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Revisiting Nuclear Non-Proliferation April 6, 2007

Posted by Brian Angliss in Energy & the Environment, Foreign Policy, technology.

United States energy policy is intertwined with foreign policy, global heating, and public health. The strategic energy plank I’ve written for Dr. Slammy’s campaign will be posted some time in the next few weeks, but one of the tactical realizations that informed my broader thought process was how we could power our civilization while weaning ourselves off coal, oil, and natural gas. Nuclear energy is the only candidate energy supply currently widely available that will be able to meet our energy needs. Unfortunately, widing access to sustainable nuclear energy will eventually run afoul of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

My argument for revisiting how the NPT works, and for dramatically increasing the enforcement power of the IAEA, is presented below.

We live on a planet where the climate is changing as a direct result of our civilization. Global heating caused by the massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by cars and power plants is already raising the global sea levels, melting the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps, helping along the spread of tropical diseases out of the tropics and into temperate areas (West Nile in North America, anyone?), and probably increasing the incidence of extreme weather. The only solution is to decarbonize our economy, and doing that requires that we move as quickly as possible away from fossil fuels.

One of the few existing technologies that will ease the transition is nuclear power. The technology already exists, it’s been proven safe when done intelligently (and the way the U.S. did it leading up to Three Mile Island was most definitely NOT intelligent), and it releases no more carbon dioxide into the air than it takes to create the plant and mine the uranium.

But there’s a problem. The planet doesn’t have an infinite supply of uranium any more than it has an infinite supply of coal or oil. In 2001, the IAEA estimated that there could be significant supply problems by 2050 if the demand for nuclear power increases significantly, which it probably would if nuclear power is used to replace coal and natural gas power plants. And what happens if there’s not enough uranium to go around? The price goes sky-high and, eventually, power plants shut down, causing blackouts. Unless, that is, there’s a way to extend the life of nuclear power. Again, this technology also exists. It’s called breeder reactors.

All nuclear reactors create additional fissionable fuel as they split uranium-235 in their reactor cores, a process called “breeding.” Plutonium is the main product of uranium-235 fission, and as reactor fuel rods age, a greater and greater percentage of the reactor’s power is actually from the fission of plutonium instead of uranium. Standard nuclear reactors having “breeding ratios” less than one, meaning that the additional fuel created in the fuel rod stretches the life of the fuel, but is ultimately consumed. Breeder reactors are optimized for creating additional fuel, so they actually produce more fuel than they consume. For a more detailed explanation of the technology and physics involved in breeder reactors, see the Wikipedia entry or any number of other sites found via Google.

Unfortunately, there’s a significant problem with breeder reactors that could kill everything – you have to take the reactor out of service every so often, remove the newly created fuel from the reactor, and separate the usable fuel from the unusable stuff, a process that’s called “reprocessing.” And reprocessing is pretty much exactly what’s done to extract plutonium for nuclear bombs. So the widespread use of breeder reactors runs a risk of increasing nuclear proliferation.

This means that the international community may need to revisit some nuclear non-proliferation issues in light of global heating.

Since nuclear power is necessary to effectively meet the U.S. energy demands over the short to intermediate term (the next 50 years or so), uranium shortages will necessitate the wide scale deployment of breeder reactors. But because of the reprocessing of nuclear fuel that is required for breeder reactors to work, breeders and fuel reprocessing WILL eventually run afoul of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT (Text of the NPT). The problem stems from Article II, paragraph 2:

Each State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to provide: (a) source or special fissionable material, or (b) equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material, to any non-nuclear-weapon State for peaceful purposes, unless the source or special fissionable material shall be subject to the safeguards required by this Article.

“Equipment or material especially designed… for the processing… or production of special fissionable material” is the key, since this describes every reprocessing facility and breeder reactor in existence. As I see it, there are two ways around this prohibition. Both solutions, however, require the international community to address nuclear non-proliferation much more seriously than it does presently.

The first option is to limit access to breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing technologies to existing nuclear weapon states. In return, the nuclear weapons states must supply nuclear energy states in the developing world with nuclear fuel. In addition, the expended fuel and nuclear wastes must be accepted back by the nuclear weapon states for additional reprocessing once the fuel rods are spent. Unfortunately, nuclear energy states and near-nuclear energy states could potentially divert the fuel to weapons production (witness our recent problems with Iran). After all, the nuclear energy industry inherently uses the same technologies required for nuclear weapon production, and so it may be impossible to effectively separate nuclear energy fuel and nuclear weapon fuel.

In essence, limiting access to nuclear technologies and fuel is a delaying action at best. At worst, limited access is not just ineffective – it also gives everyone a false sense of security.

The international community cannot truly guarantee that another A.Q. Kahn (the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb and creator of a black market in nuclear technologies and know-how) or North Korea or Libya or Iran won’t pop up. And since we cannot guarantee that the safeguards provided for in the NPT will be enough, we need to assume that the NPT will not work at it’s stated goal of nuclear non-proliferation. Worse yet, without real safeguards and serious consequences for breaking the treaty, only the constant vigilance of individual nations can prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. The only possible way I see to prevent nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons is to update the NPT to include real safeguards and harsh consequences for any nation (and that nation’s citizens) caught breaking the treaty.

Since non-nuclear states will ultimately develop or buy nuclear technologies and know-how, the international community needs a set of enabling information for tracking the technologies and, perhaps most importantly, identifying the source(s) of all nuclear fuel. For now I’ll assume that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), created by the United Nations and the NPT itself and chartered with monitoring the world’s nuclear energy and nuclear weapons states, is the correct organization to do the work.

