The civilian-military nuclear nexus: the nuclear energy industry finally gives up the pretense of no connection

Promoters of the “peaceful” use of the atom have always insisted that there is no link between nuclear energy programs and nuclear weapons programs. They usually frame their argument around the issue of nuclear proliferation, trying to make the public believe that the only problem to worry about is whether more countries and bad actors will get nuclear weapons. They assert that the proliferation of nuclear power plants cannot lead to and has never led to any nation acquiring nuclear weapons. This statement by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) is typical:

“Civil nuclear power has not been the cause of or route to nuclear weapons in any country that has nuclear weapons, and no uranium traded for electricity production has ever been diverted for military use. All nuclear weapons programs have either preceded or risen independently of civil nuclear power.”
Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation,” World Nuclear Association, March 2017.

Framing the problem this way conveniently steps around several other problems related to the production of plutonium and other by-products of splitting uranium atoms. Most fundamentally, it ignores the problem of what is to be done with this highly toxic material that needs to be isolated from the ecosystem for thousands of years. It is an environmental problem as much as it is a nuclear weapons proliferation problem. In spite of claims that plutonium waste can easily be buried in suitable sites, this solution has proven illusory.

As can be seen by the selection of quotes below, the WNA’s statement above has been proven problematic even by agencies that promote nuclear energy. The US Department of Energy, and even a former head of the IAEA, Hans Blix, have described the potential risks:

“On the basis of advice provided to it by its Member States and by the Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation (SAGSI), the Agency considers high burn-up reactor-grade plutonium and in general plutonium of any isotopic composition with the exception of plutonium containing more than 80 percent Pu-238 to be capable of use in a nuclear explosive device. There is no debate on the matter in the Agency's Department of Safeguards.”
- Hans Blix, Letter to the Nuclear Control Institute, Washington DC, November 1, 1990.

US Department of Energy in 1997:

“Virtually any combination of plutonium isotopes—the different forms of an element having different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei—can be used to make a nuclear weapon. ... The only isotopic mix of plutonium which cannot realistically be used for nuclear weapons is nearly pure plutonium-238, which generates so much heat that the weapon would not be stable.”
- US Department of Energy, 1997, Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, January, “Final Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives,” Washington, DC: DOE, DOE/NN-0007, pp.37-39.

Jim Green, a nuclear industry critic, covered this issue comprehensively in the article cited below. He explained that the issue is not only proliferation. He pointed out how a civilian nuclear complex supports the military nuclear complex in various ways. He stated:

“The premise [that there is no civilian-military connection] is false—RGPu [reactor grade plutonium] can be used in weapons. Moreover, the links between nuclear power (and civil nuclear programs more generally) and weapons proliferation go well beyond the use of RGPu in weapons. Ostensibly civil nuclear materials and facilities can be used in support of weapons programs in many ways: (1)Production of plutonium in power or research reactors followed by separation of plutonium from irradiated material in reprocessing facilities (or smaller facilities, sometimes called hot cells), (2)production of radionuclides other than plutonium for use in weapons, e.g. tritium, which is used to initiate or boost nuclear weapons, (3)diversion of fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel or extraction of HEU from spent fuel, (4)nuclear weapons-related research and (5) [nuclear energy programs enable] development of expertise for parallel or later use in a weapons program.
- Jim Green, “Can ‘reactor grade’ plutonium be used in nuclear weapons?” Wise International, June 6, 2014,

No worries. That's not a nuclear bomb--
just a nuclear plant having a bad day.
India’s detonation of a nuclear bomb in May 1974 is the most famous example of a nation diverting civilian technology to military use. It was a major scandal in relations between the India and Canada, the nation that had supplied the reactor technology. There was no doubt that India had used the “civilian-use” reactor to build a bomb, so the statement above by the WNA is a conscious lie. Perhaps they accept the pathetic explanation offered by the Indian government (quoted below):

“India explodes its first atomic bomb using weapons-grade plutonium produced in the Canadian-supplied CIRUS reactor. The explosion takes place at the Pokhran site in the Rajasthan desert near the border with Pakistan. Canada suspends nuclear cooperation with India pending nuclear safeguards negotiations. India protests that it has not broken any agreements, because its nuclear explosive device is a ‘peaceful nuclear explosive’ and not a military weapon.”

Now, in 2018, the nuclear industry seems to be changing its tune and finally giving up the pretense that there are no civilian-military connections. Several years have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe put the nuclear industry in defensive mode, so it no longer has to try so hard to persuade the public. The issue is out of the public eye. More importantly, the nuclear energy industry is in desperate straits financially. It needs enormous inputs of public funds because it cannot compete with the cost of other sources of energy.  The truth will out, the saying goes, and this week no one was too ashamed to finally admit the reality:

A broad coalition of 75 industry, government, and military dignitaries—a quarter of whom are retired admirals or vice admirals—has come out in support of President Trump’s plan to bail out the nation’s struggling nuclear plants, agreeing that more premature closures pose a national security threat.
- Tom Henry, “Government, military officials in favor of Trump's nuclear bailout plan,” Toledo Blade, July 1, 2018.

The vaguely worded “national security threat” is of course a euphemistic way of saying the nuclear arsenal will be useless if it isn’t replenished with tritium and fissile material from the civilian sector. It will be too difficult to maintain the technical know-how, and too costly to maintain the infrastructure if electricity isn’t sold as a by-product of the nuclear complex. It has been obvious to many for a very long time, but Professor Andrew Stirling put it succinctly in 2017 when speaking of the government’s readiness to pay the enormous costs of the Hinkley Point power plant in the UK:

“… there was a crucial, largely unspoken, reason for the government’s rediscovered passion for nuclear: without a civil nuclear industry, a nation cannot sustain military nuclear capabilities.”
- Andrew Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University, quoted in:

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