surfaced in the news since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent revelation of a thriving "black market" in such materials.

But even the most technically advanced nations cannot keep track of their materials and technology. In an inventory taken between October, 1980, and March, 1981, the U.S. government could not account for about 55 pounds of plutonium and 159 pounds of uranium from its weapons facilities. The explanation given for this Missing material was "accounting error" and that the materials were "stuck in the piping."1


1.) Critical Mass Energy Journal, July, 1982.

2.) Energy/War: Breaking the Nuclear Link, Amory Lovins, 1981.

3.) Not Man Apart, Friends of the Earth, October, 1982.

4.) Not Man Apart, Friends of the Earth, December, 1982.

5.) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August, 1981.

6.) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October, 1981.

7.) 1952 Annual Report, Commonwealth Edison Company, Chicago.

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