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Alum brings humility, expertise in talk on the science behind nuclear politics

<e is often a fissure between the physics and politics of nuclear power. On Thursday, April 7th, Carleton alumnus and physicist Kareem Kazkaz ’95 offered a presentation that bridged the gap and provided a comprehensive overview of the topic in light of both disciplines.

Before lecturing, Kazkaz made a quick disclaimer: “I’m a physicist, not a political scientist.” Normally, he works on “neutrinos, dark matter, and nuclear non-proliferation” at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and deals with more of the “technical” aspect of nuclear energy. Yet when he started working at Livermore, he discovered that political features such as “governments and bureaucracies” were invariably integrated into the field of nuclear energy. He started to be interested in the “other half” of the subject.

However, Kazkaz wanted the audience to be aware that he didn’t have the last word. He added, “I’m just one guy standing here up at the front of the class and [there] shouldn’t really be any more credence than that. Nothing I say here is representative of any official anything or anybody except me and that’s not really official.”

Kazkaz proceeded to outline some technical background about nuclear weapons and its link to nuclear power plants. Basically, nuclear power plants have fissile material, from which we are able to derive energy. The most effective fissile materials are uranium and plutonium, but only uranium is accessible naturally. Furthermore, natural uranium is not quite so fissile, so we can change the percent composition of the different isotopes of uranium to generate enriched uranium, which is a more effective type.

He explained, “The fuel for power plants is about five percent enriched; it’s about five percent Uranium-235. That’s too low of an enrichment to make a bomb, but if you have the technology to enrich it to five percent, you just keep running it over and over again until you get nintey five percent, and then you have fuel that is usable in a bomb. So the technology you can use to make power plants is identical to the technology used to make fuel for a bomb.”

“Nuclear bombs work much like nuclear power plants, but going much, much faster,” he said.

It is at this point that politics and physics merge. Many countries, including the United States, use nuclear power as a source of energy. Kazkaz remarked, “Knowledge is power. And you can either put that power toward plants or weapons. You can’t separate them. So anybody that has a nuclear power program is not a huge step away from having nuclear weapons.”

He then proceeded to talk about the political facet of nuclear power, starting from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty was based on the idea that nuclear power is still a viable option but that we must get rid of nuclear weapons. However, the pact didn’t enforce a strict set of policies.

Further on, Kazkaz questioned whether nuclear weapons during some point had kept the peace. He then referred to the Cold War, a time when there was mounting tension between the Soviet Union and United States and when these two superpowers had an appalling amount of nuclear weapons—tens of thousands of them.

For comparison’s sake, it only takes 100 nukes to destroy any one country to the point of non-functional capacity.
Neither of the two superpowers attacked, however, because of “mutual assured destruction,” in which they would probably share the same fate if one were to attack. These states were too busy simply maintaining a functional society.
Kazkaz also discussed the idea on how to reach a state of “0” nuclear weapons without compromising the security of the United States.

In order to reach “0,” we must “resolve regional conflicts; invest in more nuclear technology, which will make each [nuclear weapon] more reliable; and get the cooperation of the rest of the world,” among other objectives.
It apparently would take several decade-increments of settlements, trade-offs, “intrusive inspections,” and mutual consensus to achieve this goal—if things go “perfectly.”

Towards the end of the lecture, Kazkaz reminded the audience that “others have thought about this much longer than I have.” Despite his humility, he made apparent connections where there once were none and illuminated the process of nuclear politics for those newbies in the audience.

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