In 2015, Nuclear Monitor published a detailed critique of the many ways nuclear industry insiders and lobbyists trivialize and deny the connections between nuclear power (and the broader nuclear fuel cycle) and nuclear weapons proliferation.1
Since then, the arguments have been turned upside down with prominent industry insiders and lobbyists openly acknowledging power-weapons connections. This remarkable about-turn has clear origins in the crisis facing nuclear power and the perceived need to secure increased subsidies to prevent reactors closing and to build new ones.2
One thread of the new sales pitch ‒ one which doesn't fundamentally contradict long-standing denials of power-weapons connections ‒ has been a ratcheting up of the argument that countries with a thriving nuclear export industry, (necessarily) underpinned by a thriving domestic nuclear industry, are best placed to influence which countries can or can't pursue weapons.3
Another thread of the new sales pitch ‒ and this really is new ‒ is to openly link to nuclear power to weapons, to celebrate the connections and to use them to lobby for greater subsidies for nuclear power.2 The US Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, tried in mid-2017 to convince politicians in Washington that if the AP1000 reactor construction projects in South Carolina and Georgia weren't completed, it would stunt development of the nation's nuclear weapons complex.4
The Nuclear Energy Institute paper wasn't publicly released. But in the second half of 2017, numerous nuclear insiders and lobbyists openly acknowledged power-weapons connections and called for additional subsidies for nuclear power. The most important of these initiatives was a paper by the Energy Futures Initiative ‒ a creation of Ernest Moniz, who served as energy secretary under President Barack Obama.5
Even the uranium industry has jumped on the bandwagon, with two US companies warning that reliance on foreign sources threatens national security and lodging a petition with the Department of Commerce calling for US utilities to be required to purchase a minimum 25% of their requirements from domestic mines.6
Decades of deceit have been thrown overboard with the new sales pitch linking nuclear power and weapons. However there are still some hold-outs.7 Ted Norhaus, a self-styled 'pro-nuclear environmentalist', argues that to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons is "extremely misleading" because they involve different physics, different technologies and different institutions.8
Ben Heard ‒ a nuclear lobbyist in Australia whose 'Bright New World' lobby group accepts secret corporate donations9,10 ‒ attacked the Australian Conservation Foundation for its failure to acknowledge the "obvious distinction" between nuclear power and weapons and for "co-opting disarmament … toward their ideological campaigns against peaceful science and technology".11
Heard wrote in December 2017: "Peace is furthered when a nation embraces nuclear power, because it makes that nation empirically less likely to embark on a nuclear weapons program. That is the finding of a 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed journal International Security."11 In fact, that non-statistically significant finding sat alongside a contrary, statistically significant finding in the International Security journal article: the annual probability of starting a nuclear weapons program is more than twice as high in countries with an operating power reactor or one under construction.12
Until recently, another nuclear lobbyist continuing to deny power-weapons connections was Michael Shellenberger from the 'Environmental Progress' pro-nuclear lobby group in the US. He told an IAEA conference last year that "nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons".13 And he claimed last year that "one of FOE-Greenpeace's biggest lies about nuclear energy is that it leads to weapons" and that there is an "inverse relationship between energy and weapons".14 He concluded that article by asserting that "nuclear is our only source of energy with a transcendent moral purpose, to lift all humans out of poverty, reverse humankind's negative environmental impact, and guarantee peace."14
One of Shellenberger's bright ideas was to launch a campaign to garner international support for the construction of nuclear power reactors in North Korea.15 That would ‒ somehow, magically ‒ curtail or end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. This "atoms for peace" initiative would be, in Shellenberger's words, "one of the best means of creating peace with North Korea".14 No matter that his "new framework" is much the same as the old 1994 Agreed Framework, which was a complete failure.16
In two articles published in August, Shellenberger has done a 180-degree backflip on the power-weapons connections.17,18
"[N]ational security, having a weapons option, is often the most important factor in a state pursuing peaceful nuclear energy", Shellenberger now believes.19
A recent analysis from Environmental Progress finds that of the 26 nations that are building or are committed to build nuclear power plants, 23 have nuclear weapons, had weapons, or have shown interest in acquiring weapons.20 "While those 23 nations clearly have motives other than national security for pursuing nuclear energy," Shellenberger writes, "gaining weapons latency appears to be the difference-maker. The flip side also appears true: nations that lack a need for weapons latency often decide not to build nuclear power plants ... Recently, Vietnam and South Africa, neither of which face a significant security threat, decided against building nuclear plants ..."17
Here is the break-down of the 26 countries that are building or are committed to build nuclear power plants:17
- Thirteen nations had a weapons program, or have shown interest in acquiring a weapon: Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, UAE.
