THE CONTINUING RELEVANCE OF NUCLEAR POWER TO THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION
REMARKS PREPARED FOR THE NUCLEAR CONTROL INSTITUTE'S
20th ANNIVERSARY CONFERENCE, 9 APRIL 2001
by Robert L. Gallucci, Dean
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have received two reactions to my proposal to address the connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The reactions were expressed with the same words, but with different emphasis. First, "what NEW could you possibly say?" Then came, "what new could YOU possibly say?" In other words, the assertion was that there really is nothing new to say on the subject, or it is just unlikely that, if there is something new, I would think of what it was. But the question got me thinking about how odd it was to think that there was not a great deal that was new, in light of all that has happened over the last fifty years, and particularly over the last twenty-five years. I recall quite clearly any number of debates that raged among experts during the mid seventies. Is it possible that we have had a quarter of a century of experience and learned nothing? Is it possible that no minds have been changed by evidence? (You know it is, but I am getting ahead of myself.) I would propose today to briefly look in on four old debates that helped define our appreciation of the links between nuclear power and nuclear proliferation and offer some observations on their status, and then mention four new areas which, it seems to me, ought to define that connection these days.
The first old debate was over the virtues of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The proponents argued that reprocessing made sense for some, if not all countries with nuclear power programs
--in order to recover plutonium for recycle in thermal reactors, to conserve uranium, a scarce resource, not to waste the energy value of plutonium, and to save on enrichment work;
--to earn money by offering reprocessing services to other countries;
--to learn about and be ready to enter the coming world of fast reactors;
--to help in the management of radioactive waste; and
--to increase the contribution that nuclear energy could make to a country's degree of energy independence.
Opponents argued that separating plutonium from spent fuel, and allowing the technology to do so to spread, increased the risk that it would be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, and that the risk was unnecessary because
--there is no need to recover plutonium since there is plenty of uranium, and the cost of recycle far outweighs the savings;
--reprocessing services do not yield a net profit;
--fast reactors are not coming;
--radioactive waste management is made more rather than less difficult by reprocessing; and
--energy independence is a myth for most countries and not significantly impacted by nuclear power in any case.
As best I can tell, this old debate continues to rage, notwithstanding years of experience that one might have thought would have resolved most of the points in dispute. Moreover, I think most of the opponents and proponents are still wearing the same uniforms they wore in 1975. There is apparently still interest in some quarters in Europe and Japan in plutonium fuels, and there is certainly no enthusiasm in Russia for treating as waste the plutonium contained in spent fuel or already separated. Different elements of the old arguments may be emphasized now than in the past, but the bottom line is that there is now no world-wide consensus on the question. As a result, I conclude that reprocessing and the use of plutonium fuels remain one of the clear links between nuclear power programs and the risk of nuclear weapons spread.
The second old debate is a derivative of the first, but focuses on the policy of the United States: should we, as a matter of policy, use whatever legal and political leverage we have to block plutonium separation and its use as fuel? Proponents argue that
--diversion of plutonium is a concern in any non nuclear weapon state by the government of that state and by terrorists and criminals;
--diversion by terrorists and criminals is a concern in any nuclear weapon state as well;
--the example set by any state separating and using plutonium fuels provides a rationale and a degree of legitimacy for any other state to do the same; and
--no amount of physical security will ever provide sufficient confidence that the very small amounts of plutonium needed to make a nuclear weapon will not be diverted from a program involving large plutonium flows and transport.
Opponents argue that
--distinctions can and should be made between non nuclear weapon states who have no intention of diverting plutonium and manufacturing nuclear weapons and can be expected to secure it from non authorized access;
--nuclear weapon states pose no additional concern by their choices in the civil use of plutonium;
--we lose the much needed cooperation of, and damage relations with, advanced states by attempting to impose our views of how they should meet their energy needs, and the effort to do so is, in fact, counter-productive; and
--there is no reason to believe that plutonium fuels cannot be used without theft.
Again, I do not think many minds have been changed on this issue, even though, as a matter of policy, it has been settled in most cases. The one very interesting case now involves Russia and the decision to agree to use some separated plutonium as LWR fuel in the United States and Russia in the interest of disposing of it and encouraging the disposal of additional separated plutonium by treatment as waste. This case seemed to trouble many who had known their minds on the subject, but found themselves unwilling to allow the best to become the enemy of the good, so to speak. For the United States, the issue of how we deal with our friends' decisions about plutonium use continues, and continues as another connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons concerns.
The third old debate is over the merits of international mechanisms to prevent nuclear proliferation, particularly the Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Proponents argued that
--the NPT was a nearly universal agreement that created the essential norm against proliferation, and that the safeguards system it mandated was a critical deterrent to diversion.
Opponents argued that
--the NPT was a weak reed because of the states who remained outside of the regime, Israel, India and Pakistan, and because of the states who were inside the regime, Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea;
--IAEA safeguards could never adequately insure against diversion from reprocessing or enrichment plants and consequently only served to mislead the international community about the risks associated with these facilities; and
--together with IAEA safeguards, the NPT by specific provision created a rational for the transfer of nuclear technology to states that were known proliferation risks and who would not have otherwise been candidates for nuclear cooperation.
