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Proposals to Strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Harold D. Bengelsdorf

Several developments over the last few years have suggested that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime is starting to crack and that the principal foundation of that regime, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), needs to be supplemented by new measures. North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT, its expulsion of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and its recent test of a nuclear weapon have created fears that there may be a dangerous nuclear arms race in Asia. Iran's clandestine acquisition of uranium enrichment equipment and technology and its failure to accede to the demands of the IAEA and the UN Security Council to cease its sensitive nuclear activities and to cooperate with IAEA inspections are also creating regional and global concerns. The network established by the Pakistani A.Q. Khan to market uranium enrichment know-how and nuclear weapons technology has reinforced fears that the proliferation problem may become unmanageable. There has also been a deep-seated, ongoing apprehension that sizeable stocks of nuclear-weapons-usable materials existing in some countries, notably in the former Soviet Union, are not subject to adequate physical protection and are thus subject to theft or misuse. Moreover, many non-nuclear-weapon states are deeply troubled that the nuclear-weapon states are not meeting their obligations under the NPT to try to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminate them.

These developments have also led to criticisms that the NPT has major loopholes, since it allows states to acquire their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities for peaceful purposes. The fear is that a state Party to the NPT could abuse the flexibility provided by the Treaty to acquire these facilities when they do not really need them and could use them to produce weapons-usable materials. Such a state could then withdraw from the Treaty on 90-days notice and quickly manufacture nuclear weapons without technically violating the NPT. As a consequence some argue that major new moves are now urgently needed to discourage the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

There is little doubt that the world faces some formidable challenges in reducing the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation. However, the nonproliferation regime is far stronger than many think, and we may not be effective in dealing with new threats if we lose our perspective over some issues.

Most notably, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats should not obscure the fact that the great majority of countries in the world have long shared a strong nonproliferation ethic and have made legally binding commitments to forgo nuclear weapons. Given this fact, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the international community will make ongoing efforts to prevent North Korean and Iranian actions that could catalyze a breakdown in nonproliferation norms. Hopefully these endeavors will persuade North Korea and Iran that their current adventures could be very self-destructive.

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One of the most important ways of stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons is to prevent the global spread of enrichment and reprocessing plants. Fortunately, not many states are now pressing to acquire such facilities for their civil programs. Indeed, only a relatively few states have elected to expend the sizeable financial and technical resources required to acquire their own commercial enrichment or reprocessing facilities, and only a few are likely to build such plants in the foreseeable future. Most consumers of enriched uranium are satisfied with the way the international fuel market is now performing and with their ability to obtain their nuclear fuel supplies from foreign suppliers on a reliable basis. This assumes that they can retain high confidence that they will be protected from unforeseen disruptions.

In devising new strategies, the international nuclear community has to recognize that non-nuclear-weapon states are particularly sensitive about preserving their sovereign right to pursue the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in whatever ways they see fit so long as their activities are subject to effective nonproliferation controls. Some states that are parties to the NPT are determined to protect their rights under Article IV of the Treaty to carry out peaceful nuclear programs, provided that they fulfill their NPT obligations to foreswear the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons and nuclear explosives and to place all their peaceful nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards. If such states had not been able to secure broad rights to pursue the peaceful atom during the negotiations of the NPT, it is questionable whether agreement would ever have been achieved on the text of the Treaty.

In addition, the vast majority of non-nuclear-weapon states have gone to great pains through the years to abide by the NPT as well other constraints in the nonproliferation regime. They have done so, even though they are sensitive to the inherent discriminatory features in the NPT that place far fewer constraints and obligations on the nuclear-weapon states than on the non-nuclear-weapon states party to the Treaty. Thus they will react negatively if they believe that the nuclear-weapon states as well as other advanced nuclear states are now trying to incorporate an additional discriminatory dimension into the regime.

The US Government and the other principal nuclear supplier states have long placed important constraints on the dissemination of sensitive nuclear materials and technologies. They have recognized that nuclear exports must be accompanied by a comprehensive set of nonproliferation controls including requirements that the recipient non-nuclear-weapon states accept the application of IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear activities, provide peaceful uses guarantees, and agree to adopt effective physical protection measures for their nuclear materials and facilities.

