Nuclear proliferation and the terrorist threat

12 July 2007

With all the attention in the media granted to the North Korea nuclear test and Iran’s alleged intentions to pursue a weapons programme, the fear that nuclear proliferation may cast a shadow over the nuclear renaissance has emerged. Critics (for example see Mycle Schneider’s recent report for the European Parliament Greens, The Permanent Nth Country Experiment – Nuclear Weapons Proliferation in a Rapidly Changing World) allege that nuclear energy and bombs are merely two faces of the same coin. Nuclear materials could conceivably be diverted from a civil nuclear power programme into the production of nuclear weapons or alternatively, major fuel cycle processes (notably enrichment and reprocessing of used fuel) could be employed to produce weapons, rather than fuel for civil reactors. A related concern is over security of civil nuclear facilities, which has multiplied since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. The possibility of aircraft crashing into such plants has been raised, as has terrorist incursions at plants either to acquire materials for weapons or to misuse the facility to create an explosion or a major radioactive release.

Security has been addressed by deploying additional armed personnel at facilities and by other measures to prevent incursions, while new nuclear plants will be designed with the possibility of an aircraft impact much in mind. Although such events are clearly not impossible, the entire 50-year history of civil nuclear power contains nothing to suggest that the risks are other than very remote. Little can be done other than what has been accomplished already and the risks should certainly not be allowed to determine future actions. To keep things in perspective, should the new Wembley Stadium in London, UK not be licensed for 80,000 football fans, simply because a direct aircraft strike during a game could conceivably kill thousands?

Proliferation of materials and technology misuse are clearly more substantive risks, particularly as it will likely involve sovereign states with their greater resources above those of a terrorist organisation. Critics of nuclear power emphasise that designing a nuclear bomb is not particularly difficult. This, in itself, doesn’t create a great risk if the necessary plutonium or highly enriched uranium is not available either by diversion from civil uses or production in a local facility. It is therefore necessary for the anti-nuclear forces to focus on alleged weaknesses in the international nuclear safeguards regime, stories of illicit materials trafficking, alleged weaknesses in security of nuclear materials transport and the possible spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries who may have an interest beyond normal civil uses.

Probably the greatest weakness of the antis case is that “it hasn’t happened yet”, despite considerably slacker arrangements in the past than are present today. While there is no room for complacency and further strengthening of arrangements is fully warranted, the real risks are, in reality, actually as remote as are those associated with nuclear facility security.

Over the past 35 years the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) safeguards system under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a conspicuous international success in curbing the diversion of civil uranium into military uses. It has involved cooperation in developing nuclear energy while ensuring that civil uranium, plutonium and associated plants are used only for peaceful purposes and do not contribute in any way to proliferation or nuclear weapons programmes. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely. Its scope is also being widened to include undeclared nuclear activities.

Most countries have renounced nuclear weapons, recognising that possession of them would threaten rather than enhance national security. They have therefore embraced the NPT as a public commitment to use nuclear materials and technology only for peaceful purposes. The NPT’s main objectives are to stop the further spread of nuclear weapons, to provide security for non-nuclear weapons states, which have given up the nuclear option, to encourage international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It is clearly the last objective where least progress has been made, as the five weapons states (the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK) have arguably failed to keep to their side of the bargain as progress towards disarmament has been slow.

The IAEA undertakes regular inspections of civil nuclear facilities to verify the accuracy of documentation supplied to it. The agency checks inventories and undertakes sampling and analysis of materials. Safeguards are designed to deter diversion of nuclear material by increasing the risk of early detection. They are complemented by controls on the export of sensitive technology from countries such as UK and USA through voluntary bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG).

Parties to the NPT agree to accept technical safeguards measures applied by the IAEA. These require that operators of nuclear facilities maintain and declare detailed accounting records of all movements and transactions involving nuclear material. Over 550 facilities and several hundred other locations are subject to regular inspection, and their records and the nuclear material being audited. Inspections by the IAEA are complemented by other measures such as surveillance cameras and instrumentation.


