Politics & Policy

Time For a Nuclear Timeout

Mohamed ElBaradei has the right idea.

Although it went practically unnoticed, last week the White House’s least favorite director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, honored President Bush with the highest form of flattery. Building on a proposal the president made nearly a year ago to ban the further spread of unnecessary nuclear factories that can bring nations within days of having a bomb, ElBaradei proposed a five-year international moratorium on the further construction of such plants. This, ElBaradei argued, would be helpful at least to limit what he sees as an unqualified right of states to develop the “full nuclear fuel cycle.”

Unfortunately, ElBaradei’s premise here is a bit off. There is no unqualified per se right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) for states to make nuclear-weapons-usable fuels. Claiming that all states have such right, moreover, will hardly help in getting them to embrace a moratorium on expanding whatever capacity they already have to make such materials.

But this aside, ElBaradei’s proposal complements Bush’s own proposal and is hard to find fault with. It certainly tracks economic reality (there is no clear profit right now in building more nuclear fuel-making capacity). It also buys the world time to reevaluate the effectiveness of the current set of nuclear rules (something critically needed after the Dr. A. Q. Khan’s proliferation to Libya, Iran, and North Korea of everything one might need to covertly make a bomb). It undermines the legitimacy of trouble states like Iran, who are trying to complete “peaceful” nuclear facilities that could quickly be converted into bomb plants. Finally, it’s uncomplicated and involves a minimum of sacrifice: No treaty making is required; all that’s needed is to put off spending on unnecessary nuclear projects that are already financial question marks.

In the U.S. there are at least two such ventures. The first is a private-industry scheme to build a large centrifuge enrichment plant in Ohio by the end of the decade. The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which took over what were previously U.S. government-owned enrichment operations, wants to upgrade their existing services, which already supply fresh low-enriched reactor fuel to America’s 100-odd nuclear power reactors. Because the new centrifuge project is projected to cost the company over $1 billion, stockholders want more information before making the dive. To get this, the company is now pushing to build a much smaller demonstration plant.

The only serious domestic competition to USEC is from a Dutch firm, URENCO. This company is now trying to muscle into the U.S. market with plans to build a centrifuge enrichment plant in New Mexico. Both the UNRENCO and the USEC projects require U.S. licenses, which have not yet been granted. Both are geared to make money years from now, if at all. Both can wait.

The second planned U.S. nuclear project to make massive amounts of nuclear-weapons-usable fuel for commercial use is a U.S. government scheme to convert 34 tons of surplus weapons plutonium (now in the form of metal) into ceramic powder and mix it with uranium to make a fuel known as mixed oxide or MOX. The MOX is to be burned in U.S. civilian reactors and thereby made too radioactive to be easily stolen. To support this effort, the Department of Energy is using billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to have a French nuclear firm construct a MOX fuel-fabrication plant in South Carolina.

Besides being a major money loser, this program is a bomb-material-monitoring nightmare. The Japanese recently tried making MOX fuel on a much smaller scale and ended up “losing” between ten and 70 kilograms of plutonium–enough for between two and l5 crude bombs. In addition, the IAEA has determined that it is relatively easy to convert fresh MOX fuel into bombs (each 220 lbs. of MOX contains one crude bomb’s worth of plutonium). The IAEA lists MOX as being “direct use” nuclear material–i.e., material able to bring its owners nearly as close to a bomb as if they had separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium. The program plans to take 20 or so years to dispose of all 34 tons of the surplus plutonium. Throughout this period, the challenges of detecting nuclear theft or loss will actually be higher than it would be were the plutonium safely stored. A five-year hold on the effort, which is already way behind schedule, might give us a better chance to address these risks.

What else should we do with the extra time? First, persuade others to follow our example. Japan might revisit its own plans to open a controversial, unprofitable plutonium-reprocessing plant at Rokkashomura that would make tons of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium annually. Brazil might reconsider pushing back its construction of an economically dubious uranium-enrichment plant. The moratorium would also give Iran another reason to halt its enrichment program and–more important–for others to take action if it did not.

Second, the U.S., its partners, and the IAEA should use the next five years to reassess which nuclear activities and materials can be safeguarded to provide timely warning of attempts to steal or divert them to make bombs. Certainly, after A. Q. Khan’s proliferation successes (including the sale of a high-fidelity, Chinese-tested, missile-deliverable nuclear-weapons design), the amount of time, money, and staff required to make a bomb have declined. Also, with new technologies more widely available (e.g., compact uranium-enrichment centrifuges), what can be hidden from inspectors’ view is greater than it once was.

The question in each case is by how much. Here, we owe it to ourselves and the future of nuclear power–to say nothing of the security of others–to find out. Certainly, what the IAEA can know and what it can adequately safeguard against is less than we previously thought. This has been made clear by the cascade of proliferation revelations in Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and the hair-raising discoveries about missing plutonium in Japan and unmonitored Pakistani nuclear sales. They’re the reason why Bush last year proposed a time out on the further spread of nuclear-fuel-making plants and why ElBaradei’s proposal last week is one we should back.

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.


The Latest