Balancing Nuclear "Rights" and Responsibilities

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Balancing Nuclear "Rights" and Responsibilities


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


Since the beginning of the nuclear age, efforts to exploit nuclear technology for energy and for profit have complicated the task of reducing the nuclear weapons threat. Now, as states such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Iran, and South Africa either pursue or consider moving into the business of enriching uranium, the complexities and dangers could significantly deepen.

The 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) grants states the "right" to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, so long as states forswear nuclear weapons and comply with safeguards against the diversion of nuclear technology and materials for weapons purposes.

International safeguards can help detect and deter cheating, but they cannot prevent "breakout" scenarios. Yet, if current trends continue, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has warned that we could "have 20-30.. .virtual nuclear weapons states, meaning countries that could move within months into converting their civilian capacity or capability into a weapons program."

About 12 states already possess uranium enrichment or plutonium separation facilities, or both. These technologies can be used to produce fissile material for bombs. Government-affiliated and subsidized entities in the United States, Russia, and France, as well as a British-Dutch-German consortium, provide an enrichment capacity sufficient to meet current and projected future nuclear energy demands. As President George W. Bush noted in 2004, "enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Even though they have small domestic nuclear energy sectors, Argentine, Brazilian, and South African officials, like Iran's leaders, cite domestic nuclear fuel needs and the possibility of cutoffs in external supply as the rationale for exploring new, multibillion-dollar centrifuge-enrichment facilities. Prime Minister John Howard has called for Australia to enter the uranium-enrichment market although it is also economically infeasible for his country.

However, supply interruptions are only likely-and would be appropriate-if the recipient state violates its nonproliferation commitments. That is not likely, given that these states are members in good standing with the NPT and have supported action toward global nuclear disarmament. But if they insist on having enrichment capabilities, others such as Iran or South Korea, with weaker compliance records and stronger motives to pursue nuclear weapons, are sure to insist on having them too.

To reverse the trend, several states and a leading nongovernmental organization have offered ideas to create assured nuclear fuel supplies for states that forgo enrichment and reprocessing. At a special IAEA conference last month, a range of schemes were discussed. A "global nuclear fuel bank" is an old idea that may someday become a reality and could address the supply concerns, real or imagined, of many states.

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