Linking nuclear power and terrorism is like linking soap with chemical weapons; just stop it!
Updated: Sep 24
Nobody opposes the soap industry because it may lead to chemical weapons.
Nobody opposes vaccination because it may lead to biological warfare ... well almost nobody!
Nobody opposes shipping because it might lead to aircraft carriers and other naval weapons of war.
Nobody opposes the making of knives because it may lead to machetes and genocide.
But all sorts of otherwise sensible people seem to see a deep and meaningful connection between nuclear power and atomic bombs or atomic terrorism. I could name names, Greens, ALP, various friends, acquaintances, relatives ... even a former time-slice of myself.
Yes, believed this myself for more than half of my life; mea culpa.
We can all believe things we haven't bothered to think much about. Because thinking is really hard, and we all prefer outsourcing our beliefs to some kind of authority. Which usually isn't actually an authority at all ... more likely a mate who we think probably knows about terrorism and bombs and stuff because he spent a year in the army and still wears camo fatigues on camping trips, or perhaps a relative who talks loudly with an air of infallibility and uses words we have heard but don't actually understand. Half lives. Actinides. Fissile. Fertile.
Most people have heard of a dirty bomb ... it's usually a conventional (non-nuclear) bomb designed to spread radioactive material rather than to cause a big bang. It's an old concept and still gets a run in film scripts about heroes and villains. Where would spy thrillers be without scary atomic gizmos? Hell, authors would need to think up proper plots. With a dirty bomb or lost warhead, the script pretty much writes itself. All you really need is an LED display which can count down towards zero for the last 10 minutes of the film and a half decent actor who can convince you of their terror while deciding if they should cut the red wire or the green wire. Mix that in with some good car chases and the obligatory kick-arse marshal-arts femme fatale and you should attract a producer or two.
But you won't be able to run a title about the film being based on actual events; because there aren't any.
While improvised explosive devices have killed and maimed thousands of people over many decades, there has never been an actual dirty bomb.
Of course, I could be wrong.
Maybe somebody did build a dirty bomb and explode it, but who would have noticed?
Maybe the cancer rate rose slightly after 3 decades but epidemiologists put it down to a rise in the consumption of metwurst or bratwurst or bacon or beef or salami or blood sausage.
The paradox of fear is that it often works best in the total absence of evidence. We are more scared of dirty bombs than real ones because our imaginations are more vivid than absent memories.
Coca cola doesn't advertise using facts. It creates an image which it hopes will resonate. And it does it over and over again. The anti-nuclear movement works the same way. After all, it doesn't have an actual dirty bomb to point to. If it ever did, the anti-climax might derail decades of well scripted propaganda.
When you have actual evidence of harm, even serious harm, people aren't half as frightened.
Consider natural gas. Many people cook with it, it's sent around the planet in massive tankers and from time to time it explodes and kills people. Wikipedia has one of it's wonderful "List" pages on gas ... "List of gas explosions". The explosions are grouped in half century blocks: 1900 to 1950 (a small list), then 1950 to 2000 (a medium list) and then the list gets really long ... considering we aren't yet half way through this half century. The List of Pipeline accidents is separate and takes in oil as well as gas. In the 20 years between 1994 and 2013, pipeline accidents killed 363 people in the US alone ... not to mention the injuries. It's not healthy to think about the injuries from such accidents, unless you are a burns specialist who treats them for a living. Give me a dirty bomb any day.
Accidents in developing countries supplying oil and gas have been even worse than US accidents.
The only people really worried about natural gas accidents are the industry and regulators and perhaps a few people living close to a large storage tank or pipeline. People can make sensible decisions about risk in the presence of evidence but they go absolutely stark raving mad thinking about risks from things which haven't happened.
So why haven't we had a terrorist dirty bomb or other nuclear weapon? Why are we stuck instead with having expensive self-important think tanks come up with scenarios for such an attack?
What about real atomic bombs?
The problem with dirty bombs is that they don't achieve what any terrorist wants; terror.
But a terrorist exploding a real atomic weapon would definitely achieve the desired goal. But it's hard to think of a less efficient method.
There are so many cheaper and easier ways to spread terror.
Flying planes into buildings for example. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack was the second most sophisticated terrorism attack ever mounted, but it was cheap and simple compared to building an atomic weapon. People got pilot licences. They hijacked and flew planes. The Wikipedia "List" page for hijackings has the telling subtitle: "List of notable aircraft hijackings". It contains 164 events. Notable events. I wonder how many others there have been? What does a non-notable aircraft hijacking look like? Despite paranoid security in recent years, there were still 9 hijackings (notable ones!) since 2010.
