The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Is It Time for a Multilateral Approach?

By Rauf, Tariq; Simpson, Fiona | Arms Control Today, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Is It Time for a Multilateral Approach?


Rauf, Tariq, Simpson, Fiona, Arms Control Today


The continuing spread of nuclear technology, along with the emergence of clandestine nuclear supply networks, has led to discussion on revisiting multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. The idea had been explored in the 1970s and 1980s but failed to win approval. However, it has gained a new relevance recently amid several new and serious challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime: the discovery of Iran's uranium-enrichment program, which is now subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards or verification; Libya's December 2003 admission and renunciation of its clandestine nuclearweapon development program; and the admission by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear weapon program, that he had organized a clandestine network to supply Iran and Libya, as well as North Korea, with uranium-enrichment technology.

These events have led to a rethinking of how the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the related nuclear nonproliferation regime might be reinforced. The NPT remains the world's most adhered-to multilateral arms control treaty, currently with 189 states-parties, the only holdouts being India, Israel, and Pakistan.1 It is based on an inherent, intricate, and interlinked three-part bargain: all states-parties that did not have nuclear weapons prior to January 1967 are required to renounce any ambitions for developing or possessing nuclear weapons. Furthermore, although these states-parties may use nuclear material and technology exclusively for peaceful purposes, they are required to subject their nuclear material and activities to IAEA verification, and nuclear-weapon states are required to pursue measures to achieve nuclear disarmament at an early date. In addition, several NPT states-parties that are the principal suppliers or transshippers of nuclear material and technology are administering export controls as required under the NPT regime (the Zangger Committee) or to supplement the regime (the Nuclear Suppliers Group).

Two basic approaches have been put forward; both seek to ensure that the nuclear nonproliferation regime maintains its authority and credibility in the face of these very real challenges. One calls for the further denial of technology to non-nuclear-weapon states and the reinterpretation of the NPT's provisions governing the transfer of nuclear technologies. It is unlikely to succeed in light of lowered technical barriers to the development of sensitive technology and the increasing unwillingness of many non-nuclear-weapon states to accept additional restrictions to their right Lo peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT. The other approach would use multinational alternatives to national operations of uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation technologies, and to storage of spent nuclear fuel.

The first to propose a fresh look at multilateral approaches was IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. Addressing IAEA member states at the September 2003 General Conference, ElBaradei said that such approaches, based on improved nuclear technology control, greater operational transparency, and nuclear fuel and power plant supply assurances, could serve to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime while not impeding the development of nuclear energy for states wishing to choose that option.

ElBaradei's proposal put forward the possibility of supplementing and thereby strengthening the nonproliferation regime by re-examining the need for each stateparly to control all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly with respect to the uranium enrichment and plutonium separation and the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Thus, the regime could be strengthened by placing these technologies under some form of multilateral or multinational control.2 To explore this idea, an independent expert group has been set up at the IAEA to consider possible multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. This group will submit a report to ElBaradei in the spring of 2005.

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The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Is It Time for a Multilateral Approach?
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