A call to resist the nuclear revival

By Victor Gilinsky, January 27, 2009

When formulating its nuclear energy policy, the new Obama administration will have to face the reality that advances in technology, combined with politics and ideology, have made it much harder to prevent nuclear energy use from contributing to the spread of the Bomb. To avoid a future Hobbesian nuclear jungle, the United States and other world governments will need to agree on tougher nuclear controls.

When formulating its nuclear energy policy, the new Obama administration will have to face the reality that advances in technology, combined with politics and ideology, have made it much harder to prevent nuclear energy use from contributing to the spread of the Bomb. To avoid a future Hobbesian nuclear jungle, the United States and other world governments will need to agree on tougher nuclear controls.

The 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report–the basis for the U.S. proposal to the United Nations on international control of atomic energy–stated the problem clearly: “A system of inspection superimposed on an otherwise uncontrolled exploitation of atomic energy by national governments will not be an adequate safeguard. . . . If nations or their citizens carry on intrinsically dangerous [nuclear] activities it seems to us that the chances for safeguarding the future are hopeless.”

Yet only a few years later, eager to exploit the political and economic potential of its nuclear technology, the United States and other countries adopted that very approach.

The notion that occasional inspection was an adequate deterrent against nuclear wrongdoing was then enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As an inducement for states to agree not to make bombs and to accept inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the NPT acknowledged their “inalienable” right to all “peaceful” nuclear technology, which effectively meant the uncontrolled exploitation of nuclear energy that the 1946 report warned about.

The stubborn and central fact is that plutonium and highly enriched uranium can be used in bombs more quickly than inspectors can function and other countries can respond to thwart bomb making. So where these materials are available, there aren’t reliable safeguards to back up “peaceful use” promises. Unfortunately, the diplomats who clustered around the NPT brushed aside questions about the effectiveness of safeguards in their drive to increase NPT membership. Meanwhile, political leaders, even highly intelligent ones, had only the vaguest grasp of the technical issues at hand. That’s still mostly true, so while the Acheson-Lilienthal Report’s conclusions are now more relevant than ever, the basis of the “NPT regime” remains fundamentally the same.

There were attempts after the NPT went into force to more closely adhere its application to its original purpose, most notably after the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion jolted the nuclear exporters’ confidence in recipients’ “peaceful use” pledges. India had spurned the NPT, but it had promised to use a Canadian-supplied reactor and the reactor’s U.S.-supplied heavy water only for peaceful uses. When challenged, India replied with a straight face that its Bomb was peaceful.

In response, the major exporting countries formed what became the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and agreed later that year on additional controls beyond the NPT. The main concern then was that imported reprocessing plants would give countries access to plutonium for bombs.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford announced that the United States wouldn’t support reprocessing until “the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation.” He added: “Avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests.” The nuclear industry and the U.S. nuclear bureaucracy bitterly opposed Ford’s policy even though the reprocessing restriction actually saved money and thus offered a practical way to keep nuclear energy use from spilling over into bomb making. Two years later, under the Carter administration, Washington tightened its export laws to require full-scope IAEA inspection of recipients.

The Bush administration, with Democratic congressional support, drove a truck through all these measures to bolster the NPT. The prime example: The U.S.-India agreement, approved by Congress last October, waived U.S. export restrictions on India, which has fought the NPT regime for 40 years. A related U.S.-sponsored NSG decision gave India a waiver allowing access to the international nuclear trade–and specifically uranium fuel that India lacks– without submitting to the NPT’s inspection requirements. The irony wasn’t lost on the Indian government that it had succeeded–without giving up anything in its drive for more bombs–in steamrolling the very criteria that were put in place in response to its initial pursuit of the Bomb. The agreement is in my view a violation of the NPT’s Article I prohibition on assisting another state’s bomb making.

To complete the rout of 30 years of U.S. anti-proliferation policy, President George W. Bush stated in New Delhi, “I don’t see how you can advocate nuclear power . . . without advocating [for] technological development of reprocessing.” The nuclear bureaucracies, the national laboratories, and the reprocessors who had never given up trying to reverse the Ford-Carter bans found a receptive audience in Bush. He approved a futuristic reprocessing and recycle program, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), to “solve” the waste problem and thereby, in the former administration’s view, open the door to greatly expanded nuclear use.

GNEP also includes a sop to anti-proliferation–an international fuel-leasing and fuel-assurance proposal as a way of inducing most countries to avoid acquiring their own fuel-cycle plants. GNEP’s exotic reprocessing and recycle technology isn’t going anywhere. (It hasn’t even gotten out of the lab and would be horrendously expensive if it ever did. In any case, it would actually complicate waste management for hundreds of years by increasing the number of waste streams.)

In the meantime, however, the international ballyhooing of GNEP’s fuel leasing schemes by the Energy and State departments has been encouraging national fuel-cycle plants. Countries fear a new division of states into suppliers and consumers is in the offing and don’t want to be caught on the wrong side. As for fuel assurances, this is a solution in search of a problem, as existing commercial contracts provide adequate assurances. The only country to suffer even a momentary pause in uranium fuel shipments pursuant to a contract was India after it exploded a Bomb and refused to accept IAEA inspections as required by the 1978 U.S. export law.

