A New Start for Non-Proliferation
© 2009 Project Syndicate
U.S. President Barack Obama has injected fresh momentum into efforts—stalled for a decade—to bring about nuclear disarmament. He has committed himself to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and acknowledges the link between nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.
Obama has pledged to revitalize the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The non-proliferation regime, of which the NPT is the cornerstone, is in disarray. The main problems are easily identified.
First, the five main nuclear-weapon states have not taken seriously their NPT obligation to work for nuclear disarmament. Instead, they have insisted that nuclear weapons are essential for their security and continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals. This naturally robs them of the moral authority to persuade others not to acquire nuclear weapons, which continue to be perceived as a source of power and influence, and an insurance policy against attack.
Second, as we have seen in the case of North Korea, there is nothing to stop countries that sign the Treaty from simply walking out after declaring that "extraordinary events" have jeopardized their supreme interests.
Third, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is supposed to police the non-proliferation system, is shamefully underfunded. When it comes to determining whether or not a country is conducting a covert nuclear weapons program, IAEA inspectors often have their hands tied, either because they lack the legal authority to gain access to all the locations they consider necessary, or because the IAEA's analytical laboratories are outdated, or because the Agency does not have adequate access to satellite imagery.
Fourth, export controls have failed to prevent the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, not least due to the sophisticated efforts of clandestine networks like the one run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan. Nine countries already have nuclear weapons, and it would be naive to presume that others, particularly in regions of conflict, will not try to get hold of them.
In addition, a number of countries with nuclear energy programs have the capability, if they choose, to manufacture nuclear weapons within a matter of months if their security perceptions change, because they have mastered the critical technology—uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. If more countries take this path, it could prove to be the Achilles' heel of non-proliferation.
Fifth, the international community, spearheaded by the United Nations Security Council, has more often than not been paralyzed in the face of challenges to international security and ineffectual in responding to suspected cases of nuclear proliferation.
These issues will not be resolved overnight. But there is much that can be done relatively quickly. The United States and Russia have started negotiations on deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, which together account for 95 percent of the world's 27,000 warheads. Other key steps include bringing into force the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; negotiating a verifiable treaty to end production of fissile material for use in weapons; radically improving the physical security of nuclear and radioactive materials, which is vital to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists; and strengthening the IAEA.
Last month, I proposed a key measure to strengthen non-proliferation to the IAEA's Board of Governors—establishing an IAEA bank of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to guarantee supplies to countries that need nuclear fuel for their power reactors. LEU cannot be used to make weapons. Some such mechanism will be essential in the coming decades as more and more countries introduce nuclear energy.
My proposal is to create a physical stockpile of LEU at the disposal of the IAEA as a last-resort reserve for countries with nuclear power programs that face a supply disruption for non-commercial reasons. This would give countries confidence that they can count on reliable supplies of fuel to run their nuclear power plants, and therefore do not need to develop their own uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing capability.
This could help to avoid a repeat of Iran's experiences after its 1979 revolution, when contracts for fuel and technology for its planned nuclear power program were not honored. Thirty years later, some of the consequences are still being felt.
The LEU would be available to countries in need on the basis of non-political and non-discriminatory criteria. It would be accessible at market prices to all states in compliance with their nuclear safeguards obligations. No state would be required to give up the right to develop its own fuel cycle.
The money needed to launch an LEU bank is in place, thanks primarily to a non-governmental organization—the Nuclear Threat Initiative—and initial funding from Warren Buffett. But this can only be a first step. It should be followed by an agreement that all new enrichment and reprocessing activities will be placed exclusively under multinational control, and that all existing such facilities will be converted from national to multinational control.
This is a bold idea, but bold ideas are needed now more than ever. The opportunity to put the nuclear fuel cycle under multinational control was missed 60 years ago because of the Cold War. The spread of nuclear technology and the growing risk of nuclear terrorism make it imperative that we get it right this time.
© 2009 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.blog comments powered by Disqus