The Magazine

Enough Brinksmanship

From the November 22, 2004 issue: Rethink nuclear nonproliferation, before it's too late.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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AS THE UNITED STATES and its allies give Tehran its fifth chance in nearly two years to suspend activities that could bring it within weeks of having enough enriched uranium for a large arsenal, the question arises: Isn't there a better way to prevent states from getting nuclear weapons? The answer is yes, but only if we and our partners are willing to be much more aggressive in adapting existing nonproliferation efforts to today's threats.

The key problem is that our current policy concedes too much. Iran, for instance, asserts that it has the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to come within weeks of building a bomb, and we do not publicly contest this. Instead, Britain, France, and Germany, in their latest one-last-chance offer, are pleading with Tehran not to exercise the right it claims. In exchange for an Iranian pledge to suspend certain nuclear fuel-making activities, the three propose to guarantee Tehran not only a supply of fresh light-water-reactor fuel for its just-completed power reactor at Bushehr, but also more such reactors and improved trade relations as well.

If this sounds like an invitation to nuclear mischief, it is. First, the fuel that the European Three would guarantee could itself be used to accelerate the making of a bomb. Fresh, lightly enriched light-water-reactor fuel is far closer to being bomb grade than is natural uranium. If Iran were to seize the fuel and divert it--as it probably could without IAEA inspectors' immediate knowledge--Iran could reduce five-fold the level of effort it would need to make bomb-grade material: With the centrifuges Iran admits having, it could make a bomb's worth of fuel in roughly nine weeks as opposed to a year. This suggests that the IAEA's current cycle of inspections at Bushehr--once every three months--is woefully inadequate.

Second, so long as Iran and other aspiring bomb-makers have a right to pursue all the activities necessary to get them within days of a bomb, they will have the upper hand in negotiations. Certainly, with Iran's enrichment facilities in place and its right to operate them uncontested, Tehran could suspend enrichment operations--as it has just agreed to do--and yet be free to resume them any time it wants. The worry now is that Iran will simply buy time with the European Three, to push for permission to exercise its right to enrich while building up its covert capabilities to do so.

This, in essence, is the fatal flaw in our approach to nonproliferation: We and our partners are still much more willing to defend the right to make nuclear weapons-usable materials than we are to read the rules so as to deny it.

This needs to change. Certainly, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was negotiated in 1968, qualifies the right of non-weapons states to develop nuclear energy: They may not use nuclear-energy technology to make nuclear arms. This is forbidden by the treaty's stricture against non-weapons states' acquiring the bomb.

Nor is there a right under the treaty to develop and use civilian nuclear energy except for peaceful purposes. What is peaceful? First, the nuclear activity must be logically linked to the production of some good that is either technically necessary or economically beneficial. Enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel in nations that have few nuclear reactors (like Iran and North Korea) is neither necessary nor economical and, as such, should be suspect. Similarly, large reactors for nations that have easy access to less risky, more economical alternatives (such as cheap, natural-gas-fired power plants or zero-power research reactors) should raise alarm bells.

Second, any peaceful nuclear activity must be capable of being safeguarded as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty defines the term. This casts suspicion on any activity that can quickly lead to the production of bomb fuel or bombs, since in such cases periodic inspections cannot prevent the diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to weapons. By the time a nuclear theft were detected--and with high-volume facilities, it might never be--it would be too late to prevent the construction of a bomb.

Even light-water power reactors present a safeguard challenge. A lengthy technical study just released by my center details the proliferation risks these plants present. Written by three experts on power reactors, nuclear chemistry, and nuclear weapons design, it concludes that today, nations can build small, covert enrichment and reprocessing plants relatively easily. These plants could process fresh and spent light-water-reactor fuel into bomb material well within the time between IAEA inspectors' routine visits. As long as real-time surveillance of these reactors and this fuel is not required--and so far, it is not--aspiring bomb-makers will be able to divert it without tipping off the IAEA.