In any case, the diversion problem doesn’t just concern commercial fuel facilities. The general advance of technology has allowed for the spread of centrifuge manufacturing capabilities, making it easier for states to get into enrichment. (A lesson taught to us by A. Q. Khan.) The centrifuge process differs from its predecessor–gaseous diffusion–in that it allows small-scale enrichment operation and uses little power. Reprocessing always lent itself to small-scale operation. And small, clandestine centrifuge enrichment or reprocessing plants are difficult to find.

The essential point is that a facility that is very small in commercial terms can be very large in military terms. It could boost the enrichment of the fresh fuel intended for a light water reactor, or reprocess the reactor’s spent fuel, to provide militarily significant quantities of nuclear explosives in short order. This would involve cheating, but some NPT member states (Iraq and North Korea, for sure) have already cheated. In short, the conventional wisdom that light water reactors aren’t a problem without the presence of commercial-scale enrichment facilities or reprocessing facilities is wrong. The light water reactor is more “proliferation-resistant” than other reactor types, but not by much.

We’re now told that the world is entering a nuclear “renaissance” that will lead to much greater global use of nuclear energy. The economics don’t favor this–the cost of building new nuclear power plants is going through the roof, at least in the United States. Therefore, nuclear construction would have to be supported by hefty government subsidies. The publicly provided rationale for such subsidies is the need to limit global warming, although it’s difficult to imagine installing enough nuclear power plants to make a dent in the problem.

In any case, for many countries, nuclear power decisions are primarily political. It wouldn’t take many new countries building one or two reactors each to create serious security worries, especially as some of those most interested in nuclear power are in turbulent regions. It should be clear by now that the consequent international security issues don’t concern the nuclear bureaucracies and the nuclear vendors, who care only about expanding nuclear energy use. They will walk us off the cliff if we let them.

In addition to the foregoing narrowing of safety margins between nuclear energy technologies and weapons, there have been unfavorable changes on the weapons side. After a lessening in their importance after the Cold War ended, nuclear weapons are again on the upswing. The news is full of stories about them: North Korea won’t give them up; Iran looks as if it wants them; Israel threatens to bomb Iran to stop Tehran from producing them and actually bombs a secret Syrian reactor presumably intended for weapons; the United States wants to station anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic; in response, Russia tells those countries they could be nuclear targets; Pakistan’s instability provokes worries about its nuclear weapons; India seeks a nuclear missile submarine force; the five recognized weapons states (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China) want to modernize their nuclear forces; and a just-released report from the Defense Secretary’s Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management says U.S. nuclear forces should stay in Europe because they are “a pillar of NATO unity.”

There’s a troubling disconnect between this nuclear shadowboxing and any awareness of the devastating possibility of nuclear war. Just because the weapons are supposed to be for deterrence doesn’t mean they won’t be used. Doesn’t anyone remember the nuclear fears of the 1960s? The nuclear world’s self-delusions resemble those of the pre-meltdown world of finance, which a former treasury secretary characterized as “too much greed and not enough fear.”

One thing is clear: Nuclear weapons make politicians and government officials feel more important, confirming T. S. Elliot’s remark that most of the troubles in the world come from people wanting to be important. And some see the entry level as a domestic nuclear energy program.

The fundamental constraint against effectively protecting against nuclear energy use leading to bombs is the near-universal assumption that we can afford only so much protection as will allow full exploitation of nuclear energy. In international affairs, nuclear energy trumps just about everything. Even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals that grandfather everything that’s already in place.

Consider the recommendations from a September 2008 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ conference on the future of nuclear energy: extending loan guarantees to new U.S. plants; providing more support for the IAEA; paying more attention to physical protection of fissile materials; reducing (but not eliminating!) nuclear weapons; and “working with the IAEA and ongoing international efforts to explore nondiscriminatory fuel leasing and fuel services approaches.” It’s hard to think of more inoffensive and ineffectual advice.

It’s time to take a more serious view. Security should come first–not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow. At a minimum, that means an end to promoting and subsidizing nuclear power all over the world. It may mean holding up nuclear energy expansion until, as Ford said of reprocessing, “The world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation,” or we have a more secure technology for using it. In the conduct of nuclear energy activities generally, we need a common set of rules all countries can live by and, as Ford also did with respect to reprocessing in 1976, we need to apply the same rules to ourselves.

There is more: It’s difficult to see getting international support for dramatic changes in the way we use nuclear energy unless we extend the notion of common standards to the weapons side and take seriously the NPT Article VI commitment to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal to zero. This isn’t the place to argue the proposition of abolishing nuclear weapons, which obviously raises many questions beyond the context of nuclear energy. Let me only say that while it may seem unrealistic to head to zero, it’s also unrealistic to think we can continue indefinitely on the current path.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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