Ecoscience: Nuclear Proliferation

The tremendous quantities of fissile material generated as waste by nuclear power plants significantly increased the potential for nuclear proliferation, the authors argued in 1980.

| September/October 1980

Many people claim that they oppose nuclear power plants because they threaten "the ecology." Trained ecologists, however, often tend to take a different view. The scientists, you see, know that natural ecosystems are quite resilient in the face of increased levels of radioactivity. In fact, such living communities are actually more resistant to radiation than they are to the acid rains that result from the combustion of fossil fuels!

Therefore, from the point of view of the health of the ecosystem—rather than the health of people—nuclear power could be one of our more desirable energy options. It could, that is, except that the weapons connection must also be considered. Unfortunately, the spread of nuclear power plants is intimately connected with the spread of atomic bombs ... called "nuclear proliferation" in current jargon. And atomic warfare, of course, is good for neither people nor ecosystems.

How It Works

It is a sad fact that the knowledge required to build an atomic bomb is very widespread. Credible explosive devices have been designed by college physics students, and—in at least one case—by a high school boy! The basic idea is first to assemble a large enough mass of fissile material (uranium 233 or 235, or plutonium 239) and then hold it together long enough for a nuclear explosion to occur.

U-233, U-235, and P-239 nuclei undergo spontaneous splitting—fissioning—accompanied by the release of both energy and neutrons. If a neutron from a fissioning nucleus is "captured" by another fissile nucleus, it will fission, too ... and release more energy and neutrons. When there are just enough other nuclei around to serve as targets so that a self-sustaining chain reaction occurs, there's said to be a critical mass. With proper controls, the heat from such a chain reaction can be used to make steam in a nuclear power plant.

If there are more than enough target nuclei around, though, the mass is said to be supercritical ... and the chain reaction will escalate with extreme rapidity. And if such a situation persists (a small fraction of a second is enough), it will produce the well-known fireball, followed by the mushroom-shaped cloud.

There are two basic weapons-design techniques for reaching supercriticality. The first involves bringing two subcritical masses together very rapidly. In the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for example, a subcritical chunk of U-235 was fired into the center of another subcritical chunk by a small cannon. The Hiroshima weapon was thus called a "gun-type" bomb.

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