The Bomb is in Our Backyard
by Diane Swords

“…we are concerned that these weapons will soon fall into…the hands of unstable national governments, aggressive military cliques or irresponsible terrorist groups, with incalculable consequences for us all. This danger is the direct result of the uncontrolled growth of the nuclear power industry, which is making widely available the materials needed for such weapons.

This quote was not a recent comment on Iran and North Korea. This was a statement by Herbert Scoville in 1976. Scoville had led nuclear programs with the Defense Department and then with the CIA. He and three other former high-level officialscametogether at the previous officeofAlbertEinstein to publicize concern over this imminent danger.

It is not new information that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are intertwined. Yet the world acts as if they could be kept separate. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) exemplifiesthisOrwellian “doublespeak” still accepted by most of the world, supporting an “inalienable right” to nuclear power and enacting safeguards that haven’t worked. It encourages the spread of nuclear energy while opposing dissemination of weapons produced from it.

Why is it urgent to bring this contradiction to light? While international tensions rise regarding suspicions that Iran is developing weapons from a nuclear power program that was legal under the NPT, the 30-year hiatus in US nuclear plant licenses may be ending. Global warming is cynically being used by the industry to push a nuclear “renaissance,” which will actually exacerbate the problem. Just north of Syracuse, NY, the nuclear industry is pressing to build a fourth nuclear power plant. While problematic for many reasons, the focus here is its connection to weapons.

The Connections
In the early 1950s, nuclear power provided a salve for the national conscience. “The peaceful atom” was to be the silver lining to the atom bomb. Behind this public face, it provided cover and materials for the US bomb program. Plants like the Portsmouth-Piketon uranium enrichment plant in Ohio that ran from 1954-2001, were sources of fuel for both power and weapons, while causing a “devastating plague of radiation-related diseases.”

It takes extensive scientificknow-how to enrich uranium for a bomb, but only denial or the racist assumption that others aren’t smart enough could support the expectation that this capability would not be obtained. Even if fuel for nuclear power generation is provided under safeguards, by-products of nuclear power generation can be used for crude weapons. According to Beyond Nuclear, “a typical 1000 megawatt reactor produces enough plutonium each year for 40 nuclear bombs.” Beyond Nuclear notes that India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and possibly Iran all developed nuclear weapons from their power programs. The NPT premise that nuclear power provides a bargaining chip to keep non-nuclear countries from seeking weapons has failed.

Security at reactors is inadequate and becoming more so due to the economic crisis. Plants are cutting staff and cutting corners. Even a properly functioning plant emits radiation in “planned releases” and unplanned leaks. But an attack by an airliner on a nuclear plant would turn it into a bomb in our backyard. Waste stored at power plants is similarly vulnerable. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), supposedly a regulatory body, is a rubber stamp and cheerleader for the industry.

Uranium mining for power and weapons violates human rights by destroying land and resources. Generally, people of color and the poor bear the brunt of these acts of environmental racism. At the other end of the cycle, waste tends to be dumped on indigenous lands. Nuclear power and weapons both lead to repressive governance to protect such flagrantinjustice.Corporationsthat engage in these practices profitfromboth energy and weapons programs.

Bechtel, perhaps the most egregious program, is not unique. Bechtel designed or built 45 nuclear plants in the US. Bechtel Nevada manages the Nevada Test site and partners with other corporations (includ- ing Lockheed Martin) to run nuclear weapons labs. “Bechtel’s close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency helped influence overthrows of several foreign governments perceived as unfriendly to American business goals.”

Strategic Implications for the Peace Movement

In spite of these connections, for many years the peace movement acted as if this separation made sense. Nuclear Freeze leaders maintained that raising issues other than weapons would dilute its message and lose constituents. This has finally changed. President Obama seems serious about abolishing nuclear weapons. In his April 5 Prague speech he asserted the “commitment to seek peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The President just negotiated what could yield a reduction of weapons beyond any previous administration. If he sincerely opposes nuclear weapons, given the above con- nections, how can he support nucle ar power?

• President Obama will soon make two appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, creating the opportunity for the first truly independent NRC ever. Write to urge him to appoint qualified independent individuals who will listen to dissent.

• Activists have beaten back inclusion of subsidies for nuclear power in the climate bill, but as of this writing, there is an effort to put them back in as a way to get the bill passed. Contact the White House and your Senators to oppose subsidies.

Over the long term:
• Establish ongoing correspondence with President Obama and Congressman Maffei (or your representative) emphasizing the connections between nuclear power and weapons and urging them to oppose both.

• Participate in the international campaign building up to the NPT review conference in May 2010. Begin by
circulating petitions on Hiroshima Day.

• Contact SPC or Peace Action for details on these actions.

In the Democratic Presidential debate Obama stated, “Nuclear power should be part of the energy mix,” but criticized then Vice President Cheney’s cozy relationship with the industry. In a newspaper interview, Obama equivocated, “I am not a nuclear energy proponent,” but “we should explore nuclear energy,” and he criticized the NRC as a “captive of the industries that it regulates.” Obama also stated ambiguously, “I am agnostic on nuclear power.… Given the importance of reducing carbon emissions, nuclear should be in the mix IF…we can make it safe, we know how to store it, we can make sure it is not vulnerable to terrorist attack, it is not enhancing proliferation….”

Congressman Dan Maffei, meeting with local activists, defended nuclear power but said he would oppose government subsidies. We must hold him to this commitment. We have seen the pressure he faces from plant proponents in Oswego, NY. We can imagine Obama experiences many times that type of pressure.

Do we need to convince Obama and Maffei of the facts above? Or do we need to convince them there is a large enough constituency that they can safely come out against nuclear power? Fortunately, the actions are the same for either tactic. We must be as persistent as the nuclear industry in sending them information and showing them we are here.


1. These statements can be read in full at
2. Wasserman, Harvey "Big Nuke's Desparate Radioactive Hoax in Impoverished Ohio".
5. The question on nuclear power can be viewed at
6. The interview with Guy R. McMillan of the "Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinal" can be viewed at
7. Campaign for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Diane is an activist and academic who teaches intergroup dialogue, women’s studies and sociology at SU while acting “locally and globally,” especially on nuclear issues.