Iran's Pursuit of Nuclear Power Raises Alarms ; Does Access to Fuel Ease Nations toward Nuclear Weapons? Rising Demand Has Nonproliferation Experts Unsettled

By LaFranchi, Howard | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Iran's Pursuit of Nuclear Power Raises Alarms ; Does Access to Fuel Ease Nations toward Nuclear Weapons? Rising Demand Has Nonproliferation Experts Unsettled


LaFranchi, Howard, The Christian Science Monitor


Iran's mantralike insistence that its pursuit of nuclear technology is an internationally guaranteed right that it will never curtail has countries as diverse as the United States and China worried it is seeking a nuclear weapon.

But the huge increases in energy demand anticipated across the developing world over the next two decades, coupled with a growing urgency about global warming, have nuclear nonproliferation experts focused on Iran's case for broader and even more unsettling reasons. If a sense of entitlement to nuclear power and the fuel that makes it possible is allowed to take root, they say, the world soon could find itself with dozens of nuclear countries with the means to switch from peaceful energy production to building a nuclear arsenal virtually overnight.

Many of those countries would be in such hot spots as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where a mounting temptation to keep up with worrisome neighbors could be too much to resist.

"It's not too difficult to foresee a world of dozens of virtual nuclear-weapons states, capable of building a bomb because of the nuclear material and technology they have, and Iran represents the danger of this future scenario," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "A country that claims it is within its rights defies the international community, and gets right up to the edge of producing bomb-grade uranium."

The question of how to control the spread of nuclear technology - which can supply both civilian electrical energy production and horrendous mass destruction - has been on the international agenda since the early 1950s. A key worry has always been how to control the nuclear fuel, uranium or plutonium, that powers a civilian plant but that also is a key building block for military use of nuclear energy.

Concerns receded in recent decades, as interest stalled in nuclear-power generation. But with the US Department of Energy predicting a 50 percent rise in global demand for electricity in little more than a decade - and with rising concerns about the effect of energy sources that produce greenhouse gases - nuclear is again a "hot" energy solution.

Enter Iran and its repeated claims to a "right" to nuclear technology and power. The UN Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany met in London Monday to consider a second round of sanctions against Iran, which the UN's nuclear watchdog agency last week said was accelerating its uranium-enrichment program. The meeting, not concluded at press time, was expected to produce ideas for additional turns of screws designed to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.

Since the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), international law has acknowledged a universal right to peaceful nuclear energy. But Iran is using a "pick-and-choose" approach to the NPT, many experts say. Even before the part of the treaty that speaks of a right to nuclear energy, they point out, the language first lays out a country's responsibilities to forswear military uses and to provide assurances that its uses are peaceful.

"What we're talking about here is a loose interpretation of a right to something that brings you to within days of having a bomb, but when people say there is a right to that they are wrong," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and a former Pentagon nonproliferation official.

It is "sloppy reading" of rules that include safeguards, Mr. Sokolski says, that has allowed Iran to move forward while citing "rights" but not responsibilities. Some countries and some US officials are pressing for a stricter interpretation, he says, that there is "no per se right to technology" without an equal willingness to prove that its use is solely for peaceful purposes.

A problem, though, stems from past practice of the US and other nuclear powers who have looked away as friendly nations with nuclear- energy programs developed their own programs for producing nuclear fuel.

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