Printer Friendly

Preventing nuclear proliferation.

Michael May and Tom Isaacs' "Stronger Measures Needed To Prevent Proliferation" (Issues, Spring 2004) is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion on how best to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Regime, the centerpiece of international security.

The authors' suggestion to develop a protocol to improve the physical security of weapons-usable material is entirely laudatory. The Convention on Physical Protection, important to efforts to protect such materials from terrorist acquisition, applies only to materials in international transport. It is necessary to establish stringent and uniform standards that are applicable to such materials wherever they are found worldwide. Some progress has been made, but this will be a difficult task.

The authors are correct to stress the importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol for enhanced NPT inspections. It will make NPT verification more effective. However, I do not agree that sensitive exports should be allowed only to states that have approved the protocol; to date, only about 20 percent of NPT parties have ratified it. Rather, the immediate effort should be to persuade all NPT parties to join or for the IAEA to make the protocol a mandatory part of the Safeguards System.

With respect to the authors' suggestion to minimize the accumulation of weapons-usable material, if necessary by using a new fuel cycle, in my judgment such technology at least potentially already exists. A new type of thorium-based nuclear fuel cycle was invented by Alvin Radkovsky, former chief scientist to Admiral Rickover. This fuel, which is approximately 60 percent thorium and 40 percent uranium in content and which is nearing completion of developmental testing at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, produces no separable plutonium in its spent fuel product and as a result creates electric power with no accumulation of weapons-usable material.


In addressing the section of the article headed "Reducing the demand for nuclear weapons," all of which is well taken, I would make just two comments. First, it is indeed important to expand and strengthen security assurances for NPT non-nuclear weapon states that are in compliance with their obligations. Second, the NPT Regime, and nuclear nonproliferation policies generally, in the long run are not going to succeed unless the nuclear weapon states, particularly the United States, stop hyping the political significance of nuclear weapons and begin to take serious measures to reduce their political value and thereby their attractiveness. The NPT simply will not remain effective unless the nuclear weapon states live up to the disarmament obligations in their half of the NPT basic bargain, which means most importantly in the near term, ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


Special Counsel

Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP

Washington, D.C.

Thomas Graham, Jr. is former Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament.

Michael May and Tom Isaacs make a convincing case that stronger measures are needed to fight nuclear proliferation. Their call for an updated Atoms for Peace effort is especially important today, because a significant increase in nuclear energy use is needed to solve many of the energy and environmental challenges ahead, and the need to secure nuclear materials has become more urgent with the advent of megaterrorism. I agree that the fundamental problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather one of inadequate priorities and, in my opinion, ineffective implementation.

Here I address the first of their three components of an enhanced effort--materials control and facilities monitoring--because it is the most urgent, although the other two--effective international governance and reduction of demand for nuclear weapons--are important as well. The following two actions require urgent attention while the international community takes up the list of security measures proposed by the authors:

1) Immediate steps to enhance nuclear security by all governments that possess weapons-usable materials. Recent revelations about the irresponsible proliferation actions of A. Q. Khan put Pakistan at the top of the priority list. Its government must take immediate steps to assure itself and the world that its stockpile of fissile materials is secure and that the export of nuclear materials and technologies has been halted. After a decade of U.S. assistance, Russia must finally step up to its responsibility to provide modern safeguards for its huge stockpile of fissile materials. Likewise, the countries possessing civilian materials that can readily be converted to weapons-usable ones must redouble their efforts to secure such materials at every step of the fuel cycle.

2) Weapons-usable materials should be promptly removed from countries with no legitimate need for such materials. It's time to find an acceptable path to eliminate the nuclear weapons efforts of North Korea and Iran. Likewise, weaponsusable materials should be promptly removed from Kazakhstan. Much greater priority must be given to removing highly enriched uranium from research reactors in countries that cannot guarantee adequate safeguards. In most of these countries we should facilitate the closure of such reactors rather than their conversion to low-enriched uranium.

These stopgap measures must be accompanied by longer-term actions such as those outlined by the authors. We must revisit the safeguards necessary to enable Eisenhower's vision of plentiful energy for all humankind. Today's security concerns suggest a three-tiered approach to expanding nuclear energy: Nations with a demonstrated record of stability and safeguards may possess nuclear reactors and full fuel-cycle capabilities. The next tier of nations may not possess fuel-cycle facilities but may lease the fuel and/or nuclear reactors. The last tier has no access to nuclear capabilities but imports electricity from reactors in the region. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council must be given the proper enforcement authority to deal with those who violate the international nonproliferation norms.


