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.
All of this suggests that we need to start insisting on what the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty already requires. A good place to begin would be to reject the claim of Germany, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, and others that the treaty gives members a right to the entire nuclear fuel cycle. This has become conventional wisdom. But historically and logically, it's wrong.
When the finishing touches were being put on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Mexico and Spain separately attempted to modify it to require nuclear states to share civilian nuclear technology and assure members access to the entire technology of reactors and fuels. Both amendments were rejected, and with cause. What point would there be to a nonproliferation treaty if it encouraged states to acquire unnecessary, unsafeguardable nuclear technology that could bring them within days of possessing a nuclear arsenal? The question answers itself. That's why the United States and its key partners have always been concerned about the spread of reprocessing and enrichment plants and why they have worried about certain states' acquisition of power and large research reactors.
Now that these technologies are spreading to would-be bomb-makers, the challenge is to safeguard nuclear power where it makes sense and proscribe it where it does not. One useful approach is to apply market economics. Could Brazil, Algeria, Iran, or North Korea secure private funding for their nuclear projects? All of them claim that their nuclear programs are producing peaceful benefits. If so, shouldn't there be sufficient profit from them to attract private investors? The answer is no, since nonnuclear alternatives could produce the benefits sooner for far less cost. That these nations prefer nuclear projects to the safer, more economical alternatives is itself instructive.
Of course, whatever we ask of poorer nations, we should be willing to do ourselves. Germany and Britain have looked at the economics of their state-supported commercial nuclear programs and decided to phase them out. France and Japan should also reconsider what they are doing, especially with regard to their state-supported reprocessing programs (which President Bush has called totally unnecessary). Even the United States, which subsidizes nuclear power with government insurance and funding of commercial-sized nuclear facilities, export loan guarantees, and the like, would do well to cut the federal cord.
As for the nuclear facilities that remain, the IAEA needs to be much more watchful. At a minimum, to monitor large reactors, it should use full-time, on-site inspectors and real-time, wide-area cameras. This will cost money, but the agency could charge a reasonable user fee to raise the needed cash. In addition, the IAEA needs to reassess what is safeguardable under what circumstances. Any honest review should lead to a recommendation that for the next few decades no nation undertake to reprocess or to bring new enrichment plants on line. Beyond this, the United States and its partners should lead an effort to ban the redeployment of nuclear weapons from one country's soil onto another's in peacetime (notably from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia) and the international shipment of nuclear weapons-usable materials (including from North Korea to anyone) unless these shipments are necessary to dispose of the materials. President Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative could be adapted to enforce such bans.
Given the horrors of September 11, 2001, the danger of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of numerous Irans just a screwdriver turn away from an arsenal of bombs, it's time the United States and its partners promoted a bolder deal than the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 35 years ago. Instead of trading peaceful nuclear technology for mere promises not to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States and like-minded nations should offer intelligence and advanced technology to help nations secure their borders against nuclear leakage and dangerous imports. They should also offer the developing world access to newer, safer nonnuclear energy alternatives.
In exchange, nations would be asked to back the nuclear restraints described, restraints that any sane reading of existing rules should require. Such a Nuclear Security Initiative might, in time, be formalized in a treaty. Until then, it ought to be promoted to give backbone and direction to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its enforcement mechanisms--starting with Iran.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and editor of Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice (U.S. Army War College, 2004).