Nuclear Exports: A Talk about Power and Bombs

Norman Rubin, Derek Paul, and I talked for an hour in May at Energy Probe, an independent anti-nuclear-power organization where Rubin is a full-time researcher and activist. Derek Paul is a Physics Professor at the University of Toronto. At one time he carried on research at Atomic Energy Canada's Chalk River and fervently supported the development of nuclear technology for power. Both he and Rubin belong to Science for Peace and have come to believe that Canada should not export uranium to nuclear weapon states. Here's part of our conversation. [M.S.]

By Metta Spencer (moderator); Norman Rubin, Derek Paul (discussants)

Metta Spencer: Why isn't uranium export a front burner political issue in elections?

Norman Rubin: For several reasons. One would expect the New Democratic Party to lead the charge, since their policy is the clearest. Historically, how ever, the NDP has divided regionally on those lines. The Saskatchewan NDP, in effect, invented the Saskatchewan uranium industry while they were in power. That made NDP uranium export politics a touchy subject for a while. Uranium miners are generally members of the Steelworkers Union. They pay their dues, they vote their votes, and they don't want to lose their jobs. Many other trades in the nuclear industry are organized. This has complicated the position of Steelworkers, CUPE, and the CLC. It's easier to criticize Reagan or Gorbachev than to criticize your next-door neighbor for making something that could wipe us all out-but precisely in bringing home the issue, we have lever age. We can stop our own tax dollars from doing harm. And besides, it is more honest to clean up our own act before criticizing someone else. We are the leaders, we are the world's largest producer of uranium, we are the world's largest exporter of uranium. We are by far the largest supplier Or uranium to nuclear weapons states. Who else in God's name should lead the way on this issue?

Suppose Canada said, "We are not going to sell uranium because you use it to make nuclear weapons!" The U.S. government would have to decide whether it's more important to make the 1500th warhead this year or keep the lights on in Chicago, where they're extremely dependent on nuclear energy. They'd have trouble making ends meet. They'd at least be paying a higher price for their bombs and their nuclear energy. And Australia might come up with the right answer if they had a model to follow. Right now, they have a negative model to follow. They say, well, Canada's a nice country and Canada sells uranium. So the Canadian peace movement should call for Canada to stop selling uranium to nuclear weapons states.

Derek Paul: I agree.

Spencer: How far beyond that should we move? The Non Proliferation Treaty specifies an obligation to provide nuclear technology to other countries. Not one peace activist in a hundred has worked her way through that NPT discussion. I haven't. Even whether the NPT is good or not-whether it should be thrown out. Once you oppose exports, what next?

Rubin: Well, obviously I've been biting my lip all along. I don't much like uranium sales to anybody. I don't much like uranium mining, I don't much like where the uranium goes, I don't like what it becomes transformed into, I don't like the effect the nuclear industry has on energy policy, and on and on. There are some aspects of nuclear medicine and nuclear research that I support. But I'm a soft energy person, one who prefers renewable, efficient forms of energy. However, some of those opinions are somewhat removed from my concerns about nuclear disarmament. The Canadian peace movement should beat the government's door down, to stop subsidizing this activity.

Spencer: In the free trade agreement, aren't there some provisions for increasing exports of uranium?

Rubin: It's an agreement between two governments who like uranium trade. The deal promises to eliminate barriers for uranium sales to the United States. In general, Canadian uranium has had to be refined in Canada before it was exported. That requirement is now to be done away with for sales to the U.S.

Spencer: Will that make much difference?

Rubin: A good question. My guess is that it won't, because we have an enormous refining capacity, paid for by the federal taxpayers. Whatever price Eldorado Nuclear has to charge in order to capture a share of the market, it will charge.

Canada is the one country that gave away nuclear weapons technology, when we gave a reactor to India that they used for military purposes. Canada has also been involved with the U.S. weapons establishment since World War II. Chalk River was set up as part of the Manhattan Project. There is still active trade between the U.S. Department of Energy and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Trucks go from U.S. military installations to Chalk River and other trucks go back to U.S. weapons installations. Money changes between hands through those parties. There are occasional technology transfer arrangements between ACL and nuclear weapons installations, as I understand i~. I know that there are technology transfer arrangements between Ontario Hydro and U.S. nuclear weapons installations. There are exchanges of scholars and courses are given by Ontario Hydro to help nuclear weapons builders in the States do their job better. If Ontario Hydro begins exporting tritium, it will have ascended to a new plane in its relationship with nuclear weapons builders.

Paul: The thing that convinces me that something has to be done in this area is that the failure of the nuclear states to live up to their pledges-particularly the three signatories of the NPT that have not dismantled nuclear bombs by getting rid of the fissile material. France and the United States have been increasing their nuclear armaments, even though it makes no sense.

Spencer: The NPT has to be reviewed in 1990. How can the peace movement prepare to contribute to that debate?

