Air University Review, September-October 1982

Nuclear Policies Clarified

Dr. Albert Wohlstetter

We respect the readers of Air University Review too much to let pass Major Frederic E. McCoy’s intemperate review of Nuclear Policies: Fuel without the Bomb in the May-June 1981 issue, page 123. That review is brief but long enough to contain several errors as well as some rather silly emotional charges. No article in the volume recommends "terminating the use of enriched uranium" as a fuel for power reactors. Nearly all power reactors manufactured in the United States presently use enriched uranium with a fissile content of 5 percent or less. All four authors in the volume including Dr. Victor Gilinsky favor enriched fuel used as it is now—"once through." All the authors agree with the policy instituted by President Ford in October 1976 that commitment to the separation of plutonium from spent light water reactor fuel be delayed and that no irreversible commitment be made now to the widespread use of plutonium fuel in thermal or in breeder reactors.

The basis for recommending a delay in decision has nothing to do with "paranoia," as Major McCoy’s imprecise and charged language suggests. It does not proceed from insane delusions about hostile powers’ pursuing either the authors or the United States. (It is quite true, of course, that in the real world there are some governments that have been rather unfriendly to the United States or to some of its allies and whom we would rather not see armed with plutonium weapons. Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein come to mind.) The recommendation for delay was based on a very extensive, detailed, and sober analysis of the economics of the supply and demand for the uranium fuel with which plutonium fuel would have to compete; on the economics of reprocessing spent fuel and fabricating plutonium fuel in thermal reactors; and, of course, on the proliferation risks associated with the widespread storage and use of plutonium. (See, for example, Moving Towards Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd? Wohlstetter et al., 1976, and a long sequence of studies including Brian Chow’s 1981 work on the advantages of improved light water reactors using enriched uranium as distinct from plutonium fuel.) The economics has been confirmed many times, showing that there is no commercial justification for commitment to plutonium now. No one now disputes the fact, long understood in classified work, that reactor-grade plutonium is usable in bombs. Moreover, the Ford Foundation report and Dr. Gilinsky’s work, both of which the author cites favorably, in essentials have accepted and confirmed these conclusions. None of these matters is certain, but the authors state as well as answer (or refer to in the existing literature) the key arguments for the opposing views. It is hard to say what demons pursuing Major McCoy at the Brookings Institution led him to charges of "paranoia."

Los Angeles, California


Albert Wohlstetter is director of research at PanHeuristics, senior fellow at Hoover Institution, Standford University, advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and to the Chief of Naval Operations, and author of numerous books and articles on defense-related subjects.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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