On this issue, it seems to me that the virtues and the limits of the NPT and the IAEA are now better understood. It would be difficult to argue that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was not materially advanced by both Iraq's NPT party status and its willingness to accept IAEA safeguards. We now know a great deal about Iraqi nuclear weapons calculations in the late seventies and the extraordinary program it pursued through the eighties, which was not uncovered in all its parts until after the Gulf War in the early nineties. At the same time, were it not for North Korea's NPT obligations and the IAEA inspections conducted pursuant to them, the legal basis for confronting the DPRK at the IAEA and then in the Security Council would not have been available. I would suggest that the Treaty and the Agency are critical elements in the international effort to manage the nuclear energy-nuclear weapon connection, and that their limits are now well enough understood to make completely transparent any effort to use them to rationalize dangerous technology transfers.
The fourth old debate was over the likelihood that any state would actually use its nuclear power program to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Those that said it would argued that
--nuclear energy legitimized the pursuit of all the technologies necessary for the acquisition of the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons, and
--there was no safe nuclear technology from a proliferation perspective.
Those that argued it would not, said that
--states would find it substantially easier to build dedicated facilities for a nuclear weapons program rather than diverting material from a nuclear power program; and
--it is important to make distinctions between fuel cycles and technologies that are more or less proliferation resistant.
This argument, even as captured above, was always "sloppy," and continues to this day, notwithstanding the experience of the last few decades. We observe, first, that without exception, the serious exploration and pursuit of the nuclear weapons option by non nuclear weapon states, after the first five declared nuclear weapon states, has always been under cover of a nuclear energy, if not a nuclear power program: North Korea, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan and South Korea. Second, it is notable, however, that in no case was there a plan to divert nuclear material from a nuclear power reactor, even where there was one as is the case in many of the countries noted above. Even though the technical issues here are not much in debate, the differing assessments of the risks associated with the transfer of power reactors suggest that the debate continues, as in the cases of North Korea and Iran. The evidence of the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons cannot be denied, though the nature of that connection today clearly remains open to debate.
I would propose now to turn to four issues that ought to help shape discussion of the connections between nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation today. The first is our concern about climate change. There is now nearly universal agreement that potentially catastrophic consequences may result from the failure to change current trends in the use of carbon dioxide producing fuels to meet world-wide energy needs. For this reason, and perhaps for some others as well, it is possible that governments around the world will see new benefits to including, or increasing the role of, nuclear power in their energy mix to meet national needs. There may be a window of opportunity of sorts opening for nuclear energy which, in some countries at least, has not been open for some time. There will be obstacles, of course, as there always have been, including capital costs, but still an opportunity. Some studies suggest that while nuclear power will not be a panacea (not that anything ever is), it can playa significant role along with technologies that limit emissions, natural gas, and renewables to meet targets for reduced carbon production, should we prove able to set them. What is interesting here, though, is the extent to which the public, ours and others, will prove willing to accept the risks it believes are associated with nuclear power in order to reduce the risks it understands are associated with global warming. The public has "special fears" about nuclear power. It worries about the prompt and long-term effects of a catastrophic nuclear reactor accident, about poorly stored radioactive waste slowly poisoning water supplies, and about terrorists stealing and spreading nuclear material or using it to make nuclear weapons.
The question then is: why do not government and the nuclear industry together seize this opportunity to offer to the public a nuclear power option that is as safe as they can make it? Why do they not emphasize how far the industry has come in being able to build and operate light water reactors over the last half century? Why is there not a concerted effort to explain the spent fuel and radioactive waste problem as the genuine political issue it is, rather than as a technical challenge comparable to national missile defense? And why do not industry and government simplify the real and perceived risks associated with nuclear power by foregoing plutonium use in the future and treating spent fuel as waste? The alternative leaves those of us who would not otherwise oppose nuclear energy, to argue that a future of many nuclear reactors, where plutonium is preserved in stored spent fuel or separated form, is not one to be embraced, even in the interest of limiting the coming climate change. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons may be either sharply defined or substantially eliminated by the decisions of governments regarding the preservation of the plutonium option.
The second current issue that bears on our topic is Russia and the policies the Russian government adopts at home and abroad. It is not necessary to repeat, especially for this audience, the concerns we have over the security of fissile material in the former Soviet Union, and particularly because of the quantities involved, in Russia. I believe the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world is limited now to a relatively few countries, rather than to tens of countries, for many reasons, but none more important than the success we have had in limiting the availability of reprocessing and enrichment technology and thus the plutonium and highly enriched uranium those facilities would yield. There is little left to the secret of fission weapons and less than there once was to thermonuclear designs. But fissile material has remained an obstacle to some countries' ambitions. I believe it applies to Libya, Iraq, Iran and perhaps North Korea. And I believe it to Pakistan, India, Israel, and South Africa, all of whom are widely believed to have moved to nuclear weapons manufacture once fissile material was obtained. So the shape of the threat can be altered rather rapidly if fissile material is not controlled adequately by the Russian government. If, for example, by theft, criminal activity or whatever means a few "baseballs" of plutonium find their way across those incredibly long borders, the dimensions of the problem could change very quickly. What's more, we should have no confidence that, were that to happen, we would know that it had. Indeed, the confidence with which we assert that a state does not have nuclear weapons ought to be adjusted to fit this new reality.
And the relevance of all this to nuclear energy? The Russian government can adopt policies that limit these risks or that exacerbate them. Fully cooperating with concerned governments in programs that improve its ability to account for and secure fissile material are critical. But I would argue that just as critical, over the long term, is the need for the Russian government to reconsider its apparent commitment to preserve the option to use plutonium fuels in the future. A decision to forgo further plutonium separation for any purpose and to dispose of separated plutonium in excess of weapons needs as quickly and safely as possible -- to include burning in once through MOX-fueled thermal reactors as well as the treatment of plutonium as waste -- would be a critical step in the right direction.
Beyond this there is the question of Russia's export policies, particularly with respect to Iran and India. In the case of Iran, where Russia is well acquainted with that country's MRBM and longer range ballistic missile programs, as well as its interest in fuel cycle facilities beyond what is necessary to operate a light water reactor, there are obvious reasons to exercise the greatest degree of restraint in nuclear exports. In the case of India, the stakes are different, but still quite high. The norm of requiring full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply to non nuclear weapons states as effectively defined by the NPT is not one that can prudently be put aside on an asserted technicality. This is a commercial nuclear transfer that bears directly on the international community's ability to sustain a standard that is critical to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation.
The third area in which national policies will define the connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy involves countries of particular concern. The issue will be drawn over how flexible to be with respect to the international nonproliferation regime in dealing with particular cases and regional realities. For example, after the Agreed Framework was negotiated with North Korea, there was a fair amount of criticism, at least initially, in the United States and in Europe over rewarding the DPRK with two LWRs after that country had clearly violated its NPT and lAEA safeguards obligations. There was concern both that such an arrangement would undercut the Treaty and the Agency, and that the LWRs would ultimately be a source of plutonium for the North if it chose to again ignore its treaty commitments. These were not trivial concerns. But in the context of the threat posed by the existing gas graphite reactor and reprocessing facility, and the additional reactors under construction, and the limited options available for dealing with the situation, the United States made the judgment that, on balance, this was a good deal. It was preferable to having the DPRK walk out of the Agency and the Treaty before the 1995 Review Conference and begin to accumulate approximately 150 kgs of unsafeguarded, separated plutonium each year. However, it demanded some flexibility from the Agency and the international community in waiting to achieve its safeguards objectives until delivery of Nuclear Supplier Guideline Trigger List items for the first L WR triggered DPRK compliance. I would not predict when that will happen.
Would conventionally fueled plants have been preferable to LWRs in the deal, from virtually every perspective? Absolutely, except for the fact that at the time the North would not have made the deal absent LWRs. Should we try to make the deal now? Certainly, so long as our allies, South Korea and Japan, concur, and the move is made as a proposal to the DPRK and not as evidence of our unwillingness to stick with the Framework as negotiated. The key here is to adopt the necessary flexibility to address the proliferation problem in its regional context and to use the international regimes to promote solutions rather than to block them. It seems extremely unlikely that we will succeed at defusing a very dangerous situation on the subcontinent if we approach India and Pakistan armed only with the universal elements of the international regimes. The challenge will be to find policy prescriptions that make sense in light of regional realities without undcrmining international norms. It will not be easy in South Asia, and when the time comes, it will be no easier in the middle east. If we fail to find these formulas, we will cement the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons rather than loosen them.
The fourth and final point has to do with terrorism and nuclear weapons. For many, I know, the two do not go together except in made for TV movies. I would disagree. Not that nuclear weapons are all that easy to manufacture. As far as I know there is no terrorist group on earth capable on assembling a nuclear weapon even if it were given a sufficient quantity of plutonium and the help of a few refugees from nuclear weapons laboratories; HEU might be a different story, though perhaps not. My concern stems from what could plausibly happen fissile material became available to a country whose politics were radical and whose leadership had risk propensities much greater than our own. A nation such as Iraq fits that description and has the capability to manufacture a simple fission weapon. It lacks only fissile material. If, over time, the Russian government fails at securing its fissile material, or if in the future, China pursues a large nuclear program with significant use of plutonium fuels, but with less than adequate security in its civilian energy sector, or some other country's plutonium is not sufficiently protected down to the few kilograms that are necessary for a weapon, Iraq could plausibly and secretly acquire that material. Although we might believe that Iraq would be deterred from even the threat of nuclear weapons use, it might not be deterred from transferring a fabricated weapon or two to a terrorist group. Such a group could threaten and even detonate such a weapon, delivering it to a port city in a container ship rather than on the end of a missile. I have read that we open thirteen million containers each year in the United States. What would be the defense against, or even the deterrent to, such a threat? I know of none. There is this potential connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and it troubles me a great deal.
It is always a good idea to end a presentation such as this on a positive note. The following is the best I can do: the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons are, to some degree, inevitable; but to a very great extent, the degree to which they are connected will depend on the policies of governments. In short, the risks can be made manageable, if we make the right choices.