Nuclear Power – Myth and Reality

Issue paper 4:
Nuclear Energy and Proliferation
BY Otfried Nassauer



Any civilian nuclear fuel cycle and especially some of the elements thereof confront the world with certain security-related risks. Nuclear materials, nuclear know-how, and technology can be proliferated. Nuclear experts can travel or migrate. This is and has been well known for decades. History provides us with telling examples. The very existence of a wide range of specific precautionary measures such as nonproliferation policies, specific export controls, personnel screening, and reliability programs for employees are additional proof per se that proliferation risks are real.

Throughout the Cold War concerns about nuclear “diffusion” or “proliferation” mostly fo-cused on states trying to obtain materials, technology, or know-how for nuclear weapons. Many different countries and their nuclear programs came under suspicion. In the sixties and early seventies Germany, India, Israel, Japan, and Sweden were some of the countries under scrutiny. In the mid-seventies and eighties Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Paki-stan, South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa were among those seen as countries to be cause for concern. Since the nineties, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea have been on top of the list. Almost all non-nuclear countries starting or working on a nuclear research or energy pro-gram for short- or long-term have been questioned with respect to their nuclear intentions.

However, up until the end of the Cold War, the number of countries that actually acquired nu-clear weapons remained surprisingly small: Besides the permanent members of the UN Secu-rity Council, only Israel, India, and South Africa had built the bomb. Nonproliferation meas-ures—such as the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), nuclear safeguards implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and multilateral as well as national technol-ogy and export controls in combination with non-nuclear countries’ self-restraint and nuclear powers’ security guarantees and/or coercive diplomacies—contributed to keeping numbers low.

Furthermore, with the end of apartheid, South Africa abolished its nuclear arsenal. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine agreed to give up their nuclear weapons inherited from the disin-tegrating Soviet Union. For a short moment in history, during the early and mid-nineties, there was even some hope that nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation might jointly free the world from the danger of nuclear annihilation.

Today the picture is very different again. Proliferation has returned to the top of the list of threats to international security. Several factors contributed to this development. Nuclear weapon states did not reduce their nuclear arsenals as quickly as many non-nuclear weapon states expected them to do once the Cold War had ended. Some nuclear powers repeatedly talked about the necessity for nuclear modernization. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Russia’s weakness thereafter caused serious concerns about the Soviet successor states’ capability to secure nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, technologies, and knowledge. After the 1991 Gulf War, international inspectors revealed a secret Iraqi nuclear weapon program which was formerly unknown and more advanced than expected. It existed despite all nonpro-liferation measures. In 1998, both India and Pakistan caught the world somewhat by surprise and tested nuclear weapons. Pakistan had to be added to the list of nuclear weapon states. Fi-nally, after a long looming crisis of more than ten years, in 2003 North Korea became the first non-nuclear member state to leave the NPT and declare it had nuclear weapons.

Since 9/11 public awareness for proliferation risks has been growing rapidly. A whole new group of proliferation actors and recipients has been added to the picture: transnational non-state actors such as terrorists, organized crime members, religious extremists, and transna-tional companies. While some experts had these actors on their radar screens for many years, politicians and the wider public began to worry in the aftermath of the New York and Wash-ington terror attacks. What if terrorists would use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb made from radioactive materials and conventional explosives in a major future terrorist attack?

Indeed, part of the new attention resulted from politicians, think tanks, and industries in the United States and elsewhere quickly joining efforts to turn terrorism—and especially terror-ism through weapons of mass destruction—into a strong selling point for their products, ser-vices, and interests. They were hoping for a massive infusion of taxpayers’ money into their respective budgets and areas of political influence. However, an illogical interest-induced hype can be taken as proof that the problem itself is no more than a hoax. Transnational non-state actors, such as terrorists, indeed might attempt to get access to nuclear materials, knowl-edge, or technology. If they consider building dirty, crude, or even elaborate nuclear explo-sives, the possibility that they might succeed creates a serious enough problem to take precau-tionary measures. As of today, the one-billion-dollar question is to what extent this general risk has already become a concrete or acute threat. However, no one has an honest and truly reliable answer.

With proliferation returning to the top of the international security agenda, proliferation risks resulting from all types of nuclear programs are getting additional attention again. The current debate about the Iranian nuclear program is a good example. Iran’s program is mistrusted not only because Iran secretly imported nuclear technology and violated some of its obligations as a non-nuclear member of the NPT under the IAEA safeguards. Iran is also not trusted because of the world’s experience with Iraq and North-Korea. The Iraqi example made it clear that a country could run and hide a military nuclear program from traditional IAEA-controls. North Korea may have even obtained nuclear weapons through a “civilian” nuclear program despite nonproliferation safeguards. Although North Korea was facing massive international suspi-cions as well as sanctions, the country succeeded in at least coming sufficiently close enough to developing a nuclear weapon to risk withdrawal from the NPT. Today, many nations are keen to prohibit Iran from becoming another North Korea. Even if the Iranian nuclear pro-gram as well as the country’s intentions were entirely civilian, as Tehran claims, Iran would be mistrusted. “After North Korea,” all new civilian nuclear programs consisting of more than light-water and light-water research reactors are likely to be met by a much higher level of skepticism. Iran is only the first country to face this new, emerging nonproliferation environ-ment. Others are likely to follow.

This paper contains a short survey of the proliferation risks associated with the civilian use of nuclear energy. It looks at the major elements of the fuel cycle and their potential to play a role in proliferation. It takes a look at state and non-state actors and their capability to exploit proliferation risks of civilian nuclear installations for getting access to nuclear materials, nu-clear technology, and nuclear know-how. It conducts a short survey of the major nonprolifera-tion measures already in existence or under consideration. Finally it takes a short look at the future. What are the prospects for the civilian use of nuclear energy and what implications for future proliferation risks can be predicted?

Download Nuclear Issues Paper No. 1: Nuclear Energy and Proliferation. (pdf)

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