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Fissile Material

Hill Weakens Uranium Export Rules

Kate Amlin

President George W. Bush signed legislation into law Aug. 8 relaxing limits on the export of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Although some U.S. officials support the change as critical to nuclear medicine, a bipartisan group of senators has charged that the modification will make it easier for terrorists to obtain fissile material for nuclear weapons. HEU is one of two materials that can provide the fissile material in nuclear weapons; plutonium is the other.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who first proposed the change in 2003, contends that loosening U.S. restrictions on HEU exports is the only way to ensure that foreign producers of medical isotopes have a stable supply of uranium, which they use to make radiopharmaceuticals that help diagnose and treat conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

The bill alters a 1992 amendment to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act dubbed the “Schumer Amendment,” after its chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The amendment sought to encourage firms to switch to less dangerous low-enriched uranium (LEU). The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has determined that LEU is an acceptable replacement for HEU in nuclear medicine, but some companies are reluctant to make the costly switch.

During Senate debate Schumer argued that relaxing export regulations will increase the amount of weapons-grade uranium worldwide. Together with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Schumer also maintained that prior restrictions on HEU exports have not impeded the supply of medical isotopes. The senators noted that countries such as Argentina and the Netherlands have already opted to substitute LEU for HEU.

Schumer and Kyl prevailed 52-46 on a Senate vote to retain the Schumer amendment, but Burr’s amendment was approved by a House-Senate conference committee and endorsed by both chambers in late July.



President George W. Bush signed legislation into law Aug. 8 relaxing limits on the export of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Although some U.S. officials support the change as critical to nuclear medicine, a bipartisan group of senators has charged that the modification will make it easier for terrorists to obtain fissile material for nuclear weapons. HEU is one of two materials that can provide the fissile material in nuclear weapons; plutonium is the other. (Continue)

States Vow to Update Nuclear Materials Pact

Paul Kerr

Demonstrating what International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei called “a global commitment to remedy weaknesses in our nuclear security regime,” delegates from 89 counties July 8 decided to adopt measures to strengthen the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM).

The new requirements will not take effect, however, until ratified by two-thirds of the 112 states-parties to the convention.
The convention currently requires states-parties to implement specific measures to protect nuclear material during international transport. The new rules would apply similar obligations to domestic use, storage, and transport of civilian nuclear material.

The amended convention also requires member states to protect civilian nuclear facilities from attack and sabotage. Indeed, the term “nuclear facilities” has been added to the convention’s title.

According to the IAEA, the amended convention “will also provide for expanded cooperation” among states to prevent the theft and smuggling of nuclear material, “locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, and mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage.”

The IAEA has been seeking such changes since 1997, 10 years after the convention entered into force.
ElBaradei formed a group of experts in 1999, which later determined that the agreement should be revised. On the basis of their recommendation, ElBaradei convened another group in 2001 to prepare draft amendments. (See ACT, January/February 2002.) The group met several times before completing its report in March 2003. ElBaradei circulated the proposed amendments in July 2004 at the request of Austria and 24 other states. He then called for a convention in January 2005 after receiving requests from the required number of states-parties.

The Changes

Although the new physical protection requirements are legally binding, there are no provisions to verify whether states actually implement them and no penalties if states fail to do so.

Rather than mandating specific regulations, the amended convention says that each party shall apply certain “fundamental principles of physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities.” These principles include establishing a “legislative and regulatory framework to govern physical protection,” which could include verification inspections of nuclear facilities.
The convention also states that the degree of protection undertaken by member-states should be based on their “current evaluation on the threat,” but does not appear to provide mandatory threat-assessment criteria.

According to Patricia Comella, a nonproliferation official at the Department of State, the United States pushed during the late 1990s for the convention’s revisions to include verifiable and compliance powers, but many other states found these ideas unacceptable.

The new provisions also require member states to “establish or designate a competent authority” responsible for the implementation of the legislative and regulatory framework.

Additionally, the convention requires states-parties to criminalize several additional acts, including attacks on nuclear facilities. The previous convention contains similar requirements for crimes related to the theft of nuclear material.


It took years for agreement to be reached on the controversial proposed changes. In 2003, Comella told the American Nuclear Society conference that the main point of contention was a provision specifying that the activities of states-parties’ military forces “in the exercise of their official duties” would not be subject to the convention. Former IAEA Board of Governors member Alec Baer said that the provision was designed to shield from liability military troops who damaged nuclear facilities while trying to protect them from attack, Nucleonics Week reported July 21. But some parties argued that this provision could “permit [military] attacks on nuclear facilities used for peaceful purposes to be made with impunity,” Comella said.

China apparently took a key step in January to break the impasse. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker stated March 10 that “China helped to end the three-year-long deadlock…by proposing a well-received bridging amendment, which mitigated some of the controversies surrounding the original CPPNM amendment proposal.”
The adopted amendment reads, “Nothing in this convention shall be construed as a lawful authorization to use or threaten to use force against nuclear material or nuclear facilities used for peaceful purposes.”



Plutonium Disposition Accord Reached

Wade Boese

In July, U.S. and Russian negotiators reached an agreement in principle to resolve a long-standing dispute on a joint program to dispose of excess bomb-making materials. The deal clears one hurdle for the program’s implementation, but others remain.

Moscow and Washington first committed in September 1998 to eliminate tons of plutonium, of which a minimum of four kilograms is needed to build a weapon. They ultimately settled on disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium apiece by transforming it into reactor fuel.

Several factors have impeded work toward fulfilling this joint commitment, including a two-year disagreement over the liability coverage that the Kremlin would extend to U.S. companies and workers carrying out the program inside Russia. A key hang-up was whether Russia would grant liability protection for any deliberate damage.

U.S. and Russian officials resolved the liability issue July 8 in Vienna. However, the two sides have not released the specific terms of the deal because their capitals must review and approve it.

Once the two governments officially sign the agreed text—all indications are that they will—Russia’s lower legislative house, the Duma, will need to approve it for its entry into force. The United States considers the negotiated settlement an executive agreement that does not require Senate advice and consent to take effect.

A leading proponent of the plutonium disposition program, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), applauded U.S. and Russian officials July 19 for their “important achievement” and expressed hope that the Duma would “take quick action.”

Still, additional obstacles confront the program. Moscow is conducting a wholesale review of the program, and current funding commitments fall far short of the program’s estimated costs.



U.S., Russia Near Liability Accord

Claire Applegarth

U.S. and Russian negotiators say they are coming closer to resolving a long-standing dispute that for nearly two years has stymied a joint program to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium. However, the hopes that a deal could be reached in time for a May 9 meeting of Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin were dashed.

Instead, the two sides issued a statement after the summit, saying that “significant progress” had been made in the dispute over who should assume liability for damage to relevant Russian nuclear facilities. The United States has been attempting to place the full burden on Russia.

Negotiators now hope to reach agreement on the issue by the start of a July Group of Eight summit meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland.

The dispute concerns liability language contained in agreements governing key Department of Energy threat reduction programs in Russia that expired in 2003.