Senior Fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos, New Mexico

Michael May and Tom Isaacs provide a thorough, thoughtful review of contemporary nuclear proliferation issues and a comprehensive series of sensible proposals that could provide the basis of an expanded nuclear energy regime. Why would we need such an expanded regime? Many of the benefits of nuclear power are discussed in "The Nuclear Power Bargain" by John J. Taylor in the same issue of Issues, but there is one benefit that stands out: Over the next century, a large increase in nuclear power could provide a major ameliorant to the threat of global climate change. But because the industrial processes of the nuclear energy fuel cycle are similar to those of the nuclear weapon fuel cycle, a large increase in nuclear energy would further increase concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some simple numbers make this point.

The current global supply of electrical energy is 1650 gigawatt-years (GWyr), with fossil fuel at 1065, nuclear at 275, and hydroelectric at 375. If we assume, conservatively, that electricity demand will triple in the next 50 years, then global supply will reach about 5,000 GWyr. A very optimistic assumption for the level of renewable and hydroelectric power would be 1,000 GWyr, leaving the balance between fossil and nuclear. To hold the level of fossil fuel-generated electricity to 1,000 Gwyr, the amount of nuclear power must grow to 3,000 GWyr, or an increase by about a factor of 10. This would be good for the environment, but--assuming current light-water reactor technology--such an expansion of nuclear power would produce enough spent fuel to fill a Yucca Mountain Repository every year and require a uranium enrichment industry that could also produce over a 100,000 "significant quantities" of highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

Thus, any expansion of nuclear power must deal simultaneously with the issues of spent fuel and proliferation. Recycling spent fuel with the well-developed once-through PUREX/MOX process can reduce the amount of spent fuel by around a factor of two, but at the expense of creating a recycling industry capable of producing many significant quantities of plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons. Advanced fuel cycles incorporating fast reactors that burn the waste from thermal reactors show promise for reducing the radioactive material storage problem by orders of magnitude and would not produce separated plutonium. Such a fuel cycle has yet to be demonstrated at scale, would be decades away from significant deployment, and would require an increased enrichment industry for the associated thermal reactors. In short, although new technologies for proliferation resistance and spent fuel management can help, any large increase in nuclear power will require a new international institutional arrangement to alleviate proliferation concerns.

May, Isaacs, and Taylor (and many others) suggest that fuel leasing could be such an international arrangement. This concept would require nations to choose one of two paths for civilian nuclear development: one that has only reactors or one that contains one or more elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, including recycling. Fuel cycle states would enrich uranium, manufacture and lease fuel to reactor states, and receive the reactor states' spent fuel. All parties would accede to stringent security and safeguard standards, embedded within a newly invigorated international regime. Reactor states would be relieved of the financial, environmental, and political burden of enriching and manufacturing fuel, managing spent fuel, and storing high-level waste. Fuel cycle states would potentially have access to a robust market for nuclear reactor construction and fuel processing services.

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower suggested that the threat of nuclear war was so devastating that it was critical to create an interational community to control fissionable material and to fulfill the promise of civilian nuclear technology. Much of Eisenhower's vision was realized, but material control remains a vexing problem. Today's nuclear issues center on proliferation, continued growth in electricity demand, and global climate change; embedded within a far more complex international political infrastructure. The concept of nuclear fuel leasing would appear to provide a mechanism for substantial nuclear power growth and a framework for enhanced international cooperation.


Senior Vice President

Hicks & Associates

McLean, Virginia

Victor H. Reis is former assistant secretary for defense programs in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Michael May and Tom Isaacs nicely summarize the materials control, governance, and nuclear weapons policy options needed to strengthen Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) implementation. The core issue is controlling weapons-usable fissile material, highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and the associated production technologies, enrichment, and irradiated fuel reprocessing, respectively. In light of the growing interest in building nuclear power plants in developing economies, several versions of the fuel-cycle services concept are being advanced [for example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report on The Future of Nuclear Power, and the proposals of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General ElBaradei]. This basically entails institutionalization of an assured fuel supply and spent fuel removal for countries foregoing enrichment and reprocessing, along with acceptance of the IAEA Additional Protocol.

Spent fuel removal will be a considerable incentive for many countries, especially those with relatively small nuclear power deployments. However, implementation requires that the spent fuel go somewhere, putting a spotlight on the unresolved issue of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level waste (HLW) disposal. There remains an international consensus that geological isolation is the preferred approach and that the scientific basis for it is sound. Nevertheless, after several decades, implementation has not yet been carried out anywhere, and public concerns present major obstacles in many countries. The U.S. R & D program is narrowly focused on Yucca Mountain and does not have the breadth or depth to support a disposition program robust enough to address a major global growth in nuclear power. Nor has a policy on international spent fuel storage been established. Progress on SNF/HLW management is essential for the fuel-cycle services approach to NPT implementation.