- Seven nations have weapons (France, US, Britain, China, Russia, India and Pakistan), two had weapons as part of the Soviet Union (Ukraine and Belarus), and one (Slovakia) was part of a nation (Czechoslovakia) that sought a weapon.
- Poland, Hungary, and Finland are the only three nations (of the 26) for which Environmental Progress could find no evidence of "weapons latency" as a motivation.
Shellenberger points to research by Fuhrmann and Tkach which found that 31 nations had the capacity to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, and that 71% of them created that capacity to give themselves weapons latency.21
Current patterns connecting the pursuit of power and weapons stretch back across the 60 years of civilian nuclear power. Shellenberger notes that "at least 20 nations sought nuclear power at least in part to give themselves the option of creating a nuclear weapon" ‒ Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, France, Italy, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, Norway, Romania, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, West Germany, Yugoslavia.17
Nuclear weapons ‒ a force for peace?
So far, so good. The pursuit of nuclear power and weapons are often linked. That's a powerful reason to eschew nuclear power, to strengthen the safeguards system, to tighten export controls, to restrict the spread of enrichment and reprocessing, and so on. But Shellenberger has a very different take on the issues.
Discussing the Fuhrmann and Tkach article (and studiously avoiding a vast body of contrary literature), Shellenberger writes:17
"What was the relationship between nuclear latency and military conflict? It was negative. "Nuclear latency appears to provide states with deterrence-related benefits," they [Fuhrmann and Tkach] concluded, "that are distinct from actively pursuing nuclear bombs."
"Why might this be? Arriving at an ultimate cause is difficult if not impossible, the authors note. But one obvious possibility is that the "latent nuclear powers may be able to deter conflict by (implicitly) threatening to ‘go nuclear' following an attack." ...
"After over 60 years of national security driving nuclear power into the international system, we can now add "preventing war" to the list of nuclear energy's superior characteristics. ...
"As a lifelong peace activist and pro-nuclear environmentalist, I almost fell out of my chair when I discovered the paper by Fuhrmann and Tkach. All that most nations will need to deter military threats is nuclear power ‒ a bomb isn't even required? Why in the world, I wondered, is this fact not being promoted as one of nuclear powers many benefits?
"The answer is that the nuclear industry and scientific community have tried, since Atoms for Peace began 65 years ago, to downplay any connection between the two ‒ and for an understandable reason: they don't want the public to associate nuclear power plants with nuclear war.
"But in seeking to deny the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the nuclear community today finds itself in the increasingly untenable position of having to deny these real world connections ‒ of motivations and means ‒ between the two. Worse, in denying the connection between energy and weapons, the nuclear community reinforces the widespread belief that nuclear weapons have made the world a more dangerous place when the opposite is the case. …
"In the real world, nuclear weapons have only been used to end or prevent war — a remarkable record for the world's most dangerous objects.
"Nuclear energy, without a doubt, is spreading and will continue to spread around the world, largely with national security as a motivation. The question is whether the nuclear industry will, alongside anti-nuclear activists, persist in stigmatizing weapons latency as a nuclear power "bug" rather than tout it as the epochal, peace-making feature it is."
Shellenberger asks why the deterrent effect of nuclear power isn't being promoted as one of its many benefits. A better answer to the one he offers is that the premise is nonsense. Nuclear weapons can have a deterrent effect ‒ in a uniquely dangerous and potentially uniquely counterproductive manner ‒ but any correlation between latent nuclear weapons capabilities and reduced military conflict is just that, correlation not causation.
In a second article, Shellenberger offers the contrarian wisdom that "nuclear weapons make us peaceful".18 He writes:
"The widespread assumption is that the more nations have nuclear weapons, the more dangerous the world will be. But is that really the case? ... [I]t is impossible not to be struck by these facts:
- No nation with a nuclear weapon has ever been invaded by another nation.
- The number of deaths in battle worldwide [per 100,000 of world population] has declined 95 percent in the 70 years since the invention and spread of nuclear weapons;
- The number of Indian and Pakistani civilian and security forces deaths in two disputed territories declined 95 percent after Pakistan's first nuclear weapons test in 1998. …
"The division of the world into nuclear-armed and unarmed nations has long been arbitrary and unfair. Nuclear-armed nations, except for France, hypocritically punished India for decades with trade sanctions for acquiring a weapon. ...
"[A] world without nuclear weapons would be a world where relatively weak nations ‒ like France and Britain before World War II and North Korea and Iran today ‒ are deprived the only power on Earth capable of preventing a military invasion by a more powerful adversary. Who are we to deny weak nations the nuclear weapons they need for self-defense? The answer should by now be clear: hypocritical, short-sighted, and imperialistic."
So Iran should be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons ‒ or perhaps Iran should be gifted nuclear weapons by an enlightened weapons state. Shellenberger cites long-term nuclear weapons proliferation enthusiast Kenneth Waltz, who claims that the "decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis … will end only when a balance of military power is restored".18 Dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi ought to have acquired nuclear weapons, according to Shellenberger, not least because they were killed and their regimes overthrown after they gave up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.18 Shellenberger cites a German academic who argues that a nuclear-armed Germany "would stabilize NATO and the security of the Western World".18,22 We "should be glad that North Korea acquired the bomb" according to Shellenberger.18 And on it goes ‒ his enthusiasm for nuclear weapons proliferation knows no bounds.
What to make of Shellenberger's conversion?
No doubt there will be more acknowledgements of power-weapons connections by nuclear industry insiders and lobbyists. As Shellenberger notes, the nuclear 'community' today finds itself in an increasingly untenable position denying the connections.17
What to make of Shellenberger's advocacy of nuclear weapons proliferation? There is a degree of domestic support for nuclear weapons programs in weapons states … but few people support generalized nuclear weapons proliferation and few would swallow Shellenberger's arguments including his call to shred the non-proliferation and disarmament system and to encourage weapons proliferation.
Understanding of the power-weapons connections, combined with opposition to nuclear weapons, is one of the motivations driving opposition to nuclear power. According to Shellenberger, the only two US states forcing the closure of nuclear plants, California and New York, also had the strongest nuclear disarmament movements.17
There is some concern that claims that the civil nuclear industry is an important (or even necessary) underpinning of a weapons program will be successfully used to secure additional subsidies for troubled nuclear power programs (e.g. in the US, France and the UK). After all, nuclear insiders and lobbyists wouldn't abandon their decades-long deceit about power-weapons connections if not for the possibility that their new argument will gain traction, among politicians if not the public.
The growing acknowledgement ‒ and public understanding ‒ of power-weapons connections might have consequences for nuclear power newcomer countries such as Saudi Arabia. Assuming that the starting point is opposition to a Saudi nuclear weapons program, heightened sensitivity might constrain nuclear exporters who would otherwise export to Saudi Arabia with minimalist safeguards and no serious attempt to check the regime's weapons ambitions. Or it might not lead to that outcome … as things stand, numerous nuclear exporters are scrambling for a share of the Saudi nuclear power program regardless of proliferation concerns.
More generally, a growing understanding of power-weapons connections might lead to a strengthening of the safeguards system along with other measures to firewall nuclear power from weapons. But again, that's hypothetical and it is at best some way down the track ‒ there is no momentum in that direction.
And another hypothetical arising from the growing awareness about power-weapons connections: proliferation risks might be (and ought to be) factored in as a significant negative in comparative assessments of power generation options.
'Shellenberger has gone down a rabbit hole'
As for Shellenberger, Nuclear Monitor has previously exposed the litany of falsehoods in his writings on nuclear and energy issues.16 In his most recent articles he exposes himself as an intellectual lightweight prepared to swing from one extreme of a debate to the other if that's what it takes to build the case for additional subsidies for nuclear power.
A dangerous intellectual lightweight. Responding to Shellenberger's more-the-merrier attitude towards nuclear weapons proliferation, pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman puts it bluntly: "Here's the problem. The more nations have nuclear weapons, the more dangerous the world will be. Sooner or later some tin pot dictator or religious zealot, is likely to push a button and send us all to eternity."23
Shellenberger's about-turn on power-weapons connections provoked a hostile response from Yurman:23
"Shellenberger has crossed a red line for the global commercial nuclear industry, which has done everything in its power to avoid having the public conflate nuclear weapons with commercial nuclear energy. Worse, he's given opponents of nuclear energy, like Greenpeace, a ready-made tool to attack the industry. …
"In the end he may have painted himself into a corner. Not only has he alienated some of his supporters on the commercial nuclear side of the house, but he also has energized the nonproliferation establishment, within governments and among NGOs, offering them a rich opportunity promote critical reviews of the risks of expanding nuclear energy as a solution to the challenge of climate change. …
"Shellenberger has gone down a rabbit hole with his two essays promoting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Given all the great things he has done to promote commercial nuclear energy, it is a perplexing and disturbing development.