At the same time, the major supplier states have recognized that the global nonproliferation regime must include strong incentives to encourage responsible behavior by consumer states. They have felt that one of the best ways to discourage consumer states from acquiring sensitive nuclear technologies has been to offer them credible and long-term assurances of the timely supply of needed nuclear fuel. Even though the market has been working quite well, the major suppliers, including the US, have recently presented several interesting new proposals at the IAEA to further strengthen existing nuclear supply assurances. Almost all of these proposals call for the extension of new assurances to protect consumer states from serious disruptions that might arise in their nuclear fuel supplies, even though they are fully complying with their nonproliferation obligations. Several of the new ideas also visualize that the IAEA could serve as an important intermediary or, through an IAEA fuel bank, an actual, direct, back-up supplier of nuclear fuel. While such proposals may have little, if any, near-term relevance to the North Korean and the Iranian situations, suppliers hope that such offers will strengthen the confidence of consuming states that they need not acquire their own fuel-cycle capabilities in order to enjoy the full benefits of nuclear power. The current challenge for the IAEA and its interested member states is to come up with an agreed-upon plan that will hopefully lead to some concrete new results.

Unfortunately a significant impediment has surfaced in the deliberations of the IAEA on these matters that threatens to impair progress. This relates to the fact that several of the major suppliers of enriched uranium, including the Unites States, have issued various public statements that suggest that potential consumer countries can qualify for the proposed, new fuel guarantees only if they clearly forgo acquiring their own enrichment and reprocessing plants, presumably through some form of binding commitments or undertakings.

Again, unfortunately, and given their well known sensitivities, several consumer states have viewed this approach as a heavy-handed effort to place unwarranted limitations on their sovereign rights to shape their own nuclear energy futures. They are reacting this way even though the US and other major suppliers assert that this is not their intention. The reactions of these potential consumers are also creating new and disturbing splits among member states of the IAEA that are now discussing how best to move forward. So a concept that clearly was well intended appears to have backfired to some degree and, indeed, may not progress very far (at least in the IAEA) unless some mutually acceptable accommodation can be found. One possible solution would be to have the supplier states offer improved nuclear fuel guarantees to states that do not now possess enrichment and reprocessing plants and have no foreseeable plans to do so. The clear expectation would be that the proposed new assurances would provide an additional compelling reason for consumers not to take such a step. This approach would avoid any provocative formulations that would formally obligate consumer states never to obtain enrichment and reprocessing plants as a condition for receiving new benefits. Continued insistence on more rigid formulations will only serve to perpetuate the schism that has surfaced among IAEA member states. Moreover, such a split is extremely unfortunate and untimely since this is precisely the period when greater rather than less cohesion is needed among IAEA member states to help strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

The growing sensitivity in international nuclear circles about the question of discrimination has not been confined to the fuel assurances area. For example, in recent months the United States has proposed a bold new initiative called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) designed to strengthen the role of nuclear power in the long term under improved nonproliferation conditions. The ultimate objective of GNEP is to establish a regime where a few so-called "fuel-cycle states" would provide fuel-cycle services to many so-called "reactor states," i.e., states that would only possess nuclear power reactors but no enrichment and reprocessing plants. Under GNEP the few fuel-cycle states would ultimately lease power reactor fuel to qualified consumer states, once advanced fuel-cycle technologies - including advanced burner reactors - are brought to the point of practical, commercial application. Should such a leasing system ever be put into place, the reactor states involved would hopefully have little or no incentive to reprocess spent nuclear fuel since the entire responsibility for managing spent fuel and nuclear wastes would be taken off their hands by the supplying fuel-cycle states.

Notwithstanding the laudatory motivations behind GNEP, there have been some unintended, bad consequences. Specifically, some states have reacted negatively to the idea of dividing the world up between a few fuel-cycle states and a larger number of reactor states; or they have stated that, if there is such an ultimate division between the "haves" and "have-nots," they would wish to join the group of the "haves" or the fuel-cycle states. It would, of course, be ironic if such sentiments became strong enough now to activate any new enrichment or reprocessing, since GNEP has been designed to have the opposite effect.

Here, too, the promoters of GNEP would be well advised to stay clear of public proclamations that the world should be sharply divided into two categories of states. Rather, the United States and its GNEP partners should focus on supporting research on advanced reprocessing and reactor technologies that might ultimately enable several advanced countries to take over the responsibilities for managing spent fuel from their customers. Achieving concrete technical progress in meeting these ambitious goals is likely to be far more effective in discouraging the spread of sensitive facilities than having the advanced countries now try to lay out broad stipulations about how they believe the nuclear world should be reconfigured in the future.


The author, Harold D. Bengelsdorf, is a consultant in the field of international nuclear policy issues with an active practice and extensive experience in dealing with international nuclear policy and nonproliferation issues. {/access}

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