The entire 50-year history of civil nuclear power contains nothing to suggest that the risks are other than very remote

The aim of traditional IAEA safeguards is to deter the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful use by maximising the risk of early detection. At a broader level they provide assurance to the international community that countries are honouring their treaty commitments to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes. In this way safeguards are a service both to the international community and to individual states, who recognise that it is in their own interest to demonstrate compliance with these commitments. All NPT non-weapons states must accept these full-scope safeguards. In the five weapons states plus the non-NPT states (India, Pakistan and Israel), facility-specific safeguards apply. IAEA inspectors regularly visit these facilities to verify completeness and accuracy of records.

The terms of the NPT cannot be enforced by the IAEA itself, nor can nations be forced to sign the treaty. As shown in Iran and North Korea, safeguards can be backed up by diplomatic, political and economic measures. On the other hand, while accepting safeguards at declared facilities, Iran has allegedly set up equipment elsewhere in an attempt to enrich uranium to weapons grade. And in North Korea, research reactors (not commercial electricity-generating reactors) and a reprocessing plant were used to produce some weapons-grade plutonium. The weakness of the NPT regime lies in the fact that no obvious diversion of material has been involved. The uranium used as fuel probably came from indigenous sources, and the countries themselves built the nuclear facilities concerned, without being declared or placed under safeguards arrangements.

In 1993 a programme was initiated to strengthen and extend the classical safeguards system was initiated, and a model protocol was agreed by the IAEA board of governors in 1997. The measures boosted the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities, including those with no connection to the civil fuel cycle. The so-called Additional Protocol gives the IAEA considerably more information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities, including R&D, production of uranium and thorium (regardless of whether it is traded) and nuclear-related imports and exports. Inspectors also have greater rights of access and will include any suspect location. Visits can be at short notice (for example, two hours), and the IAEA can deploy environmental sampling and remote monitoring techniques to detect illicit activities. As of mid 2006, 77 had Additional Protocols in force, 38 more had them approved and signed.

The greatest risk of nuclear weapons proliferation has traditionally rested with countries which have not joined the NPT and which have significant unsafeguarded nuclear activities. India, Pakistan and Israel are in this category. While safeguards apply to some of their activities, others remain beyond scrutiny.

A further concern is that countries may develop various sensitive nuclear fuel cycle facilities and research reactors under full safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the NPT. This suggests that moving to some kind of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle is timely. There are a number of ideas, previously floated many years ago, which have been dug out and revamped. One key principle is that the assurance of non proliferation must be linked with assurance of supply and services within the nuclear fuel cycle to any country embracing nuclear power. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) programme announced by the USA and complementary initiatives discussed by Russia and IAEA might guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel and services for bona fide uses, thereby removing the incentive for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Creating new multinational, possibly regional, fuel cycle facilities for enrichment, reprocessing and used fuel management, based on joint ownership is one concept, as is reinforcing existing commercial market mechanisms of long-term fuel supply contracts, possibly involving fuel leasing and the take-back of used fuel, so obviating the need for fuel cycle facilities in most countries. Yet there is clearly a risk here of dividing the world into ‘good guys and bad guys’, in a politically discriminatory way.

One stimulus to rejigging old rules may be the new arrangements on nuclear trade the USA is now finalising with India, so many years out in the cold owing to its weapons programme. There remain substantial challenges in implementing this, particularly with the NSG arrangements, but something needed to be done, as categorising the second most populous nation in the world as a ‘nuclear outlaw’ was never helpful and, if anything, hardened attitudes.

To summarise, a lot remains to be done to strengthen non-proliferation arrangements, but progress is slowly being made. Possible diversion of fissile materials to illicit uses is likely to come up as an issue when any new nuclear build programme is proposed, but the risks are, in reality, low and tolerable. It is unclear why building lots of new nuclear power plants will markedly increase any of these risks, particularly if they’re in countries where nuclear is already well-established. The number of new countries likely to get nuclear plants by 2020 is, in any case, quite small and these will be expected to embrace best international practice. As a parallel, the small risks involved in international air transport do not prevent passengers from cheerfully undertaking many flights, as the risks are regarded as low and well-managed. Nuclear power must be seen to be doing the same.

The entire 50-year history of civil nuclear power contains nothing to suggest that the risks are other than very remote Quote 1 Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy and Research 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

Related Articles
Progress names site for new plant
Florida says yes to Levy Country

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.