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March 7, 2018
April 2008
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Elections and Enduring Realities: Australia’s Nuclear Debate

Jeffrey S. Lantis

In November 2007, voters in the Commonwealth of Australia went to the polls in a hotly contested national election. Their choice was between the two major-party candidates, incumbent Prime Minister John Howard of the conservative Liberal Party, and his challenger, Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party. The parties differed vocally over issues ranging from Aboriginal rights to the plight of the middle class. Another serious issue sharply divided the parties but received less public debate: nuclear energy policy.

During the campaign, the Howard government sought to dampen debate on the subject even as it joined the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and called for Australia to develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle and expand uranium sales to developing countries, including India.

Meanwhile, Labor leaders made clear their opposition to nuclear power. Candidate Rudd argued, “Nuclear energy and nuclear power plants for Australia are not an option. They don’t represent a sensible case on economics, [and] they don’t represent a sensible case on how you deal with radioactive waste.”[1] Peter Garrett, Labor’s shadow minister for climate change and the environment (and a former rock star), warned that even in the face of global warming, “to choose an option such as nuclear energy, while aware of its pitfalls, is the worst kind of denial.”[2] Nonetheless, the Labor Party victory, combined with some recent world events, raise serious questions about whether and to what degree the Rudd government will retain this stance on nuclear power, particularly when it comes to providing uranium to nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) outliers such as India.

Over the past few decades, Australia has carved out a unique role in nuclear policy. It is one of the world’s few wealthy, advanced industrial democracies not to have developed a nuclear energy infrastructure. Instead it has established a reputation as a global champion of nonproliferation. Time and again, Australian diplomats have led the way on nonproliferation treaty commitments, especially Canberra’s pledge not to supply uranium to NPT nonsignatories for fear it might inadvertently contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Yet, Australia possesses the world’s largest reserves of uranium (more than one-third of the global total) in its network of mines in the Northern Territory and South Australia. Canberra therefore has strong countervailing economic and energy security incentives to change course and participate more fully in the recent renaissance of interest in nuclear energy, especially helping to supply fuel for the scores of reactors planned for Asian countries such as India and China.[3] Australian uranium export deals with these and other countries have the potential to be highly lucrative. They also provide developing countries needed guarantees for expansion of their energy infrastructure. Critics, however, warn that exports may also contribute inadvertently to nuclear proliferation.

Still, in the lead-up to last year’s election, even the Labor Party endorsed steps that may inevitably expand the country’s role in the global nuclear energy cycle, and public opinion polls also hint that Australians may be slowly coming to terms with nuclear energy.

Australia’s Nuclear History

Contemporary policy debates in Australia regarding nuclear energy derive from a complicated history on the question. In periods of Liberal Party rule in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Australia pressed forward on nuclear energy and even sought nuclear weapons. Liberal Party leaders have appeared beholden to the views of major corporations who have seen nuclear energy as a growth industry. Meanwhile, the Labor Party traditionally has opposed nuclear energy for Australia and appeared more responsive to general public unease with nuclear power and the problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

Australia first entered the controversial nuclear arena in 1944 when the government mined uranium for use in the Manhattan Project. Several Australian scientists also participated in the British atomic bomb research program and returned home with valuable expertise. After World War II, larger deposits of uranium were discovered, mined, and exported to the United Kingdom and the United States for use in their weapons programs.[4]

The Australian government became more directly involved in nuclear weapons development in the 1950s under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies. In 1951, Australia signed a security pact with the United States and New Zealand (the ANZUS Treaty) that saw the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases in Australia. Menzies also invited the United Kingdom to test nuclear weapons in his country. The first British bomb was tested in 1952 on an island off the coast of Western Australia; later, aboveground British tests were conducted at Woomera and Emu Field in South Australia. Analysts have suggested that Menzies saw cooperation with the United Kingdom primarily as a way to deepen security ties between the countries. It also offered an opportunity to gain scientific expertise on nuclear weapons development.

In 1953 the government established the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), chaired by nuclear physicist Sir Philip Baxter, and five years later, Australia acquired its first nuclear research reactor from the United Kingdom. Under pressure from Baxter and some military officers who believed that nuclear weapons should be the centerpiece of a modern force, Australian leaders also began making secret requests to acquire bombs from allies.[5] Defense planners interpreted Australia’s Cold War strategic situation as similar to that of Western European countries and saw reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategic inevitability.

By the 1960s, as the international community celebrated progress toward agreements to limit nuclear proliferation, Australia’s conservative government grew increasingly worried. Menzies conveyed his opposition to a formal declaration of nuclear haves and have-nots at the outset of U.S.-Soviet-British negotiations on a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. At one point, the frustrated prime minister told his allied counterparts that if major nonproliferation treaties were to come into force, “Australia should insist on nuclear weapons on demand.”[6] China’s first nuclear test in 1964 only deepened Australia’s security concerns.

Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton actually took his nation to the brink of nuclear capability in the late 1960s. Gorton shared Baxter’s view that the NPT, opened for signature in 1968, represented a serious roadblock to Australia’s plans to construct nuclear reactors, expand uranium exports, and even acquire nuclear weapons. The prime minister refused to sign the NPT until February 1970 and believed he could continue to keep Australia’s nuclear options open by not ratifying it.

With the support of the AAEC, Gorton’s government negotiated a secret deal with France for construction of a uranium-enrichment plant in Australia. The Liberal government also advanced a plan to develop a large (500 megawatt) nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay in New South Wales. Gorton’s intention was to solicit bids for a reactor that could run on indigenous natural uranium, such as a CANDU plant, or highly enriched uranium (HEU) produced by a plant on Australian soil. Although ostensibly a civilian power plant, this would give the government the option of either reprocessing spent fuel or diverting HEU for military purposes. In the end, Baxter and the AAEC decided on a safer and more reliable British light-water reactor plan.[7]

This pattern of behavior ended in the early 1970s, however, when the Labor Party took over the government. The new prime minister, Gough Whitlam, cancelled the Jervis Bay project and fired Baxter from his longtime post at the AAEC. In 1973, Australia ratified the NPT, and the Labor government delayed uranium-mine expansion plans citing concerns about Aboriginal land claims. In 1975, Labor adopted an official party proclamation that limited uranium mining to existing mines (the “Three Named Uranium Mines Policy”). Australia seemed firmly committed to the international nonproliferation regime in the 1980s and 1990s. Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, for example, appointed the country’s first ambassador for disarmament and lobbied other governments to establish a global ban on nuclear testing. Australian diplomats helped sponsor the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty in 1985, an agreement whereby signatories pledged not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons, to prevent territorial stationing of any nuclear weapons, to ban nuclear testing, and to oppose radioactive waste dumping at sea.[8]

Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl only deepened concern about the risks of nuclear energy among Australians. When French President Jacques Chirac announced in 1995 that his country would conduct a new round of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, tens of thousands of Australians protested in the streets and threatened boycotts of French goods. Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating condemned France’s decision and sponsored an international convention of nuclear weapons experts in Canberra that called for global nuclear disarmament.[9] Even after Labor’s defeat in March 1996, the party’s legacy continued to influence government policy. Australia remained an active supporter of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the indefinite extension of the NPT, and the ruling by the International Court of Justice declaring the use of nuclear weapons illegal in cases other than national self-defense.

The debate over nuclear energy and Australia’s role in the global nuclear fuel cycle came to a head once again during 2006-2007 as a result of several new developments. Like other countries, Australia showed renewed interest in nuclear energy because of perceived threats to energy security, soaring prices in energy markets, and rising concern over global warming. Moreover, the signing of the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2007 raised anew the question of whether or not Australia should sell uranium to a non-NPT state. The Bush administration’s new GNEP program prompted the Howard government to commit to new multinational nuclear energy initiatives. At home, Howard ordered a comprehensive study of nuclear power and then announced plans for construction of a robust nuclear energy program, possibly including more than 50 power plants, uranium-enrichment facilities, and waste repositories.

Nuclear Masala? Cooperation Deals With India, China, and Russia

The 2007 U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation agreement opened a Pandora’s box of opportunities and challenges for Australia. The agreement called on India to “separate” its military and civilian nuclear facilities, placing only civilian reactors under international safeguards, in exchange for nuclear trade with the United States and its allies.

Given its vast uranium reserves, Australia traditionally has played a critical role as a supplier state to allies but dutifully toed the line on international export controls. It is one of 45 member states of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), established in 1975 to regulate the supply and export of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology in support of the nonproliferation regime. The NSG calls for potential recipients to have full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in place, effectively ruling some countries, notably India, Israel, and Pakistan, off-limits for this commodity trade. The Australian government was even more selective, requiring that its customers be signatories to the NPT and complete bilateral safeguards agreements to ensure no chance for diversion of uranium to weapons programs. Its traditional customers included France, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At the same time, Australia refused to export uranium to countries such as India, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Taiwan.

All this seemed to change late in the Howard government when, with prices soaring, Australia opened negotiations with China, India, and Russia for the export of uranium. When the U.S.-Indian deal was first announced, the Bush administration pledged to “work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India.”[10] The Australian government jumped eagerly into this mix. Just days after a U.S.-Indian plan that claimed to separate India’s military and civil facilities was announced in March 2006, Howard arrived in New Delhi, and one of the topics of discussion in his private meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reportedly the export of uranium to India.[11]

An Australian-Chinese export deal was completed in April 2006 and ratified in January 2007, and an Australian-Russian uranium-export agreement was signed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in 2007. The China deal is highly lucrative: starting in 2010, Australia will export up to 20,000 metric tons of uranium to China per year.[12] The plan has since been endorsed by the Rudd government as a complement to the prime minister’s initiatives to strengthen relations with Asia. The agreement with Russia, penned by Howard and President Vladimir Putin, would also help promote Australian-Russian ties. Both deals included safeguards agreements preventing diversion of uranium for military use or sale to third parties.

The most vexing issue for Australian policymakers regarding uranium sales today is India’s status as a nonsignatory of the NPT. In the 1990s, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated firmly that his country had a “legal obligation not to provide nuclear material unless subject to safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT, that is, full scope safeguards.”[13] India’s rejection of the NPT and 1974 explosion of a nuclear device made it the target of export controls on dual-use and nuclear-related technology for decades. Sanctions were tightened in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission runs its nuclear reactors below capacity because India possesses only a limited amount of indigenous uranium. India also faces difficulties developing a thorium-based reactor that could alleviate reliance on domestic uranium.

Throughout 2006, Australian authorities steadfastly denied that they were considering selling uranium to India, but quiet diplomatic negotiations were already underway. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials saw the prospect of selling uranium to India as appealing. With countries such as China and India developing rapidly and expanding their nuclear power programs, Australia could emerge as the regional uranium supplier of choice.

By 2007, the Howard government was making a concerted push to change the nature of the debate on the matter. Seemingly overnight, editorials and reports began to appear in prominent newspapers suggesting that Australians rethink their relationship with India. One opinion piece argued that India would be a reliable partner: “Since it first tested in 1974 India has not shared its nuclear technology or materials with anyone. Its non-proliferation record is better than some countries that have signed the treaty like China which is widely believed to have helped Pakistan go nuclear.”[14] A May 2007 brief from the conservative Lowy Institute for International Policy claimed that “selling uranium to India offers major potential benefits for exports and foreign policy.”[15] The problem, supporters argued, was less with India as a strategic partner and more with an outdated and flawed nonproliferation regime.

In August 2007, Howard officially announced his government’s decision to export uranium to India, subject to certain preconditions. Australia would require that India finalize a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, pending NSG approval of the deal. Australia would also await ratification of a “123 agreement” for nuclear cooperation between the United States and India. The 123 agreement (so-named in reference to Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act) requires establishing ground rules for civilian nuclear cooperation. Ratification was not seen as a major hurdle at the time; the deal had been completed in July 2007 and submitted to each country’s legislature for review. All signs suggested that the U.S.-Indian deal would be completed and that Australia would finalize a very lucrative uranium-export arrangement in the near future.

Events in 2007-2008 have since called this into question. As a candidate, Rudd was on the record opposed to the export of uranium to India. Rudd’s new foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said that Australia would not export to India or other nonsignatories of the NPT during a visit to Washington in January 2008. Meanwhile, ratification of the 123 agreement has been held up in India by opposition from Communist parties allied to Singh’s Congress Party. This provided the Rudd government a needed reprieve on the issue.

Evidence suggests that the Rudd government will be forced to re-evaluate its position if the safeguards agreement with the IAEA is finalized and the decision taken to the NSG. In February 2008, Australia’s ambassador to India, John McCarthy, stated that Rudd’s decision on exports does “not mean that Australia will oppose the NSG exemption when the group votes on the matter.”[16] Given Australia’s ties with great powers and its emerging trade relationship with India, it appears highly unlikely that Australia would reject the special deal in the NSG. Furthermore, with the blessing of a special exemption, some experts believe that Australia will eventually find a way to export uranium to India.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

In February 2006, the Bush administration announced plans for GNEP. The core of the partnership was collaboration between the United States and other countries with advanced nuclear energy programs to develop new technologies to reuse elements in spent nuclear fuel so that that they might reduce nuclear waste without increasing nuclear proliferation. One initial goal of the program was to discourage new countries from developing uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities, because these plants could not only produce nuclear fuel for power plants but fissile material for nuclear weapons, and instead “lease” fuel from facilities in states that already have enrichment or reprocessing plants.

For almost a year after the initial announcement of the partnership, however, the precise nature of its scope and activities remained unclear to Australian authorities. Indeed, these have changed considerably over time. According to a government task force report:

GNEP envisions whole-of-life fuel leasing…but is a long term proposal which has only recently been launched, so it can be expected to evolve considerably over time. Some of GNEP technologies are already well established, others require major development. A timeframe of the introduction of new technologies as envisaged under GNEP may be around 20-25 years.[17]

Nevertheless, Howard’s government expressed interest in joining up even before the outlines of the partnership were clear. One high-ranking government official speaking on background explained that Australia has a vested interest in any discussion of the nuclear fuel cycle and that the Howard government was willing to follow the U.S. lead on the matter.[18] In July 2006, Howard said that Australia had an opportunity to become an energy superpower by selling more uranium on world markets: “We are part of the nuclear fuel cycle whether we like it or not,” he declared. “The real question is whether Australia should fully consider our interests and responsibilities in the global nuclear energy debate or whether we succumb to the dogma of denial.”

Howard and Downer made several requests to the United States to become partners in the initiative but at the same time made sure that, by doing so, they would not preclude Australia’s ability to acquire enrichment facilities.[19] Bush confirmed plans to expand membership of the organization during the APEC summit in Sydney in September 2007. Australia and 10 other states became official members of GNEP later that month, and Australia participated in its first steering committee meeting in December 2007.

At this writing, however, many questions and uncertainties remain about the future of GNEP in its domestic and international dimensions. These have only contributed to a fear that Australia’s most important role in GNEP may turn out to be as a vast international nuclear waste repository.

The Switkowski Report

Perhaps the most significant event that shaped the nuclear energy debate in Australia in recent years was the release of the government’s “Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy Taskforce Report” (UMPNER) in December 2006. The report was the product of a special study commissioned by Howard and led by Ziggy Switkowski, former CEO of Telstra International and head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. The task force was given the mandate to conduct a comprehensive review of uranium mining and processing and nuclear energy. The group consisted of respected members from the sciences and academia, but critics immediately denounced the enterprise as no less than the creation of a “roadmap for Australia to go nuclear.”[20]

The task force investigated all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to enrichment to management of nuclear waste. They also examined relevant social concerns, safety and proliferation issues, and the potential impact of nuclear energy on the environment. The task force held public hearings in Australia, consulted with scores of individuals and institutions around the world, and visited nuclear energy plants, mines, enrichment facilities, waste repositories, and nuclear regulatory agencies. They also made it a point to visit more controversial sites associated with nuclear energy, including Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the United States.

