Nuclear Proliferation: Capability versus Intent
Since the beginning of the nuclear age, a new state has emerged as a nuclear weapons power roughly once every 5 years, as indicated in Figure 1. This growth has been slower than predicted by some experts familiar with the situation but such growth is still unacceptable considering that stopping proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the primary policy objective of the countries of the world. The reason why this growth is considerably slower than has been predicted, for example by President Kennedy in 1963, is the entry into force of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. This Treaty sealed a complex bargain which divides the world into Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) and imposes obligations on each. In this note, I will address only the obligations imposed on Non-Nuclear Weapons States. They are not to acquire nuclear weapons, while at the same time having an “inalienable right” to enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy, including generation of power and medical applications; the NNWS are to negotiate an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide safeguards against diversion of relevant material to military purposes. Addressing this separate topic here does not signal the diminished importance of the obligations of Nuclear Weapons States to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons in international relations. Working towards their eventual elimination must remain an inseparable component of the nonproliferation regime.
Acquisition of nuclear weapons by Non-Nuclear Weapons States can be categorized into “breakup,” “breakdown” and “breakout.” Breakup led to proliferation when the Soviet Union disintegrated leaving nuclear weapons in the hands of the Ukraine , Kazakhstan and Belarus , in addition to the Russian Federation . It took a major diplomatic effort to persuade the new States to give up their nuclear weapons and ship them back to the Russian Federation . Breakdown is the highly justified concern that States such as Pakistan , whose government was established by military takeover, may suffer further upheavals with the result that control over their nuclear weapons stockpile might prove inadequate to prevent their dispersal into irresponsible hands. Breakout is the problem associated with the ease of withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty: the non-weapons programs of countries can accumulate many of the technologies whose attainment would shorten the acquisition time of nuclear weapons, and they can then withdraw from the Treaty. As written now, the NPT provides that three months advance notice be given for such withdrawal but does not require that a “just cause” for such withdrawal be given. North Korea is a case in point: after the so-called “framework agreement” was negotiated by the Clinton administration with North Korea, arranging for the cessation of nuclear reprocessing activities in exchange for major material benefits, that agreement deteriorated under charges of North Korean evasion by enriching uranium, and through the United States and its allies defaulting on their commitments to supply fuel oil and to assist North Korea in building a light water reactor.
North Korea has now tested a nuclear explosive, although their supply of plutonium for nuclear weapons construction is limited to probably less than one dozen warheads; the evidence of North Korea having succeeded in enriching uranium is unpersuasive. Iran is being accused of having a clandestine nuclear weapons program but maintains that its nascent uranium enrichment activities are to serve a civilian power program.
In encouraging the inalienable right of NNWS to civilian nuclear power, the NPT does not differentiate among the different elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, starting from uranium mining through ore processing, conversion into gaseous form, isotope enrichment, fuel fabrication, the use of fuel in nuclear reactors and ultimately either reprocessing of spent fuel by separating plutonium or alternately disposal of spent fuel in deep geological formations. Yet, two stages of the fuel cycle, namely isotope enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, also provide pathways to nuclear weapons and greatly shorten the lead time towards their acquisition. It is this potential for ambiguity in the NPT which produces latency towards acquisition of nuclear weapons by those NNWS who are including one or both of these elements in the pursuit of nuclear energy.
|Technical Capability of NNWS|
The problem of latency is that it is, in essence, the product of two dissimilar factors: technical capability in pursuing critical elements of the fuel cycle, and intent, that is, the perceived goal of the NNWS to produce nuclear weapons. This combination of capability and intent is shown in Figure 2. Latency is inherent in the nature of the NPT as enacted. To counteract this latency in an enduring manner, it would be necessary to amend or complement the Treaty. Instead, the administration has chosen the course of selective enforcement, that is, taking action to prevent those States it considers hostile or “evil” from engaging in either enrichment or reprocessing activities. In my view, this selective enforcement mechanism is bound to fail for a number of reasons. Firstly, the selection of targets for enforcement will change as the perception of friends and foes shift, and as governmental or societal changes occur in the countries in question. Secondly, such selective enforcement breeds disrespect for the NPT itself and thereby lessens the pressure on the Nuclear Weapons States to deemphasize the use of nuclear weapons in their international pursuits.
Let me illustrate this unsatisfactory situation by three examples: Iran, Brazil and Japan, starting with Iran:
Iran signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States in 1957 and signed the NPT in 1958. It subsequently developed ambitious plans to construct 23 nuclear power plants by 2001 and contracted for construction of the Bushehr reactor with a German supplier. But then came the Revolution of 1979 which put the present Islamic clerically dominated regime in place. The European contracts were cancelled. The Bushehr reactor was damaged through bombardment by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war; several years later Pakistan and China signed agreements of nuclear cooperation with Iran and it is likely that numerous technological transfers from the Pakistani Khan organization occurred thereafter. Russia has contracted with Iran to finish the Bushehr reactor with the current arrangement being that Russia will furnish the reactor fuel and take back the spent fuel for reprocessing or geological disposition. As provided for under the NPT, Iran has submitted its declared facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, but its disclosures to the IAEA have not been fully candid. In fact in 2002, a group of Iranian dissidents revealed Iran ’s progress in the construction of a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz which eventually could house as many as 50,000 centrifuges. Of these, only two “cascades” of 164 centrifuges each have been put into intermittent operation; while uranium hexafluoride gas has been introduced into these cascades, it is likely that no separated low-enriched, let alone high-enriched, uranium has been generated for use. Under external pressure, enrichment was suspended in 2003, but the resulting negotiations, intended to lead to permanent cessation of enrichment in exchange for a series of benefits, have thus far proven fruitless.
American administration spokesmen continue to claim that Iran has a nuclear weapons program while the International Atomic Energy Agency maintains that no evidence for such a program exists at this time. To put these facts into perspective, I note that perhaps 50,000 centrifuges will be required to supply fuel for a single one gigawatt reactor such as the one in Bushehr, and that if this total number was operational it could also serve to supply perhaps enough highly enriched uranium for 5 to 10 uranium weapons per year. Thus Iranian capability derived from its fuel cycle activities is very moderate today and the goal of Iran ’s program is debatable. The proclaimed intent is to serve an at-present nonexistent but planned large nuclear power program, and Iranian officials emphasize the prestige value of a complete indigenous fuel cycle. Thus the judgments of latency for weapons of Iran ’s program remain in the eyes of the beholder, but it does not constitute a clear and present danger.
In 1951, Brazil established a National Council of Scientific Research and bought a complete 625 megawatt turnkey reactor from Europe. In 1970, a military government planned six reactors, each producing 1.3 gigawatt of electric power by 1998 and attempted to import foreign centrifuges. By 1980, the Brazilian Air Force, Army and Navy each pursued independent nuclear weapons military programs. All this changed when in 1988 Brazil approved a new constitution, ruling out the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Both Argentina and Brazil elected civilian presidents and terminated their weapons programs. The two countries signed a peaceful uses treaty and established a bilateral monitoring agency. That agency, together with the IAEA, negotiated a quadrilateral agreement with Argentina and Brazil for monitoring any civilian nuclear power activities. Nevertheless, Brazil has continued its centrifuge program and has developed domestic designs for advanced centrifuge technology. The claimed intent of this program, which technologically appears more advanced than Iran’s program, is largely prestige and energy independence. The latter is not fully credible in view of the very large hydropower resources available to Brazil. Also Brazil has not permitted complete access of its centrifuges to the inspecting authorities, claiming the need to protect proprietary information.
In summary, the technological capability of Brazil seems to be ahead of that possessed by Iran . While its intent towards acquiring nuclear weapons is generally believed to be nonexistent, the prestige believed to be inherent in a complete fuel cycle may be a primary motivator. In contrast to that of Iran , Brazil's program has hardly been in the news.
The situation in Japan in respect to intent versus capability is quite different. Japan has an extensive nuclear power program and is pursuing a “closed” fuel cycle “burning” plutonium which is recovered from spent fuel. At this time, Japan has contracted with European suppliers to provide reprocessing services for its spent fuel; over four tons of reprocessed plutonium have been shipped back to Japan with a quantity about ten times as much owned by Japan but still stored in Europe. For reference, one can assume that 4 kilograms of plutonium might be adequate for a nuclear weapon. It should also be noted that while the isotopic mixture of the reprocessed plutonium is reactor grade, that is, it contains large quantities of isotopes other than the dominant 239, nuclear weapons can definitely be designed based on reactor grade plutonium. The official rationale for the accumulation of such a large plutonium stockpile is to provide for a closed fuel cycle which would burn the plutonium as Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) in light water reactors and for use of the stockpile to supply a breeder reactor. Both of these programs are real, but have been beset by failures and setbacks. Therefore, the availability of separated plutonium has run far ahead of Japan ’s ability to use it. Thus the technical capability of Japan to produce nuclear weapons is large and could be almost immediate since Japan has large industrial and human resources. However, intent to produce a nuclear weapon is contradicted by the Japanese constitution. Nevertheless, discussion of the need for nuclear weapons by Japan continues to resurface occasionally, particularly in view of the recent North Korean nuclear test. Also, some Chinese officials continue to express concern about Japan ’s nuclear weapons potential.
The above is a brief summary of the latency situation as it applies to three countries ( Iran , Brazil and Japan ). Clearly such latency by these three states, as well as that by other countries to varying degrees, constitutes a threat to the Nonproliferation regime. The extent of this threat is a matter of judgment, but the selective enforcement policies pursued by the current Bush administration are doomed to failure in the long run.
Worldwide, a great excess of weapons useable plutonium, as well as low and highly enriched uranium, exists for civilian and military purposes. Thus there is no economic excuse for additional NNWS to pursue enrichment. However, concern about assured supply of low-enriched uranium for civilian purposes, national prestige, in addition to the option or definite intent to acquire nuclear weapons can be the real drivers. There exist about 20 enrichment facilities worldwide including those operated by the States possessing nuclear weapons as well as the Non-Nuclear Weapons States indicated above, and Germany and the Netherlands. All the States possessing nuclear weapons operate spent fuel reprocessing facilities, but at this time Japan is the only NNWS possessing such plants. Amendment of the Nonproliferation Treaty to control reprocessing and enrichment is extremely difficult considering the onerous conditions for such an amendment. As has been pointed out by many advocates, the principal enduring solution would be to complement the NPT with international binding agreements assuring supply of low-enriched uranium for civilian purposes from an internationally managed source. The establishment of an internationally owned and operated “Fuel Bank” for low-enriched uranium would serve such a purpose. A variety of specific proposals towards this end have been put forward but at this time real initiatives towards that end have been lacking. We must do better lest the latency for nuclear weapons acquisition will undermine the world’s nonproliferation regime.
Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
SLAC, PO Box 20450
Stanford CA 94309