Uzi Bullets And Nuclear Plants for All

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Imagine a crime-ridden city where the mayor has armed his police with Uzi submachine guns. The street gangs arm heavily in response. So the mayor rethinks and offers a deal: His cops will turn in their Uzis if the gangs will.

The gang chiefs huddle. Then one of them declares: "It's a deal, but, we think the mayor should help with our new project -- a factory for Uzi bullets." It is economic development, he says, adding, "Look, we probably won't even make any bullets; just knowing we could is enough."

The mayor agrees, provided his police get any bullets they might accidentally make.

How does this differ from our world today? The Uzi-bullet factory was not some gang chief's suggestion, but the mayor's.

We're a few weeks from the 50th anniversary of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech. "It is not enough to take this [nuclear] weapon out of the hands of the soldiers," he told the United Nations. "It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace."

Some observed dryly this was a case for a social psychologist. The latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists quotes one wag marveling that the plan to make the world safe from history's scariest weapons was to give everyone a key to making them.

The Bulletin -- a fun magazine despite its intimidating name -- reports that Eisenhower believed there was so little uranium around that nuclear power plants would compete with weapons programs in gobbling it up.

He was clangingly wrong. Uranium is cheap and plentiful. Running it through a reactor produces plutonium -- the heart of the modern bomb. Sure, it also produces electricity -- but expensive electricity, which is why the market hasn't built a nuclear plant in America in 30 years, and why there's no business case for any of the reactors planned now, from Russia to North Korea and Iran.

The UN answered Eisenhower's call with the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the group doing all the inspecting, but also preaching the joys of nuclear power. (In the 1970s, the IAEA opined Liberia probably needed two nuclear plants, and Uganda three. Imagine if they'd had their way!)

And so it goes. To get North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program, the Clinton administration agreed to build it nuclear power plants for electricity. Why not natural gas or coal? The deal's defenders shrug and say the Koreans insisted on an Uzi bullets factory.

Listen to Hasan Rowhani, the Iranian official who has been negotiating with the outside world about Iran's not-so-clandestine drive for nuclear weapons. Rowhani just sent European foreign ministers home with a "peace in our time" pledge. Once the Europeans were gone, Rowhani hastened to tell his people work useful to making nuclear weapons was "only temporarily" suspended, "in a sign of goodwill." And a sign to the Russians to keep working on the Bushehr reactors.

Or consider Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi defector who worked a decade ago on a get-the-bomb program for Saddam Hussein. He says they got needed equipment through "Atoms for Peace" IAEA assistance programs. "Few of Iraq's suppliers -- or the IAEA itself -- ever bothered to ask a simple question: Why would Iraq" -- with its massive oil and gas reserves -- "want to generate electricity by burning uranium?"

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com]