Here are my suggestions for reworking the NPT, in order of priority:

  1. Give the IAEA treaty authority to take samples of all sources of nuclear materials, with priority given to sources that can be immediately used in a “nuclear fingerprint” database. This database must include ALL sources from mines to reprocessing facilities to military reactors. And the database must be duplicated and backed up at many physically diverse locations in order to protect it from manipulation. Finally, the IAEA must be given the authority to demand access to all nuclear facilities at any time and with no prior notice. And if barred the nation barring the IAEA inspections should face immediate and automatic U.N. sanctions that are severe and that cannot be blocked by the 5 veto-wielding Security Council members (namely the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, and France).
  2. Allow signatories to the updated NPT to give or sell nuclear material and technology to other signatories. Also allow signatories to develop their own nuclear energy technologies with the requirement that all new sources (mine, reactors, reprocessing facilities, etc.) and all transferred material be fingerprinted BEFORE being transferred or immediately after the source(s) has come on-line.
  3. Update the NPT to include treaty-specified penalties that are automatic and severe in the event that the IAEA identifies a nation as a proliferator. Automatic means that the penalties are not subject to veto, so the U.S., China, or Russia cannot protect their political or economic allies (as China has with Sudan, or Russia has with Iran, and the U.S. has with Israel). The precise details of the penalties I’ll leave up to others to define.
  4. Include wording for what the international response to the use of nuclear weapons should be, especially in the event that the use of the weapon(s) by a nation cannot be confirmed. Bombers and missiles are trackable, but terrorists may not be. The penalties here should also be severe and automatic, especially given the likely devastation.In my opinion, the nation(s) of origin of the people responsible AND the nation supplying the nuclear material used in the attack(s) should be immediately identified and then held responsible for the actions of their people. This means that, in the case of the aforementioned A.Q. Kahn, the nation of Pakistan would be held responsible for any technologies that were transferred illegally to an NPT non-signatory nation. And if terrorists set off a nuclear bomb stolen from an insufficiently-secure Russian missile, then Russia would be held equally responsible for the devastation as the terrorists who actually set the nuke’s timer.This has the effect of making everyone VERY serious about nuclear security. And the only countries that would have access to nuclear power would be the nations that are either a) very stable and wealthy enough to secure their facilities effectively, or b) important enough allies with the source nation that they can convince, for example, the U.S. to provide security. This might be a good arrangement between the United States and India, for example, or Russia and Iran.
  5. Make the theft of nuclear material, and the failure to immediately report such theft, a crime against humanity. In addition, make it such that the only way you get any protection from responsibility in the event your stolen material is used in a nuke is if you report the theft to the IAEA immediately and give the IAEA full access to everything that the IAEA thinks might be related to the theft. Oh, and the nation that lost the stuff in the first place is responsible for paying the investigation and recovery bill, however high it might be.

I have precious little hope that the U.N. in general, and the 5 veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council in particular, would ever let something like this happen (which is why I’m somewhat fatalistic about my feeling that it’s a matter when, not if, a terrorist nukes a major city). I also don’t know that these suggestions are enough, but they’re a good starting point. And I think they are the bare minimum needed to keep everyone safe from both nuclear destruction and global heating in our Web-enabled, cell-structured, post-9/11 world.

[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]



1. drslammy - April 6, 2007

Okay, let me ask you to elaborate a tad, because I’m seeing one of those nasty tactical issues heading down the tracks toward us here.

We need meaningful enforcement that will act as a deterrent. The UN has to be the enforcement body. And it needs to be Sec Council veto-proof.

And already we’re confounded within the framework of the existing structure. As you aptly note, we can quickly think of five big reasons why this won’t happen.

All of which means, practically speaking, that we have to evolve a working plan that the US, Russia and China will all buy into. Now, I’m not sure that I buy the idea that this is absolutely undoable. Instead, I’m thinking in terms of what would MAKE it doable. What would have to happen for the Big 5 to agree on this plan, which requires that they relinquish some autonomy to the UN (and all that entails)?

If the nuke going off in an urban area is inevitable, is that the trigger?

I know none of us has answers here, and I’m not trying to write the tactical doc right now. But at a big-picture level, what are the triggers that drive the strategy, and if the answer is that it’s all magic wand stuff, then what’s the best Plan B we can hope for?

2. angliss - April 6, 2007

I think that you have to convince the big 5 at the U.N. that it is in their interest to support these changes by appealing to their self-interest. You’d have to look at each of veto-wielding nations individually and see what it takes to get them to get on board and see how that can be handled.

For example, Russia would be likely to veto these ideas because they’d become responsible for the theft of any nuclear weapons or fuel from their own, woefully insecure supplies of each. So maybe the countries who think that these NPT changes could good idea get together and help Russia secure their own supplies. But certainly make it clear that Russia will be held responsible with or without these changes, and that they’ll be cut out of the world economically if they don’t support it.

I’m afraid that I don’t really know all the details of what would work on which nation, but ultimately every nation has needs that can be used as carrots and fears that can be manipulated into sticks. Use both and even the veto-wielding nations could be pulled along.

Barring this, however, it may take a serious collapse of the NPT itself to turn the IAEA into the enforcement body I’m envisioning here. A nuke wiping out a city would qualify. Given the level of IAEA involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, Iran getting a nuke anyway might also qualify. And the recent actions of Pakistan, Iran, India, and North Korea combine to illustrate quite vividly that the NPT has some serious problems.

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