Nuclear power, with its inherent safety and proliferation challenges, continues to grow in popularity among some states seeking to deploy alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. As a simultaneous advocate of nuclear energy and leader of the nonproliferation regime, the United States has struggled to devise and promote high standards for reducing the danger that the spread of civil nuclear technology will lead to weapons proliferation.

Arguing that traditional U.S. policies have actually favored nuclear promotion over nonproliferation, Henry Sokolski and Victor Gilinsky presented several principles that they argue would enable the spread of nuclear power programs to be truly consistent with the priority of nonproliferation. Carnegie’s George Perkovich moderated the discussion.


  • Major Initiatives: U.S. presidents have had a mixed history of encouraging global nuclear energy development and responding to shocks to the nuclear order with more stringent nonproliferation initiatives. For example, the United States actively promoted the spread of nuclear power in 1954 with its “Atoms for Peace” program. However, when India conducted a nuclear test using imported nuclear technology in 1974, the international community responded by forming the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the United States banned reprocessing of commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel, Gilinsky explained.

  • A U.S. Nonproliferation Policy: The United States continues to encourage the spread of nuclear energy, as evidenced by President Obama’s speech at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. An effective anti-proliferation policy must put international security ahead of commercial gain, Gilinsky contended. Such a policy should be based on broadly applicable principles that are consistent and fair to the countries to whom it applies.

Five Nonproliferation Principles

Gilinsky and Sokolski proposed five nonproliferation principles intended to establish a framework for correcting the main deficiencies in the nonproliferation regime.

  1. No exit from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): Under the NPT, a country can amass the means for a weapons program and withdraw on 90-days notice. Gilinsky and Sokolski argued that treaty members should not be able to exercise the withdrawal clause without squaring accounts. Membership in the treaty should be essentially permanent, they said.

  2. Technological Safety Margin: Article IV of the NPT grants treaty members the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology. This language should be interpreted in terms of the overriding nonproliferation objective of the treaty. Gilinsky said there should be restrictions on the kinds of technology that is acceptable for non-military use.

  3. Highly Intrusive Inspections: Gilinsky stated that countries with nuclear facilities should relinquish a degree of sovereignty to international security organizations and agree to unlimited inspection rights. 

  4. Predictable NPT Enforcement: The NPT needs an established enforcement mechanism to deal with treaty violations in a predictable way. NPT parties should agree upon reasonable responses to particular violations so as to remove the notion that violators can escape with impunity.

  5. Arms Reduction Plan: All nuclear weapon states (NWS)—NPT and non-NPT members alike—should participate in weapons reduction. Reductions are essential to gain the cooperation of other NPT members on other measures, Gilinsky said. 

Practical Implications

  • Fuel Cycle: Enrichment and plutonium reprocessing pose a proliferation concern. There is no longer an economic justification for reprocessing, Sokolski said, so that this activity should come to an end. Enrichment is more complicated, as almost all of the world’s power reactors use low-enriched uranium fuel. Sokolski argued that the world must find a way to limit the number of enrichment facilities, for example, by means of a “Gold Standard” for civilian nuclear cooperation.

  • Additional Protocol: The IAEA Additional Protocol (AP) gives the IAEA authority for wider inspections. While the AP is a step in the right direction, Sokolski explained that it does not allow for inspections at any place and at any time and lacks funding for more intrusive inspections. To strengthen the existing arrangement, the international community should ensure that all countries that have signed the protocol enter it into force. Sokolski also recommended the IAEA impose safeguard fees to fund the Agency’s inspecting capabilities.

  • Addressing Deficiencies: Sokolski emphasized the importance of ensuring that “mistakes are not hereditary.” The world also cannot assume everything that has gone well in the past will work in the future, he added. Addressing these deficiencies with practical policies is the minimum the international community needs to do to reasonably control the proliferation risks associated with any expanded nuclear power use worldwide, he concluded.

  • Political Acceptability: In the ensuing discussion, a number of speakers questioned the political acceptability of many of the paper’s recommendations. For example, participants questioned the enforceability of the NPT principles, and whether the authors would endorse automatic enforceability of the disarmament elements of the treaty.  The question was also raised whether the “no NPT exit” principle would apply to a state seeking to withdraw after being illegally attacked by a non-NPT party that possesses nuclear weapons.  Furthermore, given increasing energy needs, questions were raised as to whether the U.S. – in a changing strategic environment – will be able to promote more stringent rules on nuclear energy development in the future.