The U.S. Government Has Been Promoting Nuclear Proliferation/Harold A. Feiveson, Lawrence Scheinman, and Sharon Squassoni Respond

By DeVolpi, Alex; Feiveson, Harold A. et al. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Government Has Been Promoting Nuclear Proliferation/Harold A. Feiveson, Lawrence Scheinman, and Sharon Squassoni Respond


DeVolpi, Alex, Feiveson, Harold A., Scheinman, Lawrence, Squassoni, Sharon, Arms Control Today


All too often, those interested in arms control are sidetracked by misunderstandings rampant in the academic community about technical factors associated with nonproliferation. Civilian nuclear power - more a peaceful digression and buffer from international arms enterprise - is not, nor has it been, a problematic route to weaponization.

I was chagrined that an issue (Arms Control Today, May 2007) of a journal focusing on arms control gave so much emphasis to secondary issues while not concentrating on the bigger picture. We have tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and tons of fissile material to be demilitarized, and the only practical and enduring way to do it is by consuming highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons plutonium in reactors, which would require an expanded and safeguarded spent-fuel cycle.

There are 38 nations operating 437 nuclear power reactors, as well as quite a few smaller specialized reactors. No nation while a party of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has defaulted in its obligation not to make use of civilian power reactors for nuclear weapons. In fact, the underlying physics, supported by the historical record, impedes and repudiates that route to weaponization. In the global renaissance of nuclear power, the actual "reality-risk" balance is hundreds of cost-competitive, pollution-free power reactors - not a single bomb.

Until recently, no nuclear-weapon state had even built a power reac tor prior to weaponization; they were all based on dedicated military facilities to produce weapons-quality fissile materials as needed for nuclear warheads. The original five nuclear-weapon states accumulated their weapons-grade fissile material long before they constructed power reactors. (During the Cold War, some plutonium-production reactorsimplemented small-scale recovery of waste-heat discharges by running electricity-generating turbines or heating municipal districts.)

North Korea signed the NPT in 1985. Their low-power dual-purpose reactor at Yongbyon was ostensibly for research but was usable for small-scale military plutonium production. The reactor was routinely inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure no diversion of fresh or irradiated fuel. However, during special inspections in 1992, the IAEA found discrepancies in North Korea's safeguards declaration.

In order to forestall North Korea's weaponization ambitions, half-hearted, quid pro quo multilateral negotiations took place during the Clinton administration. After President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," negotiations were not reinstated until it became apparent that it was counterproductive to goad North Korea into becoming a nuclear-weapon state. North Korea has since withdrawn from the NPT, has evidently separated weapons materials from the Yongbyon reactor fuel, and has progressed to carrying out an overt nuclear-weapon test, all without a commercial-scale power reactor.

India and Pakistan, who deliberately did not subscribe to the NPT or to IAEA safeguards, purchased a power reactor or two before they exploded a nuclear weapon, although it is evident that no weapons-fissile material came from their prototype reactors. South Africa started on its weapons program long before acquiring a reactor. Israel never had a power reactor. Several nations known to have flirted with weaponization had carefully partitioned off the civilian fuel cycle. Simply put, safeguarded reactors for open production of electricity are not a practical source of weapons materials.

Nor is an internationally inspected uranium-enrichment facility a quick route to weapons. Although somewhat more directly related, historically and technically, to nuclear weapons, such plants can be visibly constrained to low-enrichment mercantile limits. So far, that has been the case with Iran, which, if not politically and militarily provoked, could continue to verifiably demonstrate. …

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