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

  • 065 ecoscience - ehrlichs
    Anne and Paul Ehrlich pointed out that tons of weapons-grade nuclear waste and poor controls had extended the threat of nuclear proliferation beyond governments to subnational terrorist groups.

  • 065 ecoscience - ehrlichs

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.

Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019


Next: February, 16-17 2019
Belton, TX

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters