Jessica Mathews:  I want to shift this morning’s focus from technology to politics and to back off from the particular proposals that the administration has made and give you the broader picture of where things stand. I want to describe the larger framework in which nuclear technology will finally either succeed or fail. 


I will start from the premise that the nonproliferation regime that has served us extremely well for years is today on the verge of collapse.  This has everything to do with the potential for a renaissance of nuclear power, because unless we have a viable, effective nonproliferation regime, nuclear energy will neither be accepted publicly, nor would it be a wise choice for any of us as citizens of the world.  It would be a terrible Pyrrhic victory. 


I can remember some years ago when Hans Blix, who was then head of the IAEA, came to see me in my office and said, “I view every day that passes as one day further from Chernobyl and one day closer to global warming.” This was about 13 or 14 years ago.  We’ve come a lot further from Chernobyl and closer to global warming but I want to underline that reactor safety is no longer the principal concern, nonproliferation is.


Cost is obviously an issue.  I expect that nuclear energy can succeed with some degree of government subsidy, possibly through some kind of carbon tax, but competitive cost does matter; I will have more to say with respect to the GNEP proposal on that issue.


But, where are we today on the proliferation front?  Also, why do I say that it is a regime on the verge of collapse? Look at what we have gone through recently.  In 1998, we had the India and Pakistan weapons tests and then their ongoing nuclear programs.  On 9/11, the linkage between terror and nuclear weapons was highlighted in a way that the world can never forget. Then, we have the revelations of the A.Q. Khan network, a corporate network, and, most recently, the events in North Korea and Iran. 


India and Pakistan broke no covenant. The A.Q. Khan network broke no law. What we have learned is that the regime that has served us well for many decades was not built to deal with non-state threats, whether corporate or terrorist.  The events in Iraq and North Korea in the ’90s highlighted what experts have long recognized as the Achilles heel of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: that it allows access to technology that then provides direct access to fissile materials through reprocessing or enrichment.  With that came the recognition that there is no safeguards regime — none — that can provide adequate safety when those technologies are involved. So, you have a situation where it becomes clear that there are vast holes left uncovered in the NPT and the regime that has been built around it, and, then, this one awful Achilles heel. The question is what to do about it.


On top of that, we had a coming together of two issues that have always been dealt with by different people in different departments — whole different worlds. One is the vertical proliferation problem, the problem of controlling nuclear weapons in the nuclear weapons states, principally between the US and Russia. And, you have the horizontal proliferation problem. What we’ve come to see is that the two clearly need to be connected. Why? Because the non-nuclear weapons states have come to believe in the 15 years since the end of the Cold War, that the nuclear weapons states don’t ever intend to hold up their end of the NPT bargain. That is the problem we’re dealing with out there.


The widespread view in 100 or more countries is that the nuclear weapons states do not ever intend to implement those parts of the NPT which require them to pursue complete nuclear disarmament.  That commitment made in 1968, was explicitly reiterated in writing in 1995, at the time that the NPT became a permanent treaty.  And, so, the anger in the non-nuclear weapons states at what they see as not only no progress, but instead movement by the United States in the opposite direction is the enormous barrier that the administration faces in wanting to strengthen the regime, which is obviously necessary. 


So, what do we do?  The first thing that we have to do is sign and ratify the test ban treaty and shut down programs to make new nuclear weapons because the latter drastically, clearly, and explicitly goes in the opposite direction from the Article VI commitment. This does not mean that we intend to go to zero nukes: we don’t yet know whether that is either feasible or desirable.  What it means is simply that these steps are necessary preconditions to rebuilding the nonproliferation regime and that doing so is the precondition to a large-scale civil nuclear future. There will be no way to do that, unless we do this.  And we know now technologically that we can keep warheads safe, through much longer periods than previously believed, without testing.  There is nothing more than a Cold War hangover that keeps us from signing the test ban treaty. 


Second, we must not make new mistakes. GNEP in my view is a mistake. It fails on three counts.  Its goals are absolutely correct, but it fails on political, technological and for want of a better word, temporal counts. Let me explain why I think so.  The message from GNEP is that reprocessing is good, is important, maybe essential, for any civil nuclear power, but you — that is, most non-weapons states excepting America’s particular friends — can’t be trusted with it. The message of US policy until now, since the mid-1970s, has been that we have concluded we don’t need reprocessing and other states don’t either. 


Those are two entirely different messages, and the first of them won’t fly. Can’t fly, and won’t fly. That’s the most important way GNEP fails. We’ve already begun to see the political impact of that message: the reawakening of interest in reprocessing in states where it had been dead or dormant for three decades. 


Let me also remind you that in the mid-1970s when the country was debating whether to give up reprocessing, perhaps the strongest argument against doing so was that we would be left behind—that the rest of the world would march ahead and we would be left behind, technologically and economically. That didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happened and that is extremely important to remember.  Several countries that were pursuing reprocessing at the time gave it up, major allies, and it was a very clear message. 


The second ground on which GNEP fails is the technological one. The planned technology is not consistent with the threat of theft or diversion. The material, personnel, specialized equipment involved in civil reprocessing could be, as they have in the past, used to advance weapons programs whether covert state-based programs or non-state terrorist programs. 


Finally, the temporal problem is that with technology such as this, the political costs will be far ahead of the potential technological benefits.  So, while the vision of a world that GNEP-advocates paint is an attractive one, we can’t get there because the interim steps from here to there go much faster on the political front than they can on the technological front.  We will be left with a world in which we have multiple reprocessing and enrichment sites.  Reprocessing, in particular, will provide terrorists with much greater access to fissile materials and the likelihood of some theft is indeed overwhelming in the interim. 


In addition to these major steps, there are additional necessary actions to build a political framework for the renaissance of nuclear energy.  We have to have state of the art security applied to all nuclear weapons and weapon-usable materials, whether civilian or military, wherever they are in the world.  And where effective security is impossible, and that is in many places, materials must be relocated or eliminated as quickly as possible. That is going to be an expensive venture.


Secondly, we need to end production of weapons-usable fissile materials. In my view, the production of HEU should be permanently ended and the separation of weapons-usable plutonium should be suspended until the existing stock is drawn down.  No new countries should build or operate nuclear reprocessing facilities, and the only possible way to reach such an agreement, which is going to be an enormous diplomatic mountain to climb, is going to be to fulfill the spirit of the Article VI commitment by the nuclear weapons states.


Thirdly, civilian, research, power and naval reactors that run on weapons-usable fuel have to be converted promptly to alternate fuels or shut down. This includes reactors in the United States and that effort needs to be accelerated far beyond what is going on now. Wherever possible, all that fuel should be returned to the state of origin.


We should stop offering commitments to use US highly-enriched uranium and rescind the existing commitment and take back fuel that is of US origin.  This is an effort that the entire G8 should be pursuing using money from its Global Partnership fund.


And, finally, we must eliminate the stockpiles of surplus fissile materials in countries all over the world and move in an accelerated way towards their elimination.  The US plutonium disposition program, which has achieved almost nothing at enormous cost and enormous time, needs to be completely re-thought and that must include a much greater focus on the security of spent nuclear fuel facilities, because final disposition is going to take decades and it is not safe to leave most of them as they are.


As difficult and as expensive as these steps are, they are the minimum necessary requirement to create a framework that makes nuclear power safe for a world that needs it. I look forward to hearing your questions and I thank you for listening.







This speech was delivered at the First Annual Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor Global Nuclear Renaissance Summit focusing on “Assessing Potential Paths Forward for the Fuel Cycle and Expanding Nuclear Power.” The summit took place on December 4 – 7, 2006 and was sponsored by the Exchange Monitor.


For more information about the conference, please click here.