'Our Most Dangerous Illusion Is that We Can Control Nuclear Energy'

SPIEGEL: The greatest enthusiasm to be found anywhere once permeated the US shortly after the discovery of nuclear energy. During the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration enthusiastically promoted its "Atoms for Peace" program.

Schell: That story is interesting because with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we see the close connection at every stage of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower increased the US arsenal from around 1,400 to 20,000 nuclear weapons. But he also wanted an element of peace in his policy. This is where the "Atoms for Peace" program came in, whereby countries would be given technology to produce nuclear power, the "friendly atom," in exchange for constraints on proliferation of nuclear weapons — the "destructive atom." That rationale is still embodied today in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SPIEGEL: Obama has outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the reaction to it has been lukewarm, even within his own team.

Schell: Within the Obama administration, it seems to be the president himself — and possibly even the president alone — who really believes in this vision. But he has the public on his side. If you ask people if they would like to live in a world without nuclear weapons, a very high majority answer in the affirmative. On the other hand, there is a powerful bureaucratic infrastructure left in the Pentagon, in the State Department, in the Energy Department that is not ready to translate Obama's vision into action and works to thwart it. He needs more supporters among his own officials.

SPIEGEL: Is a world without nuclear weapons even a realistic vision? With the technology already out there, wasn't the genie permanently released from the bottle with Hiroshima in 1945?

Schell: There will never be a world that is not nuclear capable. Once that knowledge was acquired, it could never be lost. So the art of living without nuclear weapons is an art of living without them, but with the knowledge of how to make them. The classic argument against a nuclear weapons-free world is that somebody will make use of that residual knowledge, build a nuclear weapon and start giving orders to a defenseless world. But what I point out is that other countries would also have that knowledge and they could, in very short order, be able to return to nuclear armament. Therefore, the imbalance is much more temporary than it first seems.

SPIEGEL: Is the outlawing of nuclear weapons possible without also abolishing nuclear energy as well?

Schell: A nuclear weapons-free world should be one in which nuclear technology is under the strictest possible control. But strict control of all nuclear technology is, of course, far more difficult as long as you continue to have nuclear energy production, as long as uranium continues to be enriched and as long plutonium is still being made somewhere.

SPIEGEL: How serious do you think the current threat is of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands?

Schell: It is extremely real. The two most active hot spots for nuclear proliferation right now are Iran and North Korea. But you also have many other countries that are suddenly showing a renewed interest in nuclear power. The transfer of the technology in the Middle East, especially, is becoming a real danger. We may have fewer nuclear weapons, but we have more fingers on the button.

SPIEGEL: Does that make the world today more dangerous than it was during the Cold War?

Schell: No. I have too lively a memory of the Cuban missile crisis in the middle of the Cold War, which really looked like the potential end of the world. Regardless, it is true to say that the nature of the danger has changed.

SPIEGEL: So the elimination of humanity through nuclear weapons is still a concrete possibility?

Schell: Technically, the option is still there. What's harder, though, is to frame scenarios in which all of the weapons would be fired simultaneously. Clearly, this is not as likely as it was during the Cold War. There are other colossal risks associated with lesser uses of nuclear weapons, though, ones that we are just becoming aware of. For instance, we have learned that the ecological perils of nuclear warfare can be triggered by much smaller numbers of weapons. There's a new study showing that the use of just 100 or 150 nuclear weapons in a conflict between Pakistan and India would cause a nuclear winter through the burning of cities and the lofting of soot into the atmosphere. That would produce global famine.

SPIEGEL: How great a threat do you think there is of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists?

Schell: Over the long term, it's clear that this danger is rising. It's just in the nature of scientific knowledge and technology to become more and more available as time passes. The moment must come when it passes beyond the control of states alone and into the hands of lesser groupings.

SPIEGEL: To what extent are nuclear power plants protected against terrorist attacks?

Schell: So far, few adequate security precautions have been taken to mitigate the potential consequences. The nuclear energy industry has succeeded with its argument that such measures would simply be too costly.

SPIEGEL: Does the example of the events in Japan show that human beings are incapable of learning from history? After all, the country is one that has experienced the horror of nuclear bombs first hand and nevertheless decided to rely on atomic energy.

Schell: Kenzaburo Oe, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, said that going ahead with nuclear power in Japan is a betrayal of the victims of Hiroshima. But perhaps Fukushima will be a turning point — not just for Japan, but for the rest of the world as well.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schell, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Gregor Peter Schmitz

Tags: atoms for peace, barack obama, chernobyl, cold war, daiichi, eisenhower, fukushima, global warming, hiroshima, iodine, iran, japan, north korea, nuclear disarmament, nuclear energy, nuclear leak, nuclear non-proliferation treaty, nuclear power plant, nuclear weapons, obama, president barack obama, president obama, three mile island

    • Jonathan Schell
    • Jonathan Schell is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Fate of The Earth, The Real War, The Time of Illusion, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.  He is the Doris M. Scha...

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