The civil and nuclear defence industries remain as strongly linked as ever, says Will Dalrymple.


It is now 75 years since the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and colleagues in Berlin. It is also 60 years after US president Dwight Eisenhower’s UN address later known as the ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech, which essentially started the international nuclear supply industry.

In world history, the sequence was first fission, then the fission bomb. (A great history of the way that the US government applied these early scientific breakthroughs, and the scientists who produced them, is of course Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb). But from a point of view outside of the US, the UK, Canada and Russia, opportunities in nuclear research and civil nuclear power came after the threat of nuclear war.

"The needs of ‘defence’ continue to underpin civil nuclear development"

I would very much like to report that the civil nuclear industry that I see today has gone beyond its military past, and is now entirely peaceful. But that is simply not true. From basic atomic research programmes, to front-end fuel cycle (of course), through reactor vendors and the nuclear supply chain, the needs of ‘defence’ continue to underpin civil nuclear development.

Research institutes willing to consider defence contracts get access to some really interesting, and well-paying, areas of cutting-edge research for their departments, and their students. Supply chain companies reach a natural second market for components in submarines and aircraft carriers. Other contractors will find interesting and valuable work decontaminating and decommissioning old military craft.

"Lucrative defence contracts help prop up the nuclear industry during civil doldrums"

Although the power generation industry has been largely privatized in many western countries, and so suffers from market swings, defence has not, so much. Lucrative defence contracts help prop up the nuclear industry during civil doldrums. And their work also produces qualified nuclear engineers: I would guess that a significant fraction (a quarter?) of civil nuclear staffers come from military programmes.

Nuclear bombs, and nuclear war, are no less terrifying now than they were 60 years ago. And let’s be clear that military-sponsored development of these areas of nuclear R&D continues. But we have to give credit to the military’s development of nuclear technology in one extremely useful area which still has not found general use in civil applications: marine propulsion. If U-boats were Germany’s great WWII edge in the Atlantic theatre, as Churchill supposedly said, their weakness was due to their power source: diesel engines and batteries, which required them to surface regularly (as I learned in Gunther Hauer’s Das Boot — worth a read if you can find a copy.) Now, thanks to nuclear electricity, submarines can remain submerged indefinitely. It is no less a marvel that some of the largest vessels on the sea, the 100,000 ton US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, are powered by two nuclear reactors.

"However laudable the aims of these non-proliferation programmes, they are not entirely non-military, in that they reduce the offensive capabilities of an imagined enemy."

A more subtle interaction between the military and civil aspects of nuclear R&D is the repatriation of stocks of military-grade HEU, distributed in the Atoms for Peace days for national research reactors, back to secure national facilities. This work is driven by political pressure and the agency of primarily two programmes, the USA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative from the DOE’s national nuclear safety administration, and the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return (RRRFR) programme. However laudable the aims of these non-proliferation programmes, they are not entirely non-military, in that they reduce the offensive capabilities of an imagined enemy. Regardless of their intent, the end result is that some research reactors have been converted to run on LEU; others have simply been shut down. It seems clear to me that these programmes have made nuclear R&D harder; but I’m not qualified to judge whether the security gain is worth the research loss.

Looking forward 60 years, it is hard to see how the civil-military linkages formed at the very birth of the nuclear age could weaken, at least in existing nuclear weapons states. It is to be hoped that the civil nuclear side will grow at the expense of the military side, but the prospect of an entirely peaceful nuclear industry seems about as far off as it ever did.

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International magazine