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Lining up to enrich uranium

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and William C. Potter, Director, Center for Nonproliferation Studies
September 12, 2006
International Herald Tribune

Never underestimate the potential for erratic policy when economic and political interests collide, even when the policy involves preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

This happened last month when, in rapid succession, Argentina, Australia and South Africa joined a growing list of countries interested in enriching uranium for commercial purposes.

That is the same activity that Iran claims as its inalienable right, and that the United States, the European Union, Russia and China insist must be halted in the interest of nonproliferation.

Is it fair or feasible to allow some countries to enrich uranium while attempting to prevent others from doing it?

The answer is not simple. It turns on a number of technical, economic and political considerations.

The technical dimension is most straightforward. It pertains to the dual purpose of uranium enrichment: to produce fuel for civilian reactors and explosive material for nuclear weapons.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the countries that have an active or latent uranium-enrichment industry also possess, once made, or tried to acquire nuclear weapons.

Today, most of the arguments in support of new enrichment capacity are couched in economic terms, generally linked to the buzz about major global expansion in nuclear energy.

Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, for example, portray their renewed interest in terms of projected domestic consumption and new export opportunities.

In fact, current global enrichment capacity exceeds demand. The projected boom in nuclear-energy development in most countries has yet to be matched by major new orders, and the ability of newcomers to supplant the entrenched suppliers is problematic.

Moreover, the financial costs of reviving antiquated and previously uneconomical enrichment facilities in Argentina and South Africa are likely to be enormous.

So other factors are at play. Almost all the new and prospective entrants in the enrichment business appear anxious to establish their credentials as having existing technology in place.

Driving this process, in part, is the perception that all countries will soon be divided into uranium enrichment “haves” (suppliers) and “have-nots” (customers) under various proposals to establish multinational nuclear fuel centers and fuel-supply arrangements.

These proposals include President George W. Bush’s call two years ago for the Nuclear Suppliers Group to refuse to sell enrichment technology to any state that did not already possess a full-scale, functioning enrichment plant, and the idea promoted about the same time by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, for a five-year moratorium on new enrichment plants in order to buy time for developing more equitable means to ensure fuel supplies while stemming proliferation.

More recently, the United States and Russia have proposed that a small set of countries would serve as enrichment providers while all others would forego such technology.

But the basis for becoming an approved enricher remains unclear. While the United States opposes allowing Iran to enrich uranium, Dennis Spurgeon, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, recently said that “special rules” apply to Australia and Canada because they “have the majority of economically recoverable uranium resources.

These rules appears founded more on political grounds that distinguish between allies and adversaries. Such a policy of exceptionalism is at odds with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is also a recipe for failure, as the history of U.S.-Iranian nuclear cooperation in the 1970s should make clear, since today’s friend could become tomorrow’s foe.

There is no foolproof means of promoting peaceful nuclear energy while preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the best way of resolving the conundrum is to provide inducements to all states that voluntarily forsake uranium enrichment.

These inducements should include guaranteed access to nuclear fuel for all states in good standing with the nonproliferation treaty—an approach that will be explored this month at a special IAEA conference in Vienna on “Assurances of Fuel Supply and Nonproliferation.”

To be effective, these assurances will have to be nondiscriminatory and consistent with the nonproliferation treaty. Such an approach will not guarantee an end to abuse of sensitive nuclear technology, but it should reduce the number of states joining the uranium enrichment queue.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. William C. Potter is director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. They are the principal authors of The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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