Putting the Nuclear Genie
Back in the Bottle
Theodore B. TaylorPO Box 662, Wellsville, NY 14895
Tel: 716-593-3084 Fax: 716-593-6347
Presented at the University of California at Santa Barbara
May 1, 1996
Much of the essence of human behavior has been illustrated by stories of supernatural beings and ordinary people. The Bible is full of them. So is Arabian folklore, with its stories about genies and people who release them from some kind of container. My big Webster dictionary defines genie, or Finn," as "any of a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human or animal forms, and capable of influencing mankind for good and evil." Other definitions stress the evil side of genies. For my purposes here I choose the Oxford English Dictionary reference to "the horrible genie of civil murder."
The story of "The Fisherman and the Genie" may be the source of a statement often made in discussions of abolition of nuclear weapons, that "the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle." A poor fisherman finds an opaque brass bottle in his net. When he opens it black smoke emerges and takes the form of a huge and fearful monster....I couldn't resist bringing along some copies of illustrations of the release of the genie as shown in several children' story books....This first one strongly suggests the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima... The next are hardly pictures of benevolent servants.
In the versions of this story I've seen so far, the genie is always put back in the bottle or otherwise contained. The genie is sometimes released again, sometimes not. Containment of the genie is achieved by taunting it along the lines that it's a fake because it could obviously never have fit in that little bottle. When the genie is tricked into showing how he can get back in the bottle, the fisherman claps the top back on. In a modern variant of the story, called "Do Not Open," all this is done by Miss Moody, who lives at land's end with her cat, Captain Kidd. Her taunt is that the huge monster doesn't scare her at all, that only a mouse could do that. When the genie turns into a mouse, Captain Kidd gobbles it up, then burps. No more genie.
I think of the nuclear genie as the capacity to release the cosmic energy that had never been manipulated in significant quantities by humans until nearly the middle of the 20th Century. To achieve this capacity we had to make the immensely powerful stuff that is needed to make nuclear explosives. Today this means plutonium or highly enriched uranium, neither of which exist naturally on our planet. If we can contain these materials and the means for their production the nuclear genie will be powerless.
Tomorrow people may find ways to bypass the need for these very special materials, and use only the fusion of naturally occurring isotopes of light elements, principally deuterium and lithium, to make nuclear weapons. This will make control of the nuclear genie much more difficult When the nuclear genie was released at Alamogordo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki he had less than 100 kilograms of the heavy special nuclear materials. These could fit in a small shoe box, yet they explosively released the energy equivalent of three piles of high explosive each bigger than the White House.
The nuclear genie has proliferated enormously since it was first released. Active disclosed or denied proliferation of the original genie is now proceeding in at least a dozen countries. Latent proliferation of nuclear weapon technologies is proceeding rapidly as more and more countries acquire nuclear power plants and other technologies that bring countries much closer to having nuclear weapons, whether or not their governments have yet called on the genie to provide them. Some countries, such as Sweden, have also undertaken extensive secret development of nuclear weapon technology up to but not including deployment of actual weapons.
None of the first five admitted customers for the nuclear genie's services show any substantive signs of ever giving up those services. No wonder that other countries are going after them too, albeit secretly or ambiguously.
The United States and Russia still have tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, yet their nuclear weaponeers continue working on new types of nuclear explosives. These include possibilities for pure fusion weapons, and for weapons that can beam microwaves, at immense power levels, to disable targets in space or on the ground-and many more. Some of this work is now being done cooperatively by weaponeers in both countries. The billions of dollars being allocated by the U.S. Department of Energy to what is euphemistically called "stockpile stewardship" are being used to keep U. S. nuclear weaponeers actively working on their wares, whether or not a zero yield Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty goes into force soon.
Nuclear terrorism or nuclear attacks prompted by leaders of undisclosed governments, against which the threat of nuclear retaliation is ineffective, are rapidly becoming more credible. The information, materials, and equipment needed to make easily transportable nuclear explosives continue to become more and more accessible worldwide. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium, especially in Russia, are being repeatedly reported as having grossly inadequate physical security. Reports of international smuggling and black markets in these materials are becoming commonplace.
More than 400 nuclear power plants in 30 countries have so far produced about four times as much plutonium as was ever designated for the world's nuclear weapons. These nearly 1 million kilograms of commercial plutonium represent an advanced state of global "latent" proliferation of nuclear weapons. This plutonium, after chemical extraction from spent fuel, can be used to make all kinds of destructive, deliverable, and reliable nuclear weapons that have been developed.
Production of plutonium in these power plants was not the result of a decision to get nuclear weapons. It happens automatically. The plutonium remains in the reactor fuel if it is not chemcally separated. About 200,000 kilograms of this plutonium have been chemically separated from the spent fuel, mostly for storage and possible eventual use as nuclear fuel, in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Commercial separation of plutonium from U. S. spent fuel started some 25 years ago, at West Valley in Western New York, but was discontinued in a few years. The amount of plutonium separated there was only several tons-enough to arm a nation but small compared with the US military plutonium stockpile. Inadequate management of radioactive wastes released at West Valley has left a gruesome legacy there that will cost at least another billion dollars to deal with adequately.
The world's present inventory of a million or so kilograms of plutonium is distributed in various forms in thousands of places. It is in operating nuclear power plant cores; in spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plant sites or elsewhere; in stockpiles of stored separated commercial or military plutonium compounds such as plutonium oxide or plutonium nitrate solution; in the form of plutonium metal in so-called "pits"from dismantled nuclear weapons; in deployed nuclear weapons. Thousands of kilograms of plutonium are also in huge accumulations of wastes from nuclear fuel processing and fabrication of nuclear weapons. Roughly 10,000 kilograms of plutonium released by underground nuclear tests are mixed with huge quantities of underground soil and rock at the Nevada, Semipalatinsk, and other nuclear test sites. Another thousand or so kilograms of plutonium have been released to the atmosphere by above ground nuclear tests, mostly before 1963. There are even a dozen or so kilograms of plutonium on the moon, and perhaps several hundred kilograms that were propelled to outer space by nuclear tests in the early 1960s.
There are also now about one and one half million kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HE) in the world, most of which was produced for use in nuclear weapons. Yet the several tens of thousands of kilograms of HE produced for other purposes, such as research and test reactors, also represent real or potential nuclear weapon proliferation threats in many countries.
The facilities and expertise needed for chemical extraction of plutonium from spent fuel and enrichment of uranium to weapon grade levels are also increasingly accessible worldwide.
Along with proliferation of the unique, artificial materials needed for nuclear explosives, the expertise and tools and facilities needed to produce and concentrate them, and incorporate them into nuclear explosive devices, have also proliferated globally. Many nuclear genies are now accessible to many masters-not only leaders of different governments and military establishments, but, quite possibly, to terrorists and other criminals.
Perhaps the greatest dangers of all are of military bombardment or sabotage of places where there are especially large accumulations of highly radioactive materials. These materials could contaminate huge areas to dangerous levels if released by bombardment with chemical or nuclear explosives, or by appropriate manipulation of equipment by people who forcibly take control of a facility containing large quantities of radioactive materials. Such facilities might include operating power reactors, storage pools or dry cask arrays storing spent fuel from many reactors, burial sites for high level radioactive wastes from military or civil fuel reprocessing, long term surface storage facilities for tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel, or surface storage facilities for plutonium removed from dismantled nuclear warheads or extracted from power reactor spent fuel.
So the nuclear genie has proliferated considerably since it was first released. If the plutonium and HEU were all separated from other chemicals, their total volume would now be the same as a moderate sized living room-not exactly a shoe box, but still tiny compared with any measure of the destructiveness of the materials if used for making nuclear weapons. By now the capacity for destructive use of the nuclear genie is clear off the human scale of things, but the size of global genie's stockpiles of these materials remains comparatively small.
This suggests a guiding principle for taking and then maintaining control of the nuclear genie and his offspring. I call this the "The Principle of Containment." As long as significant quantities -that is grams or more-of fairly concentrated plutonium or enriched uranium exist on Earth, they are surrounded by physical barriers and sensitive equipment that will reliably detect the transfer of any of these nuclear materials from places where they are supposed to be, at least temporarily, to where they are not. All possible entrances to and exits from such facilities are kept to a minimum, and are continuously monitored. If the monitors signal any unauthorized transfer of nuclear material, additional barriers are closed and a system of prevention of theft or other illegal transfer of any of the materials goes into action. The response system can expand in size and effectiveness to thwart any credible attempt to defeat it.
As a part of a strategy for global containment of plutonium and enriched uranium until safe and reliable ways to dispose permanently of both have been developed and put into action, ways to maintain effective international control over such systems need to be worked out. Some details of all this have been studied, and there already is some experience with such containment systems. I have found this to be a very challenging but extremely interesting subject I can't cover here in any detail. Possiblities for secure containment of the nuclear genie's source of energy in a volume that is not necessarily huge on the human scale of things therefore still exist, at least for a while longer. But we had better get moving.
We need a frequently articulated global taboo on nuclear weapons and the facilities, processes, and materials that are needed to make them. This taboo follows naturally from widely shared, personal moral convictions about weapons of mass destruction. It has troubled me deeply for many years that my country has, without letup, been prepared, under some conditions, to launch nuclear weapons that would kill millions of innocent people. To me, and to most people I talk to these days, this is preparation for mass murder that cannot be justified under any conditions. We humans must find alternatives to retaliation in kind to acts of massive and indiscriminate violence.
This taboo needs to be extended worldwide to any action that violates any international laws that relate to the research, development, production, or possession of nuclear weapons.