Following last month’s disclosures of illicit Pakistani nuclear assistance to Libya and Iran, President George W. Bush outlined new measures to restrict the trade of key equipment that can be used to make bomb material. However, Bush’s proposals, as well as his overall nonproliferation strategy, are too limited and contradictory to address current and future nuclear weapons dangers adequately.
The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) guarantees non-nuclear-weapon states the right to nuclear technology for energy and other nonmilitary purposes under international safeguards. Decades of nuclear trade, however, have led to the broad diffusion of uranium-enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing technologies, which can also be used to make bomb-grade uranium and plutonium. Some states, such as Iran and North Korea, have abused the system and acquired the means to produce these fissile materials.
In response, Bush has proposed that the 40-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) not sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment to any state that does not already have the capability. He has also proposed that these nuclear supplier states not provide equipment to nations that have failed to agree to a tougher set of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. This proposal is mostly designed to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Although a push for new and tighter nuclear export restrictions through the NSG is long overdue, long-term success requires the application of the same standards to all states and more aggressive efforts to eliminate other means of fissile material production. Several important, additional steps should be considered.
First, those states currently without enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, such as Brazil and Iran, will strongly resist efforts to deny them access to such technologies. If these and other states are to be expected to agree to tougher restrictions, their access to low-enriched uranium fuel for light-water reactors (LWRs) will need to be guaranteed. The solution requires the creation of a long-term, multinational fuel supply that would make national possession of uranium-enrichment plants unneeded and uneconomical.
This could be accomplished in a number of ways, each of which presents challenges and requires more visionary U.S. leadership. As IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has suggested, one approach is to develop a new protocol to the NPT that would bar enrichment and reprocessing capabilities but continue to guarantee access to nuclear fuel supplies and regulate spent-fuel disposition under the supervision of the IAEA. Another option is low-cost access to fuel for LWRs through market-based consortia.
Second, the Bush formula would allow significant nuclear suppliers not part of the NSG, such as Pakistan, to continue to peddle their wares. The recent disclosures about transfers of uranium and uranium-enrichment equipment from the Khan Research Lab warrant, at the very least, revisions to Pakistan’s lax export-control system.
Third, Bush should immediately quash two ongoing Department of Energy “nuclear research” programs that actually promote the spread of reprocessing technology and the means to produce plutonium. Spent-fuel reprocessing is an uneconomical, polluting, and unnecessary way to harness nuclear energy. Currently, global stockpiles of separated civilian plutonium exceed 195 tonnes and pose a long-term proliferation threat.
Fourth, the United States should reaffirm its long-standing support for negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty. The treaty would verifiably halt the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons by all states; establish baseline information on global stockpiles; and help bring India, Israel, and Pakistan into the nonproliferation system. A shift in China’s position opens the way to revive the long-delayed negotiation, but now the Bush administration has announced it is reviewing the U.S. position.
Finally, Bush’s call for others to abide by tougher nonproliferation rules rings hollow as his administration continues to reject meaningful limits on U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. Bush remains opposed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to verifiably dismantling excessive U.S. and Russian nuclear bombs and missiles. Worse still, the administration has outlined plans for developing new earth-penetrating nuclear weapons at cost of nearly a half-billion dollars over the next five years. Not only are such weapons impractical and unnecessary, but they invite hard-liners in other states to keep their nuclear weapons options open.
The evolving nature of the nuclear threat requires a more comprehensive and robust global nonproliferation strategy than the work in progress outlined by Bush. In the end, it requires more than just pressure on a few of the nuclear “have-nots”—it requires greater restraint and leadership from the nuclear “haves.”