A multinational fuel consortium: Obstacles, options, and ways forward

By Olli Heinonen | September 8, 2011

The harnessing of the atom to develop a nuclear bomb 70 years ago unleashed a magnitude of terrifying destruction the world had never witnessed before. The same atomic power also resulted in an “atoms for peace” program, which gave the world nuclear power as a clean source of energy and benefited humanity in the development of nuclear medicine, agriculture, and sciences.

Since its establishment in 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has recognized the need to promote the peaceful purposes of nuclear power while concurrently ensuring that its destructive nature is not proliferated. The brute fact remains that the same fuel-cycle technologies, uranium enrichment and reprocessing that are essential to power a nuclear reactor can, with adjustments, produce material to fuel the core of a nuclear explosive. The challenge remains in controlling the spread of such dual-use nuclear technologies that can be developed and used both for civilian and military purposes. The risks of not managing this process properly are consequential and dire.

The obstacles. Today, 14 states worldwide either operate or are building enrichment plants, while 10 have reprocessing facilities on their soil. Combined, they have produced enough weapons-usable material for over 200,000 nuclear bombs. According to recent estimates by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 440 operating nuclear power plants in the world. Sixty countries are considering nuclear power (many of which are located in unstable regions), out of which 10 to 25 countries are expected to bring nuclear power plants online by 2030. The World Nuclear Association’s conservative estimate on the total number of power reactors expected to come online by 2030 is nearly 600. If states that buy reactors also build uranium-enrichment facilities (such as Iran) or reprocess spent fuel (such as North Korea), they will be equally capable of having the opportunity to develop the technology needed to build nuclear weapons. Theoretically speaking, any of these states can climb the nuclear stairway to within reach of a mushroom cloud while remaining within their international obligations.

The nuclear fuel cycle process needs to be further tightened. Two years ago, former head of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei said, “pretty soon” the world will probably have “another 10 or 20 virtual weapons states,” that is countries with the technical know-how and material to build a nuclear weapon rapidly. In a world with additional enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, the risks of theft of fissile material and threat of nuclear terrorism — particularly in unstable regions or areas of lax security — are greatly magnified.

There have been successive calls over the years to address the systemic flaws inherent within the current nuclear nonproliferation regime, which has failed to adequately address the dangers of the spread of reprocessing and enrichment capabilities. The concept of providing international nuclear fuel supply guarantees as an alternative for states that may choose to develop their own domestic enrichment and reprocessing facilities has been advocated for years by the arms control community. But this initiative has largely gone nowhere for three main reasons. First, the “haves” refuse to transfer their own sensitive know-how and fuel-making technologies, implicitly asserting that these activities are only allowed for certain countries. Second, the “have-nots,” in particular during recent years the Non-Aligned Movement, cite this refusal as further unfair discrimination by the “haves.” Moreover, these states feel that it is within their sovereign right to develop or expand their capabilities for peaceful nuclear activities that include all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Third, an international fuel consortium poses substantial operational and political complexities that would be difficult for an international agency to manage effectively.

The options. Motivated by many states’ resurgent interest to acquire nuclear power, nonproliferation advocates have refocused global efforts to control access to these sensitive nuclear technologies.

The full contents of this article are available in the July/August issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and can be found here.

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