Iran's drive to acquire a uranium enrichment capability - and with it the capability to produce materials for nuclear weapons - demonstrates the need to craft more effective controls over the nuclear fuel cycle. By far the biggest hurdle to acquiring a nuclear weapon is producing the fissile materials - highly enriched uranium or plutonium. As such, constraining access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing is the most important goal in preventing further proliferation.
Tehran's adamant pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing technologies has sparked international concern for several reasons: Iran illegally acquired centrifuge designs and parts on the black market, concealed a deeply buried enrichment facility, and for years has stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it seeks answers to questions regarding the nature of Tehran's past nuclear activities. Iran has now put 3,000 centrifuges in place and is working on a new, more advanced design. Yet Iran has faced only minimal penalties for defying international demands to halt its enrichment program.
The challenge of Iran's program has highlighted the fact that no international consensus exists on the extent to which countries can develop nuclear fuel cycle technologies for civilian purposes. All countries that comply with international law have the right to possess the full fuel cycle. But any country that can enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel also possesses a breakout capability to pursue a weapon program on short order.
If the predictions of a global nuclear power renaissance prove true, then now is the time for the international community to develop a consensus on a new way forward. A first step would be to place the production and storage of nuclear fuels under international control. Doing so would help prevent a world in which several dozen countries could quickly become nuclear-weapon states at the flip of a switch.
The idea is not new. The 1946 "Baruch plan" proposed by the United States sought to establish such a global fuel bank. More recently, the Director General of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, has endorsed a similar concept. The fuel bank idea is gradually gaining international support but has yet to materialize.
To work, an international fuel bank would have to be a failsafe, incentive-based consortium under which countries would be 100 percent certain to gain unlimited access to reactor fuel in exchange for forgoing indigenous enrichment and reprocessing facilities and adopting stringent safeguard measures.
The devil is in the details, however, and it is not yet clear who will supply the fuel bank and surrender their national right to determine the end user of its contributed fuel. For their part, non-nuclear-weapon states are understandably reticent to surrender additional rights in a world where nuclear disarmament remains an uncertain prospect.
Thus any attempt at creating an international fuel bank will encounter stiff resistance, as it will essentially call for revisiting the agreements set out in the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. But nuclear-weapon states will have to be prepared to compromise if they wish to enlist support for the initiative.
To be viable, more tangible steps by today's nuclear powers must be made toward verifiable nuclear disarmament, complimented with a new push to implement the stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiations on an agreement banning further production of fissile material.
Critics of the fuel bank proposal argue that an international fuel bank is irrelevant from a nonproliferation standpoint because countries that wish to build nuclear weapons will do so anyway. While partly true, two benefits to multinational fuel arrangements remain.
- First, establishing a fuel bank would be an efficient way to test a country's real intentions. Any state that refused an economically advantageous offer of fuel services to retain fuel cycle capabilities can be assumed to have dubious motives. In such a case, coordinated international pressure to expose and thwart such plans would be easier to sustain.
- Second, today's government with benign intentions could be tomorrow's next nuclear aspirant. Yet they would find it impossible to do so if the technology necessary to build nuclear weapons were not at their disposal.
Recently the US has donated $50 million to the IAEA in support of the initiative. Norway has contributed an additional $5 million. But the next US President should go one step further and take the lead in negotiating the framework for an international fuel bank, beginning by securing key support from developed and developing states alike.
Establishing reliable international fuel supplies will not be easy, but it is necessary. The alternative - a world in which any and all states are free to hedge their bets by inching toward a nuclear weapons capability - is simply not sustainable.
Matt Dupuis is a research assistant in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies