By Mari Inoue
President Emmanuel Macron of France once said that “without civil nuclear power, there is no military nuclear power, and without military nuclear power, there is no civil nuclear power.” This article will examine some common features of military and civilian nuclear programs including their histories, technologies, and regulatory bodies.
The Manhattan Project that designed and produced the first atomic bomb also produced the first modern nuclear reactor, the B reactor. Located at the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington State, it produced plutonium for the first nuclear testing at Trinity site in New Mexico as well as for the atomic bomb used in Nagasaki in 1945 that ended more than 70,000 lives and destroyed the health of an additional 70,000+ people. The first modern nuclear reactor was developed to create nuclear weapons to kill civilians in war.
AEC: Successor of the Manhattan Project
Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took over the Manhattan Project’s sprawling scientific and industrial complex. The AEC focused on designing and producing nuclear weapons, conducting weapons testing in Nevada and the Pacific, and developing reactors for naval propulsion. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 gave the AEC authority to regulate the commercial nuclear power industry while simultaneously promoting nuclear energy. The AEC was disbanded in 1974 and replaced with the Energy Research and Development Administration, for reactor R&D, naval reactors, and nuclear weapons programs, and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate commercial power reactors and other uses of nuclear materials.
The Department of Energy
Since 1977, the Department of Energy oversees both the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its energy system. The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is composed of a nationwide complex of government-owned, contractor-operated national security laboratories, and nuclear weapons production facilities. Together with the Pentagon, the DOE assesses the safety of its nuclear weapons stockpile. The DOE is also responsible for the environmental “cleanup” of nuclear weapons complexes, including Hanford, which is perhaps the most radioactive and hazardous place in the United States.
The US nuclear energy enterprise supports the nuclear navy, as the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, jointly operated by the DOE and the US Navy, which provides naval nuclear reactors fueled by weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. Under the new “AUKUS” deal, the US and UK will transfer naval nuclear propulsion technology and nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
Japan has 47 metric tons of separated plutonium (enough to make 6,000 nuclear weapons according to the Arms Control Association), and is one of the five countries that possess most of the global non-military stockpile of “excess” plutonium — along with the US, UK, Russia, and France. This plutonium is a weapons proliferation threat and a target of nuclear terrorism because it could be used to develop thousands of nuclear warheads. Separating plutonium from used nuclear reactor fuel — from commercial reactors — is formally allowed under the 1988 US-
Japan “123 agreement.”
Nuclear Posture Review
The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2018 explicitly stated that ensuring “the necessary reactor capacity to produce an adequate supply of tritium to meet military requirements” is one of the initiatives that the US will pursue “to ensure the necessary capability, capacity, and responsiveness of the nuclear weapons infrastructure, and the needed skills of the nuclear enterprise workforce.”
The Biden Administration’s 2022 NPR also notes that “modernizing tritium production will assure a reliable and resilient domestic source and options for longer stockpile life tritium components.” It also states: “Meeting our nuclear policy goals would not be possible without a capable, motivated workforce. The military and civilian personnel who work every day in the nuclear enterprise are a national asset whose accomplishments are rarely seen but vitally important.”
Nuclear Energy Institute
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobby group that promotes nuclear power, is explicit about the links between reactors and weapons. Its website says the United States’ nuclear-powered navy (the world’s largest) is supported by the commercial nuclear energy industry and its shared nuclear supply chain; nuclear reactors and fuel facilities are a critical part of the US infrastructure, and they bolster the mission of the US Navy, other areas of the Pentagon and the DOE; and advanced reactors will also play a role in the national defense of the future.
The US commercial nuclear power program compliments its nuclear weapons enterprise. Consequently, supporting nuclear energy is to support nuclear weapons. To achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons, we need to halt commercial production of tritium and the commercial use of highly enriched uranium and plutonium by shutting down operating reactors and halting the construction of new reactors.
— Mari Inoue is a lawyer and activist based in New York City and a co-founder of Manhattan Project for a Nuclear-Free World (mp-nuclear-free.com).
Editor’s note: The Tennessee Valley Authority — owned by the US Government — announced plans to continue violating the separation of civilian and military nuclear programs by increasing tritium production for nuclear weapons in the two Watts Bar civilian reactors, Savannah River Watch reports. The tritium rods irradiated in TVA reactors are processed at the DOE’s Savannah River Site, where the tritium goes into nuclear weapons. This is more proof that Biden’s Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm will continue to violate nuclear non-proliferation norms by using civilian nuclear facilities for production of nuclear weapons materials.