The Magazine

Reactors and Bombs

How North Korea and Iran can militarize ‘civilian’ nuclear plants.

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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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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