Double-edged Sword: What implications – if any, would the growth of nuclear power have for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons?

Peter Kouretsos – – – Given the growing concerns about global warming and energy security, many states are interested in either expanding their nuclear power or acquiring it if they do not already possess it.  The International Energy Outlook 2013 projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between now and 2040; nuclear power is still expected to play an important role in that energy mix, even with the continued development of existing fossil fuel technology and renewables.  In fact, according to the IAEA there are some 30 states operating nuclear power reactors, and some 40 states have asked for assistance in starting their own, even after the 2011 disaster at Fukushima.  But this so called “Nuclear Renaissance” is a double-edged sword.  Nuclear facilities that can make fuel for peaceful reactors can also produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  And with the demand for nuclear power comes the risk of further nuclear weapons proliferation.  The challenge ahead of us then is to maintain the peaceful and transparent growth of civilian nuclear power.  The outcome will depend on which states acquire nuclear power and which mechanisms are put into place that can constrain the weapons-side of nuclear power while not hindering its civilian-side.

These 30 states already operate nuclear power plants and 40 more want help with starting up their own programs.

Scott Sagan from Stanford has correlated the system of a state’s government to its compliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  He found that most autocracies that were signatories of the NPT developed nuclear weapons programs after they signed it.  Why they “cheat” depends on factors exclusive to those states, but he found that this is not characteristic of Democracies.  As an international framework that is meant to be as inclusive as possible, the NPT does not discriminate against any system of government.  However, special attention should be paid to non-democracies that acquire nuclear power, as their institutions and decision-making processes are often more opaque, making them more unpredictable.

Countries with pervasive corruption are more likely to have fissile material “mysteriously” disappear. Transparency International comes out with an annual Corruption Perceptions Index, identifying which countries abuse power, engage in secret dealings, you know, corrupt things like that.

An expansion of nuclear power would create more risks for proliferation, as the number of people, installations, infrastructure nodes and transportation requirements increase.  A key thread that can link vulnerabilities in all of these variables is corruption.  Of the 177 countries surveyed in the latest Corruptions Perception Index, less than 1/3 scored above 50 out of a possible 100.  Many of those states operate nuclear power facilities, and some are even nuclear-weapons states.  Of the states that intend on pursuing a nuclear program in the near future, more than half scored in the bottom percentile.  The AQ Khan network in Pakistan is a prime example of how a state’s pervasive corruption can hinder counter proliferation efforts.  We still do not know the full extent to whom he helped nor the extent to which he helped them, but we are still dealing with the global fallout caused by this nuclear scientist.  As we spread nuclear power around the world, we must be wary of states with pervasive corruption, as it increases the likelihood for theft of fissile material and affects the severity with which nuclear security measures are executed.

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the creator of Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb, was also the largest single proliferator of nuclear weapons technology and know-how. He has been linked to the advances in nuclear technology in North Korea, Libya and Iran. His associates also met with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He is hailed as a national hero to this day, and upon learning about the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, the Pakistani government sent the military to Dr. Khan’s compound. They thought we were coming for him too.

An article  from Foreign Affairs some time ago gives a nod to Bernard Baruch, warning in 1946 that the line between “safe” and “dangerous” (proliferative) nuclear activities would change and need constant reexamination.  Perhaps the current global expansion of nuclear energy warrants a redrawing of this line. Indeed, a contentious issue is what the actual definition of “right to enrich” in Article IV of the NPT means.  Iran is the most popular example of navigating this discrepancy, but even South Korea, a U.S. ally, is making a push for domestic enrichment capability.  For many countries, this is seen as an important step in developing their nuclear industries, as well as a mark of national sovereignty.  If it is indeed a sovereign right for all states to acquire nuclear power, we all must ensure that the reactors and fuels used are properly safeguarded and 100% accounted for. Provided that signatories from here on out accept certain limits on enrichment and accept enhanced safeguards, the risk of proliferation can be mitigated.  In order to further curb these risks, the growth of nuclear power makes worldwide adoption of the Additional Protocol to the NPT a necessity.  A first step we could take is to prohibit any new country acquiring nuclear power to begin their program until they adopt the NPT with the Additional Protocol. Certainly more rules and regulations imply a lack of trust, but when it comes to this potentially destructive technology, “trust, but verify” ought to be at the top of our lexicon.

Though there is a correlation between the growth of civilian nuclear power and the risk of further proliferation, this does not make proliferation a certainty.  Civilian nuclear facilities can give states cover to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, but the political and economic motives to pursue such a weapon will likely be the primary instigators. To be sure, factors like deterrence theory, domestic politics and great-power ambitions have played a role in the decision of some states to acquire nuclear weapons; but the majority of states with nuclear power have refrained from this acquisition.  To further influence these decisions, the U.S. and other powers should make it clear to all that the costs of acquiring a weapon will outweigh the benefits, while they themselves continue to demonstrate “good faith” under the NPT by leading a reinvigorated movement towards nuclear disarmament.

Who has what when it comes to nuclear weapons, at a glance.

Most of all, in order to curb the proliferation risks that come with the growth of nuclear energy, one more thing will be required of individual states, that each with their own individual interests, deplore: cooperation.  This is especially true when countering nuclear terrorism, something that cannot always be dealt with by IAEA inspectors or conventional theories of deterrence.  The one thing we can control is access to fissile material; and all states that possess any facility containing it should have to accept more intrusive control measures and inspection procedures than they do today.  T.S. Eliot remarked that sometimes people “…dream[ing] up of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”  If he was correct, then the greatest implication of spreading nuclear power will have to be vigilance.

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