Since the beginning of the nuclear age, efforts to exploit nuclear technology for energy and for profit have complicated the task of reducing the nuclear weapons threat. Now, as states such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Iran, and South Africa either pursue or consider moving into the business of enriching uranium, the complexities and dangers could significantly deepen.
The 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) grants states the “right” to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, so long as states forswear nuclear weapons and comply with safeguards against the diversion of nuclear technology and materials for weapons purposes.
International safeguards can help detect and deter cheating, but they cannot prevent “breakout” scenarios. Yet, if current trends continue, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has warned that we could “have 20-30…virtual nuclear weapons states, meaning countries that could move within months into converting their civilian capacity or capability into a weapons program.”
About 12 states already possess uranium enrichment or plutonium separation facilities, or both. These technologies can be used to produce fissile material for bombs. Government-affiliated and subsidized entities in the United States, Russia, and France, as well as a British-Dutch-German consortium, provide an enrichment capacity sufficient to meet current and projected future nuclear energy demands. As President George W. Bush noted in 2004, “enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
Even though they have small domestic nuclear energy sectors, Argentine, Brazilian, and South African officials, like Iran’s leaders, cite domestic nuclear fuel needs and the possibility of cutoffs in external supply as the rationale for exploring new, multibillion-dollar centrifuge-enrichment facilities. Prime Minister John Howard has called for Australia to enter the uranium-enrichment market although it is also economically infeasible for his country.
However, supply interruptions are only likely—and would be appropriate—if the recipient state violates its nonproliferation commitments. That is not likely, given that these states are members in good standing with the NPT and have supported action toward global nuclear disarmament. But if they insist on having enrichment capabilities, others such as Iran or South Korea, with weaker compliance records and stronger motives to pursue nuclear weapons, are sure to insist on having them too.
To reverse the trend, several states and a leading nongovernmental organization have offered ideas to create assured nuclear fuel supplies for states that forgo enrichment and reprocessing. At a special IAEA conference last month, a range of schemes were discussed. A “global nuclear fuel bank” is an old idea that may someday become a reality and could address the supply concerns, real or imagined, of many states.
Meanwhile, tighter restrictions on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology and on the construction of new facilities are in order. Bush’s 2004 proposal that Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) states not sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment to any state that does not already have the capability is good but is not enough. It would allow Japan to move ahead with a major plutonium reprocessing plant and the construction of new U.S. and French centrifuge-enrichment plants. Not surprisingly, the NSG has not endorsed this discriminatory approach.
If we are to succeed in limiting the number of states capable of producing nuclear bomb material, all states must be willing to provide responsible leadership and restraint. In the near future, there is no economic rationale for new states to enter the civil uranium-enrichment or plutonium-separation arena. The further pursuit of plutonium separation by states such as Japan, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and especially the United States will only lead to more proliferation risks.
As supplier and buyer states explore options to deal with potential market shortages and interruptions in fuel supply, they must also all agree that recipient states meet basic nonproliferation standards. Otherwise, the growing trade in nuclear fuel and technology could facilitate weapons production. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, member states endorsed a policy requiring “full-scope” safeguards as a condition of nuclear supply.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration, along with France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, is moving to weaken the existing safeguards regime by pursuing full civil nuclear trade with India, which refuses safeguards on all its facilities and produces fissile material for weapons. The leaders of Australia, Brazil, and South Africa have become a part of this problem too. All three have recently said they are prepared to reverse nonproliferation policies in order sell their uranium supplies to New Delhi.Speaking for many nonaligned, non-nuclear-weapon states, South African officials have resisted restrictions on enrichment and plutonium separation technology that infringes on what they call their “inalienable right” to nuclear energy. Such interpretations of the NPT are dangerous and out of touch. Just as the nuclear powers have an obligation to agree to verifiably halt fissile production and dismantle their weapons stocks, non-nuclear-weapon states must exercise their “rights” in a way that helps avoid the further proliferation of nuclear weapons-related technology and the nuclear anarchy that would ensue.