Reconciling the spread of nuclear power with the abolition of nuclear weapons will require taking non-proliferation much more seriously, including forsaking sensitive nuclear technologies.

After years outside the political mainstream, the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons is once again receiving significant attention. There is a growing consensus that if key non-nuclear-weapons states are to be persuaded to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, nuclear-weapons states must start to live up to their commitment – enshrined in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and reaffirmed when the treaty was indefinitely extended in 1995 – to work in good faith towards the elimination of such weapons. The clearest example yet of abolition’s newfound respectability came on 5 April 2009 when President Barack Obama laid out ‘America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’ and outlined some practical steps towards that goal.

Almost in parallel with the resurrection of disarmament as a mainstream policy, nuclear power has undergone something of a rebirth. It is increasingly seen as part of the solution for global warming, and many states have recently announced new or revived nuclear-power programmes. Yet nuclear power carries with it the risk of proliferation. If the anticipated nuclear-power renaissance does indeed result in the further spread of nuclear weapons, disarmament will inevitably become more distant and difficult.

Squaring nuclear power with nuclear disarmament will require a multifaceted approach. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards will need to be improved to enable the more effective verification of peaceful nuclear activities. The political barriers to proliferation will also need to be strengthened by ensuring that the UN Security Council acts upon incidences of non-compliance much more quickly and robustly than it does today. Further measures could include placing all sensitive nuclear activities under multinational control and constructing the nuclear industry around less proliferation-sensitive technologies, the concept addressed in this article.

The most sensitive steps in the nuclear fuel cycle are uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which can be used to make weapons-usable material directly, as well as ingredients for reactor fuel. Nuclear reactors pose a smaller proliferation risk, but the risk is not zero because of the danger that a state might secretly extract plutonium from spent fuel. The most sensitive reactors are heavy-water reactors and fast reactors because they are harder to safeguard and generally produce plutonium that is particularly suitable for nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, non-proliferation strategies frequently conflict with other goals, particularly economic ones. For instance, the cheapest enrichment technology currently available is the gas centrifuge. The few remaining plants that use an older technology (gaseous diffusion) are now scheduled to be shut down. However, the fact that small gas-centrifuge plants are very efficient and hard to detect have made them de rigueur for proliferation-oriented states in recent years. Iran, Libya and Pakistan all based their weapons programmes on the gas centrifuge, and it was the most promising element of Iraq’s nuclear programme prior to its termination in 1991.

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James M. Acton is an associate in the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He is co-author of the recent Adelphi Paper Abolishing Nuclear Weapons.

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