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August 24, 2009 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Henry David Sokolski

Topic Atoms for Peace: The Wrong Way to Zero

Henry David Sokolski: Further proliferation of supposedly “peaceful” nuclear energy sources undermines the goal of Global Zero. We should replace the NPT concept of sharing technology in favor of limiting supplies, especially in trouble prone areas like the Middle East.

Already, there are reasons to worry about the feasibility of getting to zero nuclear weapons. As America and Russia reduce, will China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea simply increase their nuclear arsenals?  In such a world, can the major powers keep Japan, Turkey, Egypt, and others from going nuclear?  Then there is the proliferation of nuclear technology:  Can we get closer to zero if we keep spreading the means to make bombs?  

This last question has an obvious answer - no.  Yet, the most popular proposals to promote nuclear restraint seem intent on dispersing civilian nuclear energy even to war torn regions like the Middle East in order to renew current pledges not to acquire nuclear weapons.  

The idea here is to offer "peaceful" nuclear energy to get states to eschew making nuclear fuel, a process that otherwise could bring them within days of getting bombs.  We should affirm that nonweapons states have an unconditional right to make nuclear fuel, it's argued, but offer them more "affordable", proliferation "resistant" civilian nuclear alternatives in hopes that they won't bother.  Offering subsidized loans and technology for new reactors, access to nuclear fuel at "reasonable prices", financial help to upgrade electrical grids to handle nuclear loads, and regulatory assistance are all part of this win-win strategy to strengthen nonproliferation and reduce carbon emissions.  

What's so bad with this?  Plenty.

Bullish nuclear projections suggest nuclear capacity might grow from today's 15 percent of world electrical generation to 30 percent.  Yet, if, global electricity demand doubles the way many experts project, an improbable 1,100 new reactors would have to be built by 2050 in states that already have reactors merely for nuclear power to maintain its current market share.  Meanwhile, fossil-fueled electricity generation is still projected to expand under these scenarios and to increase current carbon emissions dramatically.  Unless electrical demand plummets, renewables' costs tumble or coal-fired carbon is sequestered, trying to cut greenhouse gases by spreading nuclear power to additional states is less than an incomplete thought.

It also is dangerous.  Here, conceding that states have an unconditional right to go to the very brink of acquiring bombs with nuclear fuel making is only the first mistake.  In fact, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is silent on this issue.  Some NPT drafters tried to make sharing nuclear fuel technology an explicit NPT duty.  But their proposals were openly rejected and with cause: There is no reliable way to detect covert nuclear fuel making or to spot diversions from declared plants early enough to block acquisition of bombs.

Power reactors also are a worry.  They come with training in a wide spectrum of nuclear topics.  They require tons of fresh enriched urarnium and make hundreds of kilograms of weapons useable plutonium both of which can be diverted to accelerate making nuclear weapons fuels.  States may say that they will not do this but it is unclear how international inspections can detect or prevent it.  Under the current reading of the rules, states that pledge not to make fuel today can gear up with a "peaceful" power programs and later change their minds, generally with impunity.  

What, then, should we do?  First, stop saying that the NPT recognizes a right to specific nuclear technologies.  Instead, emphasize that the NPT is about sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.  This should prompt an honest reassessment of what military diversions international nuclear inspections can and cannot reliably detect in a timely fashion.  Until this is done, the US, France, Germany should take the lead by upholding each others' toughest nuclear control requirements, starting with exports to trouble-prone regions like the Middle East.

We also should compare costs:   If there are less costly, quicker nonnuclear ways to secure a desired nuclear benefit, the nonnuclear option should get preference.  If nuclear is cheapest, it may well spread despite its weapons proliferation risks.  But if it costs more, we would be foolish to try to prop it up economically with new, nuclear-specific subsidies.  

To promote the quickest, cheapest path to carbon reductions, follow-ons to Kyoto might demand that large energy projects be internationally competed with and comprehensive cost comparisons that reflect subsidies and a tax on carbon. The U.S. might also expand existing energy choices by implementing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, which supports creating an alternative energy peace corps to develop nonnuclear energy options with developing states.  

Alternatively, we stay our current course.  In this case, we will get atoms for peace, but with a vengeance:   More nuclear weapons-ready states but far fewer chances of ever getting to zero.  

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC and is a member of the U.S. Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

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Tags: | proliferation | NPT | Global Zero |

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