Politics & Policy

Nonproliferation Nonstarter

The senator's plan is worrisome.

When it comes to what John Kerry claims is the most important issue–nuclear nonproliferation–the senator insists he has a plan. He hasn’t clarified it much in the last two debates, and if you go to his website where he does spell things out you can understand why. For the most part, what’s posted there is not a detailed nonproliferation strategy but a set of goals, most of which the Bush administration has already propounded. Where Kerry’s ideas are unique, moreover, they are hard to defend.

As I detailed last week, this is clearly the case with Kerry’s remarkable proposal to share fresh nuclear fuel with Iran. In fact, a closer look at all of his recommendations suggests that the senator’s complete nuclear-nonproliferation plan is no less worrisome.

A quick rundown of his key recommendations makes clear why.

An international production cutoff of materials intended for nuclear weapons. Kerry’s first treaty proposal is to secure a verifiable international military-fissile-production cutoff. This “new” idea was actually first proposed in the mid-l950s as the “logical projection and follow-through” of President Eisenhower’s infamous Atoms for Peace Program, a nuclear-nonproliferation program that actually spread nuclear-weapons technology and materials worldwide.

In 1993 President Clinton thought this cutoff proposal might be worth reviving. His administration, though, took the precaution of first commissioning the RAND Corporation to study it. What did RAND conclude? Such a convention would do nothing to block supposedly “peaceful” civilian nuclear-materials production that nations like Iran and North Korea claimed they were pursuing. Nor would it eliminate, control, or reduce existing nuclear-weapons materials (including hundreds of bombs’ worth held by smaller states). RAND’s study also emphasized that the convention could end up encouraging increased “peaceful” production of weapons-usable materials in trouble states like Iran if it was not supplemented by an international ban on civilian production of weapons-useable nuclear fuels–a tough feature the Kerry plan conveniently omits. Not long after Clinton officials received these findings, they backed off making a military-fissile-production cutoff a top priority. The Bush administration is less enthusiastic; it believes such a convention is unverifiable. Kerry’s plan, however, is to push ahead as if it is.

New nuclear deals to test would-be bomb makers. In addition to this convention, Kerry would make a series of new nuclear deals for states such as Iran and North Korea. Presumed here is that Iran’s and North Korea’s current apologias are sound–that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has a “loophole” that gives them a right to produce nuclear-weapons-usable fuels so long as they claim these materials are for peaceful purposes.

Rather than condemn Iran and North Korea for cynically manipulating the NPT to support their bomb-making efforts, Kerry chooses to concede this point. He then goes about “fixing” the problem. Here he would offer such states fresh, lightly enriched uranium to power light water reactors in exchange for their pledge to not produce weapons-usable materials. He would also ask them to ship whatever spent reactor fuel they have to some agreed foreign state for safekeeping (such fuel contains weapons-usable materials). This set of offers would “test” nations’ peaceful intentions. If they failed to act on the offer, Kerry would seek international sanctions to keep them from getting what they need to complete a nuclear-weapons program.

How well would these proposals work? Poorly, at best. First, neither international nuclear inspectors nor U.S. intelligence have had much success in discovering other countries’ covert nuclear-weapons activities until after they were well underway. But if you can’t find them early on, how can you be sure would-be bomb makers are not in fact making bombs? This point is all the more salient with Kerry’s plan since the fresh reactor fuel he proposes to offer would, if diverted, effectively reduce the effort needed to produce bomb-grade uranium five-fold. Second, regarding the spent fuel, most states could build relatively small, covert facilities, seize the spent fuel before the material was sent out for safekeeping, and build their first bomb in a matter of weeks.

Accelerate efforts to secure nuclear-weapons-usable materials in Russia. The Bush administration already has plans to secure Russia’s vast stockpiles of surplus nuclear-weapons-useable materials in four years and to round up nuclear weapons useable research reactor fuel that’s still outside of Russia within a decade. Kerry insists that these timelines are too long. His plan, he claims, would “break through the bureaucratic logjams” and complete the work in far less time. How? First, by “lead[ing] a major multilateral effort to establish and enforce an international standard for the safe custody of nuclear weapons materials.” How long this might take (securing an agreement between China, Russia, Great Britain, France, the U.S., North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel) is anybody’s guess.

Second, Kerry would “accelerate and prioritize” U.S. nuclear-threat-reduction programs with Russia (read: dramatically increase their funding). The only problem here is that it is Russia, not the U.S., which controls these programs’ pace. Moscow, after all, has still not disclosed how many nuclear weapons it has or even how much nuclear-weapons-useable material it has stockpiled. The Russians, in fact, are still making weapons-useable plutonium and talk about using it as reactor fuel even though it is grossly uneconomical to do so. They also have failed after years of effort to offer the sort of liability protection nuclear contractors need to undertake work in Russia.

American cooperative-threat-reduction programs with Russia, in short, are beyond the point of being accelerated by U.S. “leadership” or the force-feeding of additional dollars. Indeed, if the U.S. insists on meeting unrealistic, artificial deadlines of the sort Kerry proposes, it is only more likely to bend too much on these key points, which could easily risk compromising the entire effort.

Create a counterproliferation czar. Finally, Kerry’s plan calls for creating a national coordinator for nuclear terrorism and counterproliferation who would work directly for the president. The assumption here is that what has to be done is clear and that the only thing missing is someone “in charge” to make it happen. Kerry’s czar would fix this by “directing a top line effort” to secure all nuclear materials and prevent a nuclear terrorist attack. Rather than foster different views and raise substantive differences to the attention of senior decision makers –something our government could use more of to deal with complex issues like these–Kerry’s coordinator would restrain debate for the sake of making sure the U.S. government’s efforts were “prioritized and integrated into [Kerry’s] comprehensive plan.” Undoubtedly, with direct access to the president, the proposed coordinator would have the clout needed to pull this off. The only question, given all the problems noted with this plan, is whether it would be wise for anyone ever to let him try.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions with Patrick Clawson.


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