"Proliferation is a state issue"
15 Dec, 2008 10:04 pm
Nuclear energy power plants may be booming in the next few years. What risks of nuclear weapons proliferation might this bring? This is what Scitizen asked Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and former director of the Natural Resources Defence Council nuclear program. He warns us against allowing non-weapon countries to have uranium enrichment plants and nuclear reprocessing fuel plants.
The plants themselves are not the biggest threat; the biggest risks is the development of uranium enrichment plants and nuclear fuel reprocessing plants in non-weapons states.
The existing international safeguard regime cannot adequately safeguard uranium enrichment plants or nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, or facilities where highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium is stored. The objective of safeguards is the timely detection of the diversion of significant quantities of nuclear materials and to deter such diversion by early detection. At these types of facilities the timeliness detection goal cannot be met.
A state can either divert material from these facilities or convert these facilities to weapon use in a period of time that is too short to allow sufficient time for diplomatic pressures to prevent the state from developing nuclear weapons. These types of facilities should not be built in non-weapon states, they should be under international control and built in states that already have weapons, so that there is not a threat that they will be diverted for weapon purposes.
And how easy would it be to divert those plants to use them for a military purpose?
The main protection is that all the non-weapons states have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and they have safeguard agreements with the IAEA.
In order to invert those existing plants for weapon purposes, they would have to violate those agreements or withdraw from the treaty and withdraw from the safeguard agreements with the IAEA. That’s the principal protection. Alternatively, they could divert material for a long period of time and further enrich it in a clandestine facility, but they would run the risk of that being detected by the IAEA.
There are two good models that are ongoing now for the type of concerns, and those are: the activities in North Korea and the activities in Iran.
In North Korea, they simply backed out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and kicked the IAEA out, and then used the facilities that were safeguarded by the IAEA to recover plutonium for the weapons.
In the case of Iran, they are developing an enrichment plant, ostensibly for making low enriched uranium fuel, but at any time they could back out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as did North Korea, and further enrich that material that they have already produced to where it would be useful for making weapons. They have the technical capability now to do that. They have sufficient enrichment machines, and they have sufficient pre-produced low enriched uranium, enough for one weapon. But they haven’t, and they maintain they will not, take the additional step of violating the existing agreement and enriching that material further. But of course they violated their non-proliferation treaty and their safeguard agreement in developing the enrichment plan to begin with.
And how effective is the international inspection system that makes sure that installations are only being used for civilian purposes?
They have been successful in some situations, in others they have not. They were unsuccessful in detecting the development of facilities for weapon materials in Iraq, before the Gulf war. As a consequence of that failure, the IAEA has developed what is called the “additional protocol” which is a strengthening of the safeguard agreements with individual countries. That would allow IAEA inspectors to inspect undeclared facilities in the state to assure that those facilities are not being used for weapon purposes. But the additional protocol is not required; the state must voluntarily adopt it in addition to its existing agreement with the IAEA.
Some states that are a potential threat have not adopted the additional protocol; that is a loophole. And even if all states were to adopt the additional protocol, and all states agreed to what is called “full scope safeguards”, even in that case, if they developed uranium enrichment plants and reprocessing plants, those plants can still not be safeguarded in a way that met the safeguard objectives of timely detection of a diversion of a significant body of nuclear materials.
How easy is it for a country to obtain nuclear technology on the black market, and what technologies are available?
That has varied over time. The A. Q. Khan network [an illegal nuclear network leaded by Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist] certainly did operate successfully over decades to supply countries illegally with uranium enrichment technology. And although that particular network, or much of it, has probably been shut down, it is still possible for states to obtain useful technology illicitly.
And who do you think are the buyers of this market?
The states. Proliferation is a state issue. It is a separate issue from terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons materials. Terrorists are non-state groups; they are not going to manufacture the materials, either by building enrichment plants, or producing plutonium or nuclear reactors. They will have to either steel, buy or be given, either a nuclear weapon, or the nuclear weapons materials, meaning highly enriched uranium or plutonium, those are the options for the non-state threat. Of those options the biggest threat is the diversion of highly enriched uranium from existing stocks in the civil programs in various countries: Russia, South Africa, Pakistan.
Interview by Olivia Sohr