Nuclear proliferation - what should we do now

1 March 2013

The distinction between the "3 Ss" -- namely nuclear safety, security and safeguards -- was outlined in last month's article. The third of these, the safeguards system underlying the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Weapons (NPT), didn't seem to be a major concern until about 10 years ago. The Cold War was over, leaving just one superpower and a small number of other countries with nuclear weapons. The NPT could be regarded as a significant success: indeed, it is one of the few international treaties that had achieved much of what it set out to do. India, Pakistan and Israel (assumed but not admitted) had acquired nuclear weapons outside the NPT but this was not so bad a result, in the context of the scale of general fears about nuclear proliferation expressed in the 1950s and 1960s. At that point, it was widely feared that as many as 30 countries could conceivably have nuclear weapons by the end of the century. But by 2000, many countries had built civil nuclear power reactors without any thought of ever getting involved in nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry claimed that the civil and military sides of nuclear could be separated, and the proliferation risk, although always present, could be put to the back of the mind.

Things have now unfortunately changed. The upsurge in global terrorism, combined with the fears over the developments in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya, have refocused minds on the risk of nuclear materials conceivably being diverted from a civil nuclear power programme. The fear of rogue nations acquiring nuclear weapons clearly remains strong.

However, these are areas covered by NPT safeguards, and security in nuclear materials transport. Although there is no room for complacency, the risks are, in reality, still low. Most of the countries in the world have now renounced nuclear weapons, recognizing that their possession would threaten rather than enhance national security. They have embraced the NPT as a public commitment to use nuclear materials and technology only for peaceful purposes. Parties to the NPT agree to accept technical safeguards measures applied by the IAEA, and controls on the export of sensitive technology through voluntary bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG).

The lack of international consensus in responding to the actions of countries like Iran suggest that moving to some kinds of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle may be useful. Over the years there have been a number of proposals for fuel banks and multinational fuel cycle centres. Shouldn't such multilateral initiatives be under IAEA control or coordination so that it can act as guarantor? Impetus was given to this idea by Mohammed ElBaradei, when he was director general of IAEA. He said, "We should be clear that there is no incompatibility between tightening controls over the nuclear fuel cycle and expanding the use of peaceful nuclear technology. In fact, by reducing the risks of proliferation, we could pave the way for more widespread use of peaceful nuclear applications." As well as constraining the do-it-yourself inclinations of individual countries, "multilateral approaches could offer additional advantages in terms of safety, security and economics", he said.

On the other hand, others argue quite persuasively (but certainly also controversially) that the impact of nuclear weapons has been substantially overstated by the hawks, both in terms of their likely destructive power (in the hands of any party other than one of the five recognised nuclear weapons states) and in their real impact on human history since 1945. In reality, proliferation of nuclear weapons has been very slow, not only because the difficulties of acquiring nuclear materials and developing weapons technology are much greater than commonly stated, but also because so few countries are really interested in acquiring them. Beyond supposedly increasing national prestige, they don't make much sense. Enrichment and reprocessing technologies are very expensive to acquire and nuclear fuel is already available from the existing commercial international supply chain, which also guarantees security of supply.

One important matter is now to ensure full and effective verification of the NPT safeguards regime, through universal implementation of the Additional Protocol to each country's safeguards agreement with the IAEA. This gives the IAEA broader rights of inspection.

As with nuclear power plant safety, the best advertisement for the adequacy of our non-proliferation regime is many years of sound operation of nuclear power plants without anything going wrong.

Steve Kidd is deputy director-general at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the uranium institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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