Rubin: The Non-Proliferation Treaty is in some ways a remarkable accomplishment, and in some ways a hoax. I'm always reminded of an old riddle: What is it that nobody wants, but once they have it, nobody wants to get rid of it. When I was a kid, the answer was a bald head, but I think the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a pretty good alternative answer. It was drafted by nuclear weapons stales. It is supremely a government product. On nuclear energy, governments have been consistently less intelligent than their populace, worldwide. The Soviet Union wants to build nuclear reactors more than the Soviet people do, the Ontario government wants to build reactors more than the Ontario people do, et cetera. One searches in vain for a country where the government is more anti-nuclear than the people. Now when treaties are written, it is governments that get to write them. This treaty was drafted in the late sixties when no one knew half as much about nuclear energy as we now know, but it was drafted by governments, many of whom are still pro-nuclear, even though their people are not. It is based on the premise that nuclear energy is the best thing going. If the premise were true, it would make more sense. But the peoples of the world have been turning against nuclear energy, deciding that it is not a good way to keep them freezing in the dark. The NPT becomes irrelevant-or worse, wrong headed-as a bargain where, in return for not developing nuclear weapons, a country gets the advantage of unhindered trade in uranium and nuclear reactors, and (God help us!) peaceful nuclear explosives.

Spencer: The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) apparently isn't strong enough.

Rubin: It is a creature of the world's governments.

Spencer: Right, and it's possible to steal the stuff produced by nuclear reactors. Countries get weapons material through illegitimate channels.

Rubin: To be sure, inspected, safeguarded reactors overall are better than uninspected, unsafe guarded reactors, nobody would disagree with that. But one has to realize the Inter national Atomic Energy Agency is the international association of every country's AECL. It is in effect, where the nuclear establishments of each central government get together. Well, AECL doesn't speak for me, it doesn't speak for PEACE Magazine readers, but in Vienna at the meetings of IAEA, it does speak for us. That's one of the things wrong with what the IAEA does, and what in fact the United Nations does whenever nuclear energy is concerned.

Last year the U.N. sponsored a conference called "The United Nations Conference on International Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy." Canada sent a large delegation to sell our nuclear wares to Third World countries. They were not speaking for me. I don't want to sell to those countries and their citizens don't want to buy from us. But the governments of Ethiopia and Bangladesh were there, figuring out what they could buy from the government of Canada. The international agencies are in many ways worse than national ones.

Spencer: And as to the NPT?

Rubin: Ah, it is tough to say what should happen to the NPT, again like what should happen to a bald head. It would be nice if the NPT gave non-nuclear weapons states access to energy technology on some preferred basis over nuclear weapons states. Such a treaty might be a force for good in the world. The NPT isn't it, but it does make it harder for many nations to ac quire their first nuclear bomb, so I'm not sure I want to destroy it.

Spencer: Can we strengthen it without destroying it? What should we be moving toward?

Rubin: In the last NPT review session [in 1985] anybody who would reform the NPT significantly was labelled a foe of the NPT and the friends of the NPT won the day. Those include the nuclear weapons states. The United States and the Soviet Union have no problem agreeing that the NPT is wonderful and that anybody who wants to change it is the enemy. It'll be interesting to see if they win in 1990. And if not, whether we'll have a vacuum, whether that vacuum will be good or bad. I certainly do not want to increase the political awareness of the proliferation issue by helping some countries develop their first nuclear weapons. It would be great for political awareness but it's too high a price.

Paul: This is the dilemma. The nuclear weapons states are not observing it but what's the alternative? The alternative seems to be to threaten them with what they don't want- proliferation. Norman was hinting at this. Imagine that Canada announced that unless the nuclear states started to disarm nuclear arms now, it was going to offer nuclear technology to all comers. This might have more political effect than refusing to export uranium, but it has the side effect of being irresponsible.

Rubin: Would you make the delivery of the technology to the first customer country, like Libya?

Paul: Yes, but, as with all threats, such as your proposed announcement that you're not going to export uranium...

Rubin: That's not a threat. You would in fact stop selling to the United States.

Paul: You would stop selling to the United States, but then you'd have all the repercussions to deal with. Life could be made so difficult that you would have to resume it.

Rubin: Ultimately, you're asking: Is Canada sovereign? Can we do anything or are we a 51st state?

Paul: You could argue that the only sovereign states are the nuclear states and this is unfortunate. I'm very bothered by the fact that the permanent members of the Security Council are nuclear weapons states. And I'm wondering when Pakistan and India will be asked to join.

Rubin: This is precisely what Canada could change-by asserting that nuclear ownership is not a sign of maturity but a sign of immaturity, a sign that far from being our favored nation, we don't like doing business with you. Other states-such as Australia-might join us. We could begin some change. When you look at all the nations we suck up to, they are largely nuclear weapons states-the ones we vote for in the United Nations and that are our allies. We have to bring our actions in line with our words and our uranium export policy is the place to start.

Paul: It would help if Canada could become a member of the Security Council before announcing a ban on uranium exports.

Rubin: But Derek, you are suggesting that somebody else has to make the first move. It's too easy to say, "I would only stop doing harm if somebody else gave me a sign." You know, "Dear Lord? I will only stop stealing if You bring a bolt of lightning."

Paul: I am against uranium exports by Canada, but I think that international politics is a very difficult thing-

Rubin: Our sales are making it easier for those who use this technology in the most heinous way conceivable. We don't have to sell them the stuff they're misusing. We can stop. We don't have to wait for anybody to make us a member of any Council, to decide that our material should not go this way.

Paul: Okay, we should do it as a litmus test of sovereignty- because that is what it's going to amount to. I'd favor that.

Spencer: Let's go back to your joke, which I hope is a joke, about threatening to give nuclear technology to all comers. That presupposes that nuclear technology is hard to come by other wise. But is it really?

Paul: It is. Pakistan and Libya haven't exploded bombs yet.

Rubin: Why hasn't Israel exploded a bomb? Pakistan is not far behind Israel. Pakistan apparently has all the pieces...

Paul: It probably does, yes.

Spencer: One hears that any two-bit terrorist who puts his mind to it could make a bomb, and could get the ingredients to do it with. I'd be happy to hear I'm mistaken on this.

Rubin: I'm not sure "two-bit terrorist" is the way to put it.

Paul: I suspect it's fairly difficult to come by the materials to make the bomb, for anyone who doesn't have a whole atomic energy establishment behind him.

Rubin: What Derek just said is the key point. If atomic energy establishments be come commonplace, if nuclear energy becomes an important source of energy in many countries, then at that point, virtually any government can, within months if not weeks, acquire nuclear weapons. We have at least two corporations in Canada that could develop nuclear weapons within six months at the outside. They are Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., and Ontario Hydro. They have the materials, the general information, and enough former employees of nuclear weapons labs to do so. The good news is that there aren't many such organizations in the world. Once there are three such companies in Libya, in Romania-name your favorite rogue-then the cat is out of the bag. Now the cat is too far out of the bag, but-

Spencer: The reason I 'm more alarmed than you sound is that Ted Turner sent us a video about nuclear terrorism that was shown on Turner Broadcasting. It had an interview with a guy who had been a plutonium black market dealer. He names, I don't know how many countries - Libya, South Africa, Israel, etc. -that were looking to buy. He talks about where he went to sell it. There's an established market.

Rubin: One has to distinguish between two markets. There are countries that want a real nuclear arsenal, and there are terrorist groups and high school students for that matter, who want a credible threat that they have a nuclear weapon. It is embarrassingly easy to get a credible threat . There have already been cases where police departments and armies couldn't be sure that the crank on the other end of the phone hadn't implanted an atom bomb under the reservoir. For that kind of threat, one needs a small amount of material, and one doesn't have to be high tech. Enough information is in public libraries that by now at least three undergraduates in North America have designed bombs that experts say would probably go off.

Spencer: Could you design one?

Rubin: That's a good question.

Spencer: Derek, could you?

Rubin: Derek and I could probably do it better together.

Paul: I probably could. I would need to take a short course on explosives before I could do it.

Rubin: I'm sure the physics depar ment at the University of Toronto could do it collectively.

Paul: It's not very hard. But I want to go back to politics. Peace researchers haven't faced up adequately to the problem of power, and I want to envisage what the top levels of government in Britain, France and the United States would do if we cut off uranium. They would have two options. First, they could scurry around and try to make up the supply from Australia and other countries that sell uranium. That way gives the least discomfort in political relations. The other option would be for the hawkish governments to say: this kind of thing has to be stopped; it's not in our interest. They would set about removing the people who had done it, and this is where I think you'd see power politics in crude forms. You'd see the physical removal of the people in high office who were responsible for these decisions.

Rubin: Physical removal as in poison-tipped umbrellas?

Paul: That's the crudest level, but I think it could be done in other more subtle ways, such as campaigns of disinformation to discredit these people and bring them down.

Rubin: It would be easier if Canada's policy arose from I say, Brian Mulroney having a religious experience overnight and waking up as a born-again peacenik believing uranium should stay in the ground. But we shouldn't wait for that revelation we should organize. We should become a political force on this issue with our natural allies in the environmental movement and the churches-a force that governments can't ignore. That done, it'll be hard for the U.S. to reverse Canadian politics.

Paul: There can't be a 52 per cent majority behind the Prime Minister who makes this decision, but an 80 per cent majority. The three Western nuclear powers would have to turn to other suppliers. Then the peace movement spreads and tries to get the same thing going in those countries.

Rubin: We're not the first. In a sense, one can say that New Zealand is starting to work on us.

Paul: Sure, I agree with that.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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