The United States has insisted that it would not renew the agreements unless they were governed by different liability provisions than the programs’ agreements currently include. U.S. officials wanted to use terms similar to those of a 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction “umbrella agreement” that covers Department of Defense U.S.-Russian threat reduction efforts. (See ACT, September 2003.)

The umbrella agreement holds Russia fully accountable for all nuclear accidents in its facilities, even if the act was premeditated. Russia has refused to accept such blanket responsibility and has not ratified the umbrella agreement, which is now set to expire next summer.

Nonetheless, the United States has pressed since 2003 to apply similar language as that of the umbrella agreement’s liability provisions to the Energy Department programs as well. Those efforts have gone nowhere. Eager to renew work on a program to dispose of weaponsgrade plutonium, the Bush administration offered a compromise earlier this year. Since then, the two sides have tried to come to a deal. The program implements a 2000 bilateral accord calling for the United States and Russia each to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium.

Because of the liability dispute, the Energy Department has not been able to begin construction of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in Russia to dispose of excess plutonium and has now pushed back the tentative completion date to 2010. The delay has also held up construction of a U.S.-based MOX facility designed to fulfill the U.S. end of the 2000 agreement.

The current U.S. proposal, while solely addressing plutonium disposition, could act as a template for the negotiation of liability language for other activities that have been stymied by liability concerns. One of these is the Nuclear Cities Initiative, a program that seeks to downsize the Russian nuclear weapons complex and direct Russian scientists into peaceful enterprises, which also lapsed in 2003. A liability accord could potentially jump-start work on several non-threat reduction efforts as well, including a Joint Data Exchange Center near Moscow.

The holdup in disposition efforts is cause for concern among some U.S. lawmakers. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who in 1998 secured an initial appropriation of $200 million for the plutonium disposition program, expressed disappointment that Bush and Putin were unable to reach accord on liability during their February summit meeting. Earlier, in a Feb. 17 confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Domenici said he was “frustrated that opposition from within our own government over the liability issue has delayed the startup of operations.”

Liability has been only one, albeit significant threat reduction issue raised on recent visits to Moscow by Rice and Bush. Access to Russian nuclear facilities has also proven a contentious subject, as the United States has historically sought entry into some of Russia’s closed sites. Rice, in response to a question from Ekho Moskvy Radio April 20, said she thought the United States had “made improvements in our access to these sites.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denied any talk of the matter, however, telling Interfax News that U.S. visits to Russian nuclear installations “are not under consideration.”



U.S. Shifts Fuel Cycle Position?

Miles A. Pomper

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman indicated in an April 5 speech that the United States may be adjusting its position on measures intended to limit the spread of materials and technologies that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Bodman’s remarks were given at a Virginia conference organized by Sandia National Laboratories. They came on the eve of a once-every-five-years nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May, during which debate over such restrictions is expected.

In his remarks, Bodman expressed a U.S. willingness to consider proposals different from that outlined by President George W. Bush in a February 2004 address.

In that speech, Bush called on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to deny transfers of uranium-enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities to countries without functioning facilities for these activities. Such facilities can be used to produce fuel for civilian power reactors or key ingredients for nuclear weapons. The NSG is a 44-member group that seeks to coordinate nuclear trade policies.

Bodman touted Bush’s approach as the “surest way to prevent proliferators from acquiring sensitive technologies,” but that proposal has run into resistance from other members. (See ACT, December 2004.) Bodman appeared to open the door to other approaches favored by European allies.

“Any approach [on restrictions] must clearly and objectively separate states that honor nonproliferation agreements from countries like Iran whose proliferation intentions are clear,” Bodman said.

“Most nations that operate nuclear energy and fuel cycle facilities comply with and support international nonproliferation agreements,” Bodman continued. “But some states, notably Iran and North Korea, have pursued nuclear fuel capabilities in secret…and in violation of their nonproliferation agreements. The plans these countries have announced for building one or two nuclear power plants certainly do not justify the high costs of developing enrichment or reprocessing programs.”

The United Kingdom and France have called for the adoption of criteria that would require countries to prove they intend the technology for peaceful purposes, such as a clean bill of health from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that acquiring such capabilities made economic sense. Those two governments and Germany are engaged in negotiations with Iran that seek to limit Tehran’s efforts to develop uranium-enrichment technologies.

Bodman’s remarks came in the wake of some other nuclear fuel-cycle proposals, including a Feb. 22 report from an international experts group appointed by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei’s group had outlined five different multilateral options that states might pursue to acquire nuclear fuel supplies and services short of constructing their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Bodman acknowledged that the question of assuring fuel supplies and services had to be addressed.

“We should begin now to consider ways in which national governments and the commercial sector can provide assured fuel services for qualifying states,” Bodman said.

He also called for industry officials to come together with governments to “develop a ‘code of conduct’ governing nuclear supply.” Industry officials at the conference said that they had not yet been consulted about the proposal.

U.S., Russia Seek Help on Plutonium

Claire Applegarth

The Department of Energy is looking for international donations to help pay the substantial costs of shutting down Russia’s three remaining nuclear reactors that produce weapons-grade plutonium.

This program, originally assigned to the Pentagon in 1997, works cooperatively with Russia to provide replacement fossil-fuel energy plants for the two Siberian cities that house the three reactors. The Energy Department assumed responsibility for these activities in 2002, which then became known as the Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production program. The program is currently managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The Energy Department, which in 2002 estimated that the program would cost less than $470 million, sharply revised its estimates in 2003 after accounting for Russian inflation, escalating labor costs, and contractor fees. Though the program’s baseline cost will not be determined until June, officials now estimate that total costs could reach close to $1 billion.

Accordingly, the United States is now seeking support from other countries. As a first step, it recently convinced potential contributors to attend a conference in Spiez, Switzerland, Feb. 8-9. Those states included Canada, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The conference, primarily sponsored by the Swiss government, discussed how to shift these communities away from the nuclear industry. Russian officials have asked for aid in cleaning up decommissioned sites and creating new employment opportunities for the local workforce in the wake of the reactors’ shutdown.

The conference goals reflected a shift in the program’s emphasis since coming under the aegis of the Energy Department. Originally, the program had been aimed at converting the reactor cores of the three nuclear plants so as not to produce weapons-grade spent nuclear fuel. But U.S. and Russian officials concluded in 2001 that eliminating weapons-grade plutonium production could be better accomplished by building replacement fossil-fuel plants to provide much-needed heat and electricity.

Currently, these nuclear reactors produce a cumulative 1.2 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium annually, or enough by some estimates to produce 300 nuclear weapons a year. The designs of the 1960s-era plutonium reactors also predate the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, the site of the 1986 nuclear accident. The United States is expecting to shutter two of the three reactors by December 2008 through the refurbishment of a fossil fuel plant located at the Russian city of Seversk, a project that is targeted to be more than 60 percent complete by the end of fiscal year 2006. The Energy Department has requested $132 million for the program in its fiscal year 2006 budget request, a 200 percent increase over the 2005 allocation. NNSA Administrator Linton F. Brooks, in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee March 2, said that the budget request was “fully adequate” to shut down the two nuclear reactors at Seversk.

But shutting down the third Russian plutonium-producing reactor near Zheleznogorsk entails constructing a new fossil fuel plant, a venture that, according to the Energy Department, requires at least $100 million from international donors to meet its completion target date of 2011. So far, the United Kingdom has pledged $20 million to the effort, to be spread over a three-year period, and Canada has offered $7 million.

According to a June 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, the United States did not count on Russian funding for the effort. Nevertheless, Russia has aided the projects by offering some suggestions on how to operate the plants more cost effectively and by purchasing land.

The Energy Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2006, should it be approved by Congress, would decrease funding for activities at Zheleznogorsk compared to the fiscal year 2005 allocation because of the current emphasis on closing the reactors at Seversk and in anticipation of heightened international support.

Fissile Material Treaty Dispute Prolongs Conference on Disarmament Deadlock

Wade Boese

In past years, Washington severely criticized the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for not initiating work on a treaty to stop production of the key ingredients for building nuclear weapons. But a revised U.S. position on the proposed accord is now helping stall those negotiations and other arms talks in Geneva.

Last year, the United States announced that it no longer viewed as “effectively verifiable” a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes. (See ACT, September 2004.) The announcement ran counter to U.S. efforts at the CD since 1995 to conclude an “effectively verifiable” FMCT.

U.S. officials said the shift reflected a lengthy policy review that concluded cheaters could violate the FMCT with little fear of being caught or punished. They argued that, because the treaty would allow the retention of existing fissile material stockpiles and continued production of fissile material for civilian uses, inspectors would find it difficult to determine the purpose for which any suspicious fissile material had been made and whether it had been manufactured before or after the treaty took effect.

Washington failed last year to convince all of the other 64 members of the conference, which operates by consensus, to endorse its position, and the CD closed for the sixth year in a row without launching any formal talks. The stalemate has not only blocked action on the fissile material treaty but also helped hamper discussions on other subjects from weapons in outer space to nuclear disarmament. Little has changed since the conference reconvened Jan. 24.

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter told Arms Control Today Feb. 7 that the United States is “not saying ‘no verification.’” She made clear, however, that the United States would not subscribe to negotiations premised on a final agreement being “effectively verifiable.”

Chris Ford, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, added in the same Arms Control Today interview that “[w]e think it is a bad idea to create this situation where you create an imperfect international regime that people do not understand to be imperfect.” This outcome would create a “false sense of security” that would incorrectly lead governments to lower “their level of concern, vigilance, and due diligence,” he argued.

Several countries do not share the U.S. perspective. Speaking to the conference Feb. 15, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Strommen said that dropping “effectively verifiable” from the FMCT negotiating mandate “is at the outset not desirable, nor does there seem to be support for it.”

The beginning of treaty negotiations would not be guaranteed even if a compromise emerged on the verification impasse.

U.S. officials have repeatedly argued that the CD focus exclusively on an FMCT. Many other CD members have said this stance is unacceptable, arguing that other issues also merit attention.

Although China in August 2003 shelved a demand that the conference negotiate on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in parallel with an FMCT, Beijing insists that less formal outer space discussions should still be held. Russia also backs this approach.

CD members belonging to the Nonaligned Movement support similar talks on nuclear disarmament and negative security assurances, which are commitments by nuclear-armed states not to use such weapons against those states without them. The Nonaligned Movement is a loose coalition of more than 100 countries from the developing world.

In his outgoing speech as the rotating president of the conference on Feb. 17, Dutch Ambassador Chris Sanders criticized the inflexibility of some countries. “I fail to see how discussions on improving security in space or how discussions on dealing with the subject of nuclear disarmament could threaten anyone’s security interests,” the ambassador said. He further argued that members need “to take each other’s proposals seriously” and warned, “you cannot simply continue saying no or making proposals which you know will stand no chance of getting any support.”

A failure by the CD to begin any negotiations or talks before ending the first part of its 2005 session on April 1 could become a point of contention at the upcoming review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in May. At the last NPT Review Conference in 2000, the nearly 190 treaty states-parties called on the CD to commence “effectively verifiable” FMCT negotiations immediately, with an eye to completing them in five years, and to establish a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament.

The CD will reconvene after the review conference for two periods: May 30 to July 15 and Aug. 8 to Sept. 23.


Can a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty Be Effectively Verified?

John Carlson

Capping the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for nuclear weapons has long been a goal of the international nuclear nonproliferation agenda because it has been seen as putting a real-world limit on the potential for any nuclear weapons buildup. During the last decade, this goal has, at times, appeared close to being realized.

Negotiation of a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) was one of the central principles and objectives that helped achieve the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, and it was again endorsed by states-parties at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. The five nuclear-weapon states have also contributed to this effort as they are all understood to have ceased fissile material production for weapons purposes.

Yet, for the last few years, negotiation of such a treaty has been blocked by the failure of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to agree on its broader work program. Recently, China, the United States, and other countries have advanced proposals that could provide momentum to move the process of negotiating an FMCT forward. Before diplomats reach that stage, however, a new potential obstacle looms: ensuring that the negotiating mandate still has consensus.

Currently, the negotiating mandate for the CD, drawn from a 1993 UN General Assembly resolution,[1] outlines the following elements: an FMCT is to ban “the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices” and the treaty is to be “nondiscriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable.”

The United States had supported this mandate for the last decade, but in July, officials in the Bush administration concluded that effective international verification of an FMCT was not realistically achievable. The administration still supports the early conclusion of an FMCT to establish cutoff as an international norm but is concerned that perceived technical verification difficulties will seriously delay conclusion of the treaty. In their view, for example, potential sticking points include how to distinguish new production from pre-existing material and how to verify that production said to be for naval fuel is really being used for that purpose.

There is no reason, however, that these difficulties should lead to a deadlock. There is a way to address the United States’ desire to conclude a treaty quickly as well as to meet the broad desire to have a treaty with effective verification: separating the questions of political objectives and commitments and verification measures into two separate negotiations. In fact, there is already a model for this in the NPT.

Verification Considerations
Is there anything in the FMCT concept that makes it inherently incapable of effective verification? This depends on the objectives of an FMCT, as reflected in its substantive provisions yet to be negotiated. We must take care that questions of verifiability are not confused with differences over objectives, or issues of treaty architecture.

For example, the generally held FMCT concept does not proscribe production of additional nuclear weapons from unsafeguarded stocks of fissile material existing prior to an FMCT’s entry into force. Rather, the objective is to ensure these stocks are not enlarged. Some may question whether the existence of large stocks of fissile material outside an FMCT reduces the treaty’s usefulness, but this is an issue relating to the appropriateness of an FMCT’s objectives, not its verifiability.

The maxim underlying nuclear “peaceful use” treaties, the principal one being the NPT, is “trust but verify.” The subject matter of the NPT is of such fundamental importance to national and international security that no state is prepared to rely on trust alone. The existence of a credible verification mechanism in the form of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, comprising inspections, surveillance, and other measures, is essential to maintaining confidence in the effectiveness of the NPT and reinforcing the commitment of treaty parties.

Most states approach an FMCT with a similar perspective: it must have a verification mechanism to be considered credible. Moreover, there is no need to start from scratch. There is already a highly developed verification regime for nuclear material and activities; we have more than 40 years experience with IAEA safeguards. In addition, there is considerable experience with bilateral verification and confidence-building mechanisms, some directly applicable to nuclear weapons and sensitive materials.

Treaty Architecture
In the area of multilateral verification treaties, there are two alternative precedents. The first is a single treaty containing both the basic treaty objectives and commitments and the details of the verification system—the approach taken with the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The disadvantages of this approach include the time required to negotiate the treaty—a U.S. concern in the case of an FMCT—and the degree of inflexibility in the verification system. It would be a major political exercise to update the verification system at a later date.

The alternative approach, which was demonstrated very successfully by the NPT, is to include the basic political commitments in a principal treaty and to set out the verification system in a secondary agreement or series of agreements (in the NPT’s case, each party concludes a safeguards agreement with the IAEA based on a model IAEA safeguards agreement). This approach separates the largely political from largely technical subject matters and allows for an adaptable verification system.

The NPT was concluded in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. A model safeguards agreement[2] was not concluded until 1972. Yet, in a demonstration of how such an approach pays off in the long term, these safeguards were then expanded in 1997 after revelations of Iraq’s pre-Gulf War nuclear program led to the successful negotiation of the Model Additional Protocol.[3] Another advantage of having separate negotiations on the technical details is that such negotiations can proceed quite expeditiously. Despite their complexity, these two model safeguards instruments each took only about 18 months to conclude.

Given the commonalities in subject matter between IAEA safeguards and FMCT verification, it would seem sensible to follow the NPT route, thus enabling the political commitment to be established quickly and the details of the verification system to follow.

Objectives of an FMCT
The basic objective of an FMCT would be to proscribe production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Accordingly, when the treaty enters into force, the parties would undertake not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. They would accept international verification on relevant facilities and nuclear material to verify this commitment. They would also pledge not to use any fissile material that is subject to verification under an FMCT for nuclear weapons, that is, the principle of irreversibility would apply and subject material could not be withdrawn for weapons use.

For the purposes of an FMCT, it is expected that “fissile material” would encompass separated (unirradiated) plutonium and HEU. It would also include uranium-233, designated for IAEA safeguards as a “special fissionable material,” and would probably also need to include separated neptunium because the IAEA has recognized that this material has the potential to be used in nuclear weapons.

Nonproscribed Activities
A final FMCT would permit production of fissile material for civil purposes and also for non-explosive military purposes such as naval propulsion, but only under verification to ensure fissile material is not diverted to weapons. The recycling (or cleanup) of plutonium from weapons—an established stockpile stewardship practice—that did not involve new production of fissile material would also be permitted.

States Affected
An FMCT would apply to three groups of states: non-nuclear-weapon states party to the NPT; the five NPT nuclear-weapon states; and the three nuclear-capable states outside the NPT—India, Israel and Pakistan.[4]
Non-nuclear-weapon states are already committed not to produce or use nuclear material for weapons purposes and to accept IAEA safeguards on all their nuclear material and activities to verify this commitment (comprehensive safeguards).[5]

In principle, therefore, an FMCT should not involve any additional commitments from non-nuclear-weapon states that are implementing both an NPT safeguards agreement and an additional protocol. The principal effect of an FMCT and its verification task relate mainly to the nuclear-weapon states and the non-NPT states.

Scope of an FMCT
A major issue to be resolved in the negotiations is the scope of an FMCT—the facilities and material to which verification would apply. There are two basic options. One path would be to negotiate a treaty of wide scope. This would cover all nuclear facilities and nuclear material except nonproscribed military activities such as naval propulsion and existing stocks of nuclear material. The other option would be to seek a more narrowly focused treaty, concentrating on the most proliferation-sensitive fissile material production facilities, i.e., reprocessing and enrichment facilities, and relevant production from those facilities.

There would be substantial problems in trying to extend the comprehensive safeguards system to the nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states. It is impossible to apply truly comprehensive safeguards covering all nuclear material in the nuclear-weapon states and the non-NPT states because, when the treaty enters into force, they will still have nuclear weapons and be permitted to retain pre-existing nuclear material outside verification. Further, the cost of verification based on the comprehensive model in the nuclear-weapon states would be very high.

Taking these and related considerations into account, Australia has concluded that a separate and distinct FMCT verification regime would be required for the nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states. These states would undertake the same commitment as the non-nuclear-weapon states, not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, but the verification approach would be more appropriate to their particular circumstances.

Accordingly, Australia has proposed a “focused” approach. One aspect would involve the monitoring of fissile material production facilities such as uranium-enrichment and reprocessing plants. The other would involve verification that fissile material subject to an FMCT—separated plutonium, uranium-233, HEU, and separated neptunium produced after the treaty’s entry into force—is indeed being used for peaceful or nonproscribed purposes. This would require verification measures at downstream facilities handling these materials after production.

In addition, an FMCT verification regime will need to include measures aimed at detection of possible undeclared production facilities.

A major issue fundamental both to the substance of an FMCT and to the prospects of successful negotiation is how to treat past production of fissile material, i.e., stocks existing when the treaty enters into force.

The issue of stocks does not arise in the case of states that have accepted comprehensive safeguards under the NPT. All holdings of nuclear material in these states are subject to IAEA safeguards. The issue relates to those states outside comprehensive safeguards and having the capability to produce fissile material—nuclear-weapon states and the non-NPT states.

The term “stocks” can have a wide meaning, ranging from fissile material in weapons to bulk material declared surplus to defense needs, and to civil stocks of fissile material. Clearly, an FMCT could not apply to all pre-existing stocks held by the nuclear-weapon states and the three non-NPT states as this would amount to instant disarmament—an unrealistic objective. It must be recognized that past production of separated plutonium, HEU, and so forth in the nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states would be outside verification. The task of verification will be to provide assurance that there is no new, undeclared production.

If the parties so wished, however, an FMCT could contain a mechanism by which parties could place surplus and civil stocks under the treaty in accordance with the principle of irreversibility. Some parties may wish to do this as a mutual confidence-building measure.

Verification Methods
A verification model for an FMCT has yet to be established. Based on experience from IAEA safeguards, however, an effective regime can be expected to comprise three basic elements: routine verification activities for declared facilities and material; verification activities aimed at detection of possible undeclared fissile material production; and complementary measures aimed at transparency and confidence building.

One of the issues to be decided in the negotiation process is the verification agency. Given the commonalities between FMCT verification and IAEA safeguards, it would make sense for the IAEA to verify an FMCT, but at present, there is no consensus on this.

Declared Activities
In concept, this aspect would be very similar to IAEA safeguards. FMCT parties would be required to declare all relevant facilities such as enrichment and reprocessing facilities and downstream facilities handling subject material.
Declared facilities would be monitored through inspections, containment and surveillance, and other measures to verify that there is no undeclared production of fissile material and that declared fissile material is not diverted to nuclear weapons (or purposes unknown).

For enrichment plants, verification would be applied to all facilities, including those producing low-enriched uranium (LEU), to ensure there is no undeclared HEU production. In principle, verification would not need to be applied to LEU, but in view of the advantages of LEU as a feedstock for undeclared HEU production, some verification measures for LEU may need to be considered, particularly in the case of states with smaller arsenals.
To ensure that the use of plutonium conforms to treaty commitments, verification would be applied to separated plutonium product leaving a reprocessing plant, as well as to any facilities in which plutonium separated after the treaty enters into force is present. Verification would cease to apply once plutonium has been returned to a reactor as mixed-oxide fuel and irradiated, because irradiated plutonium is of no further strategic value until it has been reprocessed.

Undeclared Activities
Here, two broad forms of verification activity are envisaged: routine activities aimed at evaluating the completeness and correctness of FMCT declarations and inspections based on suspicion of a breach of FMCT commitments.

A major challenge for IAEA safeguards is the detection of undeclared nuclear facilities, particularly centrifuge-enrichment facilities. In the past, IAEA safeguards techniques for the detection of undeclared facilities were limited, and detection of undeclared nuclear material was seen as the major indicator of the existence of undeclared facilities. Now, the increasing availability and capability of techniques for detection of undeclared facilities has led to a revolutionary change in safeguards. In the ongoing program to strengthen IAEA safeguards, emphasis is being given to detection of undeclared facilities.

A whole suite of new measures is being established, including more effective information collection and analysis; satellite imagery; and, through the Additional Protocol, wide-ranging complementary access to apply verification measures such as environmental sampling. Another technique under study is wide-area environmental monitoring. It can be expected that methods similar to these would apply under an FMCT.

An issue raised for an FMCT is how to recognize noncompliance. Because the nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states already have undeclared material, how would inspectors be able to determine if any particular material was produced before or after the treaty’s entry into force? There are some direct technical answers to this question— nuclear material can be dated—but, as is increasingly the case with IAEA safeguards, the principal focus of FMCT verification to counter undeclared activities would likely be the detection of undeclared enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

Detection of undeclared enrichment and reprocessing facilities will no doubt be a challenge for FMCT verification as it is with IAEA safeguards, although in some respects the problem is more manageable for an FMCT. The relevant states possess extensive intelligence information on each other, and most have a limited motivation to cheat as they have nuclear arsenals they consider adequate and in some cases are actively reducing. The more difficult cases might be states with small arsenals, such as India and Pakistan, where bilateral confidence-building measures could have an important role in complementing international verification.

Similar to the Additional Protocol, under an FMCT, the verification agency should have the right to request access to locations to resolve questions and inconsistencies arising from information analysis. In addition to access initiated by the verification agency, FMCT parties may wish to have a verification mechanism they can initiate directly, along the lines of the CWC’s challenge inspection mechanism.

The challenge inspection mechanism reflects that the CWC verification agency—the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—does not look for undeclared chemical facilities. CWC parties are expected to use national means for this: if a party becomes aware of a suspect site, it can request that the OPCW undertake a challenge inspection. However, a challenge inspection can be blocked by a three-fourths vote of the CWC Executive Council. Given that to date the CWC’s challenge inspection mechanism has not been used, for an FMCT a “technical” inspection mechanism that can be initiated by the verification agency might be seen to have greater utility.

National Security Aspects
The nuclear-weapon states and non-NPT states are concerned about protecting national security and proliferation-sensitive information relating to past nuclear weapons programs and ongoing stockpile stewardship activities. Hence, verification methods and procedures will need to be carefully defined. Managed-access provisions will be essential, probably elaborated in greater detail under an FMCT than in the Additional Protocol.

Open Skies and Regional Access Arrangements
In addition to measures drawn from IAEA safeguards experience, other approaches that could be relevant to an FMCT include open flight corridors for verification purposes and bilateral or regional access arrangements. Such measures could have an important confidence-building role, complementing international verification.

Verification of HEU Produced for Naval Propulsion
This is often raised as a problem for an FMCT, because the design of naval fuel is highly classified. Appropriate verification is required to ensure this does not become a route for diversion. This is complex but not insurmountable—the Trilateral Initiative among the United States, Russia, and the IAEA demonstrates the practicability of innovative approaches to verifying fissile material of sensitive composition, shape, and mass. Under the Trilateral Initiative, verification methods have been developed by which IAEA inspectors can determine that fissile material inside containers has certain attributes (e.g., plutonium within an agreed isotopic range, a mass of at least an agreed value) without the inspectors seeing the material or ascertaining classified characteristics. For naval fuel, it should be possible to devise verification approaches that do not reveal classified information.

Verification Intensity
Although some of the methods of IAEA safeguards are readily applicable to FMCT verification, the treaty objectives are very different. This would be reflected in the design of an FMCT verification regime.

Comprehensive safeguards are designed to provide assurance against horizontal proliferation, that is, the acquisition of one or more nuclear weapons by a non-nuclear-weapon states. The acquisition of just one or two nuclear weapons would be a dramatic change in the strategic status of such a state. The sensitivity of IAEA safeguards, reflected in technical parameters such as goal quantities (e.g., the significant quantity of 8 kilograms plutonium), detection probability, timeliness goals, and inspection frequency, has been set accordingly.

On the other hand, with states outside comprehensive safeguards, the concern is essentially vertical proliferation, that is, additions to existing arsenals. An FMCT would address this by providing assurance that stocks of fissile material held outside international verification will not increase. For states that already hold nuclear weapons, their concern will be with treaty violations that could substantially alter strategic relativities: for states with thousands of weapons, a strategically significant violation might involve hundreds of weapons. Thus, the design of verification approaches to deter vertical proliferation could be qualitatively different to those directed at horizontal proliferation.

A major development in IAEA safeguards implementation is a move away from uniformity to safeguards based on a “state-level approach,” taking into account appropriate state-specific considerations. This development remains a work in progress,[6] but the concept is readily applicable in the FMCT context.

Decisions on verification intensity could consider several factors, particularly the true risks of vertical proliferation. Because the nuclear-weapon states will retain military stocks outside an FMCT, it is reasonable to assume they will have concluded, before joining the treaty, that those stocks are sufficient for their foreseeable needs. Hence, they should have little incentive to cheat. This is especially the case for the United States and Russia, which are dramatically reducing nuclear-weapon numbers and are committed to transferring substantial quantities of fissile material out of weapons programs irreversibly. In these circumstances, rigorous verification is not required. On the other hand, for states with small arsenals, verification intensity will need to reflect the fact that small-scale violations could have a serious effect on strategic relativities.

The United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom have announced cessation of fissile material production for nuclear weapons, and it is understood China has also ceased such production. An FMCT would make an important contribution to nuclear nonproliferation by formalizing this situation and making it irreversible. A further important contribution would be capping the fissile material available in the non-NPT states, which are otherwise under no restraint. An FMCT would also help establish conditions under which further nuclear disarmament, involving all relevant states, would be possible—a significant consideration in the context of the NPT review process.

Achieving these benefits will require the treaty to be effective, which requires a credible verification regime. There is a substantial foundation on which to build, drawing on experience from IAEA safeguards and bilateral verification arrangements.

Undue delay in concluding a normative treaty can be avoided by separating negotiation of the principal treaty from negotiation of the verification system. The latter would be a largely technical negotiation, which can commence in parallel with the principal negotiation but be concluded subsequently.

Whether a particular verification regime provides the degree of assurance required by the parties is a matter for judgment based on many factors: the verification objectives, the verification methods and standards, related confidence-building measures, other information including intelligence available to the parties, incentives and deterrents reinforcing compliance, and so on. Only when we have defined the objectives and main features of FMCT verification will it be possible to design the verification system and to judge whether it will be sufficiently effective, but there seems no reason in principle why this should not be achievable. ACT


1. UN General Assembly Resolution 75, General and Complete Disarmament, A/RES/48/75/L, 1993.

2. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, INFCIRC/153, 1972.

3. IAEA, Model Protocol Additional to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the IAEA for the Application of Safeguards, INFCIRC/540, 1997.

4. In 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT. The validity of this withdrawal has not been determined, and for the purposes of this discussion, it is assumed that North Korea is still bound by the NPT.

5. The safeguards applying to non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT used to be termed full-scope safeguards, but the usual term now is comprehensive safeguards.

6. For a discussion of some ideas in this area, see Annette Berriman, Russell Leslie and John Carlson, “Assessing Motivation as a Means of Determining the Risk of Proliferation,” 2004 Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management.


John Carlson is director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office. He is also chairman of SAGSI, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation. This paper reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Government or of SAGSI.

Brazil, IAEA Reach Inspection Agreement

Claire Applegarth

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has accepted Brazil’s proposal for resolving a dispute over how to carry out inspections at the country’s uranium-enrichment plant in Resende. With the IAEA’s approval, Brazil will soon begin operating the plant and will join the roster of about a dozen countries known to possess such a facility.

“We have been able to reach an agreement in principle with the Brazilian government” to verify the Resende facility, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters Nov. 25. He said he was confident that the arrived-at arrangement will allow the IAEA “to do credible inspections but at the same time take care of Brazil’s need to protect commercial sensitivity inside the facility.”

A statement released by Brazilian officials one day earlier stated that the agreement means that the plant “fulfills [international safeguards] conditions for the start of operations with the introduction of…uranium gas.” According to Brazil, only a security license for the facility remains to be obtained, which is to be issued by Brazil’s National Nuclear Energy Commission.

The IAEA’s acceptance of the inspections deal marks the end of a months-long dispute between the two parties over access to the Resende facility. Brazil has contended that the plant’s centrifuges constitute proprietary and novel technology that is commercially sensitive and warrants protection from industrial competitors. The IAEA, however, has requested greater visual access to the centrifuges in order to ensure that no nuclear materials are being diverted to an illicit weapons program.

IAEA inspectors visited the Resende plant Oct. 19 after having been barred from viewing much of the facility on a previous visit in April. (See ACT, November 2004.) During the October inspections, IAEA officials were reportedly allowed to view pipes and valves of the centrifuges but were still restricted from viewing other centrifuge components. Inspectors then returned Nov. 16 to confirm information supplied by Brazil concerning the next steps that would be necessary to begin enrichment at the plant.

Brazilian Minister for Science and Technology Eduardo Campos stated Nov. 24 that the plant would begin enriching small amounts of uranium by the end of 2004 as part of its initial phase of operation lasting between six and eight months, after which the plant may become fully operational. Brazilian officials could not be reached to confirm whether or not the plant had become operational late December.

A full-scale enrichment program at Resende would allow Brazil to become self-sufficient in the development of nuclear energy, relying less on foreign governments for supplies of enriched uranium to fuel its two nuclear reactors. The U.S. government has supported Brazil’s efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear program, as voiced by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a visit to Brazil in early October. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Brazil insists that it is seeking nuclear fuel only for peaceful purposes and that it has no weapons program. Nevertheless, the dispute with the IAEA had raised concerns because of Brazil’s nuclear history: It began developing a covert nuclear weapons program in 1975 but abandoned it in the late 1980s under a new government, which also included a prohibition on such activities in its 1988 constitution.

Brazil’s ambassador-at-large for disarmament affairs, Sérgio de Queiroz Duarte, who is set to head the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s 2005 Review Conference in May, defended Brazil’s nuclear program and reaffirmed the normalcy of the inspections negotiations during an interview with Arms Control Today Nov. 4. (See ACT, December 2004.) “If you have a new facility to which safeguards have to be applied, you have to discuss with the IAEA the modalities of the safeguards,” the ambassador said. He added that “it’s a question of protecting the industrial technology and at the same time giving satisfaction as to the complete, peaceful use of the facility.”

The Nuclear Third Rail: Can Fuel Cycle Capabilities Be Limited?

Jon B. Wolfsthal

In U.S. politics, some issues are so controversial that they are known as “third rails”—touching them risks political electrocution. Social Security, for example, has often been likened to the third rail of U.S. domestic politics. In the nuclear security world, the third rail has been the nuclear fuel cycle, that is, what restrictions if any should be placed on the ability of states to produce and use fissile materials (enriched uranium and especially plutonium), which have civilian purposes but also can be used to make nuclear weapons. Past attempts to alter the status quo on these issues have produced many political headaches, but few tangible results.

On Feb. 11, President George W. Bush delivered a major nonproliferation address that approached the nuclear third rail. In addressing a long-standing concern, he stated that, under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), states were “allowed to produce nuclear material that can be used to build bombs under the cover of civilian nuclear programs” and proposed to close this treaty’s “loophole.” The president said the world must create a “safe, orderly system to field civilian nuclear plants without adding to the danger of weapons proliferation.”

The following month, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency’s Board of Governors that “the wide dissemination of the most proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle—the production of new fuel, the processing of weapons-usable material, and the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste—could be the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

These comments echo those ElBaradei made in September 2003 when he urged states to consider “the merits of limiting the use of weapons-usable material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium [HEU]) in civilian nuclear programs, by permitting it only under multilateral control.” At that time, he also proposed limiting to international centers the production of new fissile material through reprocessing and enrichment. “It is clear that strengthened control of weapons-usable material is key to our efforts to strengthen nonproliferation and enhance security,” he said.

Both of these leaders focused on a central issue: whether the current nuclear nonproliferation system, or the global security architecture for that matter, is capable of preventing states from—or punishing states for—making use of civil facilities for weapons purposes if at some point they decide to abandon the NPT or related commitments. This “breakout” scenario, where a state could acquire virtually all of the weapons-related capabilities it needs under the NPT’s protection, is an increasing concern. Already, the fabric of the global nonproliferation regime is weakening with a chronic crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program and continuing concerns over Iran’s nuclear future. Whether the regime rips apart or will be sown back together is an open question.