"It's ok to be contrarian, but I fear he will pay a price for it with reduced support from some of his current supporters and he will face critical reviews from detractors of these essays. In the end public support and perception of the safety of nuclear energy may be diminished by these essays since they will lead to increased conflating of commercial nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. The fatal attraction of the power of nuclear weapons has lured another victim. It's an ill-fated step backwards."
1. Nuclear Monitor #804, 28 May 2015, 'The myth of the peaceful atom', www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/804/myth-peaceful-atom
2. Nuclear Monitor #850, 7 Sept 2017, 'Nuclear power, weapons and 'national security'', www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/850/nuclear-power-weapons-and-...
3. Nuclear Monitor #850, 'Does the US need a strong nuclear industry to prevent proliferation abroad?', www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/850/does-us-need-strong-nuclea...
4. Amy Harder, 16 June 2017, 'Nuclear scramble on tax credits', www.axios.com/nuclear-scramble-on-tax-credits-2442400126.html
5. Energy Futures Initiative, 2017, 'The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler',
6. Nuclear Monitor #857, 14 Feb 2018, '2017 in review: Uranium is best left in the ground', https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/857/2017-review-uranium-be...
7. Nuclear Monitor #858, ''Pro-nuclear environmentalists' in denial about power/weapons connections', https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/858/pro-nuclear-environmen...
8. Ted Norhaus, 14 May 2017, 'Time to stop confusing nuclear weapons with nuclear power', http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/333329-time-to-...
9. Friends of the Earth, 'Ben Heard and the fake environment group 'Bright New World' that accepts secret corporate donations', https://nuclear.foe.org.au/ben-heard-secret-corporate-donations/
11. Ben Heard, 12 Dec 2017, 'Australian Conservation Foundation leverages peace prize against peaceful technology', www.brightnewworld.org/media/2017/12/12/acfnot4peace
12. Nicholas L. Miller, 2017, 'Why Nuclear Energy Programs Rarely Lead to Proliferation', International Security 42, No. 2, pp.40-77, www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/10.1162/ISEC_a_00293
13. Michael Shellenberger, 30 Oct 2017, 'Saving Power in Danger: Michael Shellenberger Keynote Address to IAEA', http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/10/30/saving-power-in-dan...
14. Michael Shellenberger, 16 Oct 2017, 'Enemies of the Earth: Unmasking the Dirty War Against Clean Energy in South Korea by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace', http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/10/16/enemies-of-the-eart...
15. 1 June 2017, 'US-Korea Letter', www.environmentalprogress.org/us-korea-letter
16. Nuclear Monitor #853, 30 Oct 2017, 'Exposing the misinformation of Michael Shellenberger and 'Environmental Progress'', www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/853/exposing-misinformation-mi...
17. Michael Shellenberger, 29 Aug 2018, 'For Nations Seeking Nuclear Energy, The Option To Build A Weapon Remains A Feature Not A Bug', www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/08/29/for-nations-seeking...
18. Michael Shellenberger, 6 Aug 2018, 'Who Are We To Deny Weak Nations The Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense?', www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/08/06/who-are-we-to-deny-...
19. Michael Shellenberger, 28 Aug 2018, 'How Nations Go Nuclear: An Interview With M.I.T.'s Vipin Narang', http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2018/8/28/vipin-narang-interview
20. Environmental Progress, 2018, Nations Building Nuclear ‒ Proliferation Analysis, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1YA4gLOekXNXiwpggCEx3uUpeu_STBlN_...
21. Matthew Fuhrmann and Benjamin Tkach, 8 Jan 2015, 'Almost nuclear: Introducing the Nuclear Latency dataset', Conflict Management and Peace Science,
22. Christian Hacke, 6 Aug 2018, 'As America Becomes Isolationist Under Trump, Germany Should Pursue Nuclear Weapons for Self-Defense', http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2018/8/6/as-america-becomes-is...
23. Dan Yurman, 30 Aug 2018, 'The Fatal Attraction of Nuclear Weapons Lures Another Victim', http://neutronbytes.com/2018/08/30/the-fatal-attraction-of-nuclear-weapo...