May and Isaacs note "the debate, almost theological in nature, between adherents of the once-through cycle and those of reprocessing." Although the debate is much more pragmatic than suggested by this remark, the fuel-cycle issue is quite germane to our discussion. Indeed, long-term waste management (meaning beyond a century or so) today provides the principal rationale for advocating the PUREX/MOX process or more advanced closed fuel cycles that are still on the drawing board. However, for the first century, the net waste management benefits of closed fuel cycles are highly arguable (see the MIT report). In addition, PUREX/MOX operations as practiced around the world have led to the accumulation of 200 metric tons of separated plutonium, enough for tens of thousands of weapons. This manifests the proliferation risk that led to the schism of the 1970s between the United States and several allies, with the United States advocating the once-through fuel cycle, followed by geological isolation of SNF in order to avoid the "plutonium economy." In addition to this plutonium accumulation, operational choices further exacerbate proliferation concerns; for example, plutonium is transported over considerable distances from the French reprocessing plant at La Hague to fuel fabrication plants in southern France and in Belgium. Of course, the once-through fuel cycle also poses proliferation issues if the plutonium-bearing SNF is not disposed of in a timely way. In other words, neither fuel cycle is functioning today in a way that would support the fuel-cycle services approach in the long run. This needs to be fixed.

Finally, we note that a dialogue between the United States and Russia several years ago, never consummated with a signed agreement, may provide a template for progress. The discussion took place in the context of U.S. concern about Russian fuel-cycle assistance to Iran. Relevant elements of a cooperative approach included Russian supply of fresh fuel to Iran and spent fuel return (Russian environmental law has been modified to permit such spent fuel return), no assistance to Iran with enrichment or reprocessing, a decades-long moratorium on further accumulation of plutonium from Russian commercial SNF, and joint R & D on geological isolation and on advanced proliferation-resistant fuel cycles. In effect, this would not require either to renounce its currently preferred fuel cycle, would facilitate Iran's generation of electricity from nuclear power, and would build in a substantial "do no harm" time period for providing a sounder technical basis for informing national choices on long-term SNF/HLW management consistent with nonproliferation and economic criteria.


Department of Physics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ernest J. Moniz is former associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Michael May and Tom Isaacs make a convincing case for stronger nonproliferation measures without losing sight of the benefits brought about by the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Their analysis transcends the frantic proposals of those who want to "replace the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) by a prohibition treaty." Not less important from my perspective, the authors turn their back on U.S. unilateralism and recognize the need to consider the interests of other countries.

Securing weapons-grade materials in Russia, phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in research reactors, improving the physical protection of nuclear materials and promoting the worldwide application of tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through the Additional Protocol are obvious yet essential measures that indeed deserve immediate attention. As to the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, the authors note quite correctly that the debate between proponents and opponents of fuel reprocessing is of a theological nature, since economical, environmental, and even proliferation differences are too small and uncertain to bother about.

May and Isaacs call for the development of more secure, but unspecified, fuel cycles. To succeed in this undertaking, one needs first, in my view, to discard the obsolete idea that "all plutonium mixtures are weapons-usable," a taboo that hampers a sound approach to optimum fuel cycles. The proliferation risk of plutonium depends much on its isotopic composition, on the quality of the mixture. Consequently, the central proliferation risk of all civilian reactors is associated with the high-grade plutonium contained in fuel that has spent only a short time in residence; therefore, technical fixes and verification schemes should be developed to ensure that such high-quality material cannot be diverted. On the other hand, verification could certainly be relaxed on the low-quality plutonium coming out of modern nuclear plants with long fuel residence times, in particular those using reprocessed plutonium.

The internationalization of large fuel-cycle facilities makes sense in both economic and nonproliferation terms. For example, if Brazil, Argentina, and Chile would share and operate jointly the Brazilian uranium enrichment facility, these three countries would draw the benefits of a secure fuel supply for their nuclear activities while silencing international concerns. The adoption of international deep geological repositories for spent fuel would also make economic sense, especially if high- and low-quality plutonium were separated.

As director general of the IAEA, Hans Blix used to say that effective controls rest on three pillars: broad access to information, unrestricted access to facilities, and the clout of the United Nations Security Council to ensure compliance. The Additional Protocol has strengthened the first two pillars markedly; the Security Council has failed its nonproliferation mission over and over again. May and Isaacs are right to call for institutional arrangements at the NPT and Security Council level. But much U.S. leadership would be needed to achieve this ambitious objective. For failing to ratify too many international treaties, for claiming a right to stand aside and aloof, the United States has for the time being lost the credibility and the authority to define the future of nonproliferation agreements.


Icogne, Switzerland

Bruno Pellaud is former deputy director general for safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Academy of Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Stronger Measures Needed To Prevent Proliferation
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Previous Article:Atoms for Peace Award.
Next Article:New roles for nuclear weapons.

Related Articles
Looking forward by looking back: a pragmatic look at nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control.
Nonproliferation: U.S. Efforts to Combat Nuclear Networks Need Better Data on Proliferation Risks and Program Results.
The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
A new start for non-proliferation.
Bold ideas are needed to advance nuclear non-proliferation.
A Unique Initiative.
Egypt''s FM affirms nations'' right to peaceful nuclear power usages.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters