Although the nuclear industry is a topic often left untouched in the disarmament debate, an interesting dichotomy emerges among those who critiqued the discussion of the nuclear industry in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons (2008). The pivot is over whether progress on nonproliferation can, as a political reality, be separated from the disarmament challenge.

For example, Ian Hore-Lacy writes that our treatment of nuclear energy in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons “focuses not so much on disarmament as on proliferation.…” Similarly, Achilles Zaluar writes that “[t]he pros and cons of nuclear disarmament relate to security issues; the pros and cons of nuclear safeguards relate to issues of expense, confidentiality, and technological secrets.” In contrast, Takaya Suto and Hirofumi Tosaki implicitly view preventing further proliferation as an integral part of the disarmament challenge.

On this point we agree with Suto and Tosaki. If disarmament is viewed not as an end in itself but as a means to enhance global security, then nonproliferation is essential for nuclear weapons to be safely prohibited. Developing safeguards that build confidence in the peaceful use of declared facilities and in the absence of clandestine activities is an integral part of the disarmament and nonproliferation challenges. Many would find it ideal to develop such safeguards independent of progress on disarmament and commitment to abolition as a real objective. But there is clear evidence that many non–nuclear-weapon states will not agree to strengthen safeguards and their enforcement without concomitant progress toward abolition. To wish this were not so is understandable, but that does not make it realistic.

If disarmament is viewed not as an end in itself but as a means to enhance global security, then nonproliferation is essential for nuclear weapons to be safely prohibited.

Scott Sagan notes that all parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), not only states in possession of nuclear weapons, share Article VI obligations. He goes on to make the innovative and formidable suggestion that international control or management of the fuel-cycle could be a prerequisite of nuclear weapon abolition. Otherwise, the risks of proliferation would induce states to hedge by retaining nuclear weapons or quick reconstitution capabilities. Thus, Sagan argues, “non–nuclear-weapon states also need to recognize that entering into negotiations about international control of the nuclear fuel-cycle is actually part of their Article VI commitment.…” This idea deserves further international analysis and discussion. It is perhaps overly idealistic to think that the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference would consider it, which suggests the need for a parallel forum for motivated states to seriously engage such issues.

It is tempting for champions of nuclear industry to act as if this commercial enterprise can be separated from the complexities and potential constraints of the twin nonproliferation and disarmament challenge, as Ian Hore-Lacy suggests. Leaving aside highly debatable claims about the likely rate at which nuclear reactors will be built in coming decades, it is unrealistic to assume that the pace and scale of expansion will not be influenced by confidence in nonproliferation bulwarks and nuclear deterrence stability. Proliferation, military nuclear crises, or use of nuclear weapons cannot help but affect public perceptions of all things nuclear, even if states do not use civilian power reactors to proliferate. Key states would urge additional constraints on the trade of nuclear technology. If such backlash made it more difficult for developing countries to receive nuclear cooperation from supplier states, those facing what they would perceive as constrictions of their Article IV rights would consider withholding cooperation on the nonproliferation side, exacerbating a vicious cycle of nuclear disorder.

To prevent a weakening of nuclear order, the nuclear industry should participate positively in efforts to advance nonproliferation tools and disarmament progress rather than seek to distance itself from these challenges.

Perhaps the most difficult issues will arise over managing the fuel-cycle. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others have argued, international management may be necessary to avoid the risks and instabilities of a proliferation of national enrichment and reprocessing programs. We noted some of the difficulties of this course. Ian Hore-Lacy objects categorically: “What weakening of the non-proliferation system would result from the creation of such facilities [enrichment plants] in Australia and Canada?” Implicit in his logic is that these are “good” states, whereas the dangers are posed by “bad” states. Yet, a number of states that today are not seeking nuclear weapons could do so in the future. Moreover, it becomes much harder to inhibit the acquisition of fuel-cycle facilities by some states if the green light has already been given to others. If the United States “approves” the construction of enrichment plants in Australia or Canada, for instance, the pressure to do likewise for South Korea, Taiwan, or Egypt (all current friends or allies of the United States) would increase considerably.

To prevent a weakening of nuclear order, the nuclear industry should participate positively in efforts to advance nonproliferation tools and disarmament progress rather than seek to distance itself from these challenges.

The recently agreed exemption of restrictions on nuclear cooperation with India demonstrates the problem. The United States and most other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) do not judge Pakistan to merit a similar exemption, due to its proliferation record and concerns about its overall stability. Yet the nuclear deal with India may increase the probability that China could decide to provide its friend, Pakistan, with similar assistance.

Ultimately, furthering the discrimination that already exists by deciding whether to support or oppose the acquisition of nuclear technology by another state based on perceptions of its government’s intentions undermines the sustainability of a rules-based nonproliferation regime. This is especially true when nuclear technology is externally supplied (as opposed to indigenously developed).

A similar political problem arises with proliferation-resistant technology, which Ian Hore-Lacy and Takaya Suto and Hirofumi Tosaki discuss (even laying aside the more complex technical debate about how proliferation-resistant this technology really would be). The introduction by South Korea of commercial pyroprocessing (one of the proliferation-resistant electrometallurgical reprocessing processes Hore-Lacy advocates) would not, for instance, be accompanied by a ban on standard (highly proliferative) aqueous reprocessing. In fact, it would help “normalize” reprocessing as a technology and give states that wished to hedge a convenient excuse to develop aqueous reprocessing (especially if they first asked for assistance with developing pyroprocessing and were refused). This is not to say that proliferation-resistant technologies are a bad idea per se, but that there is no quick technical fix to what is essentially a political problem.

In discussion of the current attempts to curtail the spread of fuel-cycle facilities, there is broad agreement on the importance of states’ “inalienable right … to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.…” Although Achilles Zaluar states that it would not be a good idea if all 191 states had fuel-cycle facilities, he stresses that such decisions are a purely sovereign affair and that attempting to interfere with them (beyond offering fuel assurances “free of political considerations”) could spark a backlash. Takaya Suto and Hirofumi Tosaki also emphasize the importance of Article IV and a non-discriminatory approach to fuel supply but do see the need for some conditionality. Although they (along with Ian Hore-Lacy) doubt that “determined proliferators … would participate in such an international approach,” they presumably do believe that such assurances might have a role in preventing the spread of fuel-cycle facilities to states that are not seeking nuclear weapons today but might do so in the future.

In general, the politics of the fuel-cycle are an underappreciated dimension to debates about nonproliferation and disarmament. The evolution of the fuel-cycle is a key question that requires much more attention than it has attracted in the past.