Nuclear proliferation – is it a problem for the civil sector?

4 October 2017

Two recent news items may not seem closely related, but on closer examination suggest that much of the current thinking on nuclear matters needs a complete revamp.

The less heralded of the two stories is that a storage facility for a low-enriched uranium fuel bank was inaugurated on 29 August 2017 in Kazakhstan in a ceremony involving President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The fuel bank exists to provide a supplier of last resort to a country using nuclear power which for some (unspecified) reason is unable to obtain supplies of uranium from the normal commercial market. IAEA already has funding and authority to purchase the uranium, and with the inauguration of the storage facility it will presumably do so shortly. 

The IAEA reports that dozens of countries today are interested in pursuing nuclear energy. Because the same enrichment technology that produces fuel for a nuclear reactor can also produce the material for a nuclear bomb, the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons would arguably grow significantly if every country interested in nuclear power also pursued its own enrichment capabilities.

The second news item is the apparent success of the North Korean tests of both nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them to targets through long range missiles. This has naturally created a huge stir around the world but particular concerns within South Korea and Japan, nearby countries that have abrogated the rights to their own nuclear weapons under international treaties.

The success of a poor and isolated country in developing an advanced weapons programme clearly suggests that a lot of the thinking on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is faulty. Much of it has been based on a concern that countries may develop sensitive nuclear fuel cycle facilities and research reactors under full IAEA safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT). This is the argument for moving to some kind of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle.

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. Hence the idea of a fuel bank to guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel and services and remove the incentive for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Impetus was given to this by Mohammed ElBaradei, when he was director general of IAEA, who 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. 

This approach defies reality and is producing solutions for problems that do not exist. Proliferation of weapons has been very slow, partly because the difficulties of acquiring nuclear materials and developing weapons technology are much greater than commonly stated, but also because most countries have no real interest in acquiring weapons, as they make little sense beyond supposedly increasing national prestige. Enrichment and reprocessing technologies are very expensive
to acquire and it makes perfect sense to buy nuclear fuel from the existing commercial international supply chain. This already guarantees security of supply particularly, as now, where there is overcapacity in the market and China (a recognised nuclear weapons state) is also trying to join as an exporter. So, international fuel banks are essentially irrelevant. Measures supposedly to increase the proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle may be unwarranted, and may even impose additional costs on the industry.

The IAEA also has a tendency to overstate the number of countries that are likely to acquire nuclear power (and therefore require supplies of enriched uranium) over the next 20-30 years. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates will likely be the exception rather than the rule and their example suggests that others will also be content to use the existing commercial arrangements that are available.

For decades, the international community has worked hard to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and put in place a series of increasingly strong policies built on what they think they know about how countries manage to construct their own bombs. Yet North Korea successfully defied these efforts. How did it defy the experts who doubted its abilities? Lots of scholarly theories about nuclear proliferation have supposedly given us important insights into why and how states acquire nuclear weapons, and have helped policymakers stop states from doing so. If the theories are wrong or incomplete, then the policy prescriptions are likely to be off base as well.

Some important arguments have gone out of the window with North Korea. First, that an impoverished state can’t build a bomb. Apparently it can divert economic resources away from more productive activities. Secondly, the idea that comic book dictators cannot deliver complex projects appears also to be wrong, indeed the extent of their iron rule may allow them to harvest many of the country’s economic resources for particular tasks. Finally and most importantly, the idea that vulnerable states can be deterred or denied by economic sanctions imposed by the international community is also clearly faulty.

A more persuasive theory is that that states who perceive severe threats to their survival will bear almost any costs to acquire nuclear weapons. It may be that it is impossible to prevent countries from going nuclear if they are so determined to do so. The North Koreans fear an invasion (as happened to Iraq because of fears that it had nuclear weapons) aimed at regime overthrow. And one way to prevent this is to acquire weapons quickly for deterrence. This route sounds perfectly rational to a state that feels under siege.

On the other hand, the suggestion that stopping proliferation is a hopeless task is also wrong. Countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea have been persuaded that acquiring nuclear weapons is not in their interest.

Non-proliferation efforts

Non-proliferation efforts relying primarily on measures to limit the spread of technology may buy time but are clearly insufficient against a motivated proliferator. Policies that depend on hoping such regimes will fail or fall are also probably misguided.

To be successful against isolated countries like North Korea, non- proliferation policies must either address the proliferator’s underlying sense of insecurity or enlist a strong multilateral coalition that enforces sanctions vigorously, with few exploitable cracks. This is a tall order.

The efforts put into non-proliferation measures in the nuclear sector are a huge waste of time and money. There is a strange world out there that insists that civil nuclear proliferation is a constant threat and therefore justifies a very expensive system to counter it.

It is similar to the international radiological protection system, much discussed in these columns, which is based on a non-existent threat from low doses of radiation. In both cases, there are many thousands of individuals drawing salaries inventing and administering solutions for problems that do not exist.

Within the anti-proliferation measures, the new fuel bank is seen as a small example of progress. However, if you ask the people behind this and other similar measures about the specific threats they are addressing, they have little to say. The only conceivable cases they can cite are state-sponsored and usually revolve around Iran, Iraq, North Korea, India or Pakistan. But these examples prove that traditional safeguards regimes and the like are unlikely to work.

People are rightly afraid of nuclear weapons spreading, but the evidence since 1945 does not suggest that the civil nuclear sector has any real role in this. Yet the nuclear industry is culpable in supporting all the non-proliferation institutions, and the huge expense that comes with them, for very little benefit. When a new country is investigating nuclear power, or even its first uranium mine, its people told that the real risks of both the fuel cycle and operating nuclear reactors are minimal, as they are well-understood and effectively mitigated. But the institutional set up suggests there is an implicit link with nuclear weapons. This is then a potent force behind nuclear fear, which ultimately is the supreme handicap that kills the civil nuclear sector. Yet the industry persists in implicitly supporting the international regimes which serve to destroy its progress.

The industry remains hugely defensive about all its activities. The forces waged against it have been remarkably consistent over the years in promoting nuclear fear and the industry has never really got its head around how to counter this. One important factor behind this is much of the nuclear industry’s intellectual force still comes from government and academics who are uncomfortable with commercial competition and overcoming strong opposition. They are not well equipped to take on established institutional practices or competition from alternative ways of generating electricity such as wind and solar power. In both cases they to make accommodations that render the industry impotent.

The fuel bank may be unnecessary but at least not very expensive. But it is symptom of the flawed thinking that has to be challenged. It will not do anything to counter any North Koreas in the future, who are determined to acquire nuclear weapons, or to hinder countries in their pursuit of nuclear power. It may allow some of the nuclear “scaredy cats” at various non-proliferation bodies around the world to feel a little better, but no more than that. 

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute. 

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