Nuclear proliferation risk – is it vastly overrated?

23 July 2010

A significant amount of media attention has recently attached itself to the nuclear security meeting convened by US president Barack Obama and the five-yearly review conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which followed soon afterwards. The fear of so-called ‘rogue nations’ acquiring nuclear weapons, or terrorist organisations creating outrages by misuse of nuclear materials, clearly remains strong. Many column inches also continue to be devoted to various North Korean nuclear activities and to Iran’s alleged intentions to pursue a weapons programme. There therefore remains a fear that this may cast a shadow over the nuclear renaissance, particularly as many people clearly believe that nuclear energy and bombs are merely two faces of the same coin. But it is surely not unreasonable to question whether these fears are being substantially inflated and possibly manipulated by various interest groups in order to suit their own purposes.

There is, however, no doubt that 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. Similarly, it is understandable that concerns over the security of civil nuclear facilities have multiplied since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. The possibility of aircraft crashing into such plants has naturally now been raised, as have possible terrorist incursions at plants either to acquire materials for weapons or to misuse the facility to create an explosion or a major radioactive release [see also ‘Security since September 11th].

Rather like the risks of operating nuclear power plants themselves, these possibilities largely boil down to assessing very low probability events which may have big consequences. Human beings are notoriously bad at this and frequently reach what seem to be illogical conclusions. This is highlighted by a recent book by a US academic, John Mueller, Atomic Obsession–Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda [ISBN #978-0195381368]. Mueller argues very persuasively (but certainly also controversially) that the impact of nuclear weapons has been substantially overstated both in terms of their likely destructive power (in the hands of any party other than one of the five recognised nuclear weapons states) but also in their real impact on human history since 1945. He emphasizes how slow proliferation of weapons has been in reality, partly because the difficulties of acquiring nuclear materials and developing weapons technology are much greater than commonly stated, but also because all but a few countries have no real interest in acquiring weapons, as they make little sense beyond supposedly increasing national prestige.

Similarly, the task of the atomic terrorist is far from simple. If it were as easy as many people claim, why haven’t there been any incidents, even when the controls on nuclear materials were far looser than today? And why do terrorist incidents (with the possible exception of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995) usually involve low tech methods, such as people attaching bombs to themselves or taking over commercial airlines armed with box cutters and then flying them into prominent buildings? There may not be, in reality, any substantive black market in nuclear materials, despite the stories we regularly hear of nuclear trafficking. The comparison sometimes made with narcotic drugs is not reasonable; although drug seizures are known to be the tip of a very large iceberg, controls on the production, trade and transport of nuclear materials are much stiffer and potential buyers are very limited in number.

First, security considerations have been addressed by deploying additional armed personnel at facilities and by other measures to prevent incursions, while new nuclear plants are 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 dominate the assessment of potential future actions. Indeed, critics of nuclear power are very bad at keeping things in perspective and fail to apply similar degrees of scrutiny to other plans. For example, should football stadiums not be licensed for 80,000 fans, simply because a direct aircraft strike during a game could conceivably kill many thousands? Should the walls of the stadium have to be several metres thick?

Proliferation of nuclear materials and technology and their integration into weapons are notably more substantive risks, particularly as they 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 itself is not particularly difficult (even if, as Mueller emphasises, actually manufacturing and delivering a weapon certainly is). So much of the world anti-proliferation regime is based on controls on fissile materials; if the necessary plutonium or highly enriched uranium is not available either by diversion from civil uses or production in a local facility, a weapon is impossible. It is therefore necessary for nuclear power critics to focus on alleged weaknesses in the international nuclear safeguards regime or in the security of nuclear materials transport, plus the possible spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries who may have an interest beyond normal civil uses. While there is no room for complacency, the real risks are actually as remote as those associated with nuclear facility security and mean that attempts to stiffen safeguards even further will encounter reasonable objections.

Nevertheless, over the past 35 years, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 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. Most countries have indeed renounced nuclear weapons, recognising that possessing 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 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.”

Parties to the NPT agree to accept technical safeguards measures applied by the IAEA, 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). Safeguards require that operators of nuclear facilities maintain and declare detailed accounting records of all movements and transactions involving nuclear material. The aim 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, while facility-specific safeguards apply in the five weapons states (USA, Russia, UK, France and China) plus the non-NPT states (India, Pakistan and Israel).

Iran and North Korea illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of international safeguards. While accepting safeguards at declared facilities, Iran has allegedly set up equipment elsewhere in an attempt to enrich uranium to weapons grade [see also ‘Figuring out Fordow,’ NEI March 2010, pp20-2]. North Korea used research reactors (not commercial electricity-generating reactors) and a reprocessing plant 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. In both countries, 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. 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 NPT safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the NPT. This is the argument for moving to some kind of intrinsic proliferation resistance in the fuel cycle, where there are a number of ideas, previously floated many years ago, which keep on being revamped. One key principle is that the assurance of non-proliferation must be linked to assurance of supply and services in the nuclear fuel cycle to any country embracing nuclear power. Various proposals for fuel banks and multinational fuel cycle centres may aim to guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel and services for bona fide uses, thereby removing the incentive for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Yet there is clearly a risk here of dividing the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ in a politically discriminatory way. Already, some international fuel cycle proposals have raised the ire of major developing countries like Brazil and South Africa.

The real problem is that nuclear non-proliferation and security have powerful lobby groups behind them, largely claiming to have nothing against nuclear power as such, apart from the dangers of misuse of nuclear technology. In fact in Washington DC, home of the US federal government, there is a cottage industry of lobby groups dedicated to this. Those who oppose their scaremongering (and it essentially amounts to no more than this) are castigated as being in the industry’s pocket or acting unresponsively to allegedly genuinely expressed public fears. Pointing out that very few new countries will acquire nuclear power by even 2030, and that very few of these will likely express any interest in acquiring enrichment or reprocessing facilities, seems to go completely over their heads. In any case, nuclear fuel cycle 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, so moves towards international fuel banks are essentially irrelevant, while measures supposedly to increase the proliferation resistance of the fuel cycle are unwarranted, particularly if they impose additional costs on the industry.

It is likely that more countries will foolishly choose to acquire nuclear weapons. If they are really determined to do so, there is little really that the world can do to prevent them—the main effort has to be in dissuading them from this course of action. How many countries will have nuclear weapons by 2030 is hard to say, but there could well be a total of 15 by then. Mueller argues that this increase, in itself, will neither prevent nor cause wars, but will impose substantial costs on the countries concerned. Apart from the costs of weapons programmes diverting needed economic resources away from more productive activities, such countries are likely to be faced with economic sanctions which would create severe economic hardship for their citizens but be unlikely to deter them.

So there has to be a better way. The problems of regions such as the Middle East will have to be resolved by negotiation, as the presence of many nuclear weapons states will solve nothing. In the absence of leadership by madmen, the spectre of mutually-assured destruction will merely maintain the status quo; acquiring nuclear weapons will grant a country more criticism than international prestige. Meanwhile, the commercial nuclear sector will hopefully be allowed to flourish without too many people chipping away at the margins by raising unwarranted fears about its activities (and imposing additional financial costs, which is what it eventually amounts to).

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Director of Strategy & 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.

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