The answer will have much to do with how the Iranian crisis in particular is resolved. A successful resolution will shore up a security system based on a small and eventually shrinking number of nuclear-weapon states. A failure could help pave the way to widespread proliferation, with many states looking for a nuclear insurance policy by acquiring civil capabilities that provide a base for weapons development. They could add to the 12 countries already known to possess enrichment or reprocessing facilities for either nuclear or civilian purposes. Although a recently announced agreement by Iran to suspend its enrichment activities while negotiations with three European Union countries proceed is a good first step, it is far too early to know if the proposed nuclear deal with Iran is a model or a mirage.

Technological Realities
At the crux of this challenge is the fact that nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants depend on the same basic raw materials—enriched uranium and plutonium—to provide their essential energy. Most civilian nuclear power plants, for example, use low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is uranium that has gone through a process to increase the percentage of uranium-235 to 3 percent to 5 percent for use in civilian power reactors. However, the same facilities that produce LEU can also produce the much higher concentrations of U-235 needed for the production of nuclear weapons.

Moreover, all nuclear energy reactors produce plutonium, albeit some more than others. Some countries treat this material as waste, leaving it encased in radioactive spent fuel for later disposal. Other countries such as Russia, France, and Japan separate out this plutonium and mix it with uranium to use as so-called mixed oxide fuel, or Mox, in power plants. The plutonium-separation plants, however, can also produce plutonium that can be used for a nuclear weapon, creating a weapons potential under the cover of civilian use.

The challenge then is how to ensure that enrichment and reprocessing plants do not support weapons activities. Uranium-enrichment plants, using centrifuge technology to purify the U-235 isotope, could be reconfigured from producing LEU for nuclear power plants to produce weapons-grade material within hours. For plutonium-separation plants, even in countries such as Japan, where reprocessing facilities are designed to produce mixtures of plutonium and uranium oxide, the additional purification to a weapon-usable form is straightforward.

Inspections carried out under IAEA safeguards agreements can detect changes in plants or the diversion of materials, a capability further enhanced if the inspections are carried out in countries that have adhered to variants of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, which grants broader rights to inspectors. Yet, inspectors cannot be everywhere at every time. Additionally, even under the safeguards, the possession of large stocks of HEU and separated plutonium is permitted under the NPT as several legitimate peaceful uses for these materials exist.

Moreover, the world lacks an ironclad system for preventing defections from the nonproliferation regime or for denying states who defect access to nuclear capabilities acquired under the treaty’s protection. States can acquire enrichment or reprocessing facilities under the guise of the NPT and then legally withdraw from the treaty, allowing these “peaceful” facilities to be used to advance a weapons program. It does not mean all states with such capabilities will do so or even think about it, but the potential exists and must be recognized. It is not surprising, therefore, that some countries may view these plants as nuclear weapons insurance or hedging policies.

A Long-standing Problem
The fact that nuclear facilities can be used both for peaceful and military ends has been known for decades. The 1965 Gilpatric report to President Lyndon Johnson stated starkly that “the world is fast approaching a point of no return in the prospects of controlling nuclear weapons. Nuclear power programs are placing within the hands of many nations much of the knowledge, equipment, and materials for making nuclear weapons.” The report said every effort should be made to ensure that “peaceful atomic energy programs do not unreasonably contribute to potential proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities.”[1]

Yet, three years later, Article IV of the NPT stated that it is the “inalienable right of all the parties to the treaty to develop research production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”

Developing and many developed countries have long interpreted Article IV of the NPT as a right for all states to acquire uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation capabilities as long as they are under IAEA safeguards. For just as long, however, some experts have questioned whether the inherent risk these facilities pose are consistent with an effective nonproliferation regime. These concerns have been echoed in U.S. and international export control policies that have sought to limit the availability of these capabilities, albeit in some countries only in the past few years.

For decades, efforts have been made to reconcile the two positions. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, these included the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy conference, and the six-year Committee on Assurances of Supply. Yet, all fell short of addressing this challenge or making any real adjustments to the global fuel-supply system due to concerns about the long-term availability of uranium, potential limits on industry growth, and conflicts between international security concerns and national sovereignty.

Countries that have made massive economic and technical investments in reprocessing and enrichment, such as Japan and France, have resisted any moves that might restrict their ability to engage in these activities for domestic or international export-related purposes. States such as Brazil also are pursuing enrichment capabilities to advance their own nuclear industries as well as to claim a position of technical leadership in the developing world. These institutional, economic, and political interests combine to make it exceedingly challenging to find support for major structural adjustments to the international fuel cycle.

Now, more than 20 years after INFCE, there is growing awareness that the world faces a long-term choice of either living with or seeking to adjust a system that enables states to develop virtual nuclear arsenals under the protection of the NPT and international safeguards. These issues can be addressed case-by-case, such as the current situation with Iran, or strategically to prevent such crises from emerging.

There is a reasonable international debate about the extent of the risks posed by safeguarded nuclear production facilities and fissile materials. States such as Japan with exemplary nonproliferation credentials and fully safeguarded facilities rightly point out that they have complied with all norms and should not be restricted now that countries such as Iran and North Korea have broken the rules. At the same time, as the nonproliferation regime is challenged, states can and should be alarmed at the prospect that more and more states will seek peaceful nuclear production capabilities as an insurance policy again proliferation by their neighbors. Already, South Koreans are calling for the development of a domestic enrichment capability on economic grounds, but with an understanding that it would also balance the nuclear capabilities in North Korea, Japan, and China.

In the past, the most effective nonproliferation tools have been those that reduce the perceived need to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. Economic, political, and security integration of Japan, South Korea, Germany, and other countries once considered prone to proliferation have been critical to nonproliferation successes. Moreover, countries highly dependent on nuclear power are often dependant on outside sources for raw uranium or technical support from supplier states; and reorienting civilian nuclear plants to military production in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would have to be seriously weighed against the possible loss of nuclear cooperation, to say nothing of other issues, with the outside world. Yet, in the extreme circumstances where states closely allied with the United States would be actively considering nuclear options, violating bilateral or international agreements might be of lesser importance than hard security calculations.

Even if production facilities are not intended for weapons purposes, they can create tensions. South Korean officials, for example, are not shy about pointing to the large civilian stocks in Japan as a potential nuclear arsenal, even though Japan’s nonproliferation credentials are impeccable and relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan are quite strong. If the number of reprocessing and enrichment plants worldwide grows, such concerns are likely to grow as well. The bottom line is that states that do not possess the ability to produce nuclear materials are obviously less capable of acquiring nuclear weapons, except by theft or via black market purchases of material. The central axiom of nonproliferation is “no nuclear materials, no nuclear weapons.”

Three Approaches to the Fuel Cycle Dilemma
There are now three basic viewpoints in relation to the fuel cycle issue. The first school believes that the current system essentially works and that adjustments are needed to ensure that no unsafeguarded or illegal transfers of nuclear production technologies take place. A second group maintains that the possession of such capabilities by peaceful, integrated, and nonproliferation-compliant states is perfectly acceptable and that the focus should be only on states with bad track records, obvious incentives to proliferate, and poor justifications for acquiring nuclear production capabilities. A third, more ambitious approach holds that the national possession of enrichment and plutonium-separation capabilities undermines the very basis for nonproliferation and that such activities should be minimized to the extent possible and exercised only under international or multinational control to provide additional assurances that they will only ever be used for peaceful purposes.

