Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Can the nuclear Siamese twins be separated?

"Atoms for peace and atoms for war are Siamese twins."
- Hannes Alfvén, Swedish physicist and Nobel laureate

From the very outset of the nuclear age, the challenge has been to facilitate the civilian use of nuclear energy while curbing nuclear weapons. But, as Robert Oppenheimer once observed, “the close technical parallelism and interrelation of the peaceful and the military applications of atomic energy” make countering nuclear proliferation an especially difficult task. At the heart of the problem is a large overlap between civilian and military applications of nuclear energy, which both depend essentially on the same key ingredient: fissile material.

Today the world faces the prospect of a nuclear “renaissance” – a potential expansion in the use of nuclear energy worldwide. Energy supply is a critical economic, national security, and environmental issue for our planet and nuclear energy could be a vital part of the energy mix providing energy in quantities needed to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

We don’t know now if there really going to be a nuclear “renaissance” and what form it will it take. But the revival of interest in nuclear power could potentially result in the worldwide dissemination of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies. This presents obvious risks of proliferation as these technologies can produce fissile materials – high enriched uranium and separated plutonium – that are directly usable in nuclear weapons. As a result more states could acquire the capability to produce materials directly usable for, or easily converted to, explosive use.

And they can do it completely legally. Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) guarantees “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”, including technologies of uranium enrichment and fuel reprocessing.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeks to inhibit the use of nuclear energy for military purposes through the system of international safeguards. But the acquisition of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities would bring states a long way toward nuclear weapons even without directly violating the NPT, namely without “diverting” special nuclear material and, therefore, without any possibility of being restrained by IAEA safeguards designed to verify whether material has or has not been diverted.

One does not have to look far for an example. Japan is currently the only non-nuclear-weapon state that operates all the elements of the complete nuclear fuel cycle. It has a very advanced nuclear infrastructure, including commercial-scale enrichment and reprocessing plants, large quantities of nuclear material (more than 45-metric tons of separated plutonium), modern nuclear scientific, engineering and production capabilities. It’s to Japan’s credit that it has a perfect NPT compliance record and has pursued a consistent policy of non-weaponization of nuclear technology. None of this changes the reality that the country is a “screwdriver turn” away from acquiring nuclear weapons – in months rather than years – if it took the political decision to go nuclear. Indeed, periodically this question resurfaces in Japan and just recently several retired military officials argued that the country should consider possessing nuclear weapons.

Should a nuclear “renaissance” result in more non-nuclear-weapon states acquiring enrichment and reprocessing facilities, the task of safeguarding such facilities could place significant additional work load on the IAEA – already strained both in budget and personnel. Moreover, safeguarding commercial-scale enrichment and reprocessing plants poses significant verification challenges. That’s because large plants process so much nuclear material over the course of their operation that it’s very complicated to make accurate material-accountancy measurements as part of ensuring none of this material has been diverted. Moreover, if a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) is negotiated and agreed, its verification could mean placing under safeguards enrichment and reprocessing facilities in the nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states, which now are mainly outside the international safeguard system. All of this will require resources and strategic foresight.

All of this said, nobody should contest the right of any nation to utilize nuclear energy in a secure, safe and environmentally sound manner. So key questions are these: how should the international community address the growing security and proliferation risks from the nuclear fuel cycle? How can the international community limit access to sensitive nuclear technologies, all the while protecting states’ rights to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy?

Continued nuclear development along national lines – the situation we have now – presents a sort of 'Catch-22' because it will create additional proliferation risks undermining the international nonproliferation regime. Even if a large-scale nuclear “renaissance” doesn’t occur, it would not help much. Many countries would not willingly agree to indefinitely preserve the de-facto existing “two-tier” system where some nations – essentially the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group – are entitled to nuclear fuel cycle technologies, and others are not. Some of them may decide to acquire their own enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, decisions perhaps for political and national strategic reasons rather than primarily driven by economic considerations.

So, how is the nuclear puzzle to be solved? Let’s go back to 1946, when The Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy (generally known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report) appeared. At the time, the report contained a stark warning: “A system of inspection superimposed on an otherwise uncontrolled exploitation of atomic energy by national governments will not be an adequate safeguard”. The Acheson-Lilienthal report was the first effort to define a policy on the international control of atomic energy. But, in the condition of the time, the task of establishing some form of international authority over the most dangerous aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle proved impossible. Instead, the international community eventually adopted the very approach - occasional inspection by the IAEA - criticized by the report’s authors.

More that sixty years later we face the same problem, only on a much bigger scale. And again it seems that multilateralization can offer a gateway to nuclear fuel cycle services for any nation. A multilateral approach to the nuclear fuel cycle, if appropriately arranged, has substantial potential to ensure that the benefits of nuclear energy are made available to all states, while strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime and reducing incentives to build new nuclear fuel cycle facilities in states that do not now have them.

The rationale for multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle is relatively straightforward. In the case of a multinational enrichment or reprocessing facility, in which ownership, control or operation are shared among a number of states that can watch each other, all of its participants are under a greater degree of peer scrutiny. This would make it more difficult and riskier to cheat. The possibility of seizure of the facility by the host country would always be present, but because of the ensuing confrontation between that country and the other participants and the international community, a considerable political barrier inhibits such action.

The use of multinational facilities instead of an array of national facilities would reduce the number of plants to be placed under safeguards, increasing the feasibility of continuous inspection while possibly reducing costs of these inspections. Multinational facilities could also serve as confidence-building measures, helping to reduce suspicions among participating states about each other’s nuclear weapon intentions. Moreover, large multinational fuel cycle facilities could be cost effective and provide economies of scale smaller national facilities would probably lack. Multilateral fuel cycle mechanisms could respond to the “entitlement” motivation of the customer states in terms of their participation in ownership, management, operation, decision-making, profit-sharing, and so on.

A way to solve the nuclear puzzle is ultimately to “denationalize” sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities – first of all, uranium enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing, and fabrication of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide fuel – and convert the current “two-tier” system into a truly multilateral fuel cycle arrangement of equal rights and obligations. This multilateral fuel-cycle arrangement could benefit the whole of humankind as:

• The existing “two-tier” system would be virtually eliminated
• “Entitlement” motivations of customer states would be satisfied to a great extent, especially if new multilateral facilities were created taking into account regional considerations
• Open and non-discriminatory access to nuclear fuel services would be guaranteed
• Without nationally-controlled uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities no fissile materials for military purposes would be produced
• It would be difficult to justify a national enrichment or reprocessing program
• No states with nationally-controlled “threshold” capabilities would exist, which is important in a world moving toward nuclear disarmament

The task is tremendous: it is not easy getting international support for dramatic changes in the way we use nuclear energy. Nonetheless, we have no choice if the world is to be protected from the misuse of sensitive nuclear technologies. To begin with, the international community should conduct in-depth discussions and thorough analysis of the technical, legal, political and economic aspects of various proposals and ideas for multilateral nuclear fuel cycle frameworks. The long lead-times for nuclear construction allow us to do that. But states involved cannot allow themselves just to waste this time indulging in endless and selfish politicized arguments.

This is a guest post by Dr. Yury Yudin. Yury is a Senior Researcher at UNIDIR and manages the project ‘Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle'. A pre-publication version of his new study paper, 'Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Assessing the Existing Proposals' is available in PDF format by clicking here.

Picture credit: photograph of a centrifuge cascade (part of the nuclear enrichment process), courtesy of the IAEA's Image Bank.