Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

Remarks at Event on Tightening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Rules

Below are remarks delivered by Kingston Reif at a May 16 event co-hosted by the Nuclear Policy Education Center and the Foreign Policy Initiative to discuss the "Gold Standard" for nuclear cooperation and the roles of Congress and the Executive in shaping nonproliferation policy. For more information about the event, see here.

I want to begin my remarks by stating that, in my view, the real gold standard to strive for is a world in which all countries agree not to make their own nuclear fuel and the number of locations where fuel is made for civilian power reactors is kept to the smallest number possible and operated on a multinational basis.

Now, to borrow a phrase, this is an ideal that may not be achieved in my lifetime. But it is a goal worth striving for if we mean what we say about the dangers posed by the existence, production, and use of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium.

It is through this prism that I evaluate the administration’s “case-by-case” approach to civilian nuclear cooperation and enrichment and reprocessing (ENR), and in my view it does not bring us closer to this goal; in fact, it is a step backwards for the following reasons:

  • First, US leadership in support of consistent standards is vital. If other countries believe the US is not serious about maintaining consistent and high nonproliferation standards in its nuclear cooperation agreements, then they will not assume additional commitments that will not be asked of others;
  • Second, the policy could prompt the UAE to renegotiate the terms of the 2009 UAE agreement, which includes a pledge on the part of the UAE not to enrich or reprocess; and
  • Third, it's an open question whether this approach will lead to increased business for the US nuclear industry relative to an approach that insists on tougher nonproliferation standards. In any event, the search for additional profits for the US nuclear industry that may not be forthcoming should not come at the expense of US nonproliferation objectives.

For these reasons the serious national security and proliferation implications of the “case-by-case” approach warrant close Congressional scrutiny.

In fact, an interesting body of work in the academic community suggests that all types of civilian nuclear assistance (to say nothing about the transfer of ENR) actually increases the likelihood that states will begin nuclear weapons programs.

More research needs to be done in this area, but Congress should be particularly cautious in evaluating proposed cooperation with countries that face significant security threats. Many of the countries beginning nuclear programs in the Middle East fit this category.

HR 1280, many of the details of which have already been described, is an important step in the right directon in terms of strengthening Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act. As others have noted, the bill would not prevent other countries from forever pursuing enrichment or reprocessing. But by requiring that Congress approve agreements that do not contain a no ENR pledge, it would strengthen the US hand in negotiations on civilian nuclear cooperation and create an incentive for states considering nuclear energy to choose not to pursue sensitive fuel cycle technologies.

Speaking of incentives, one item worth further consideration included in HR 1320, but not, it appears, HR 1280 is a provision authorizing the President to make loan guarantees for countries that forgo enrichment and reprocessing.

The administration and the nuclear industry have lined up in opposition to HR 1280. One common argument in opposition to the legislation is that by requiring more stringent standards, it would border on denying NPT members their right to enrich and reprocess.

But the US has never supported the argument that parties to the NPT have an inherent right to acquire ENR no matter what. The US also has an obligation, especially in light of the growing interest in nuclear power around the world, particularly in some unstable regions of the world, to not simply race with Russia, China, and France to the lowest common denominator.

Another argument is that by requiring tougher standards, other countries will not agree to nuclear cooperation with the US, thereby weakening our ability to influence their nonproliferation behavior via physical protection standards, consent rights, and more.

But there are ways to provide incentives and exercise influence that do not hinge solely on nuclear cooperation agreements with less stringent nonproliferation standards.

Moreover, the recent experience of the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement should give us cause to question whether requiring less stringent standards has led to better nonproliferation behavior. As a recent article in the Washington Post rightly put it, the deal does not appear to have “yielded anything except a disagreement over who would be liable in the event of a nuclear accident.”

Building on these points, I think the US argument in favor of strong nonproliferation conditions in cooperation agreements is strengthened when the US practices what it preaches. In that light US support for a special exemption for India has hurt US credibility.

So too does the administration’s recent proposal to support USEC with a $150 million to develop a domestic, national security-related enrichment capability. In so far as the rationale for this capability is to ensure the US can produce its own LEU for power generation at home and abroad, the fact that the U.S. can rely on foreign companies to provide its enrichment services is a strong rejoinder to claims from Iran that it needs to produce its own nuclear fuel instead of relying on the international market.

Speaking of Iran, and I’ll end with this lest I don’t say something that the other panelists may disagree with, some have argued to me that we cant tell other countries not to make their own fuel if we cut a deal to allow Iran to do so.

While I believe that an endgame that allows Iran a limited capability to enrich to 3-5% under strict international supervision is not an ideal outcome, it’s certainly better than war, and Iran has made it pretty clear for some time that no enrichment is a non-starter.

But as one colleague helpfully reminded me, cutting a deal with Iran obviously does not have to mean a U.S.-Iran agreement on nuclear cooperation. The issue we’re addressing today has to do with nuclear trade with the U.S. We can maintain a policy of high nonproliferation standards with respect to U.S. nuclear cooperation with other countries even if the P5+1 doesn’t block the Iranians from enriching fuel themselves.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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