Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Hiroshima, 62 years on.

with 2 comments

“This is a problem that has to be solved anyway. You don’t solve it by trying to stop the development of any particular form of nuclear energy.” – Glenn Seaborg

“The people of this world must unite or they will perish. This war that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have spoken them in other times, and of other wars, of other weapons. They have not prevailed. There are some misled by a false sense of human history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for us to believe that. By our minds we are committed, committed to a world united, before the common peril, in law and in humanity.” – Robert Oppenheimer

“Namely, the thing that I refer to is this: To have security against atomic bombs and against the other biological weapons, we have to prevent war, for if we cannot prevent war every nation will use every means that is at their disposal; and in spite of all promises they make, they will do it. At the same time, so long as war is not prevented, all the governments of the nations have to prepare for war, and if you have to prepare for war, then you are in a state where you cannot abolish war.This is really the cornerstone of our situation. Now, I believe what we should try to bring about is the general conviction that the first thing you have to abolish is war at all costs, and every other point of view must be of secondary importance. ” – Albert Einstein


As you all know, Monday marked the 62nd anniversary of the destruction of the city of Hiroshima with a nuclear fission weapon, the first such attack in history.

I think we all understand the importance of nuclear weapons non-proliferation, and respect it. I do. And we recognise the positive implications of engineering peaceful nuclear technology such that it is of less relevance to nuclear proliferation concerns.

The nuclear attacks on Japan are a defining historical symbol of this great, terrible war that ravaged so much of the earth, and created so much misery. But, fundamentally, this problem, of people wanting to kill people, is independent of whatever technology is used to facilitate it. Even in the age of nuclear weapons, people still hurl rocks at their enemies.

It’s a people problem. It needs to be solved through human means. You don’t solve it by saying that we need to have this type of technology, or that we must eliminate that type of technology.

“If you think technology will solve your security problems, you don’t understand the problems, and you don’t understand the technology.” – Bruce Schneier

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein

That last quote is an especially concerning one, if you think about it. If we got to that unthinkable stage, reduced to the technology of sticks and stones, would we learn from it? Or would war continue, even with sticks and stones?
Anyway. Each year, the Hiroshima anniversary is marked by activists calling for peace, disarmament, international cooperation, and harmony.

And that’s great, I respect that.
But for every bit of activism directed at these noble causes, there’s the other side of the activism that August 6th is used as the pedestal for.

Nuclear this, radioactive waste that. Reactors this, Uranium mining that.

Big scary trefoil symbols abound on placards and posters everywhere.

Coal fired power plants kill people. Many thousands of people, everywhere, all the time, quite reliably. Anything that lets us close that down is an instrument of peace.

Nuclear medicine and imaging saves many lives, and improves quality of life, and quality of treatment. Even in a nation with no nuclear weapons, or no nuclear energy, this technology, among other things, produces low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. And the responsible, sensible plan for dealing with that waste involves building a secure national centralised repository to handle it. The alternative is a less organised, less secure, localised storage of such wastes, which is possibly more of a safety or security concern. The other alternative is to stop using nuclear medicine, or other nuclear technology. And that kills people.

A nuclear fission power reactor is not a nuclear weapon.
A nuclear fission power reactor cannot be turned into a nuclear weapon.

Fissioning actinide nuclei in a power reactor takes material that can potentially work in a nuclear weapon – and indeed, often takes material from nuclear weapons – and turns it into material that can never, ever be used to make a nuclear weapon work. And it generates clean, safe energy for society, too.

Large scale sources of reliable energy for society which are not dependant on increasingly scare fossil fuels are a boon for international security, stability and peace.

There is enough Uranium and Thorium in the ground worldwide for everybody to be confident of access to all that they’ll need for many, many decades into the future. We don’t go to war over Thorium or Uranium. We don’t need to, and won’t need to.

We do go to war over oil. By rights, we shouldn’t need to, either.


Written by Luke Weston

August 6, 2007 at 3:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. The confounding of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is one of the key tactics of the antinuclear movement. This excellent post makes a great contribution to the response to this false equivalence.

    One of the hardest things to explain to interested parties is the plutonium isotope mix that nuclear power stations generate. I speculate that a good place to start would be uranium, since the enrichment process is commonly debated for energy inputs etc. Just as high-purity U-235 is needed for a uranium bomb, Pu-239 is pretty much all you want to have in a plutonium bomb. The vicious complication of course for bombmakers is that while the undesirable U-238 is very low in radioactivity, the unwanted isotopes of plutonium are extremely active. This (relatively complex) reality effectively kills the utility of power-station plutonium for bombs, but still the simple antinuclear story is spread that plutonium=bombs.


    August 6, 2007 at 10:38 pm

  2. There is some historical data that point to the possibility that Japan was not only trying to develop a nuclear weapon of their own, but that they may have (unsuccessfully, thankfully) tested one off the coast of what is now North Korea. Their plan of action was to strap it to the deck of a Kamikaze Japanese U-boat and to float it into San Francisco bay and to set it off. Further, that the Russian invasion of North Korea may have allowed them to jumpstart their own nuclear weapons program much the way our capture of Werner Von Braun jumpstarted our space program.

    Japan was not the innocent that they like to imply.


    August 15, 2007 at 9:59 pm

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