The Nuclear Power TRAP

Diane Perlman

The UN 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, May 3 – May 28, is in its fourth and final week. Parallel to the official meetings with delegates of states’ parties to the NPT, active members of nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, came to New York to represent the interests of civil society.

Article IV of the NPT states the “inalienable right” to “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy — which is the “third pillar” of the NPT, along with nonproliferation and disarmament. The NPT includes a significant role for the International Atomic Energy Association, the IAEA, which promotes nuclear energy.

On May 20, the Abolition Caucus delivered a statement to UN 2010 NPT delegates stating concerns about the May 14 Report of Main Committee II, the body assigned to address nuclear energy, which made “glowing” claims about nuclear power’s benefits for energy, the environment, health, the economy, and Millennium Development Goals.

NGOs vs. Delegates — Parallel Universes?

Abolition Caucus NGOs are alarmed at the dangers and proliferation risks in the face of delegates’ overwhelming enthusiasm and promotion of nuclear power. Why the huge discrepancy?

For 40 years, many NPT delegates have frequently repeated the mantras — the “inalienable right” to “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy as “the third pillar” — in almost every speech. The belief in nuclear power is so deeply and widely held that it may seem outrageous to even question it.

While the delegates are skillful in diplomacy and consensus building, they are not natural scientists. Their opinions on nuclear energy are largely informed by the IAEA, with its contradictory role in both promoting and regulating atomic power, and vested interests, such as AREVA, a French multinational nuclear power conglomerate and others who spend fortunes on deceptive propaganda promoting nuclear power. The industry spent $665 million in the US on rebranding nuclear energy as clean, green, and an answer to the climate crisis, and on congressional campaigns, including to President Obama, who approved loan guarantees to build new nuclear reactors.

NPT Groupthink

The NPT bubble is a perfect environment for “groupthink,” defined by Yale research psychologist Irving Janis as: “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Despite disagreements within the NPT on disarmament and nonproliferation, the dialogue is dominated by unquestioned acceptance of nuclear energy. Few dare challenge this mindset.

In a “groupthink” environment, pressures for consensus implicitly or explicitly discourage independent thinking, creativity, and expression of doubts. Failure to consider alternative views, facts, and bodies of knowledge impairs sound decision-making processes, often leading to irrational, flawed, and hasty decisions.

NGOs, who have devoted themselves to studying various aspects in depth, have an open process characterized by freedom of thinking, eagerness for information, and independence from vested interests. Scientific information is valued, brought in by groups like the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others.

The NPT culture has been driven by political and economic influences. Our global nuclear power system — including structures, financial investments, infrastructures, institutions, jobs, dynamics, language, thought patterns, networks, and belief systems — has evolved from what Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls a “Frozen Accident,” which begins with an event, such as the NPT organized around a central role for the IAEA. It generates widespread, diverse consequences, bifurcations, deviations, and path-dependent processes that are reinforced through positive feedback and result in a “frozen lock-in state” which can dominate an entire system and shape history. The way a path develops is not inevitable and could have turned out differently.

TRAPs — Toxic RadioActive Proliferators

The NPT is tightly organized around nuclear power, which is a TRAP — a Toxic RadioActive Proliferator. NPT Groupthink is still driven by archaic ideas, beliefs, interests, language, symbols, and images that are frozen in consciousness and eclipse deeper understanding and constrain wiser actions. As the third pillar of nuclear energy keeps knocking down the other two pillars — nonproliferation and disarmament — might the system paradoxically provoke proliferation?

Whether we can collectively break out of these TRAPs is a matter of consciousness and demystifying ourselves from nuclear myths and illusions. To free ourselves, we must recognize the ways in which we are trapped. Here is a partial list of TRAPs.

Old Ways of Thinking TRAP. The world has changed in 40 years. We know things now that we didn’t know then. We have experienced Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and other accidents. We have hundreds of thousands of tons of waste that did not exist in 1970. We know about climate chaos and renewable energy — for which nuclear energy is part of the problem, not the solution.. It is time to upgrade our global operating system to reflect hard science and 21st century realities.

Manipulative, Orwellian Language and Framing TRAP. Crafted language creates thought forms with emotional charges that motivate opinion and policy. People mindlessly repeat “atoms for peace” and “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy. We don’t say water molecules for peace, or peaceful uses of electricity. Why not just say “non-military uses”? Who could be against a “Nuclear Renaissance”? How ironic — a rebirth of death! The image of the cherished “third pillar” of the NPT seems necessary to hold up the whole structure.

The Inalienable Rights Frame Mind TRAP. Nuclear power is NOT an inalienable right — by definition, which is one that “no earthly power can rightfully deny” and that “can only be transferred with the consent of the person possessing those rights.” Furthermore, nations do not have rights, only individuals. It is astonishing that intelligent people repeat this perverse, misleading, and fake use of language. What all life forms do in fact have is an inalienable right to is clean air, water, and safe, non-toxic renewable energy.

The Prestige TRAP. Framing nuclear energy as a right creates an artificial value and right to demand. It manipulates desire and seduces many leaders and citizens into a dangerous lifestyle, devoting precious resources to creating an infrastructure harmful to their financial, health, political and environmental interests.

The Political Double Bind TRAP. Article IV creates a political TRAP, inviting conflicts that would not otherwise exist. Denying membership in the “nuclear club” to certain parties is discriminatory, and can be experienced as a humiliating insult. Claiming their NPT given “inalienable right,” some states may be drawn into preventable political conflicts that compromise their security and political relationships. Denying another’s “inalienable right” creates a double-bind — damned if we allow it and damned if we deny it. The conflict with Iran would not exist without Article IV of the NPT. It is a conflict-generating artifice in which states can be treated in a provocative way, triggering a chain of reactions and counter reactions, unwittingly escalating tensions, within and between states. How many more unexpected conflicts might arise in the next 40 years?

The Denial and Overconfidence TRAP. When enthusiastically promoting a vested interest, there is a tendency to exaggerate the potential for success and to minimize potentials for accidents and failure. This is natural and common, especially before going to war. Accidents, overruns, and problems are inevitable, and can be catastrophic.

The Proliferation TRAP. Nuclear plants are bomb factories. Countries with reactors can develop nuclear weapons as political sands shift, as new threats and conflicts arise, provoking countries to suddenly feel a need to “deter” dominating powers. As long as nuclear energy is promoted, the elimination of nuclear weapons will be impossible.

The Terrorism TRAP. Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to theft of fissile materials that can be used to make dirty bombs, and to become targets for terrorist attacks.

The Health and Human Rights TRAP. Uranium mining causes devastating health and environmental damage and great suffering to individuals, families, and whole communities, as well as to those living close to nuclear reactors, including cancer and birth defects. This denies innocent people, animals, and habitats their true inalienable right to health and safety.

The Radioactive Waste TRAP. Radioactive waste remains dangerous for 240,000 years. With 63,000 tons of nuclear waste in the US alone, and no good solutions for protecting them, the NPT is encouraging more. There are problems with disposal, transportation, storage, theft, and accidents. We trap our descendents for eons.

The Money TRAP. Nuclear power is the most expensive form of energy. Estimated costs don’t account for accidents (which in the US will be borne by the taxpayers), earthquakes, overruns, transportation, storage, and so on.

Consciousness and Courage

Given the overwhelming downside to everything nuclear, and the upside to efficiency, conservation, and all forms of safe, clean, nontoxic, renewable, sustainable energy, let’s consider weaning ourselves off of toxic radioactive proliferating poison power. Fortunate countries that do not have a nuclear infrastructure — before they get one — can leapfrog right over this toxic trouble to rely on clean, safe, renewable energy that will create more jobs and improve their security. Countries burdened with a nuclear infrastructure can phase in renewable energy with IRENA – the International Renewable Energy Association, which now has 144 countries signed on. IRENA can supplant the IAEA as we phase out our nuclear infrastructure.

We are responsible to the upcoming Millennial generation, all future generations, and all species of life. It would be unconscionable to condemn them because we are TRAPed. The first step in liberating ourselves is recognition. Next comes courage. Perhaps the many countries not seduced, and wisely choosing not to take the toxic route, can raise their voices this week, and not collude with the Groupthink.

The structures that imprison us are very powerful. The stakes are as high as can be. Can we liberate ourselves from the scourge of war and of poisoning the Earth? It would be miraculous if, in our remaining days at the NPT, NGOs and delegates could collaborate to test the limits of what might yet be possible.

PsySR member Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist. She is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and a member of Transcend International Peace and Development Network. Some of her writing can be found on her websites and Diane can be reached at

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