Bush and ElBaradei
Bush and ElBaradei represent the second and third of these perspectives and have backed up their statements with explicit proposals. In February, Bush called on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an informal export control organization made up of the main nuclear exporting states, to deny the transfer of enrichment or reprocessing technologies to any country that “does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.” The Group of Eight, which brings together the world’s richest countries, has since adopted a similar position in a one-year moratorium on such transfers, with the possibility of a longer-term extension. Bush optimistically stated, “[T]his step will prevent new states from developing the means to produce fissile material for nuclear bombs.” It is questionable whether even the 44-member NSG is comprehensive enough to prevent the spread of this technology.

Bush’s proposals came at the same time that the public learned of the black-market nuclear network established by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. That network successfully and secretly disseminated enrichment capabilities to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Controversy continues to rage over whether Khan’s activities were sponsored and approved by the Pakistani government. If they were, Bush’s proposal would have done little to shut down this network as Pakistan is not an NSG member.

ElBaradei has voiced his support for stronger export controls and enforcement but has also formed an experts group under the direction of former IAEA Deputy Director-General Bruno Pellaud to consider various alternatives to the current system of national control of special nuclear material production capabilities.[2] Some of the issues to be explored by the expert group are limits on the use of weapons-usable nuclear material in civilian nuclear programs by permitting it only under multilateral control and multinational approaches to managing and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive wastes.

In forming the group, ElBaradei stated, “I am aware that this is a complex issue. But we owe it to ourselves to examine all possible options. Common sense and recent experience make clear that the [NPT], which has served us well since 1970, must be tailored to fit 21st-century realities. Without threatening national sovereignty, we can toughen the nonproliferation regime.”

The group has already met twice and will hold a total of four meetings before reporting its initial findings to the March 2005 IAEA Board of Governors meeting. The leading nuclear countries, including the United States, are participating, and the panel has governmental and nongovernmental representatives with a broad background in the issue of the nuclear fuel cycle and nonproliferation.

Some hybrid solutions are also being mentioned in capitals around the world. Some have suggested that what is needed is a greater assurance that any misuse of safeguarded facilities will be challenged and the dangers counteracted. Openly discussed options include establishing clear obligations that a state must return any and all material, equipment, and technology acquired under safeguards if a violation is detected or a state withdraws from the NPT.[3] The key here, however, would be the ability and the willingness of states to enforce such an edict. Any country trying to withdraw from the NPT or willing to violate its obligations might be equally unwilling to comply with a “request” for nuclear materials to be removed. Thus, states may have to consider military actions to eliminate the potential nuclear option in such states. That, as can be seen from the Iraq experience, is no easy step.

Another set of ideas being floated by experts and officials is an objective set of criteria that might allow the international community to judge the “legitimate” need for states to acquire nuclear production capabilities. These might include the scope of the nuclear power industry and energy output of a state, the availability of other natural resources for energy production, a state’s nonproliferation credentials, and its integration into international economic and political organizations. Some would argue this would make it easy to judge between states such as North Korea and Iran on the one hand and Japan and Brazil on the other. It is not clear how such a set of criteria would be enshrined in international operations or whether it could be accepted by NPT members, many of who increasingly express their concern about the discriminatory nature of the existing regime.

A less legalistic set of approaches in a similar vein would seek to test the motivations of states seeking to acquire uranium-enrichment or plutonium- separation capabilities for civilian power applications.[4] These ideas would, in various ways, seek to outdo domestic nuclear production facilities economically by offering legally binding and economically attractive options to supply fresh fuel and remove spent nuclear fuel from states with nuclear power programs.

Such arrangements could be provided through the existing commercial market with groups of existing enrichers providing fresh fuel at attractive rates and countries agreeing to manage the spent fuel in their own countries or via international arrangements such as an IAEA-run fuel bank or internationally owned and operated consortium such as those being considered by the IAEA experts group. Refusal of viable and economically attractive options by a state would call into question its motives and possibly make it easier to galvanize the potential international response. Yet, as the Iran case demonstrates, it the difficult for states and the international community to muster political will to enforce global standards even in the face of obvious proliferation risks.

The near-term prospects for a new international fuel-cycle system that limits the national ability of states to determine their own national capabilities are not bright. The main focus of nonproliferation efforts for the coming months and possibly years will be resolving or trying to deal with the aftermath of the dual nuclear challenges of Iran and North Korea. In the meantime, procedural adjustments to export controls and tighter enforcement through multilateral measures including the Proliferation Security Initiative, an informal coalition of states working together to enforce national export controls more effectively through legal and even military interdiction, can help slow the unsafeguarded acquisition of nuclear production facilities.

Thus, states concerned with the spread of production capabilities may be left trying to enforce a new discriminatory standard where some states are permitted to have uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities and others are not. This system is inherently unstable and threatens to repeat what many consider to be the main weakness of the NPT itself.

Moreover, the two issues are intimately linked. Non-nuclear weapons states are unlikely to consider yielding to what many see as a basic right under the NPT. They will be especially resistant as many already question the commitment of the United States or other nuclear-weapon states to meet their own treaty obligations. In particular, they claim that the nuclear-weapon states have not made sufficient progress in achieving their stated goals of general and complete disarmament and their 2000 pledge that they were unequivocally committed to doing so. In other words, it will be difficult to tighten some portions of NPT implementation without states linking it to other efforts to enforce other aspects of the agreement.

What is clear is that the way the world succeeds or fails in addressing Iran will serve as a precedent in the coming years. In accepting an offer from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to suspend and potentially abandon nuclear production plans in exchange for access to nuclear reactors, energy assistance, and fuller trade engagement, Iran and its negotiating partners may be creating a potentially useful model for others to follow. In the end, however, the choice is between trying to get ahead of the curve by changing the rules of the international system or resigning the United States and other major players to putting out nuclear fires every time a new state attempts to acquire reprocessing or enrichment technologies.

If the Iran talks fall apart or other states friendlier to the West decide to pursue nuclear production plans and are not equally opposed, the discrimination among states will be made more apparent and the underlying tensions will re-emerge. If, as many hope, the talks lead to a long-term deal to end Tehran’s fuel cycle ambitions, the United States and its allies should work to establish Iran as the model for a new norm where no new states acquire these special capabilities and those that have them move to operate them in ways that reduce the distinction between the haves and have-nots.


1. The White House, “A Report to the President by the Committee on Nuclear Proliferation,” January 21, 1965.

2. Miles A. Pomper, “ElBaradei Appoints Fuel Cycle Group,” Arms Control Today, September 2004.

3. George Perkovich et al., “Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security,” June 2004.

4. Ernest Moniz et al., “Making the World Safe for Nuclear Energy,” Survival, Winter 2004.

Jon B. Wolfsthal is an associate and deputy director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a co-author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2002).


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