The final report delivered to the prime minister in December 2006 reached several conclusions, although it is worth noting that, for political reasons, the task force was prevented from labeling these “recommendations.”[21] First and foremost, the task force expressed the seeming inevitability of a rise in the use of nuclear energy around the world and that “nuclear should be on the table” again in the Australian energy debate, including discussion of greater Australian involvement in other elements of nuclear fuel cycle.[22]

The report also outlined basic criteria for establishment of a nuclear infrastructure, including the need for a regulatory regime, training and investment in nuclear research and education, and a comprehensive energy strategy. The task force had consulted with companies working in the nuclear fuel cycle, such as San Diego’s General Atomics and the European enrichment consortium URENCO. Task force member Professor George Dracoulis reports that URENCO representatives discussed details of a hypothetical partnership deal in which they could build and manage an enrichment facility in Australia for approximately AU$2 billion (about US$1.6 billion at current exchange rates). When the task force discussed the controversial question of building a uranium-enrichment facility with Downer, he seemed receptive. Downer reportedly said at the time that DFAT could effectively “manage” world opinion and domestic opposition if the government decided to move forward.[23]

Australia’s Nuclear Future

In late April 2007, at the official opening of a new nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights, Howard proclaimed nuclear energy “a source of hope” and “part of Australia’s future.”[24] Soon thereafter, the prime minister announced his decision to launch a full-scale nuclear energy program. The government would follow the steps toward nuclear energy outlined in the UMPNER, including plans to develop a regulatory regime, promote nuclear engineering research, and launch a public information campaign. These actions were necessary precursors to the establishment of a national network of nuclear power plants (possibly more than 50, according to Switkowski) and domestic uranium enrichment. In the weeks that followed, DFAT officials also confirmed they had begun talks with new countries on uranium exports and that Australia would participate in the international Generation IV Advanced Nuclear Reactor Research program.

Howard’s announcement set the Liberal Party’s position on nuclear energy distinctly apart from that of Labor in the lead-up to the November 2007 election.[25] Prior to the election, Rudd and Labor leaders stated their opposition to nuclear power and uranium-enrichment plants in Australia, as well as uranium exports to India and Russia. Rudd called the prime minister’s endorsement of nuclear power “too expensive, too dangerous, too slow, when it comes to impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”[26] Another Labor leader chided, “John Howard has been in Parliament for over 30 years and suddenly the Australian people are expected to believe that he discovered a new way to fast-track nuclear power…. Australia has abundant supplies of gas and coal which will supply our energy needs for hundreds of years.”[27] Queensland Nuclear Free Alliance Spokesperson Robin Taubenfeld called the move “highly irresponsible” and predicted that the prime minister had committed “political suicide.”[28]

Notably, Howard’s nuclear plan also drove a wedge between federal and state governments. Premiers of large-state governments (under Labor Party control) vowed to fight federal plans, claiming that their own state laws prevented stationing of reactors in their territories. New South Wales (NSW) Premier Morris Iemma said he would use every means available to make sure that no nuclear power stations were built there: “If the Prime Minister wants to build a nuclear power station in NSW, he’ll have to get past me first.”[29] South Australian Premier Mike Rann echoed this sentiment, vowing, “They [the Commonwealth] won’t be building a nuclear power plant in South Australia while Labor is in office.”[30] Nevertheless, by early 2007, the federal government had already begun exploring legal routes by which state laws could be overridden to construct nuclear power stations, enrichment facilities, and even waste depositories.[31]

On November 24, 2007, Rudd and the Labor Party won the national parliamentary election soundly, defeating Howard and the Liberal/National coalition government. What followed was a consolidation of power by Rudd, including the naming of Julia Gillard as deputy prime minister, representing the left wing of the party, and Peter Garrett as the new environment minister. One of Rudd’s first actions in office was to announce that Australia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the United States as the only advanced industrialized power not to join.[32] Meanwhile, the Liberal Party imploded with Howard’s defeat and the withdrawal from party leadership of embittered former Treasury Minister Peter Costello.

Merely a Change in Speed?

The dramatic change in government gave encouragement to Australians opposed to nuclear power and greater involvement in the global nuclear fuel cycle. Rudd signaled a shift in foreign policy away from close cooperation with the Bush administration, and Smith’s announcement that Australia would not export uranium to India was met with praise by anti-nuclear activists. Still, celebrations of the Labor victory by many anti-nuclear advocates may have been premature. Some evidence suggests that the nuclear choice has effectively already been made for Australia.

First and foremost, nuclear insiders believe that the choice on nuclear policy offered up to voters might not be as distinct as it was portrayed in the media. Indeed, they contend that many Labor leaders already quietly accept the intellectual arguments for nuclear energy and emphasize a gradual evolution in thinking underway in the Australian polity on the question. Although a pause in government progress toward nuclear energy is likely, insiders believe that the Labor government will move to address critical nuclear issues within three to four years of taking office.[33] At a business forum after the 2007 election, Switkowski repeated the claim that Labor would eventually endorse nuclear energy:

We will get there [to nuclear energy]. I’m sure that we will get there, whether it happens in the next term of government or the one after…. The attitude in Australia, I think, will move from concern to grudging acceptance, to enormous relief that we have this very efficient technology and these vast reserves that will give us…the lowest cost, safest, cleanest form of base load electricity.[34]

Second, the Labor Party has already taken a critical step in support of an expanded role for Australia in the global nuclear energy cycle. In 2007, party leaders began debating whether they should overturn the Three Named Uranium Mines Policy of the past and expand Australia’s involvement in the lucrative growing market of uranium mining. Pragmatists including Rudd saw potential in the expansion of uranium mining and exports. Australia was the second-largest exporter of uranium in the world behind Canada, even with its restrictive policies, and spot uranium prices were spiking. Rudd was able to gain the support of opponents on the left and the party voted to allow expanded uranium mining at its leadership conference in April 2007.

Third, advocates of nuclear power in Australia have long believed that there is latent public support for the enterprise. A 2005 survey conducted for the IAEA showed that “levels of support for nuclear power in Australia, particularly when put in context of climate change, are similar to those in a number of other countries including Indonesia, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and France.”[35] Elite framing may be one key to understanding this phenomenon over time. When the prospect of nuclear power first captured the attention of conservative governments in the 1960s and 1970s, they championed it as a potential solution to the expected shortage of fossil fuels. Liberal governments appeared to enjoy a diffuse base of public support for nuclear power in Australia, but polling was notoriously inconsistent. Following the election of the Whitlam Labor government, a majority of Australian citizens favored NPT ratification in 1973 and the country’s responsibility to support the international nonproliferation regime.

In 2006 and 2007, the Howard government began to revive interest in nuclear energy in part by tapping into the diffuse base of public support. This time around, however, nuclear energy advocates had a new trump card: global warming. Nuclear energy was presented as the best response to growing concerns about energy security and climate change, and the argument seemed to be effective. The 2005 IAEA survey, for example, found that although 60 percent of Australians opposed the construction of nuclear power plants in their country, opposition fell dramatically when respondents were asked whether they would support “the use of nuclear power to help combat climate change” (evenly split at 47 percent for and 47 percent against).[36] In a May 2006 poll, a plurality of Australians (49 percent) approved of the construction of nuclear power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[37] Similar Newspoll surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007 charted a gradual decline in opposition to nuclear power plants along with an increase in undecided citizens. It is also noteworthy that the proportion of young people (aged 18-34) who were strongly opposed to nuclear energy fell dramatically, from 43 percent to 32 percent, between May and December 2006.[38]

These data suggest both latent support for nuclear power as a response to climate change and the potential for elite framing to shape public attitudes on the nuclear question. Indeed, the Howard government attempted to seize on what it saw as support in the buildup to the 2007 national election. Conservatives also knew that the framing of nuclear energy as a potential solution to global warming would place its opponents on the left in a true political dilemma. Skeptics might be forced to see the issue in a new light and would be hard-pressed to raise the same level of challenges voiced in earlier decades. Meanwhile, those on the left who accepted the intellectual argument regarding nuclear energy might be forced to reveal their cards to the voting public, thereby undermining the swell of support for a change in government. By raising the nuclear question, the Liberals believed they had masterminded a catch-22 for Labor.

Finally, Rudd himself seems committed to strengthening relations between Australia and key Asian partners, and international economic trends suggest that the focus will be squarely on commodity exports. Rudd’s personal understanding of the dramatic growth in Asian economies and their dire need for energy resources may resonate as well. All signs pointed to a massive increase in worldwide electricity demand, much of it originating in Asia. In 2006, China was already building 13 new nuclear power plants, with dozens more on the drawing boards; India had 16 reactors either under construction or planned. Meanwhile, Australian-Indian nuclear ties have already begun: a recent private sector deal was struck between Reliance Industries, India’s biggest private sector company in the energy and materials market, and Uranium Exploration Australia for exploration in Australia.[39] The fact that the Australian-Chinese and Australian-Russian uranium-export deals were only recently wrapped up means that these deals will effectively go forward on Rudd’s watch.

In many ways, the Australian-Indian nuclear export deal will be a key barometer of the evolution of Australian nuclear policy. If Labor leaders truly accept the intellectual argument in favor of greater involvement in the global nuclear fuel cycle, then they will find it difficult to ignore the potential for uranium exports to India. A pending NSG vote could put the Rudd government in a position of tacit endorsement for special exemptions to the NPT. As noted earlier, this may pave the way for the government to come around to a position that endorses broader exports with special safeguards agreements so that Australia can remain a viable player in the global nuclear renaissance.


What is clear about Australian nuclear policy in 2008 is that Rudd will have to walk a fine line in balancing principle and practical politics. Of course, Australians are not alone in confronting difficult choices on nuclear energy in the 21st century, but their unique role in nonproliferation and their vast reserves of uranium give them special influence on these issues.

Australia’s decision to pursue a broader role in the global nuclear fuel cycle is significant for the market as well as for political and security considerations in Australasia. Not only would a potential doubling of Australian uranium exports by 2015 to current nuclear powers help ensure increases in baseload power capacity, but the government could also reach out to supply newer civilian nuclear power programs.

A greater role in the global supply chain, however, also means greater responsibility. Australia’s first hurdle in an expanded uranium-export program will be to overcome charges of double standards. Exports to Russia with its ties to controversial regimes such as Iran and Syria could draw Australia into a web of proliferation crises. Exports to China with its controversial human rights record also raises important policy questions. Exports to India, an NPT nonsignatory, would be interpreted as the ultimate double standard in the Labor government’s foreign policy profile. As one prominent critic of this policy direction has already articulated, the Rudd government may appear to be arguing that “nuclear power is something Australians support—so long as it is not in their country.”[40]

Other important questions of responsibility also arise. For example, any move toward development of uranium-enrichment capability for Australia could also foster a regional energy or arms race. Because GNEP “envisions a system whereby supplier states take back spent fuel,” Australians will have to confront questions of the return and storage of nuclear waste sooner rather than later. As early as 2005, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke publicly suggested that Australia had an “environmental responsibility” to open a global nuclear waste repository.[41] Finally, can Australia ensure the viability of bilateral safeguards agreements as well as the robustness of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime while becoming a larger player in the nuclear fuel cycle?

Australia has a fascinating yet contradictory nuclear history. Various governments have made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, develop enrichment capacity, and take strong stands on nuclear disarmament. Yet, the forces at work that have shaped past Australian policies remain in play today. The nuclear debate has also intensified as a result of contemporary challenges such as global warming and real economic opportunities. In summary, despite the hopes of some Australians today, nuclear power remains an issue that will not go away.

Jeffrey S. Lantis is an associate professor of political science at The College of Wooster and was a 2007 Fulbright Senior Scholar at Australian National University.


1. Kevin Rudd, Interviewed by Steve Liebmann, Radio 2UE, December 12, 2006.

2. Peter Garrett, “Nukes Not the Answer to the Greenhouse Threat,” The Age, April 28, 2005.

3. Sharon Squassoni, “Risks and Realities: The ‘New Nuclear Energy Revival,’” Arms Control Today, May 2007, pp. 1-9.

4. Wayne Reynolds, “Rethinking the Joint Project: Australia’s Bid for Nuclear Weapons 1945-1960,” Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1998), pp. 853-873.

5. Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 5 (Fall 1997), pp. 1-20; Richard Tanter, “The Re-emergence of an Australian Nuclear Weapons Option? Implications for Indonesia and the Asia Pacific,” Japan Focus, November 5, 2007, http://japanfocus.org.

6. T. V. Paul, Power Versus Prudence: Why States Forgo Nuclear Weapons (Montreal: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 2000), p. 75.

7. Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 129-131.

8. Toshiki Mogami, “The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone: A Fettered Leap Forward,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 25, No. 4 (December 1988), pp. 411-430.

9. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1996.

10. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Joint Statement Between U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” July 18, 2005.

11. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, March 21, 2007.

12. Australia-China Nuclear Material Transfer Agreement and Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, November 2007.

13. Daryl G. Kimball, “Fixing a Flawed Nuclear Deal,” Arms Control Today, September 2007, p. 3.

14. Christopher Kemmer, “Facing Up to the Nuclear Question,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 29, 2007, p. 13.

15. Ron Walker, “Uranium for India: Avoiding the Pitfalls,” Policy Brief, Lowy Institute for International Policy, May 2007, p. 1.

16. “Australia Not to Sell Uranium to India,” The Hindu, February 6, 2008.

17. Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce, “Uranium Mining, Processing, and Nuclear Energy—Opportunities for Australia?” 2006, p. 243.

18. Australian government official, Interview with author, Canberra, Australia, March 21, 2007.

19. Jill Parillo and Rebecca Cooper, “Potential ‘Receiver’ Nations Rebuff Fuel Leasing Overtures,” Nuclear Weapon and Materials Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 29 (July 9, 2007); Rebecca Cooper, “More Countries Sign on to GNEP as U.S. Modifies Approach,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 27 (September 24, 2007).

20. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, March 20, 2007.

21. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, May 17, 2007.

22. Ziggy Switkowski, interview with author, Adelaide, June 7, 2007.

23. Unidentified source, Interview with author, Canberra, May 17, 2007.

24. Richard Macey, “Nation’s Energy Future Is Nuclear: Howard,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 2007, p. 1.

25. Phillip Coorey, “PM Sets Nation on Nuclear Path,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2007, p. 1.

26. Katharine Murphy, “PM Puts Faith in Nuclear Power,” The Age, December 30, 2006, p. 1.

27. “ALP Slams Nuclear Policy,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2007, p. 1.

28. “Howard Nuclear Plan a Worry: Protestors,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2007, p. 3.

29. Stephanie Peatling and Marian Wilkinson, “Bid to Overturn Nuclear Ban,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 2007, p. 6.

30. “Rann Rules Out Nuclear Plant for South Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 27, 2007, p. 1.

31. Peatling and Wilkinson, “Bid to Overturn Nuclear Ban,” p. 6.

32. Michael Fullilove, “Don’t Be Fooled: There’ll Be More Change Than Continuity in Foreign Policy,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 20, 2007, p. 6.

33. Ziggy Switkowski, interview with author, Adelaide, June 7, 2007.

34. Catherine Best, “Nuclear Power Inevitable, Says Ziggy,” www.news.com.au, November 16, 2007.

35. Globescan, “Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA: Final Report From 18 Countries,” October 2005 (prepared for the International Atomic Energy Agency).

36. Ibid. See Andrew Macintosh, “Who Wants a Nuclear Power Plant? Support for Nuclear Power in Australia,” Australia Institute Research Paper, No. 39 (January 2007).

37. Roy Morgan Research, “More Australians Approve Than Disapprove of Nuclear Power Plants,” Finding, No. 4032 (June 10, 2006).

38. Newspoll 2006, “Opinion Polls,” November 30, 2006; Newspoll 2007, “Opinion Polls,” January 8, 2007. Not surprisingly, many Australians oppose specific initiatives that may strike closer to home. For example, a 2006 poll found that 87 percent of Australians were concerned about the disposal of nuclear waste in their country. When Australians are asked about hypothetical construction of a nuclear power plant in their local area, 66 percent of respondents oppose the idea, with only 10 percent strongly in favor; Roy Morgan Research, “More Australians Approve Than Disapprove of Nuclear Power Plants.”

39. “RIL Goes to Oz for Uranium,” The Economic Times, December 11, 2007.

40. Senator Christine Milne, “Election Silence 2: Uranium Exports,” GreensBlog, November 22, 2007, http://greensblog.org.

41. Mary Beth Dunham Nikitn et al., “Managing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Policy Implications of Expanding Global Access to Nuclear Power,” CRS Report for Congress, RL34234, November 1, 2007, p. 31; “Hawke Backs Australia as Nuclear Waste Repository,” ABC News Online, September 27, 2005.

Reprocessing Revisited:The International Dimensions of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel

In a February 2004 speech at the National Defense University, President George W. Bush proposed that the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group adopt a policy to “refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.” Bush’s proposal was consistent with mainstream U.S. nonproliferation policy.

For decades, the United States had opposed the ambitions of South Korea and several other non-nuclear-weapon states to begin civil spent fuel reprocessing programs. Washington rightly feared that allowing these states to separate plutonium from highly radioactive spent fuel would destabilize the nonproliferation regime by drastically reducing the time between a decision to acquire nuclear weapons and having a large nuclear arsenal. This would make both internal and external constraints on proliferation much less effective.

Yet only two years after Bush’s speech, spurred by the fear that the inability to remove spent nuclear fuel piling up at reactor sites in the United States and many other countries would threaten a nuclear renaissance, the Bush administration subsumed its initial proposal into a new scheme known as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). One of the chief objectives of GNEP was to promote the virtues of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and the civil use of plutonium as a nuclear waste management strategy. Although GNEP represented a reversal of previous U.S. policies that opposed the spread of reprocessing, the Bush administration billed GNEP as a nonproliferation initiative because it would still limit reprocessing facilities to the nuclear-weapons states and Japan and would use reprocessing technologies that would not separate pure plutonium, unlike the PUREX (plutonium and uranium extraction) technology in use today. GNEP member states without reprocessing plants would be encouraged to send their spent fuel to other countries for reprocessing.

Today, GNEP no longer adheres to these constraints. Eager for support from reprocessing states such as France, Japan, and Russia, the Bush administration has stopped warning about the dangers of separated plutonium. It now advocates the quick deployment of a minor variant of PUREX for reprocessing U.S. power reactor fuel, even though this modification would produce a mixture of uranium and plutonium that would be as vulnerable to theft or diversion as plutonium alone. For the longer term, the Bush administration champions liquid sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing, a form of reprocessing that it describes as “proliferation resistant” although it falls far short of any common-sense definition of this standard.

At U.S. urging, 20 other countries, including South Korea, have now joined the United States in signing a GNEP Statement of Principles that embraces the development and use of reprocessing technology and contains no commitments on the part of its members to limit the spread of sensitive fuel cycle facilities such as reprocessing plants.

In promoting the development of pyroprocessing and other experimental separations technologies, the Bush administration says it hopes to persuade those countries that currently use conventional PUREX reprocessing to switch to these other technologies eventually, thereby ending the production of pure plutonium. Yet through GNEP, the administration is promoting reprocessing primarily to countries that do not reprocess at all but rather store their spent fuel. Spent fuel storage is a far more proliferation-resistant management strategy than any form of reprocessing.

In a February 2008 speech, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, argued that “closing the fuel cycle is essential for expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. and around the world.” This assertion is highly questionable because reprocessing is 10 times more costly than spent fuel storage. If nuclear power is to become more widely competitive, its cost must decrease, not increase. Spurgeon’s view, however, reflects the belief of GNEP supporters in the need to bypass the political logjams that block permanent spent fuel storage, which they see as a chief impediment to a major global increase in nuclear power. In the absence of geological repositories, reprocessing plants provide an alternative destination for the spent fuel accumulating at nuclear power plants.

This change in the U.S. attitude toward reprocessing is at odds with the welcome, recent global trend of countries abandoning reprocessing because it is costly and complicates waste disposal rather than facilitating it. The net result of even a partial success of the Bush administration’s policy would be a reversal in the decline in the number of countries with stockpiles of separated plutonium, thereby undermining the nonproliferation regime.

Hopefully, Congress and the next administration will try to reverse the damage done by the Bush administration’s ill-considered promotion of reprocessing.

Reprocessing and Proliferation

Plutonium is produced as a result of neutron absorption in uranium-238 whenever uranium is irradiated in nuclear reactors. U-238 makes up more than 95 percent of the uranium in the fuel used in today’s common light-water reactors (LWRs), But it does not typically provide the energy in the once-through-nuclear fuel cycle; that comes from the rarer chain-reacting isotope uranium-235. Reprocessing was developed by the United States during the Manhattan Project to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons by chemically separating it from spent nuclear fuel. During the 1960s, under the leadership of plutonium co-discoverer Glenn Seaborg, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission promoted the civil use of reprocessing to separate plutonium for use as a fuel in nuclear power reactors. Seaborg predicted that liquid sodium-cooled plutonium breeder reactors would be deployed worldwide to convert abundant U-238 into chain-reacting plutonium to fuel thousands of additional reactors.

Then, in 1974, India set off a nuclear explosive made with plutonium it obtained by reprocessing the fuel of a research reactor supplied by Canada for peaceful use. This event led the Ford administration to propose halting domestic reprocessing and to try to prevent the spread of this technology to other countries.[1] Using vigorous diplomacy, the United States persuaded France not to ship spent fuel reprocessing plants to Pakistan and South Korea. In addition, the United States pressured Taiwan to refrain from developing a reprocessing facility. U.S. pressure also helped to stop a deal under which Germany had committed to provide Brazil with a reprocessing plant.

The Carter administration continued the re-evaluation of U.S. plutonium policy and concluded that neither reprocessing nor breeder reactors would be economic for the foreseeable future. Following up on the Ford administration’s proposal that U.S. opposition to plutonium separation abroad would be more effective if it were not pursued at home, President Jimmy Carter imposed a moratorium on reprocessing, stopping the licensing process for a reprocessing plant in South Carolina.[2] President Ronald Reagan reversed that ban on commercial reprocessing in the United States but stressed that the private sector should “take the lead in developing commercial reprocessing services.”[3] U.S. utilities had recognized by that time, however, that fuel made with recycled plutonium would be much more costly than low-enriched uranium fuel and were not interested in financing a reprocessing enterprise. Instead, they asked the federal government to take over responsibility for disposing of their spent fuel.

In 1982, Congress instructed the Department of Energy to build spent fuel repositories deep underground and start shipping spent fuel from the utility sites by 1998. Today, however, the Energy Department projects that its first repository, built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, will not open until after 2017, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed that “[t]he proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is never going to open.”[4] Despite the fact that a geologic repository would still be needed under any realistic reprocessing scenario, uncertainty about the future of the Yucca Mountain repository is a principal reason why the issue of reprocessing is once again alive in the United States. Nuclear utilities in other countries have also encountered opposition to siting geological radioactive waste repositories. Only in Finland has a repository been sited, adjacent to Finland’s main nuclear power plant site.[5] This has a political advantage because the spent fuel is already there, emplacing it underground will reduce its hazards.

Radioactive Waste Politics and the Rise and Fall of Civilian Reprocessing Abroad

In the 1970s, nuclear utilities in Western Europe and Japan found a temporary fix for their waste problems by shipping spent fuel for reprocessing in France and the United Kingdom, which had originally built reprocessing plants to produce plutonium for their weapons programs. In parallel, the Soviet Union took back spent fuel from Eastern European countries that it had supplied with fresh fuel and reprocessed some of it.

States that shipped spent fuel to the Soviet Union were able to get rid of it forever. States that shipped to France and the United Kingdom obtained only a temporary respite from their disposal problem. Domestic politics made it impossible for France or the United Kingdom to keep the radioactive waste generated from their reprocessing of foreign spent fuel. They therefore required that the separated plutonium and the concentrated high-level waste from reprocessing be shipped back to the country of origin. This meant that the customer countries had to locate and build high-level radioactive waste and plutonium storage facilities even after paying reprocessing charges 10 times larger than it would have cost simply to store the spent fuel. Recently, Russia has adopted the same policy of shipping high-level waste back to its foreign reprocessing customers.

As a result, 13 of the 14 customer countries that made reprocessing a source of foreign exchange for France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have decided not to renew their reprocessing contracts.[6] Twelve have decided on interim storage of their spent fuel. The thirteenth, Japan, has built its own $20 billion reprocessing facility. Japan justifies this costly decision by arguing that, otherwise, with no way to ship spent fuel from its nuclear power plant sites, it would have had to shut them all down.[7]

Given the loss of all of its foreign customers, the United Kingdom plans to shut down its reprocessing plants.[8] After this, only China, France, India, Japan, and Russia will operate reprocessing facilities. China does not have an operating reprocessing plant today, but it is building a pilot reprocessing plant and is negotiating with France to purchase a full-scale plant.[9] Belgium, Germany, and Italy have shut down their pilot-scale reprocessing plants.

Thus, three decades after the United States adopted an anti-reprocessing policy, one nuclear-weapon state is quitting, another is starting, three non-nuclear-weapon states have quit, and 12 non-nuclear-weapon states that were having their spent fuel reprocessed abroad have quit or will quit soon. Japan, which had completed a pilot reprocessing plant in 1974 before the United States reversed its pro-reprocessing policy, remains the only non-nuclear-weapon state that reprocesses. Its reprocessing program has been a major source of suspicion and envy in South Korea.

In this context of declining international interest in reprocessing, the Bush administration in 2006 proposed building a U.S. reprocessing plant (with an unspecified mix of public and private financing) and is urging other countries to have their fuel reprocessed.

Proliferation-Resistant Reprocessing?

The first signs of the Bush administration’s pro-reprocessing policy appeared four months after Bush took office in the report of the energy commission headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. One of the report’s recommendations was that “the United States should reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment of fuel conditioning methods (such as pyroprocessing) that reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance.”[10]

Even in the nuclear energy community, pyroprocessing is relatively unknown. It is a form of reprocessing developed by the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory to treat the metal fuel from a small experimental breeder reactor in Idaho, which is now being decommissioned.[11]

In traditional PUREX reprocessing, spent fuel is dissolved in hot nitric acid, and plutonium and uranium of high purity are extracted by bubbling an organic solvent through the mix. By contrast, pyroprocessing dissolves the spent fuel in molten salt, and the plutonium can be collected at a cathode by passing an electric current through the salt. The plutonium is not pure but is mixed with uranium, some rare-earth fission products (notably cerium-144), and the other transuranic elements: americium, curium, and neptunium. This is the basis for the claim that pyroprocessing is proliferation resistant. To assess this claim, however, one needs to define the term carefully.

Proliferation resistance is determined by several different properties of a fuel cycle system. One is how easily a non-nuclear-weapon state that is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) could covertly obtain weapons-usable material from a facility subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Another is how quickly such a country could use a facility to obtain significant quantities of weapons-usable material should it decide to break out of its NPT constraints. A third is how easily a subnational group could divert or steal weapons-usable material.

It is not easy by any of these routes to get plutonium from a once-through cycle in which spent nuclear fuel is stored and eventually emplaced in a geologic repository. A typical spent fuel assembly is a large object weighing approximately half a ton and containing a low concentration (around 1 percent) of plutonium, diluted by uranium and mixed with fission products, some of which generate a lethal field of gamma rays (higher-energy versions of X-rays). Because of this radiation field, extracting plutonium from spent fuel is a difficult undertaking, requiring remotely controlled operations behind meter-thick walls.

In contrast, plutonium that has been separated from spent fuel by the PUREX process emits such a low level of penetrating radiation that a person could carry a bomb’s worth (less than eight kilograms) in lightweight containers without incurring a radiation dose high enough to cause severe injury in the near term. (Even a small radiation dose brings with it a slightly increased chance of cancer in the long term.) The IAEA currently considers nuclear material “self-protecting” if the radiation dose rate one meter away is at least one Sievert per hour (100 rems/hour).[12] The gamma and neutron dose rate from a 50-year-old spent fuel assembly containing five kilograms of plutonium would be about 10 Sieverts/hour while that from a kilogram of separated plutonium is about one million times lower. It is therefore far easier to divert separated plutonium to a national or subnational weapons program than it is to divert and separate the plutonium in a spent fuel assembly.

Keeping the transuranic elements americium and curium mixed with plutonium in pyroprocessing would increase its radiation dose a hundred-fold but only to a level that would still be one thousand times lower than the IAEA’s self-protection standard.[13]

It is also relatively easy in the once-through fuel cycle to keep track of spent fuel assemblies. In contrast, the IAEA has conceded that material accountancy alone cannot effectively detect national diversion of weapons-useable quantities of plutonium at large reprocessing facilities because of the huge throughputs of plutonium involved and the inaccuracies of plutonium measurement. Pyroprocessing is even more problematic in this regard because the higher radiation levels and inhomogeneous mixture being processed render it even more difficult to measure accurately the plutonium in the process.[14]

Finally, the stockpiling of large quantities of separated plutonium in a fuel cycle involving reprocessing would result in a breakout time for nuclear weapons production far shorter than for the once-through fuel cycle case. The same would be true for a pyroprocessing plant. Indeed, a 1992 study commissioned jointly by the Departments of Energy and State showed a variety of ways to use a pyroprocessing plant to produce relatively pure plutonium.[15]

Thus, although pyroprocessing does produce a mixture that is more radioactive than the pure plutonium produced by PUREX, the difference is not great enough to justify claims that it is significantly more proliferation resistant and certainly not great enough to justify assertions by some U.S. officials that “pyroprocessing is not reprocessing.” In any case, PUREX is the wrong standard for comparison. For the United States and South Korea, which are jointly pursuing pyroprocessing research and development, pyroprocessing should be compared with their current practice of simply storing the spent fuel. In that context, pyroprocessing appears anything but proliferation resistant.

Pyroprocessing is designed to treat metal fuel for liquid sodium-cooled reactors and is not optimal for the ceramic uranium-oxide fuel used by LWRs that are standard in the world today. Consequently, the Energy Department’s reprocessing research and development program has focused instead on a family of technologies related to PUREX that are more suited for reprocessing uranium-oxide fuel. They are called UREX+ (uranium extraction-plus). As with pyroprocessing, the plutonium would be mixed with various other transuranic elements.[16] The department’s current preference is to use a UREX+ variant that keeps plutonium mixed only with uranium and neptunium.[17] Neptunium is a weapons-usable isotope that is less radioactive than plutonium. Adding it to plutonium therefore would not decrease at all the attractiveness of the mixture for weapon purposes. Also, the uranium dilutant could be separated out with very simple chemical processing.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

In reaction to the Bush administration’s growing interest in restarting a reprocessing industry in the United States, many critics expressed concern about the impact of such an initiative on U.S. efforts to discourage non-nuclear-weapon states from separating out plutonium. The Bush administration’s answer was to embed the new U.S. reprocessing and recycle program in GNEP, unveiled in February 2006. In rolling out the initiative, Bush announced that:

America will work with nations that have advanced civilian nuclear energy programs, such as France, Japan, and Russia [to] develop and deploy innovative advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent nuclear fuel. As these technologies are developed, we will work with our partners to help developing countries meet their growing energy needs [and] ensure that these developing countries have a reliable nuclear fuel supply. In exchange, these countries would agree to…forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities that can be used to develop nuclear weapons.[18]

As already noted, however, sending spent fuel abroad to be reprocessed has proven unattractive unless the reprocessing country keeps the radioactive waste. France and the United Kingdom have found that to be politically impossible; the United States almost certainly would as well. The White House therefore hoped that Russia would be able to reprocess the spent fuel and keep the nuclear wastes of countries without reprocessing plants.[19] Several years ago, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy was interested in doing just this and succeeded, despite massive public opposition, in getting the Russian Duma to pass a law making it legal. In November 2005, however, the helm of Russia’s nuclear establishment, now called Rosatom, was taken over by Sergey Kirienko, a former prime minister, who proved to be less willing to ignore public opinion on this matter. Two months after the Energy Department unveiled GNEP, a Rosatom spokesperson indicated that, apart from a continuing willingness to take back spent fuel produced from nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors that it had supplied, Rosatom was no longer interested in taking other countries’ spent fuel.[20]

The Energy Department was unfazed. In parallel to its efforts to form an industrial coalition to support reprocessing, it launched an effort to form a coalition of countries committed to a GNEP Statement of Principles that includes the development and demonstration of “advanced technologies for recycling spent fuel for deployment in facilities that do not separate pure plutonium.” The principles statement reassures countries that they “would not give up any rights” if they join the partnership.[21] Although the rights in question are not explicitly specified, the countries that insisted on the inclusion of this language, including Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine, made clear that they would not give up their rights to acquire national enrichment plants.[22] South Korea has also expressed an interest in acquiring a reprocessing plant. Thus, in part at least because of the Energy Department’s tireless proselytizing, the United States has been pushed back from one of GNEP’s original rationales, to persuade countries that do not already have full-scale commercial enrichment or reprocessing plants to abstain from developing them.

As of February 29, 2008, 20 countries in addition to the United States had signed up as GNEP partners. Of these, 16 are non-nuclear-weapon states of which one-half do not yet have nuclear power plants. Of those partners that are non-nuclear-weapon states and do have nuclear power plants, all but one (Japan) have never reprocessed or have ended their reprocessing contracts with Russia.

It is difficult to see any nonproliferation rationale in the United States persuading 15 non-nuclear-weapon states to choose reprocessing over a once-through fuel cycle.

