At first blush, our government’s approach to head off Iranian nuclear weapons with tighter sanctions and military threats seems totally at odds with its continued effort to negotiate a disarmament deal with Pyongyang. Yet, in one key respect, both of these approaches and a broad swath of bipartisan expertise are quite unified—namely, they support these countries’ continued construction and operation of light water power reactors (LWR) for generating electricity, viewing these reactors as benign. This is not only mistaken but dangerous, and not just in the case of North Korea and Iran.

In fact, civilian LWRs can be copious producers of plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons. The argument one often hears, that the plutonium these reactors produce is unsuitable for simple weapon designs, is simply wrong. The suitability of the plutonium for weapons depends on how long the plutonium-containing spent fuel stays in the reactor. The longer the fuel stays in the reactor the more optimal it is for power production but the less optimal it is for use in nuclear weapons. The common assumption is that the reactor’s owner would not tamper with commercial refueling schedules. This assumption is simply silly.

Nonetheless, Obama administration officials and many of their critics continue to describe LWRs as a safe proposition, so long as they are inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are not accompanied by reprocessing facilities to extract plutonium from their spent fuel or enrichment facilities to produce fresh fuel. This mistaken view got its greatest boost from George W. Bush. No friend of Iran, Bush in 2005 said the United States had no problem with the Bushehr nuclear power reactor​—​it was just Iran’s centrifuge enrichment technology that concerned us. Indeed, small centrifuge plants that are claimed by owners to be used for producing low-enriched uranium fuel for reactors are a proper proliferation concern because they could also be used to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs. But building a small clandestine reprocessing plant to extract the plutonium from LWR spent fuel is actually easier than putting up a centrifuge plant. Nonproliferation policy hasn’t been taking this possibility seriously enough.

A case in point can be found in an essay, “Time to Attack Iran,” in the January / February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs by a former special adviser in the office of the secretary of defense, who describes his responsibility as defense strategy and policy on Iran. He lists all sorts of targets significant in terms of Iran’s weapons potential, including a small heavy water reactor under construction. He does not mention the large Bushehr plant as proliferation-significant. Now we certainly do not want to be adding to any target list, but the omission, which presumably reflects defense priorities, is a major blind spot in U.S. thinking about the spread of nuclear weapons.

Another recent instance of the same blind spot was the reaction to North Korea’s November 30 announcement that it is going forward with construction of an experimental light water reactor and uranium enrichment facilities. U.S. press accounts concentrated on the enrichment story and neglected to note that the small LWR offers a path to bombs, too. More than a few experts and officials pointed out that the planned North Korean LWR (“ostensibly for civilian energy purposes”) would provide North Korea with a rationale for pursuing enrichment technology.

But the more worrisome aspect is that the LWR can be a direct source of plutonium for weapons. One should not underestimate the ingenuity of North Korea’s engineers in tailoring their LWR operation for weapons. Even a small LWR, say one-tenth the rating of a full-size commercial plant, could be operated to produce dozens of pounds of plutonium a year, a significant amount considering that the amount needed per warhead is about 11 pounds.

The concerns about LWR power plants as a possible source of plutonium for bombs, and about both overt and clandestine reprocessing, apply, of course, beyond North Korea and Iran to other countries. That is why the IAEA, which has always inspected these reactors throughout the world, seeks to expand its inspection rights to look for clandestine facilities. This is also why the United States seeks to tighten controls over reprocessing (and, of course, enrichment) technology.

In the most recent nuclear cooperation agreement​—​with the United Arab Emirates​—​the UAE pledged not to acquire facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, period. But efforts in Congress to put the same conditions in prospective agreements have run into opposition from Saudi Arabia and other countries, and from the Obama administration itself, which brings up the hoary argument that if Congress insists on overly strict conditions then other countries’ exporters will get the sales.

That said, even if states that lacked nuclear weapons agreed to such conditions, enforcing their pledges would still remain a chancy matter if only because U.S. administrations have too often succumbed to the temptation to reward friends and prospective nuclear customers. Consider, for example, the generous exception from U.S. nuclear export requirements that Congress carved out for India, freeing it from the law’s requirement that it allow IAEA inspection of all its nuclear plants.

In this regard, Saudi Arabia is a particularly worrisome case. It has announced plans to spend $100 billion on LWRs over the next 20 years. This financial inducement is likely to encourage bargaining over all manner of things, including nonproliferation. Meanwhile, senior Saudi officials have expressed interest in nuclear weapons, at least in the event Iran gets close to acquiring them.

In this regard, the Saudis may learn all too much from Tehran. Iran, we should remember, has been a diligent student of North Korea’s nuclear activities, watching carefully what it has been able to get away with in its stiff-arming of the international nonproliferation regime. In short, we cannot treat North Korea​—​its enrichment, its nuclear weapons efforts, and its LWR​—​as if it were a separable problem from that of Iran and Saudi Arabia and other would-be bomb makers.

This conclusion should bear directly on the nonproliferation policies of the United States and other like-minded states. At a minimum, it requires looking askance at “peaceful” LWR exports until we find a way to enforce international nuclear nonproliferation rules. It would also help if the Energy Department would stop pushing commercialization of small nuclear reactors that could be mass-produced and​—​as it advertises​—​“delivered across the globe.”

Finally, the Obama administration and Congress would do well to leverage and engage each of the world’s key nuclear suppliers on how best to limit and condition such sales internationally. The U.S.-UAE nonproliferation conditions could be used as a point of departure. In any case, the goal must be clear—to prevent the emergence of yet more “peacefully” armed North Koreas and Irans.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

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