How many atomic bombs have terrorists made? Is it just some fluke that the answer is zero?
Bernard L Cohen was a US Professor of Physics who died in 2012. For many years he made an offer to his students that they could get an "A" in his two courses without passing any exams, all they needed to do was to submit a design for an atomic bomb with quantitative calculations showing it would work. This is at a top US University with some very smart students and none, in his estimate, provided more than 5% of what he would consider was a design.
Keep in mind that the design is the easy bit.
A bomb is a physical thing, it has to be made by people who have serious skills. Cohen had 30 years of experience in experimental physics (the kind where people make things, not just think about them and juggle equations) but didn't feel he had the skills required. And it isn't just one person you need, you need a team with the right skills.
Cohen offers any would be terrorist a list of alternative ways to kill 50,000 people or more. One was poison gas. Who remembers the Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack ... it came in 1995, just 5 years after the book in which Cohen gave this suggestion. I'd call it the most sophisticated terrorism attack by a large margin. It was a well funded and coordinated attack ... but only managed to kill 12 people ... with some 50 seriously injured and a 1000 with moderate injuries. A US terrorism seminar was told in detail of the crudity of the methods used in the chemical plant. Such sloppiness wouldn't cut it with the kind of explosives required to initiate a nuclear bomb ... this is precisely the problem that Cohen referred to; blowing yourself up while your bomb fizzles is the most likely outcome.
John Mueller's wonderful book "Atomic Obsession" gives considerable detail on the logistic difficulties behind an actual bomb making project. Your would be terrorist has to do things that no terrorist has ever managed to pull off.
Of all the things one might be tempted to lay awake worrying about, nuclear terrorism shouldn't be one of them.
General Proliferation Risks
But what about general proliferation risks?
Grand standing with a nuclear device is something that is attractive to all manner of egotistical nutter leaders and we have had more than a few over the years. We have some now!
Does having nuclear power make such leaders more or less common? There are 220 research reactors operating in 53 countries and they do things from making highly purified material for the very best solar cells (we do this in Australia), through to medical isotopes and testing wheels for manufacturing flaws. These are amazing and very general research tools without peer. If you wanted to generate weapons grade material for an atomic bomb of some kind, would you use a reactor of the kind used to generate electricity ... a power reactor? No. That's like using a B-double truck to do your shopping. It's like trying to thread a needle wearing ski mittens. Iran showed that all you need to make that material is the right centrifuges ... or a research reactor. The reason that "the right" centrifuges are so carefully guarded and controlled is that they are bloody hard to make. Again we are talking about real stuff, not computer software or blog pages. If they were easy, then no amount of counting and controlling would work.
Consider the parallel with guns. Any idiot with a metal lathe and basic machining skills can make a gun. Meaning any far-right militaristic group of morons can do it. They may have a liking for more sophisticated hardware, but basic guns are easy ... so the only way to control guns is with enforcement in depth and eliminating the conditions that breed militarism.
Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are really hard to build so one part of the two part problem is easy; technical control. The other part is reducing the number of leaders wanting to have one.
Over the past 50 years, the world has become considerably more politically progressive. Grand standing like North Korea used to be a sport played by many countries, but things have changed. Little rocket man is part of a very small team.
So we are doing politics better while still having the option of controlling the technical capacity to make bombs. That control over the technical capacity to make bombs will probably get easier if we can continue the disarmament processes of the past 50 years. As bomb designers and builders retire, they'll take skills with them and there will be fewer and fewer people having the skills.
Nuclear power reactors are irrelevant to both the politics and technical components of the proliferation problem. When somebody says "But it's possible to make bomb material in a power reactor" ... of course it is, just like a chemistry lab can be used to make all kinds of dangerous stuff. But bomb material can't be made in secret in a power reactor. To make bomb material in a power reactor you have to keep starting it and stopping the reactor to remove material before it is spoiled. The fission process generates impurities that make uranium or plutonium useless for a bomb. So you have to keep refueling and removing material before the impurities build up. Starting and stopping a power reactor is something you can detect from space with a satellite; there is no way of hiding it.
And the other reason not to use a power reactor to make bomb material? Why waste your money. A tiny research reactor or centrifuge farm is cheaper and easier to hide.
Banning power reactors because of fears of proliferation is like banning soap factories because you don't want to have any skilled industrial chemists who might do bad things. But the nuclear knowledge is much bigger (meaning more diverse) than nuclear power. It's as fundamental to science as modern genetics. Banning nuclear power reactors does nothing to prevent weapons proliferation, but it has, and continues to, given our coal and gas industries and incredible free ride and made them almost unstoppable.
Photo: The Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE.