For the June 2015 issue of Physics Today (page 26), Toni Feder interviewed Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank von Hippel about their disarmament agenda. I have some comments on that interview and on the book they and Harold Feiveson wrote, Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation (MIT Press, 2014; see the review by Matthew Bunn, Physics Today, May 2015, page 50).

In the book, the authors make strong arguments about the virtue of taking every possible measure to ban or make illegal the use of uranium enriched above 20% uranium-235 and other isotopes that are usable to make nuclear bombs.

It is hard to argue against the virtue of trying to undo history as the book and the interview suggest: Restrict or eliminate the use of uranium enriched above 20% and other fissile isotopes that are weaponizable. The ultimate goal is the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Who could say that is not a good goal?

Glaringly missing from both the interview and the book is acknowledgment of the enormous benefits of nuclear energy that were so prominent in the era of Atoms for Peace. Almost 20% of the electrical power people and industries use worldwide comes from nuclear fission, which generates hardly any carbon dioxide and other dangerous emissions and is responsible for far, far fewer deaths per year than all other forms of power, especially fossil fuels. The interviewees essentially ignore that. Also ignored is the issue of alleviating energy poverty; nuclear power technology can address that issue now. With the rising population and its attendant vastly higher energy requirements, people will need to bring themselves out of poverty, especially energy-related poverty. We can anticipate noncarbon energy use expanding greatly in the next century, and nuclear is the one energy source that is expandable for as long as the technology continues to improve.

Richard Rhodes, in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986), has made the point that since the introduction of nuclear weapons, the worldwide death rate from wars has plummeted, owing presumably to nuclear-armed nations avoiding the direct conflict that had previously been so devastatingly frequent. Authors Glaser, Mian, von Hippel, and Feiveson ignore Rhodes’s point.

I find the goal of Glaser and coauthors admirable, but I entreat them to weigh the peaceful uses of nuclear energy when they wage their war against fissile material, and I urge them to consider safeguards and openness. The fissile material and the science and technology used in nuclear bombs also go into civilian nuclear power. I call for supporting efforts to diminish nuclear weapons; at the same time, I support the use of nuclear power with strong emphasis on safeguards and openness. Even as the arsenals of nuclear weapons diminish, the world’s population needs to expand per-capita energy use by a large factor to reduce energy poverty. It is hard to argue that such can be achieved without massive use of nuclear power.