Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Civilian or Military? Addressing Dual- Use Items as a Challenge to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Civilian or Military? Addressing Dual- Use Items as a Challenge to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Article excerpt


As Iran and the P5+1 engaged in negotiations aimed at ensuring that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, most media attention focused on Iran's political will to pursue, or not, nuclear weapons. The other major component of the nuclear proliferation puzzle, the technical capacity to do so, remained largely in the background until the very last stages of the negotiations. "Centrifuge" and "Arak" have become buzz words in almost every media report, but outside of the expert community deeper understanding has been somewhat lacking. How did Iran acquire its nuclear infrastructure? Its pathway, and that of many other nuclear-aspiring states, is symptomatic of a deeper problem: the illicit nuclear trade.

One of the biggest challenges in countering nuclear proliferation is the interconnectedness of global markets. As most states lack the indigenous capabilities to manufacture many of the needed items domestically, they rely heavily on imports. Various efforts have been made to establish export controls and other mechanisms that would prevent illicit nuclear trade from occurring, or at the very least diminish its volume significantly. Those tools have been fairly successful in capturing illicit transactions of goods whose application is purely nuclear. The key challenge, however, are the dual-use items, the goods and technologies which can be used for both military and civilian purposes. The legitimate market for such goods is enormous, but they also have applications in centrifuge, laser enrichment, reactor, and plutonium separation programmes. Iran and other proliferators have a long history of attempted procurements in this area, including key items such as valves, frequency converters, carbon fibre, machine tools, and many others.

The current non-proliferation regime has been slow to catch up with this reality on a practical level. It is crucial to reverse this trend and adapt international standards to provide a more holistic approach to countering nuclear proliferation.

Challenges Posed by Dual-use Items

A key example of challenges posed by the nearly ubiquitous duality is nuclear energy. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, bestows upon states the "inalienable right" to the "research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."1 By this token, a country could potentially divert plutonium, which is a by-product of nuclear reactions even in seemingly innocuous power reactors, and use it in a nuclear weapon. Similarly, it could also use its enrichment facilities to create weapons-usable highly enriched uranium under the guise of producing fuel for its power or research organisations, which is precisely what the international community set out to prevent Iran from doing.

Dangers exist outside the nuclear fuel cycle as well. For instance, tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, has found a series of civilian applications including face illumination in watches, oceanic tracers, and analytical chemistry. However, it is also used to boost the yield of a nuclear weapon; a few grams of tritium are enough to increase the yield several-fold.2

Exploding Bridge Wire detonators (EBW) have also received increased attention in the Iranian context. In February 2014, in parallel with the negotiations under the Joint Plan of Action signed in November 2013, Iran agreed to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with information regarding, among other things, EBW. These detonators have been of concern to the IAEA for many years, as it suspects that Iran might have used them in its alleged nuclear weaponisation programme prior to 2004. Iran has claimed that it developed EBW as an alternative to spark gap detonators and used them for conventional purposes. One possible civilian applications of EBW are oilfield perforating operations, and they have been used in this role by various companies in the petroleum industry. …

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