Back to PUREX

When GNEP was first announced, the Energy Department planned to build an engineering-scale facility to demonstrate the UREX+ technology. However, UREX+ was not ready for deployment on the department’s ambitious schedule. As a result of industry feedback, department officials eliminated the demonstration step and decided instead to seek proposals from industry to construct a more conventional, commercial-scale plant large enough to reprocess the 2,000 tons of spent fuel being discharged annually by U.S. power reactors and perhaps start digging into the backlog. It was to be the largest reprocessing plant in the world[23] and cost at least $20 billion.[24]

In May 2007, the United States withdrew its opposition to the indefinite continued use of PUREX reprocessing by other countries.[25] In an August 3, 2006, telephone press conference, scheduled to answer questions about the Energy Department’s request for expressions of interest in building a reprocessing plant, Spurgeon indicated that he was willing to consider any proposal to build a reprocessing plant in the United States as long as it did not involve the separation of pure plutonium. In response to a follow-up question, he indicated that he was specifically willing to consider a minor variant of PUREX known as COEX (co-extraction) that was being offered by France’s nuclear conglomerate, Areva. With COEX, the plutonium would be left mixed with an equal amount of uranium.[26] This product would be little different from pure plutonium, however, with regard to the length of time required to convert it to nuclear weapons use. As a recent Argonne National Laboratory report has acknowledged, the plutonium could be separated out using a well-known chemical process.[27]

Congress Becomes Skeptical

In 2007, Congress became alarmed about the Energy Department’s proposal to commit quickly tens of billions of dollars to the construction of a huge reprocessing plant in the United States. The House Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee was particularly concerned and stated bluntly in the report on its proposed fiscal year 2008 energy and water appropriations bill that the “aggressive program proposed by the Department is at best premature” and that “before the Department can expect the Committee to support funding for a major new initiative, the Department must provide a complete and credible estimate of the life-cycle costs of the program.”[28] A few months later, a review of the Energy Department’s nuclear energy research and development program by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council came to a similar conclusion when it reported that “[a]ll committee members agree that the GNEP program should not go forward and should be replaced by a less aggressive research program.”[29]

Finally, in the House-Senate conference report that accompanied the consolidated appropriations act for fiscal year 2008, Congress instructed the Energy Department that “no funds are provided for facility construction for technology demonstration or commercialization.”[30] Accordingly, in its fiscal year 2009 budget request, submitted in February 2008, the Bush administration postponed plans to select sites for construction of a commercial-scale reprocessing plant and a fast-neutron reactor and only sought funds for research and development. It still proposes, however, to build a smaller facility at a national lab site to develop reprocessing techniques on a pilot-plant scale.[31] The decision on whether to push forward beyond the research and development stage will be left to the next administration and Congress.


Hopefully, Congress has learned as a result of its temporary enthusiasm and then disillusionment with GNEP that there are much worse alternatives to interim storage of spent fuel at U.S. nuclear power plants. Reprocessing, whether PUREX, UREX+, or pyroprocessing, would cost many times more and would convert one relatively simple and stable waste form into a variety of waste streams that must be managed, including contaminated equipment and materials from the reprocessing plant itself when it is decommissioned. It also creates a vast stockpile of separated plutonium that would make it possible for countries to deploy weapons quickly and massively in a time shorter than required to mobilize domestic and international opposition. These plutonium stockpiles could also become targets of theft for would-be nuclear terrorists.

In comparison, dry-cask storage of spent fuel, which is being used at U.S. nuclear power plants to handle the overflow from spent fuel storage pools that have reached capacity, is benign. Ninety-five percent of all U.S. spent fuel is at nuclear power plants that will operate for decades longer. At such sites, the added risk from the spent fuel is small in comparison to that from the fuel in the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools. If cooling water is lost to a reactor core, it will begin releasing vaporized fission products within minutes. If cooling water is lost from a spent fuel pond, recently discharged fuel would heat up to ignition temperature with hours. In contrast, the heat from several-year-old spent fuel in dry casks is carried away passively by the convection of the surrounding air. Also, because each dry cask contains only a small fraction of the radioactive material contained in a reactor core or spent fuel pool, even a successful terrorist attack on a dry cask would have a relatively limited impact.

Eventually, the spent fuel on U.S. sites will have to be removed or buried deep underground, but there is no need to panic. Committing the United States to reprocessing any time in the next several decades would be a costly and dangerous decision that might postpone but would not avoid the need for a geological repository.[32]

South Korea-U.S. Cooperation: Is Pyroprocessing Reprocessing?

Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel

The steady increase in U.S. cooperation with South Korea on nuclear fuel-cycle technology over the last several years is a prime example of the erosion of U.S. nonproliferation policy regarding reprocessing.

For decades, the United States has sought to discourage South Korean acquisition of a reprocessing facility that could provide the capability to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons. South Korea attempted to acquire a reprocessing plant in the mid-1970s after President Richard Nixon decided to draw down the number of U.S. troops deployed in South Korea. This initiative included the purchase of a heavy water research reactor from Canada (similar to the reactors that Israel and India used to produce plutonium for their weapons programs) and a reprocessing plant from France. Both orders were cancelled at the request of the United States. In 2004, South Korea revealed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that researchers at the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) had carried out laboratory-scale experiments in 1982 to recover plutonium from irradiated uranium and in 2000 to enrich uranium using lasers, each time without informing the IAEA first, as required by South Korea’s safeguards agreement.[1]

Since at least 2005, however, the United States has provided funding and expertise to South Korea in support of projects related to a type of spent fuel reprocessing known as pyroprocessing. KAERI expects this cooperation to lead to a prototype commercial pyroprocessing plant by 2025.[2] The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding the joint pyroprocessing projects with KAERI through its International Nuclear Energy Research Initiative.

One problem with this program is that, in 1992, North and South Korea agreed, in the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, that neither would acquire nor use nuclear weapons and that neither would acquire nuclear reprocessing and enrichment facilities. North Korea has violated this agreement, but South Korea still considers itself bound by it and hopes that the agreements recently achieved in the six-party talks will restore North Korea to compliance. Therefore, U.S. efforts to promote pyroprocessing in South Korea do not seem consistent with the Korean peninsula denuclearization agreement.

In October 2007, one of the authors asked a pertinent Energy Department official how one could reconcile the department’s collaboration with KAERI on pyroprocessing with South Korea’s commitment to comply with the denuclearization agreement. His response was that the Department of State had decided that “pyroprocessing is not reprocessing.”[3] Further inquiry established that this remains a contentious issue within the State Department, which has not yet granted approval for South Korea to pyroprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel in its domestic facilities. Nonetheless, even if it determines that pyroprocessing is a form of reprocessing, the Bush administration may well be inclined to give South Korea a green light to proceed because it is a close ally of the United States, has an advanced nuclear energy sector, and, in recent years at least, has had a good nonproliferation record. This would be consistent with the Bush administration’s reasoning in exempting Argentina and Brazil from its stated opposition to countries acquiring enrichment facilities if they do not already have a full-scale functioning plant.[4]

Meanwhile, U.S. cooperation with South Korea on pyroprocessing has been developing in a stepwise fashion. In 2005, with U.S. technical assistance, South Korea built a laboratory-scale Advanced [Spent Fuel] Conditioning Process Facility (ACPF) in KAERI’s Irradiated Material Examination Facility. This facility has been configured to convert oxide light-water reactor spent fuel into a metallic form. Although it will not have cathodes to separate the transuranic elements from uranium and some fission products, the ACPF should be considered a laboratory-scale reprocessing facility because it would separate the transuranics from the fission product, cesium-137. This isotope provides the primary radiation barrier for spent fuel 10 or more years after its discharge from a reactor.

To date, South Korea has only processed unirradiated uranium oxide in the ACPF. Under the terms of the South Korea-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, before South Korea can treat U.S.-origin spent fuel in the ACPF, it must obtain U.S. consent. This cannot happen until a plutonium safeguards system has been designed for the process that meets the IAEA’s criteria. In September 2007, a joint paper by KAERI and Los Alamos National Laboratory experts reported that such a system had been developed and that hot operation was scheduled to begin in 2008.[5] As of February 2008, however, the United States had not issued a Subsequent Arrangement authorizing the processing of U.S.-origin spent fuel in the ACPF, and one State Department official has indicated privately that the State Department is backing away from its previous positive attitude toward support for pyroprocessing facilities in South Korea. There is no indication, however, that the United States will terminate the ongoing research and development collaboration on pyroprocessing.

The South Korean government also has not yet reached a consensus regarding whether it wants to go down the reprocessing path being promoted by the Energy Department and KAERI. Congress and the next U.S. administration will therefore have the opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of disseminating reprocessing technologies based on a faulty assessment that they are proliferation resistant.


1. Paul Kerr, “IAEA Probes Seoul’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, October 2004, p. 33; Paul Kerr, “Déjá Vu? Seoul’s Past Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, October 2004, p. 34; Paul Kerr, “IAEA: Seoul’s Nuclear Sins in Past,” Arms Control Today, December 2004, p. 36.

2. KAERI, “KAERI Pursues an [sic] [Sodium-cooled Reactor] Fuel Cycle With Pyroprocessing,” Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle System in Korea Newsletter, Vol. 1 (Winter 2008), p. 7.

3. See Miles A. Pomper, “Concerns Raised as South Korea Joins GNEP,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2008, p. 44 (quoting anonymous U.S. government officials to the same effect).

4. Richard Stratford, director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs asserted at the June 2004 Carnegie Endowment International Nonproliferation Conference that Argentina and Brazil satisfy the criterion because they had enrichment plants under IAEA safeguards. However, the Argentinian plant was shut down and the IAEA classified the Brazilian facility as a pilot plant. The enrichment capacity of each facility is about one percent as large as existing commercial plants. In 2006, Brazil began to bring online a commercial plant with the capacity about 10 percent as large as the smallest existing commercial plant.

5. Ho-dong Kim et al., “Safeguards System for the Advanced Spent Fuel Conditioning Process Facility,” Proceedings of Global 2007: Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycles and Systems conference, Boise, Idaho, September 9-13, 2007, p. 356.


Edwin Lyman is a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.


1. Gerald Ford, “Statement on Nuclear Policy,” October 28, 1976.

2. Jimmy Carter, “Nuclear Power Policy: Statement on Decisions Reached Following a Review,” April 7, 1977.

3. Ronald Reagan,”Statement Announcing a Series of Policy Initiatives on Nuclear Energy,” October 8, 1981.

4. Henry Reid, “Yucca Mountain,” n.d., http://reid.senate.gov/issues/yucca.cfm.

5. TVO(Finnish nuclear power plant operator), “Spent Fuel Final Repository,” www.tvo.fi/www/page/1724/

6. Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine. The fourteenth is the Netherlands, which operates only one small (435 MWe), 35-year-old reactor.

7. Japan Atomic Energy Commission, “New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council Interim Report: Interim Report Concerning Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 12, 2004 (“Evaluation of Four Scenarios,” translated by the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, Tokyo).

8. British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, “Strategy,” April 7, 2006, pp. 45, 46.

9. “Areva Chinese Plant Order Conditional on Waste Technology Deal,” Thomson Financial News, January 15, 2008.

10. “National Energy Policy: Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group,” May 2001, app. 1 (“Summary of Recommendations”).

11. Argonne National Laboratory, “Technology Pioneered at Argonne Shows Promise for Next Generation of Nuclear Reactors,” Frontiers: Research Highlights, 2002.

12. Many analysts have viewed this standard as an inadequate deterrent against theft. A recent Oak Ridge National Laboratory study argues that an effective self-protection threshold would be greater by at least a factor of 100. See for example C. W. Coates et al., “Radiation Effects on Personnel Performance Capability and a Summary of Dose Levels for Spent Research Reactor Fuels,” December 2005 (prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy). The United States has proposed raising the threshold by a factor of 10 in national and international regulations and taking into account other properties of the material in the definition of self-protection. Joseph Rivers, Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting on nuclear security, Rockville, MD, November 8, 2007. So although some older spent LWR fuel assemblies might be below the new dose threshold, given their size and weight, they would probably continue to be regarded as having low vulnerability to theft.

13. Some short-lived fission products that would remain mixed with the plutonium could make it self-protecting for a couple of years after discharge from a reactor, although not if the threshold is raised by a factor of 10, as the United States has proposed, but the median age of U.S. spent fuel is about 20 years and climbing. Edwin Lyman, “Interim Storage Matrices for Excess Plutonium Approaching the Spent Fuel Standard Without Use of Reactors,” PU/CEES Report No. 286, August 1994; Jungmin Kang and Frank von Hippel, “Limited Proliferation-resistance Benefits From Recycling Unseparated Transuranics and Lanthanides From Light-water Reactor Spent Fuel,” Science & Global Security No. 13 (2005), p. 169; E. D. Collins, “Closing the Fuel Cycle Can Extend the Lifetime of the High-level-waste Repository,” presentation at the American Nuclear Society 2005 Winter meeting, November 17, 2005.

14. Rahmat Aryaeinejad et al., “Safeguards and Non-proliferation Issues as Related to Advanced Fuel Cycle and Advanced Fast Reactor Development With Processing of Reactor Fuel,” paper presented at the 2006 IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium, INL/CON-06-11869, October 2006.

15. R. G. Wymer et. al., “An Assessment of the Proliferation Potential and International Implications of the Integral Fast Reactor,” K/IPT-511, 1992, p. 80 (Martin Marietta Energy Systems report prepared for the Departments of State and Energy).

16. Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report to Congress on Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative: The Future Path for Advanced Spent Fuel Treatment and Transmutation Research,” January 2003.

17. Dennis Spurgeon, “Congressional Briefing,” February 13, 2008.

18. George W. Bush, “President’s Radio Address,” Office of the Press Secretary, February 18, 2006.

19. Peter Baker, “U.S. and Russia to Enter Civilian Nuclear Pact; Bush Reverses Long-Standing Policy, Allows Agreement That May Provide Leverage on Iran,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2006, p. A1.

20. Ann MacLachlan and Daniel Horner, “Russia Drops Plans for Taking in Foreign Spent Fuel, Citing Other Priorities,” Nuclear Fuel, July 31, 2006. See Miles Pomper, “Russia Looks to Tighten U.S. Nuclear Ties,” Arms Control Today, November 2006, p. 50.

21. U.S. Department of Energy, “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Statement of Principles,” September 16, 2007.

22. Jill Parillo and Rebecca Cooper, “Potential ‘Receiver’ Nations Rebuff Fuel Leasing Overtures,” Nuclear Weapon and Materials Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 29 (July 9, 2007); Rebecca Cooper, “More Countries Sign on to GNEP as U.S. Modifies Approach,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 27 (September 24, 2007).

23. U.S. Department of Energy, “Notice of Request for Expressions of Interest in a Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center to Support the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership,” Federal Register, Vol. 71 (August 7, 2006), p. 44676.

24. Cost estimate made in a study prepared for Areva, which hopes to build a PUREX reprocessing plant in the United States. Boston Consulting Group, “Economic Assessment of Used Nuclear Fuel Management in the United States,” 2006. Cost does not include interest on investment during construction.

25. “On GNEP and Nuclear Cooperation, Interview with French CEA Chairman Alain Bugat,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 15 (June 4, 2007).

26. Dennis Spurgeon, transcript of telephone press conference of August 3, 2006.

27. “This co-extraction process [COEX]…is also being promoted as a proliferation-resistant separation process that could be used in advanced nuclear fuel cycles. This assertion is however debatable since the separation of the co-extracted uranium and plutonium involves an additional chemical process that is known to most fuel chemistry experts.” T. A. Taiwo et al., “Co-Extraction Impacts on LWR and Fast Reactor Fuel Cycles,” ANL-AFCI-187, May 31, 2007, p. 8. According to a table in the same report, the critical mass of a bare sphere of the COEX product is only 5.6 times the bare critical mass of weapons-grade plutonium. Therefore, even unseparated, the mixture is directly weapon-usable. Ibid. p. 31.

28. House Appropriations Committee, “Report on House FY08 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill,” H. Rpt. 110-185, June 11, 2007, pp. 66-68.

29. “Summary,” Review of DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program, October 30, 2007.

30. House Appropriations Committee, “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Division C: Energy and Water Development,” p. 568.

31. U.S. Department of Energy, “GNEP Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement Update,” n.d, www.gnep.energy.gov/PEIS/gnepPEIS.html.

32. Frank N. von Hippel, “Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, January 2007.

Courts Threaten Russian Weapons Uranium Cuts

Miles A. Pomper

Several recent U.S. court decisions are threatening an effort to dramatically reduce Russia’s stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium, two senior Bush administration officials told a Senate committee March 5.

The court decisions would eliminate high tariff barriers that have effectively blocked Russia’s exports of uranium to the United States, except for those covered by a 1993 U.S.-Russian agreement for downblending 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from nuclear weapons into fuel for nuclear reactors by 2013. To date, the agreement has helped lead to the downblending of 325 metric tons of HEU, equivalent to 13,000 nuclear warheads. The downblended uranium currently supplies more than 40 percent of the fuel for U.S. power reactors.

The U.S. officials warned that the court decisions would affect not only the viability of the 1993 agreement but also threaten the ability of the U.S. government to negotiate future agreements that could lead to further downblending beyond the remaining 175 metric tons of HEU already slated for conversion. Before the program began, the total Soviet-era HEU weapons stockpile was estimated at about 1,250 metric tons, according to U.S. and Russian officials.

The officials urged the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee to support legislation overturning the decisions, particularly if the U.S. Supreme Court does not act on an administration appeal to strike them down.

“While we are committed to facilitating Russia’s transition into the U.S. nuclear market as a commercial partner, we believe it should be accomplished in ways that advance our national security, nonproliferation, and energy interests,” testified William H. Tobey, deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

The 1993 U.S.-Russian “suspension agreement” was put in place after the former Soviet Union was found to have been “dumping” low-enriched uranium (the fuel for nuclear reactors) in the United States at below market prices. After these findings, U.S. laws have called for raising tariffs on such imports, but the tariff increase was suspended in relation to the downblended HEU. Other Russian uranium imports have been subject to prohibitive 112 percent duties.

U.S. utilities and Russia atomic energy officials increasingly have chafed at these restrictions because Russia has been unable to take full advantage of its vast uranium-enrichment capacity—nearly half of the world’s total—at a time that enriched uranium prices have been soaring. Interest in nuclear power has been growing because of rising prices for alternative fossil fuels and the perception that those fuels are more likely to contribute to global warming than atomic energy.

Russian officials have pursued both diplomatic and legal strategies to make greater inroads into the U.S. market. Diplomatically, they have sought to ensure that they have access to the U.S. market after the suspension agreement ends in 2013 and that they can take the more lucrative path of enriching natural uranium rather than downblending HEU.

They succeeded in this vein when Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez and Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom) Feb. 1 signed a pact that will allow uranium that is not downblended from weapons to begin trickling into the U.S. market in 2011. Such imports will be permitted to constitute about 20 percent of total U.S. imports beginning in 2014, when the suspension agreement will have expired.

Legally, Russia and U.S. utilities have sought to take advantage of a recent case involving the European enrichment consortium Eurodif to find cracks in the original antidumping judgment. In the 2005 Eurodif case, the U.S. Court of International Trade (CIT) ruled that imports of uranium mined in other countries but enriched by Eurodif under “SWU contracts” could not be considered under antidumping law because Eurodif was just providing an enrichment service for utilities. Services, unlike goods, are not subject to duties. The international trade court’s ruling was upheld in September 2007 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Russia’s enrichment company won a similar judgment from the CIT in September 2007 after making a similar plea. If upheld, that judgment would immediately free Russia to sell to the United States uranium mined by producers such as Kazakhstan and Australia that it has subsequently enriched. Russia recently signed enrichment agreements with both countries, which boast two of the world’s largest reserves of uranium.

The Bush administration has opposed the judgments both on national security and commercial grounds. Tobey said that the court judgments threaten not only the current agreement but the ability of the United States to entice Russia into further downblending of nuclear weapons-usable material into reactor fuel.

Tobey acknowledged that Russia has shown little interest in such a follow-on agreement and indicated that an effort in 2002 to strike another downblending agreement foundered on questions relating to cost and Russia’s preference to use any downblended uranium to fuel its own power plants, so as to profit from the export trade.

But he said that “while we can’t predict whether Russia will be persuaded to enter into a future HEU agreement, we can certainly foresee no progress in the absence of incentives, incentives that the Eurodif decision effectively undercuts.”

He said that progress on negotiating a future agreement could serve several U.S. nonproliferation goals. For example, it would represent a concrete step to fulfill U.S. commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament and it would promote efforts to pursue a global fissile material cutoff treaty.

Tobey and David M. Spooner, assistant secretary for import administration in the Department of Commerce, said the decisions also threaten the potential commercial viability of several firms that have planned to build enrichment plants in the United States to fill the market gap anticipated in 2013.

In an effort to prevent these effects, the Bush administration has appealed the Eurodif case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has also offered its support for legislation by several Kentucky lawmakers, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, to alter the law so that Russian and European enriched uranium could be subject to import duties, regardless of the origin of the natural uranium. Other lawmakers have pushed for more narrow legislation limiting the change effectively to Russian exporters. These efforts are opposed by U.S. utilities as well as Russia.

Meanwhile, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M) is said to be circulating legislation that would permit additional imports from Russia beyond those in the Feb. 1 agreement for uranium downblended from Russian weapons. “I believe we should encourage the Russians to continue to meet the nonproliferation goals embodied in the HEU agreement by providing access to the U.S. market as long as a portion of that material is derived from HEU legacy stockpiles,” Domenici told Arms Control Today in a Jan. 11 email.

Indian Politics Stymie U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal

Wade Boese

With U.S. officials warning that time is running out on an initiative to rollback restrictions on global nuclear trade with India, that country’s coalition government failed March 17 to persuade its leftist allies to drop their opposition to the U.S.-Indian effort. Another meeting to sway the holdouts is supposed to take place sometime in April.

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to win over the leftist parties because they have threatened to withdraw support for the ruling coalition if it takes certain steps toward implementing what the leftists charge is a deal that will erode India’s sovereignty and security. Such a split could trigger early elections that risk unseating Singh’s government.

The key issue at the March conclave was whether Singh’s government should finalize a safeguards agreement it negotiated over the past several months with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Safeguards are measures that the agency applies to a country’s declared civilian nuclear materials, technologies, and facilities to guard against their use for nuclear weapons purposes.

As part of a March 2006 agreement with President George W. Bush, Singh pledged to put eight additional Indian thermal nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards, leaving another eight outside of safeguards and free to contribute to India’s nuclear weapons sector. New Delhi also plans to keep its two fast breeder reactors, which can produce large quantities of the nuclear bomb material plutonium, outside of safeguards. It further retains the option to designate any future reactors of any type that it builds off-limits to the IAEA.

Singh’s government is seeking the leftist parties’ endorsement of the new safeguards arrangement so it can be completed and presented for approval by the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors. The leftist parties have warned that they will break with the government if it proceeds with the safeguards agreement without their consent.

The text of the India-specific safeguards agreement remains secret and unfinished. A source familiar with the IAEA-Indian talks told Arms Control Today March 19 that “the sides are close to a final text, but India has to confirm the text” before it can be presented to the board, which typically has agreed to safeguards arrangements by consensus. It can, however, approve them with a simple majority vote.

At the March meeting, Singh’s government did not share the safeguards text with the representatives of the leftist parties, opting to brief them instead. The Hindu, one of India’s largest daily newspapers, reported afterward that leftist leaders said they need more details and that deliberations might take another three to four months.

That prospect conflicts with recent statements by U.S. government officials and legislators that the IAEA Board of Governors and the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must act rapidly on the U.S.-Indian initiative so U.S. lawmakers can take it up before this summer when Congress will recess and then turn its attention to the November elections. (See ACT, March 2008 .) The 45 members of the NSG, including the United States, seek to coordinate their nuclear export rules, one of which restricts trade with countries, such as India, that do not subject their entire nuclear enterprise to IAEA safeguards and remain outside the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India largely has been ostracized from the international nuclear market since conducting a 1974 nuclear blast that used material derived from Canadian and U.S. exports designated for peaceful purposes.

U.S. lawmakers in December 2006 approved legislation with a provision that the NSG must clear India for expanded nuclear trade before Congress will vote on a U.S.-Indian nuclear trade agreement negotiated last summer. (See ACT, September 2007 .) Meanwhile, the NSG is waiting on IAEA board approval of the Indian safeguards agreement.

The next NSG meeting is scheduled to occur May 19-22, which is prior to the next regular IAEA board meeting June 2-6. A special meeting of the board, however, can be convened at the request of the IAEA director-general or any board member, including the United States or India. The source familiar with the IAEA-Indian talks said that there are “no plans for a special session of the board” but noted that could change quickly if the Indian government gives final approval to the negotiated safeguards text.

Still, the window might already be closed. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Hindustan Times Feb. 29 that the “Indian government needs to move in the month of March on the IAEA Board of Governors” in order to give the NSG and Congress time to act. Noting that “it’s not going to happen overnight,” he warned that the NSG process will be “complicated” and “require many meetings.” Burns further cautioned that if Congress did not get around to passing the agreement this year, he thought “it’s very likely that we will not see it continued by a new administration.”

Reshaping the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal to Lessen the Nonproliferation Losses

Charles D. Ferguson

For decades, India’s nuclear programs have been defined by two contradictory forces: the country’s vast ambitions and its limited uranium reserves. Its ambitions have led New Delhi to establish a significant civilian nuclear enterprise, to refuse to sign the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and to develop and test nuclear weapons. Its limited uranium reserves, on the other hand, have clearly slowed India’s nuclear energy development, most likely hampered its nuclear weapons program, and intertwined the two efforts to a high degree.

The tension between India’s goals and resources has grown much stronger in the past decade. By bringing India’s nuclear weapons programs into the open, the country’s 1998 nuclear tests fueled calls to develop the full panoply of nuclear capabilities, including a nuclear triad. India’s recent impressive economic growth has strained the country’s energy system, increasing interest in nuclear energy. In particular, India would like to quintuple the production of electricity through nuclear energy by 2020.

To the Indian government, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement it signed with the United States last year looks like a way for New Delhi to escape this dilemma, giving it access to global uranium reserves without imposing limits on its nuclear weapons program. India’s right and left wings may claim the Congress-led government has somehow shortchanged their country. The truth is that, without the deal, New Delhi will be forced to confront painful trade-offs between its energy and national security goals, as a series of January interviews I conducted in India of nuclear scientists, policy experts, and energy and defense analysts made clear.

For the deal to go forward, the 45 members of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) must first agree to carve out an exception for India to its guidelines. These currently require a non-nuclear-weapon state, as India is legally defined under the NPT, to have comprehensive safeguards on all nuclear facilities before receiving civilian nuclear assistance from NSG countries.

The U.S. Congress too must sign off on the final nuclear cooperation agreement, meaning that it and the NSG will retain considerable leverage over India. They should use this power to condition the agreement in a way that does less damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The NSG has an opportunity to condition this exception on India’s behaviors, including continuing to refrain from testing nuclear explosives and placing permanent safeguards on any foreign technologies and fuel, as well as designated indigenous facilities. Moreover, the NSG should hold back on transferring enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which could further enhance India’s weapons production capabilities, and only supply as much reserve fuel as needed for reasonable power plant requirements. U.S. leadership could also influence India to become a more responsible nuclear-armed state through signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and committing to a cutoff of weapons-usable fissile material in addition to adhering to conditions on civilian nuclear commerce.

Two Intertwined Visions

The roots of the current controversy over the nuclear deal go back to India’s emergence as an independent nation in the late 1940s. At that time, Dr. Homi Bhabha, widely viewed as a father of India’s nuclear programs, sought to develop these efforts in a way that exploited indigenous resources. He was well aware that India’s uranium resources were only sufficient to power a modest nuclear energy program of about 10,000 megawatts per year and even less would be available if some were used for weapons. To compensate, Bhabha laid out a three-stage plan for India to hoard these limited indigenous uranium deposits and to leverage its abundant thorium deposits to bootstrap itself to a massive production of electricity through nuclear energy and to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

This vision of self-sufficiency, which arose in part from India’s desire to escape its colonial heritage, has remained a guiding vision for India’s nuclear establishment even as its practical fulfillment has receded further into the future. India’s positions in the discussions on a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States in many ways reflect a compromise between those who want to be self-reliant and stick almost exclusively with Bhabha’s three-stage plan, which one interviewee called “a sacred cow,” and those who are willing to bring in outside foreign suppliers. India’s preference for autarky was reinforced by its isolation from international nuclear trade after a 1974 nuclear test, which relied on U.S. and Canadian technology and nuclear materials. This is also reflected in India’s current negotiating posture, which seeks to ensure that foreign suppliers cannot shut off access to fuel and reactors if New Delhi tests nuclear explosives or commits some other proliferation transgression, such as transferring nuclear technologies to states of concern.

Moreover, while Bhabha sought to ensure that fissile materials would be available for a nuclear weapons program, India in recent years has fleshed out what it means when it says that it seeks a “credible minimal deterrent.” In its draft nuclear doctrine published soon after the 1998 tests, New Delhi explicitly stated its objective was to deploy a triad of nuclear forces. The triad would consist of land-based ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable aircraft, and nuclear-armed submarines. As with the U.S.-Soviet experience during the Cold War, such a triad is designed to provide India with survivable nuclear forces and a second-strike capability. It would also mean that India’s arsenal would increase from an estimated few dozen operational warheads today to as many as 200 or more, a level akin to China and the United Kingdom. The nuclear deal would not prevent India from building up to these projected operational and reserve capacities within several years.[1]

The Deal and India’s Fissile Material

To produce enough weapons-usable fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium), India needs sufficient uranium. This uranium would have to come from the country’s limited indigenous sources because foreign suppliers would not give permission to have their uranium used to make weapons. Currently, the military has to share these scarce uranium resources with the civilian sector as nearly all of India’s thermal reactors, are fueled with indigenous uranium. All told, the current total annual uranium demand is about 475 tons. The military reactors require about 45 metric tons of uranium annually:  The CIRUS and Dhruva weapons-grade plutonium-production reactors require about 35 metric tons and another military program to make fuel for nuclear-powered submarines, the uranium-enrichment facility at Mysore, uses an estimated 10 metric tons of uranium annually. By contrast,  the civilian thermal reactor fleet currently requires about 430 metric tons of uranium per year to be fully fueled.[2] The uranium demands of the civilian sector have grown since the late 1990s more reactors came online in the late 1990s and the India was able to operate its reactors at a higher pitch.

Indigenous supplies have not kept up with this rising demand. Estimated uranium mining has fallen to around 300 tons per year because of poor planning in the uranium mining and milling sectors and opposition from an emerging environmental movement. Notably, New Delhi has kept its two weapons-grade plutonium-production reactors fully fueled during the last several years while curtailing electricity production.

This energy crunch could not have come at a worse time. Indian electricity demand is soaring to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding economy. According to the Indian government and the International Energy Agency, India’s electricity demand will increase at a rate of 6 to 8 percent annually at least through 2020.

India’s nuclear energy boosters, such as Subhinder Thakur, the head strategist for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), an enterprise of the government of India, claim “the mismatch is temporary.” Thakur said the Uranium Corporation of India, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research, and the Nuclear Fuel Complex are working together to resolve the uranium shortage within the next few years.

Despite this optimistic assessment from the NPCIL, India confronts continued resistance from environmentalists about opening new mines or expanding old ones, especially in the northeastern part of the country. Also, India’s plans to increase its thermal reactor power production within the next five to six years would drive up the demand for domestically mined uranium in the near term. In particular, to keep the newest indigenous reactors fully fueled would require about 140 tons of uranium per year. Adding this to the current uranium demands means that if the plants were run at full capacity, India annually would consume an estimated 600 tons of uranium.

Therefore, if the political conflicts surrounding mining were not resolved by the time these plants were built and if the nuclear deal were to fall through, India would be forced to stop running about half of its indigenously fueled reactors or only operate this fleet at approximately 50 percent capacity. With the deal, India has plans to place enough reactors under safeguards to reduce the demand for domestically mined uranium to just more than 300 tons for the unsafeguarded power production reactors by 2014—the amount that it is mining today. Assuming that India could import the uranium for the safeguarded reactors, the deal could reduce pressure on India to open up new or expand existing uranium mines. From the perspectives of the NSG and the United States, this significant difference between the deal and no deal scenarios offers tremendous leverage.

Still, the United States and the other NSG countries have not yet taken advantage of this opportunity to extract crucial concessions that would reduce the deal’s damage to the nonproliferation system. Instead, the deal would permit India to reach its goal of 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity by 2020, if foreign suppliers could build enough reactors, and to fulfill its nuclear weapons aspirations. If the deal goes through, about one-half of India’s nuclear-generated electricity would come from indigenously produced and currently operating foreign-supplied reactors and the other half would come from additional foreign-supplied reactors, including the two 1,000-megawatt reactors Russia is completing at Kudankulam. Therefore, the Indian government has asked foreign suppliers to bid on building up to eight large reactors by 2020.[3] Current and former government officials, however, admitted to me that this planning scenario is ambitious and faces significant financial and construction hurdles.

Plutonium Production

To be sure, Indian officials I interviewed, as well as some deal supporters in the United States, contend that whether or not the deal goes through will not significantly affect India’s weapons-grade plutonium production.[4] Given New Delhi’s dedication to maintaining such production at full capacity, the deal’s potential impact in this regard is indeed murky.

New Delhi has neither published its weapons-usable fissile material holdings nor indicated how large a nuclear arsenal it intends to make. Unofficial estimates by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) indicate that India may have amassed 575 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium as of the end of 2004.[5] ISIS has also estimated that India may have consumed about 131 kilograms of this plutonium in nuclear weapons tests, as reactor fuel, and in processing losses. The CIRUS reactor could produce about 9 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium annually, and Dhruva could make about 23 kilograms annually. If these estimates are accurate, India may have had available 540 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium as of the end of 2007. Using the conservative International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that 8 kilograms of plutonium are needed to make a nuclear bomb, the stockpiled Indian plutonium could fuel a minimum of 67 first-generation fission bombs. Some analysts have argued that more advanced designs could use as little as a few kilograms of plutonium.[6] Therefore, the upper bound estimate for India’s current warhead capacity is somewhat more than 100 nuclear weapons.

It does appear that, in at least one respect, the deal could stimulate near-term growth in weapons-grade plutonium production. Under the deal, India has pledged to shut down the aging CIRUS reactor by 2010. CIRUS is contentious because India obtained it from Canada in the late 1950s and gave assurances “that the reactor would be used only for peaceful uses.” The United States had provided the heavy water for the reactor. This reactor, however, produced plutonium for India’s 1974 “peaceful” nuclear test, which spurred the United States and other countries to form the NSG. India has considered replacing this 40-megawatt thermal (MWth) reactor with a larger capacity 100 MWth reactor.[7] This replacement reactor could produce about two-and-a-half times the amount of plutonium produced annually by CIRUS, or about 23 kilograms compared to 9 kilograms.

In addition to its weapons-grade plutonium stockpile, with or without the deal, India can make hundreds of nuclear weapons from several tons of unsafeguarded reactor-grade plutonium in spent nuclear fuel it has already accumulated, although the deal could somewhat affect future production. It is unknown how much reactor-grade plutonium India has separated from spent fuel, but the unsafeguarded reactors have produced more than 20 times the amount of plutonium that India has obtained from the two weapons-plutonium-production reactors. The deal did not place any of this past production under safeguards.

The most direct and immediate means of using this material would be as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Although weapons-grade plutonium is ideal for weapons use, reactor-grade plutonium can also serve this purpose.[8] Reportedly, India may have used reactor-grade plutonium in one of its May 1998 tests.[9]

Moreover, this feedstock of unsafeguarded plutonium could fuel India’s planned breeder reactor program (the second stage of Bhabha’s three-stage plan), which will remain outside of safeguards. The five planned breeder reactors by 2020 would require two initial cores of plutonium before recycling of plutonium would make the breeders more than self-sufficient. If only the first 500-megawatt electric Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor were dedicated to weapons production, it could produce up to 140 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year, more than four times the current rate of production from CIRUS and Dhruva.[10]

It should be noted that, in a few years, the deal might lower the future rate of production of reactor-grade plutonium. Without the deal, India would have only six reactors under safeguards: the U.S.-built Tarapur 1 and 2, the Canadian-built Rajasthan 1 and 2, and the two Russian reactors under construction at Kudankulam. With the deal, India has agreed to place eight additional indigenously made reactors under safeguards, meaning that eight pressurized heavy-water reactors and their produced plutonium would remain outside of safeguards. Over the course of the next seven years, the net result would be that the annual production rate of unsafeguarded plutonium would be set to peak at about 2,000 kilograms per year in the next two years and fall to about 1,250 kilograms per year by 2015, when safeguards would be applied to all of the reactors subject to the deal.

Therefore, the deal would serve to lower India’s future unsafeguarded plutonium production rate by about one-third.[11] In that respect, the deal is arguably positive for nonproliferation as long as permanent safeguards are applied. Nonetheless, existing and future stocks of spent fuel would be more than sufficient to fuel the breeder program or to provide direct fissile material for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the deal as structured has given implicit U.S. approval to India’s nuclear weapons program under the guise of bringing India into “the nonproliferation mainstream.”

Directing India Onto a More Responsible Path

To truly bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream, the NSG and Congress must insist on certain conditions. These conditions are minimal in the sense that they would not roll back India’s nuclear weapons program and would not significantly curtail India’s weapons-usable fissile material production capabilities. In that sense, India will have won what it has most sought, recognition of its nuclear weapons program. Even if the deal dies, the United States in effect has already bestowed that recognition. Nonetheless, as a price for that acknowledgement, India should be willing to accept more responsible behavior that would lessen the damage to the nonproliferation regime.

Nuclear trade should be contingent on India refraining from nuclear testing. Also, such commerce should depend on maintenance of permanent safeguards on all designated nuclear facilities. Moreover, the NSG should hold back on transferring enrichment, reprocessing, and heavy-water technologies that could further enhance India’s weapons production capabilities. In addition, the United States should press for India to sign the CTBT and adhere to a weapons-usable fissile material cap. Fully implementing these measures, however, will depend on Chinese and Pakistani actions.

Although most Indian policymakers and analysts have supported the country’s unilateral testing moratorium since 1998, all interviewees agreed that India’s accession to the CTBT has become increasingly tied to the U.S. position on the treaty. India will not ratify the treaty unless the United States does so. Although there is no direct nuclear threat between India and the United States, Indian analysts have made a direct connection between U.S. nuclear actions and India’s place in the world. Summing up this view, Professor Pratap Mehta, the executive director of the Center for Policy Research, based in New Delhi, said India “cannot support a world order that gives into the U.S. maintaining its nuclear primacy.” Moreover, he said that “as long as the U.S. holds out on modernizing its arsenal, India will not sign the FMCT [fissile material cutoff treaty] or the CTBT.”

Acknowledging U.S. influence, top defense expert K. Santhanam, who had a leadership role during the 1998 tests, drew a more direct connection to China and Pakistan. He expressed willingness for India to continue indefinitely the testing moratorium as long as China and Pakistan refrain from testing.

All of the five original nuclear-weapon states, including China, have signed the CTBT. Even if ratification by the United States remains out of reach for the time being, India should be encouraged in tandem with Pakistan to take a step beyond the moratorium and sign the treaty.

Similarly, fissile material production depends crucially on Chinese and Pakistani production. All of the five legally recognized nuclear-weapon states but China have committed to stop making fissile material for weapons. China is believed to have stopped weapons-usable fissile material production, but Beijing has never officially said so. If China would make a public pledge not to make fissile material for weapons, it would put added pressure on India to specify when it would stop stockpiling nuclear weapons material. To bring Pakistan into this arrangement, India could offer a series of alternating unilateral moves. For example, India could verifiably shut down one of its plutonium-production reactors for a period of time. Pakistan could take a similar step with one of its production reactors. Verification could be achieved through third-party commercial satellite monitoring of the status of the reactors.

Although turning back the growth in India’s nuclear arsenal appears unlikely for the foreseeable future, the NSG and the United States have opportunities to shape the future direction of India’s strategic weapons program. They should take it.

India’s Nuclear Energy Program: Ambitious Dreams, Sober Realities

Charles D. Ferguson

New Delhi’s nuclear planners can never be accused of thinking small. Even at the very beginning of India’s nuclear efforts, Homi Bhabha proposed an ambitious three-stage plan for Indian nuclear development that sought to develop original technology that would allow the country to compensate for its insufficient uranium reserves.

Thermal reactors—today’s typical power reactors—represented the first part of Bhabha’s vision. Thermal reactors use slow or thermal energy neutrons to fission uranium-235, a naturally occurring fissile isotope of uranium.

Bhabha envisioned that, in a second stage, spent fuel from these thermal reactors would be reprocessed to separate plutonium for fueling breeder reactors, which would “breed” more plutonium.

In the third and final stage, this plutonium would fuel reactors that would irradiate thorium to make uranium-233. India has about one-third of the world’s known supply of thorium, which is not useful by itself but can transform into the fissile material U-233. U-233 can power nuclear reactors and provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. This material could therefore provide additional fuel for India’s electrical power production reactors and additional material for nuclear weapons.

If India were able to develop the thorium fuel cycle, it could have available as much as 155,502 gigawatt-years of electrical energy (GWe-yr), in comparison to the potential for 328 GWe-yr from indigenously fueled thermal reactors; 10,660 GWe-yr from indigenous coal (which now provides 69 percent of Indian electricity); and 42,231 GWe-yr from plutonium breeder reactors.[1] Currently, India has an installed electrical generating capacity of about 140 GWe, and the rate of electricity demand is expected to increase by 6 to 8 percent per year through 2020 during this period of projected ambitious economic growth.[2] Thus, the thorium cycle holds out the potential to provide a huge portion of India’s projected electricity needs for several hundred years.

Indian engineers have recognized, however, that significant hurdles block the way toward commercializing the thorium fuel cycle. High costs and major technical problems are likely to delay full commercialization of the thorium cycle until at least 2050, according to Indian energy experts.

To fully realize the thorium cycle, Indian engineers first face the mainly financial challenge of proving the commercial viability of the plutonium breeder program. India has operated a small 40-megawatt pilot-scale breeder reactor since 1985.Although India is building a commercial-scale breeder reactor, which is projected to be completed in 2011, and is planning to build four more of these reactors by 2020, ramping up to a fleet of breeder reactors will likely take decades, and it is uncertain if this program will succeed commercially. Thus, full realization of India’s civilian nuclear energy vision appears blurry, and this program could remain stuck at a low level for the next few decades.

Indeed, after nearly half a century of investment, nuclear energy provides only about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, or 3 percent of India’s electricity needs. That compares to about 20 percent in the United States. Even if the nuclear deal were to go through and India were to meet all of its goals for nuclear power generation, nuclear-generated electricity would only account for about 5 percent of India’s projected electricity demands in 2020. —CHARLES D. FERGUSON


1. Subhinder Thakur, Interview with author, Mumbai, January 4, 2008. Similar estimates appear in R. B. Grover and Subhash Chandra, “Scenario for Growth of Electricity in India,” Energy Policy, November 2006, pp. 2834-2847. For data on coal use, see World Coal Institute, www.worldcoal.org/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=402.

2. John Stephenson and Peter Tynan, “Will the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative Light India?” in Gauging U.S. Indian Strategic Cooperation, Henry Sokolski, editor (Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), p. 24.

India’s Planned Nuclear Triad: Seeking a “Credible Deterrent”

Charles D. Ferguson

If the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal were to move forward without any conditions, it would allow India to achieve its goal of deploying a triad of land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear weapons without hampering its nuclear energy ambitions.

India’s desire for a nuclear triad arises out of its stated need for a “credible minimal deterrent.” Exactly what that means is still being debated within the country, although the emphasis is clearly on “credibility” not minimalism. “Minimal” has been dropped at times from government pronouncements, but Indian analysts have consistently underscored the notion of credibility.[1] Even those who are strong supporters of eventual nuclear disarmament generally agree that credibility requires a second-strike capability.

Second-strike capability demands survivable nuclear forces. To achieve this, Indian analysts have borrowed from the U.S.-Soviet experience during the Cold War and have sought to acquire nuclear-armed submarines. In late February, India took a decisive step toward a sea-based nuclear capability by conducting a test of the K-15 ballistic missile from a submerged pontoon. The K-15 has a reported top range of 700 kilometers, allowing it to strike many targets in Pakistan. Deployed K-15 missiles on submarines could also target high-value sites in China.

The Indian military has been less successful in building nuclear submarines from which to launch such missiles. India’s nuclear-powered submarine program has limped along since 1985, although the Indian navy is trying to ready its first nuclear submarine for sea trials next year. India also received some experience in nuclear submarine operations from 1988 to 1991 when it leased a nuclear-powered attack submarine from the Soviet Union. A Russian crew manned this submarine while training Indian sailors. Presently, Russia is building an Akula-class nuclear submarine for lease to India.

Despite the substantial delays in deploying nuclear-powered submarines, these types of warships are not essential for deploying nuclear-armed forces at sea. India could use conventionally powered submarines as missile carriers, surface ships carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles, or aircraft carriers with nuclear-capable bombers. Russia is refitting an aircraft carrier for India. Having fallen behind schedule, Moscow will likely complete the refit by late 2010. India has renamed the Admiral Gorshkov carrier as the Vikramaditya, which would be capable of helping protect India’s submarine fleet as well as launching fighter-bomber aircraft.[2] Of these platforms, Indian defense planners prefer the submarine force, whether nuclear or conventionally powered, to optimize survivability of this leg of the envisioned triad.

At this stage, India has not indicated how large its nuclear-armed submarine force could become. Submarines are least vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack when deployed; in port, a submarine is more exposed to attack. Even when deployed, a small submarine force could be vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare. If Pakistan develops effective anti-submarine capabilities, Indian defense planners would feel pressure to build a larger fleet of submarines, thereby increasing the perceived need for more weapons-usable fissile material and more nuclear weapons.

The other two legs of the triad would also require ready-to-deploy nuclear weapons. In the absence of clarifying information from the Indian government, there has been considerable debate about the deployment status of India’s nuclear weapons. Estimates of weapons that are fully assembled or can be fully assembled within days to weeks vary from a few to up to 100 with many analysts settling on about 30 to 50.[3]

There is even more certainty about the numbers of aircraft India has. India has more than 300 nuclear-capable planes, but it is uncertain how many are devoted to the nuclear mission. The most likely nuclear delivery systems are the Jaguar IS and Mirage 2000H fighter-bombers. Russian-acquired older MiG-27 and newer Su-30MKI fighter-bombers might also have a nuclear role.[4] India plans to upgrade its military aircraft within the next few years by purchasing 126 multipurpose planes for up to $12 billion. During a late February 2008 official visit to India, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly promoted sales of U.S.-made aircraft.[5] It is uncertain how many aircraft India has armed or would consider arming with nuclear weapons.

Although the number of nuclear-armed land-based missiles is also uncertain, tests of these missiles are easier to track. The Prithvi I, with a range of 150 kilometers and a payload of 1,000 kilograms, has been approved for the Indian army. The Dhanush is the naval version of the Prithvi II, which is under development and has a range of approximately 350 kilometers. In addition, India has been developing longer-range Agni missiles. Although the Agni I with a 700-kilometer range and the Agni II with a range greater than 2,000 kilometers have reportedly been “inducted” into the army’s missile groups, their operational status is uncertain. In addition, the Agni III with a range greater than 3,000 kilometers is still under development and was test-launched on April 12, 2007. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the Agni I and II will become fully operational in the next two years. Both can be deployed on road or rail launchers.[6] Once operational, these missile systems would significantly enhance India’s nuclear strike capabilities and could strike parts of China. India is estimated to have up to 100 ballistic missiles with more than half of those in the longer-range Agni class, but it is uncertain how many of these could be armed with nuclear warheads.[7]

Perceived pressures to deter China as well as Pakistan could increase the numbers of deployed and reserve Indian nuclear weapons. Although the actual size of the Indian arsenal is unknown, accounting for even modestly sized bomber, land-based missile, and submarine legs in a triad can give a rough estimate of the potential future size. For aircraft, India may choose to have a few dozen nuclear bombs. Presently, for example, India has about 48 Mirage 2000H planes and about 70 Jaguar ISs, but probably only a portion would have nuclear bombs devoted to them. In the missile leg, a few dozen Prithvi and Agni missiles could be devoted to nuclear missions. In the submarine leg, to ensure survivable forces, India would likely plan at a minimum for one submarine in the shipyard, one in port readying for deployment, and one or two at sea. Assuming up to a dozen missiles per submarine, India may have at least a few dozen warheads for the submarine force. If multiple warheads are placed on the missiles, the warhead numbers could expand by three or more times.

In sum, India’s triad including a single-warhead missile force based on land and underwater and a bomber fleet could exceed more than 100 operational weapons in the coming years. In addition, this warhead amount could increase by a factor of two or more depending on the size of a reserve fissile material stockpile. —CHARLES D. FERGUSON


1. For an extensive, recent Indian report on this issue, see “India’s Credible Minimum Deterrence: A Report,” IPCS Special Report, No. 13, February 2006.

2. Viktor Litovkin, “India to Get Renamed Aircraft Carrier From Russia,” RIA Novosti, June 11, 2007.

3. Arms Control Association, “Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: India,” Fact Sheet, November 2007; Sharon Squassoni, “Indian and Pakistani Nuclear Weapons,” CRS Report for Congress, RS21237, February 17, 2005.

4. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “India’s Nuclear Forces, 2007,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, pp. 74-78.

5. Ken Fireman, “Gates Says U.S.-India Ties to Expand Regardless of Nuclear Deal,” Bloomberg, February 26, 2008.

6. Norris and Kristensen, “India’s Nuclear Forces, 2007,” p. 76.

7. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Nuclear Forces: India 2005,” www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19273&prog=zgp&proj=znpp; Natural Resources Defense Council, “Nuclear Notebook,” July/August 2007.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He co-authored The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2004).


1. For a different analysis that reaches similar conclusions, see Raja Menon, “Nuclear Stability, Deterrence and Separation of India’s Civil and Weapon Facilities,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 29, No. 4 (October-December 2005).

2. Zia Mian et al.,“Plutonium Production in India and the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” in Gauging U.S.-Indian Strategic Cooperation, ed. Henry Sokolski (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), p. 109.

3. Note that there is a discrepancy between NPCIL and Government of India Planning Commission estimates of the number of foreign-supplied reactors by 2020. The NPCIL cites up to eight 1,000-megawatt reactors from foreign suppliers while the commission cites six of these reactors. The difference is accounted for by the NPCIL’s more ambitious projections of 23,180 megawatts of electricity (including contributions from a few breeder reactors); the commission calls for 20,000 megawatts, which it characterizes as “optimistic.” Government of India Planning Commission, “Integrated Energy Policy: Report of the Expert Committee,” August 2006, p. 47.

4. Ashley J. Tellis, “Atoms for War?: U.S.-Indian Civilian Nuclear Cooperation and India’s Nuclear Arsenal,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006.

5. David Albright, “India’s Military Plutonium Inventory, End-2004,” Institute for Science and International Security, May 7, 2005.

6. Thomas B. Cochran and Christopher E. Paine, “The Amount of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Needed for Pure Fission Nuclear Weapons,” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 13, 1995.

7. The thermal power rating (MWth) specifies the power that is produced by the reactor core. Knowing this number, one can estimate the plutonium production capacity. By contrast, the electric power rating (MWe) tells the electrical power production capacity. Because of energy conversion loses, MWe is always less than MWth.

8. U.S. Department of Energy, “Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives,” 1997.

9. George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 428-430.

10. Alexander Glaser and M. V. Ramana, “Weapon-Grade Plutonium Production Potential in the Indian Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2007), pp. 85-105.

11. Mian et al., “Plutonium Production in India and the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” p. 115.

U.S., Russia at Odds on Key Arms Issues

Wade Boese

Top U.S. and Russian officials accentuated the positive after a recent high-level meeting, but the two sides remain deeply divided on developing anti-missile systems and managing their future nuclear weapons relationship.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Moscow to meet with their respective Russian counterparts March 17 and 18, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor and the president-elect. The trip was the second of the “two plus two” talks agreed to last July by Putin and President George W. Bush as a channel for their governments to discuss security issues. The inaugural meeting occurred last October in Moscow. (See ACT, November 2007 .)

Rice explained to reporters March 17 that she and Gates took the atypical step of visiting Moscow for a second straight time instead of hosting a reciprocal visit by their Russian counterparts because of “the hope that we will be able to move on a number of issues.” The trip stemmed from a March 7 phone call between Putin and Bush, who subsequently sent Putin a letter touching on a raft of issues. Putin described the letter as a “serious document.”

Despite descriptions by both sides of the two-day visit as “fruitful” and “productive,” the two countries did not reach any agreements on what have been two of the most divisive issues: missile defenses and future strategic nuclear arms limits. Nonetheless, Bush plans to meet Putin in Sochi, Russia a couple of days after both leaders attend an April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. National security advisor Stephen Hadley March 26 informed reporters of the short-notice trip and described it as a chance to “identify areas of cooperation [and] resolve some outstanding issues so that the relationship is in good shape to be handed over to their two respective successors.”

The U.S. plan to deploy 10 long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic has been the greatest irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship over the past year. The United States claims the systems are intended to protect against a growing Iranian missile threat, but Russia alleges that Russian missiles could be the target. As Gates acknowledged March 17, “The Russians hate the idea of missile defense.”

Gates and Rice sought to soften Moscow’s opposition by reaffirming and fleshing out some previous U.S. proposals intended to reassure Russia that Iran is the true target of the anti-missile systems. For instance, Gates suggested the United States could refrain from activating the proposed systems until Iran conducts longer-range missile flight tests. He also volunteered Washington’s readiness to “negotiate limits” on the anti-missile systems to alleviate Russian fears of a “breakout,” meaning a significant increase in U.S. capabilities that could be used against Russia.

The proposals apparently were very similar to those initially discussed last October, on which Russia later accused the United States of reneging. (See ACT, January/February 2008 .) Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both downplayed that incident.

Still, Russia requested the United States provide its latest proposals in writing so they could be studied more thoroughly, and Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov reiterated that “our positions have not changed.” Indeed, Lavrov remarked that the “best way” for the United States to address Russian concerns would be to abandon its plan.

Another point of contention is what should be done about the scheduled Dec. 5, 2009, expiration of the 1991 START accord. Although that treaty’s nuclear weapons reductions were completed several years ago, the accord’s extensive verification regime is still used by each of the countries to keep tabs on the other’s strategic nuclear forces, including compliance with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which lacks verification measures. That accord commits the United States and Russia to lower their operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 warheads apiece by Dec. 31, 2012, which also happens to be the day the limit expires. (See ACT, June 2002 .)

Russia wants to negotiate new warhead limits lower than those mandated by SORT, as well as restrictions on strategic delivery vehicles. The Kremlin also wants the continuation of some legally binding verification measures.

Although initially resistant to negotiating any new legally binding instrument, including continuation of START verification provisions, the Bush administration relented last October to that possibility. But the administration remains opposed to codifying new arms limits. Rice argued March 17 that the current U.S.-Russian relationship does not require “the kind of highly articulated, expensive limitations and verification procedures that attended the strategic arms relationship with the Soviet Union.”

Although unable to resolve their major disputes, the two sides vowed to continue work initiated last year on a “strategic framework document,” which Rice said would “record all of the elements of the U.S.-Russia relationship.” She cited as key examples joint projects to combat nuclear terrorism and provide nuclear fuel assurances to states forgoing uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities that can be used to make nuclear bombs.

Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, a former U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, will be responsible for advancing many of those projects in her new role as special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation. The Department of State announced her appointment March 14 and indicated her duties entail implementing the measures endorsed last July by Putin and Bush to promote nuclear energy worldwide and reduce proliferation dangers. Press reports indicate that one of the measures that may be signed during the trip is a nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries that Putin and Bush initialed in July 2007, but have yet to sign, in part because of U.S. dissatisfaction with Russia’s policies toward Iran.

Top U.S. and Russian officials accentuated the positive after a recent high-level meeting, but the two sides remain deeply divided on developing anti-missile systems and managing their future nuclear weapons relationship. (Continue)

Using Murphy’s Law Against Nuclear Terrorists

On Nuclear Terrorism. By Michael Levi, Harvard University Press, November 2007, 224 pp.

Reviewed by William C. Potter

Michael Levi’s slender volume On Nuclear Terrorism is a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on catastrophic terrorism. Unlike many recent studies, it neither hypes the nuclear threat nor discounts it. Instead, Levi sketches the obstacles a terrorist would need to overcome to successfully implement a nuclear attack and then discusses the panoply of means available to preclude that outcome. Although many of the challenges and preventive measures have been discussed in much greater depth elsewhere, Levi’s study adopts a systems analysis perspective to demonstrate the power of an integrated, multilayered defense.

Underlying Levi’s concept of defense as a system is the premise that, in order for a defense against nuclear terrorism to be effective, it only needs to succeed at one stage in the terrorist chain of events. In contrast, the terrorist must successfully complete each step in the plot to acquire fissile material or an intact nuclear explosive, fabricate a nuclear weapon, deliver the weapon to the target, and detonate the explosive.[1] Although any element or layer of defense may be relatively ineffectual, Levi argues that a carefully conceived and integrated, multilayered defense stands a much better chance of obstructing a nuclear attack than may at first appear to be the case.

This approach leads Levi to exploit what he calls “Murphy’s Law of Nuclear Terrorism,” what can go wrong (from a terrorist’s perspective) might well go wrong. In other words, understanding the various ways in which terrorists might fail provides insights and potential tools for increasing the odds of terrorist failure. This perspective, in turn, suggests the importance of understanding both terrorist capabilities and their attitudes toward risk and failure.

Levi’s work, like most analyses of nuclear terrorism, does not delve very deeply into terrorist motivations. Yet, it does highlight the intriguing finding by several analysts that many terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, appear to be tactically conservative and risk averse from an operational standpoint; they may be very willing to risk their lives, but not in futile operations. This tendency may not dissuade a terrorist organization from embarking on the very challenging tasks of devising and implementing a nuclear strike, but it suggests a number of opportunities for exerting countervailing pressures that may reinforce their cautionary inclinations and steer them away for the pursuit of high-consequence but low-probability acts.

In reviewing the various barriers in the path of a would-be nuclear terrorist, Levi correctly identifies state stockpiles of fissile material as the “gateways to nuclear terrorism” and emphasizes the importance of security at the source. As Graham Allison famously observed, “[N]o nuclear material, no nuclear bomb.”[2] Unfortunately, the world currently is awash in fissile material, including about 500 metric tons of separated plutonium and more than 1,700 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU), enough for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.[3] Although the overwhelming majority of this amount resides in the United States and Russia, more than a dozen states are estimated to possess at least 25 kilograms of HEU, the minimum quantity needed for a nuclear weapon, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.[4]

In Search of a Nuclear Fort Knox

A number of approaches have been employed with varying degrees of success in order to secure nuclear weapons-usable material at the source. They include materials protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A). Although Levi does not dispute the desirability of providing the same degree of MPC&A for nuclear material as gold is afforded at Fort Knox, he observes a number of difficulties in achieving a gold security standard for nuclear material. One problem pertains to the fact that although the precise amount of gold in storage is known, there is no reliable figure for the amount of global stocks of HEU and plutonium. Indeed, physical inventories have never been conducted in some countries. In addition, although the movement of gold from Fort Knox is very limited (only very small quantities are reportedly ever removed, for purposes of testing its purity), significant quantities of HEU and plutonium are on the move frequently, especially between facilities within a country, but also on occasion internationally. As a consequence, although the Fort Knox analogy may be useful from an aspirational standpoint, one must look more closely at the existing deficiencies in MPC&A to appreciate both the promise and potential for preventing leakage of fissile material into the hands of terrorists.

One of Levi’s important observations in this respect is his recognition of the human dimension to physical protection. In other words, although the three G’s (guns, guards, and gates) are important, the major limits to physical materials protection and material control pertain to human factors such as the presence or absence of a highly developed nonproliferation and security culture and the commitment by political leaders to expend the resources necessary to make MPC&A a national priority.

Although Levi calls attention to the problems posed by deficient political will and underdeveloped culture, he does not offer much guidance about how to correct the deficit, which arguably requires a long-term investment in nonproliferation education and training in order to change mindsets on the part of nuclear custodians as well as nuclear industry officials. He also ignores a number of other promising approaches for reducing the risk of fissile material leakage, including the minimization or elimination of HEU use in the civilian nuclear sector.

Buyers and Sellers

One of the more interesting and original sections of Levi’s book pertains to the economics of illicit nuclear trade. Price, he notes, will present a major barrier to all but the wealthiest terrorist organizations and, in principle, could be manipulated to impede terrorist acquisition of fissile material. For example, he suggests that intelligence and law enforcement entities “might attempt to purchase nuclear materials themselves, driving terrorists out of the market.” Such action, however, also might have the unintended effect of attracting more nuclear suppliers and thieves to the illicit market place. As a consequence, Levi believes sting operations directed at buyers rather than sellers are a more promising approach and could increase uncertainty for terrorists in the market for nuclear goods and services. As such, the authorities “could raise [the terrorists’] perceived chances of failing and hence the odds that a risk-averse terrorist group would be deterred.”

Analogies are often drawn between the trade in narcotics and illicit nuclear trafficking. Although these comparisons typically are put forth to illustrate the amount of nuclear material trade that may have gone undetected (i.e., approximately 20 confirmed cases of smuggling fissile material are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg), Levi cites other drug trade statistics to indicate the potential for even very imperfect border security to disrupt a nuclear terrorist’s plans. For example, he notes estimates by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that 10-15 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States in 2004 was lost or seized in the transit zone and that the “combined probability that cocaine departing South America destined for the United States will actually make it to the United States” was between 35-70 percent. Although these figures and profit margin may still be attractive for drug smugglers, it is less obvious that nuclear traffickers possessing a relatively small supply of material would judge similar odds to be favorable. As such, even less-than-airtight border controls could significantly affect the calculus of would-be nuclear terrorists and might be particularly effective against failure-averse organizations.

INDs vs. Intact Nuclear Weapons

In principle, would-be nuclear terrorists could choose to build their own nuclear explosive or an improvised nuclear device (IND) or seek to purchase or steal an intact nuclear weapon. The chain of necessary conditions for these two types of nuclear terrorism is different, as are the opportunities for frustrating their occurrence.

The potential for nonstate actors to build an IND has been acknowledged by experts for many years, and most concur with the view of the U.S. National Research Council that “crude HEU weapons could be fabricated without state assistance.”[5] There is much less agreement among specialists, however, about how technically competent terrorists would have to be to make a gun-type device or how large a team they would need.

At one end of the spectrum is the view that a suicidal terrorist could literally drop one piece of HEU metal on top of another piece to initiate an explosive chain reaction. At the other end are some senior Russian nuclear officials who continue to deny that nonstate actors could fabricate a nuclear explosive even if they were able to obtain enough fissile material. Levi stakes out a middle position, which recognizes the possibility of terrorist-manufactured INDs but emphasizes the multiple barriers that would have to be overcome, including acquiring a sufficient quantity and quality of fissile material, reshaping the material to meet nuclear explosive specifications, avoiding accidents such as spontaneous ignition, and initiating the explosion. In this respect, he tends to portray the task as far more demanding than several other recent accounts. For example, although he does not directly challenge the assumptions of the widely publicized article by Peter Zimmerman and Jeffrey Lewis on the prospects for terrorists to build a bomb on a “terror farm,” he correctly notes that it will not be a simple task to find experienced farmers and appropriate utensils, not to mention the necessary seed stock of fissile material.[6]

Levi’s discussion of the prospects for terrorist acquisition of an intact nuclear weapon is less satisfying and focuses primarily on scenarios in which states transfer nuclear weapons to nonstate actors either intentionally or as a consequence of their collapse. He largely ignores the risks posed by thousands of nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons that remain in Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals. These weapons represent a particular concern from the standpoint of nuclear terrorism because of a combination of their physical properties and basing modes. Their relatively small size; portability; and, in the case of some older systems, the lack of electronic locks, as well as their forward deployment, make tactical nuclear weapons the likely weapon of choice for a nuclear terrorist organization. These are also the weapons for which there are no legally binding and verifiable arms control restraints in place.

A Way Forward?

Levi’s brief survey of nuclear terrorism pathways is designed less to probe in depth the various points where vulnerabilities exist than to counter worst-case thinking and to direct attention to the potential for reforming defense against “realistic threats.” Although the parameters of these real but less-than-worst-case expectations are not defined, Levi provides a number of very reasonable guidelines for policymakers to follow: (1) improve security for nuclear weapons and materials; (2) emphasize defensive measures that simultaneously address both nuclear terrorism and other terrorist threats; (3) mandate a strategic intelligence assessment that covers the entire spectrum of nuclear terrorist threats, not only the worst possible case; (4) foster an integrated defensive system that promotes domestic and international intelligence sharing and cooperation on nuclear terrorism; and (5) audit defensive efforts to increase confidence that they work in practice as well as theory.

Levi’s first recommendation essentially embraces the dictum that the first priority should be to secure material at the source. As he properly observes, the effective application of this approach has the virtue of not only preventing nuclear terrorism directly, but also increasing the effectiveness of broader (secondary) defensive measures should terrorists find the means to overcome the initial defenses.

The main insight of Levi’s second tenet is the value added of conceiving defenses that serve to protect against nuclear and non-nuclear terrorist threats. Here, Levi has in mind not only measures that enhance intelligence collection and analysis, but efforts to counter terrorist financing and enhance export controls.

One of the fundamental deficiencies in most governmental and nongovernmental analyses of nuclear terrorism is the failure to tap expertise that crosses the terrorism and nuclear weapons divide. Few analyses display familiarity with both domains, and much of what passes for analysis is particularly shallow in treating the diversity of terrorist types, their motivations, and the means available for affecting the tactical and strategic calculations of terrorists. In addition to recognizing this serious shortcoming, Levi suggests a number of means to improve strategic intelligence assessments, including the development of a wider range of scenarios and more public vetting of assessments in order to build public support for strategies that address less-than-worst-case threats.

It is difficult to exaggerate the challenge of effectively managing the existing counterterrorism system involving diverse and often competing organizational interests at the local, state, federal, and international levels. Unlike some analysts, Levi is skeptical that a top-down approach to coordination, such as a czar for nuclear terrorism, would effectively overcome bureaucratic obstacles to coordination. Instead, he argues that the best alternative is to “provide departments and agencies with a framework within which to plan their activities and with a tool to use in justifying and seeking funding for those programs.” The key to coordination, he believes, is the development of a system or framework that enables those responsible for implementing policy to view how the different pieces in the system fit together as an integrated defense.

Finally, Levi maintains that an effective defensive system must include the means to evaluate its efforts wisely. One must continually test the system as a whole to identify weaknesses and assess, as best as possible, its applicability against realistic threats. Exercises that involve red teaming against multiple variations on possible threats, he suggests, are important components of this testing process.

Levi’s argument about the need to conceive of defense against nuclear terrorism as a broad and integrated system makes a great deal of sense. His specific recommendations for achieving that system also generally are sound as far as they go and offer useful insights for thinking about the nature of nuclear terrorism and what can be done to reduce the probability of its occurrence. Yet, the recommendations, as well as the analysis on which they are based, are presented more in the form of snapshots than fully developed arguments. As a consequence, one is left to ponder a number of questions. What are the less-than-worst-case nuclear threats on which we should be focused? Do they primarily involve the theft of HEU or plutonium or tactical nuclear weapons? Should we concentrate principally on those geographical regions and states where most of the material and weapons are located or on those nuclear facilities that are least secure? What would a broad defensive framework actually look like, and how should a new U.S. administration move to implement it? What can be done to more effectively implement the proliferation of new international initiatives to counter nuclear terrorism?

Levi astutely calls attention to the likely operation of Murphy’s Law of Nuclear Terrorism as it applies to terrorists. Unfortunately, one also must be attentive to the probable operation of a similar law as it pertains to the U.S. government’s efforts to combat nuclear terrorism. In other words, as we adjust our sights to deal with less-than-10-foot terrorists, we should not discount the possibility that poorly conceived and implemented U.S. foreign policy can serve as a terrorist growth hormone. That is not an argument for focusing most of our resources on the worst-case scenario, but it cautions against completely ignoring that threat.

William C. Potter is the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He also directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is co-author of The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (2005).

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1. The focus of Levi’s book is on high-consequence nuclear terrorism. It does not specifically address the higher-probability but lower-consequence threats posed by radiological dispersal devices and attacks on or sabotage of nuclear energy facilities.

2. There are a variety of variations of Allison’s quote, a long version of which is, “It is a basic matter of physics: without fissile material, you can’t have a nuclear bomb. No nuclear bomb, no nuclear terrorism.” See Graham Allison, “How to Stop Nuclear Terror,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 1 (January/February 2004), p. 64.

3. See International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Global Fissile Material Report 2007,” October 2007.

4. Some nongovernmental experts believe the International Atomic Energy Agency figure is much too high. See, for example, Thomas B. Cochran and Christopher E. Paine, “The Amount of Plutonium and Highly-Enriched Uranium Needed for Pure Fisson Nuclear Weapons,” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 13, 1995.

5. National Research Council, Making the Nations Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002), p. 45.

6. See Peter G. Zimmerman and Jeffrey G. Lewis, “The Bomb in the Backyard,” Foreign Policy, November/December 2006, pp. 32-39.

A Review of On Nuclear Terrorism by Michael Levi.

Bush Says Iraq Oil May Fuel Al Qaeda WMD

Peter Crail

During a March 19 speech marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush warned of consequences for the early removal of U.S. forces from that country. These, he said, could include the possibility that a withdrawal would indirectly help al Qaeda acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to indicate that Iran was pursuing the development of weapons-grade uranium, a claim contrary to international inspection findings.

In his March 19 remarks, Bush stated that “an emboldened al Qaeda with access to Iraq’s oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations.”

It is not evident, however, that access to substantial additional funds would be an important factor in al Qaeda’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

In regard to nuclear weapons, a 2006 unclassified intelligence report to Congress on WMD proliferation concluded that al Qaeda’s “key obstacle” in developing a nuclear device is acquiring sufficient fissile material. Al Qaeda has pursued a nuclear weapons capability since the early 1990s, but attempts to purchase the necessary material are believed to have been unsuccessful. Known attempts include cases in which the purchase was prevented by law enforcement authorities or in which the group bought material falsely sold as nuclear material.

Prior to the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda had more success in developing a limited biological and chemical weapons capability. According to the 2005 “Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,” al Qaeda recruited individuals during the 1990s with sufficient technical expertise for rudimentary biological and chemical weapons programs. (See ACT, October 2006. )

The report described al Qaeda’s biological weapons work as “extensive” and “well-organized” and indicated that it was operated by “individuals with special training.” Similarly, the commission indicated that some al Qaeda members had know-how to produce and deploy “common chemical agents.” However, U.S. intelligence agencies were “doubtful” that the organization was capable of carrying out mass casualty attacks with advanced chemical agents.

The 2004 report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, informally known as the 9/11 Commission, stated that al Qaeda’s overall operations prior to the September 2001 attacks cost about $30 million each year, based almost entirely on donations. It is unclear how much of this funding was dedicated to the organization’s WMD pursuits.

Al Qaeda’s biological and chemical weapons programs were largely dismantled following U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan. A 2005 unclassified intelligence report to Congress on WMD proliferation indicated that there were no reliable reports of an active al Qaeda biological weapons program but judged that acquiring such weapons remained an important goal. The report stated that al Qaeda continued “possible chemical-related training” in Pakistan, but the commission had no evidence of a concerted program similar to al Qaeda’s pre-2001 pursuits.

Cheney Suggests That Iran Is Developing HEU

In addition to commenting on the WMD threat from al Qaeda, administration officials continue to highlight the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. During a March 24 ABC News interview, Cheney stated that Iran is “heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.”

However, a Feb. 22 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that Iran has enriched uranium to 3.8 percent uranium-235 (from natural concentrations of less than 1 percent), a typical level for nuclear power reactors. Weapons-grade enrichment requires a concentration of 90 percent or more of this fissile isotope.

Enrichment facilities can be used to produce any level of enrichment. However, a December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate assessed with moderate confidence that, between 2010 and 2015, Iran will be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon. The U.S. intelligence community also judged with moderate confidence that Iran would not use its declared facilities to carry out such enrichment.

During a March 19 speech marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush warned of consequences for the early removal of U.S. forces from that country. These, he said, could include the possibility that a withdrawal would indirectly help al Qaeda acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to indicate that Iran was pursuing the development of weapons-grade uranium, a claim contrary to international inspection findings. (Continue)

U.S. Edges Closer to Europe Anti-Missile Deals

Wade Boese

The Bush administration is making progress in negotiating with the Czech Republic and Poland to host controversial U.S. strategic anti-ballistic missile systems. A final deal, however, seems much closer with the Czech Republic than Poland, which is making greater demands on the United States.

U.S. talks with the two governments to station missile defense components on their territories date back at least four years (see ACT, July/August 2004), but official negotiations began early last year. At that time, Bush administration officials predicted the talks might only take months and U.S. site construction could start as early as this year. Now, early next year is the soonest construction may start, pending agreements with the two countries and funding from Congress. In its February budget request for fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1, the Bush administration asked lawmakers for $719 million to fund the project after Congress cut spending last year that would have gone toward construction activities. (See ACT, March 2008 .)

The U.S. proposal aims to deploy 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic to counter what the United States asserts is a growing Iranian missile threat. The Missile Defense Agency has projected that Iran could develop an ICBM able to strike the United States by 2015, while Vice President Dick Cheney March 11 gave a longer estimate of “late in the next decade.”

Polish officials have indicated that Iran is not a significant factor in their willingness to explore hosting the U.S. interceptors, which are a modified and untested version of U.S. systems deployed in Alaska and California. Speaking Jan. 31 in Washington, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that his country “does not feel directly threatened by Iran.”

One motivation behind Poland’s interest in the project is the belief that it will bolster ties with the United States. Sikorski argued that hosting the U.S. base “will make [U.S. and Polish] security mutually dependent for decades.”

Poland also sees the initiative as opening the door to additional U.S. weapons and military assistance. Visiting President George W. Bush March 10, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk noted that the “missile defense system and the modernization of the Polish forces…come in one package.” Bush promised Tusk that the United States would develop a “concrete and tangible” modernization plan for Poland “before my watch is over.”

Determining precisely what U.S. arms will be made available to Poland is a crucial issue in the U.S.-Polish negotiations. Michael Wyganowski, a former Polish diplomat and current executive director of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, told Arms Control Today March 20 that “what goodies the [United States] is willing to provide” will be important to Tusk’s ability to sell any outcome as a success to the Polish electorate.

Ambassador Stephen Mull, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, is leading a U.S. assessment of Polish military modernization requirements. The study reportedly will take at least three months. Visiting Poland Feb. 29, Mull said the two sides will focus on “Poland’s air defense, command and control, and mobility needs.” The costs of any new Polish weapons procurement is expected to fall largely on Poland.

Moscow’s threat to target the planned bases is helping spur Warsaw’s interest in improving its air defenses, including the possible acquisition of shorter-range U.S. anti-missile systems. Russia maintains the proposed U.S. systems are secretly intended for use against it.

Poland has urged the Bush administration to sooth Russian anxieties about the project, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Moscow March 17 and 18 with that purpose (see page 33 ). They reiterated past U.S. proposals intended to ease Russian concerns, which include allowing Russian officials to monitor or visit the sites. One reported option is to permit designated officials at the Russian embassies in the two host countries to conduct short-notice inspections of the bases. Gates and Rice stressed that the host government would have to consent to any such arrangement, reflecting Czech and Polish unease with the notion of a Russian presence at military sites within their borders.

Although a Polish-U.S. agreement could take several months to materialize, talks with the Czech Republic seemingly are nearer completion. Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s press secretary, noted March 10 that it generally had been expected that an agreement would be announced Feb. 27 when Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek visited Washington.

During that visit, however, Topolánek said the two sides were stuck on “three words” related to “environmental protection.” Yet, he downplayed the disagreement as a “technical matter, which is going to be resolved very soon.” A Czech diplomatic source March 18 told Arms Control Today that a “common understanding” exists and all that is required is a “specific formulation.”

The diplomatic source further stated that Prague and Washington are close on both an agreement to host the U.S. base and a separate Status of Forces Agreement, which establishes the legal status of U.S. forces and property stationed in a foreign country. Poland also is negotiating two similar instruments with the United States. The diplomatic source indicated that the Czech Republic “will most probably not” link signing its agreements to the status of U.S.-Polish talks.

Both the Czech and Polish governments would prefer to have NATO’s endorsement of the project, but neither country is making that a precondition of concluding agreements with the United States. The 26-member alliance conducted an extensive study assessing the feasibility of protecting all members’ territories and population centers against long-range missile attacks but could not agree in 2006 on pursuing any strategic anti-missile systems. (See ACT, April 2007 .) NATO members are divided over the general issue, as well as the proposed U.S. system, and it is expected to be a point of discussion at NATO’s April 2-4 Bucharest summit.

In a report on the fiscal year 2008 defense authorization bill, signed into law Jan. 28, lawmakers stressed that NATO should play a “central role” in European missile defenses and urged that any long-range U.S. system located there should be compatible with future NATO systems. That law requires the secretary of defense to certify that any long-range interceptors destined for deployment in Europe have passed operationally realistic flight testing. It also orders an independent study of alternatives to the Bush plan. The report is due to Congress near the end of July.

The Bush administration is making progress in negotiating with the Czech Republic and Poland to host controversial U.S. strategic anti-ballistic missile systems. A final deal, however, seems much closer with the Czech Republic than Poland, which is making greater demands on the United States. (Continue)

Declaration Snags U.S.-North Korean Talks

Peter Crail

A March 13-14 bilateral meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials initiated by Pyongyang was unable to resolve differences over what Pyongyang needs to do to meet a commitment to declare all of its nuclear activities. The key differences involve U.S. concerns that North Korea has pursued a uranium-enrichment program and provided nuclear assistance to other countries. Washington asserts North Korea must come clean on these activities, which Pyongyang denies have occurred or are occurring. U.S. officials also want to make additional progress on dismantling North Korea’s known plutonium-based nuclear weapons program but highlight that the terms of an October 2007 agreement must be completed first.

In October 2007, during six-party talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, Pyongyang agreed to provide a declaration of all of its nuclear activities by the end of that year. (See ACT, November 2007. ) The agreement also stipulated that, by the same deadline, North Korea would complete disabling the primary nuclear facilities used for its weapons program in return for energy assistance and efforts toward normalizing relations with the United States.

North Korea has proceeded with the disablement process, albeit far more slowly than it originally promised, because of technical obstacles and complaints that other countries have been slow in meeting their commitments. (See ACT, March 2008. ) U.S. officials acknowledged that there have been logistical delays in providing the promised energy assistance but indicate that China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have subsequently made greater progress on this assistance.

U.S., North Korea Moot Declaration Formats

Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, in Geneva March 13-14 to discuss ways to make progress on North Korea’s declaration. The discussion appeared aimed at finding a compromise that addresses U.S. concerns by clarifying North Korea’s activities while allowing the broader process of denuclearization to continue.

The Yonhap News Agency reported March 12 that Chinese diplomats had proposed that North Korea provide information about the two most contentious issues separately from disclosures about the plutonium program. In particular, North Korea alone would provide details on its plutonium program in one document, and Washington and Pyongyang would issue a joint statement addressing the uranium-enrichment and proliferation concerns.

The Washington Times reported Feb. 28 that the United States was considering a different arrangement involving both public and secret declarations. Using this formulation, Pyongyang would provide a formal declaration on its plutonium program and a private document addressing the uranium-enrichment and proliferation questions.

Hill told reporters March 13 that the United States “can be flexible on format” but rejected the notion that he and Kim discussed separating the various issues, stating that the two sides “have never talked about separating elements from the other.” He also dismissed the idea of agreeing on a secret document, stating March 19 that the United States is “not interested in more secrecy.”

A congressional source told Arms Control Today March 25 that a side letter agreement on the uranium-enrichment and proliferation issues would not be a problem for Congress so long as the admissions are “fully transparent and verifiable.” The source added that a secret document would be problematic due to the likelihood that it would be leaked, potentially jeopardizing the process.

Consistent Stance on Enrichment, Proliferation

Pyongyang continues to deny any involvement in uranium enrichment and proliferation. Kyodo News quoted Kim March 14 as stating that North Korea has not carried out such activities in the past or present and “will not engage in them in the future.”

The dispute regarding the uranium-enrichment issue has been a major sticking point since 2002, when U.S. officials claimed that North Korea admitted to pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, a claim Pyongyang continues to deny. (See ACT, November 2002. ) This disagreement led to the collapse of a previous denuclearization agreement between North Korea and the United States.

Following the October 2007 agreement, North Korea sought to provide evidence to U.S. officials that some of the materials that Washington believed Pyongyang imported for a uranium-enrichment program were intended for conventional weapon systems. (See ACT, March 2008. )

In regard to North Korean nuclear proliferation, U.S. officials have maintained that the issue has always been part of the six-party talks. This issue rose to the forefront following a September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility allegedly constructed with aid from North Korea. Since that incident, Hill has said that he discussed with the North Koreans U.S. concerns regarding Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear assistance to Syria.

Disagreement over these issues does not only relate to North Korea’s past activities, as U.S. intelligence assessments conflict with North Korea’s assurance that these activities of concern are not ongoing. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell Feb. 27 told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “[w]hile Pyongyang denies a program of uranium enrichment and they deny their proliferation activities, we believe North Korea continues to engage in both.”

South Korea Conditions Key Aid

The lack of progress on fulfilling the terms of the October 2007 agreement may also hinder South Korea’s development assistance to North Korea. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said March 19 that Seoul would continue to maintain the landmark development zone it established at Kaesong to provide economic aid to Pyongyang, but “it would be difficult to expand (the complex) unless North Korea’s nuclear issue is resolved.”

The Kaesong industrial zone was part of a landmark agreement in 2000 in which South Korean companies agreed to operate an industrial park in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. The complex employs about 22,000 North Koreans, and during an historic inter-Korean summit on Oct. 4, 2007, the two Korean states agreed to expand operations at Kaesong over several years. (See ACT, November 2007. )

Prior to taking office, the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, pledged to revisit Seoul’s long-standing “sunshine policy” toward Pyongyang and to pursue an economic cooperation policy contingent on North Korean nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2008. ) The sunshine policy, which gave priority to warmer ties with North Korea, was central to Seoul’s relations with Pyongyang between 1998 and 2007.


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