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HOME > BOOKS > Nuclear Nonproliferation: Moving Beyond Pretense      

Nuclear Nonproliferation: Moving Beyond Pretense
Published on: Jul 2012

Nuclear Nonproliferation: Moving Beyond Pretense, showcases roughly half of the research along with a preliminary set of findings and recommendations NPEC generated as part of a two-year project. Its findings are pretty tough. Bottom line: Unless the US and other nuclear supplier states step up to tighten the nuclear rules governing the export of civilian nuclear technology, the further spread of civilian nuclear technology is unlikely to be so "peaceful." In specific, more Irans, Osirak raids, or worse is likely.

The good news is that none of this is inevitable. The introduction to the book lays out the problem, the gist of the research the book showcases, and what principles and steps governments can take to contain and reverse current trends. Early next year, NPEC will release all of the research it commissioned as a part of this project along with its final report. Until then, we hope this preliminary findings and report will prompt constructive discussion and debate.

Published by:

Nonproliferation Policy Education Center 
Edited by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski - 2012

Download the complete edition (printer-friendly)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Needed: A New Narrative for Peaceful Nuclear Energy
Henry Sokolski

Chapter 1: How Bad Would the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons Be?
François Heisbourg

Chapter 2: Preventive War and the Spread of Nuclear Programs
Matthew Fuhrmann

Chapter 3: Centrifuges: A New Era for Nuclear Nonproliferation
R. Scott Kemp

Chapter 4: Persuading Countries to Forgo Nuclear Fuel-Making: What History Suggests
Richard S. Cleary

Chapter 5: The 1979 South Atlantic Flash: The Case for an Israeli Nuclear Test
Leonard Weiss

Chapter 6: Facing the Reality of Iran as a De Facto Nuclear State
Gregory S. Jones

Chapter 7: Serious Rules for Nuclear Power without Proliferation
Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski

About the Contributors

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Needed: A New Narrative for Peaceful
Nuclear Energy

Henry Sokolski

With most governments, nuclear power enjoys special status. Governments have funded most of the nuclear industry’s research and development, financed or guaranteed loans for its construction and export of nuclear plants, protected it against full liability for off-site damages in the case of nuclear accidents, and promoted nuclear power development internationally. In all of this, government officials have assumed that the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable—certainly far less than the environmental, economic, and energy security risks that would be run if nuclear power did not spread.

This history and set of assumptions has helped foster a narrative from the nuclear industry, government energy ministries, and academe that has downplayed the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation.1 It is a view that turns not only on an overly optimistic assessment of how well states can curb and prevent military diversions, but also of how militarily irrelevant nuclear weapons are and how unlikely their possible use is.

This narrative begins by drawing a sharp line between the proliferation risks of using nuclear energy to boil water, which it argues are nil, and the making of nuclear fuel, which is potentially dangerous. It then contends that nuclear supplier states can persuade their non-weapons state customers not to make nuclear fuel because this activity is expensive and complex, and it notes that future nuclear plants can be made ever more proliferation-resistant. This narrative goes on to spotlight the utility of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. These, it argues, can and are being strengthened sufficiently to deter and detect most of what matters. What they cannot deter or detect can be counter-proliferated. All that is needed here is more timely intelligence to support covert operations, which the U.S. and other like-minded states can be counted to act upon. Finally, it is argued that although several more countries are certain to acquire nuclear weapons, this will not matter since nuclear weapons are not militarily useful except to deter use, a mission that they easily accomplish.

Although not every proponent of nuclear power makes all of these arguments, all of these arguments are now, in one fashion or another, made by industry, academics, and public officials. It’s a powerful narrative that favors bolstering nuclear power’s further expansion. Indeed, so far, no real counter-narratives, only counterpoints (i.e., qualifications), have yet been offered to this upbeat view. It has been noted, for example, that truly proliferation-resistant reactors and fuel cycles are not yet at hand, that what has been proposed is unlikely to work, and that nuclear power is currently too expensive to be practical. The rejoinder to this–that in time, affordable proliferation-resistant systems will be developed–has been easy to make. A true counter-narrative would be more difficult to deflect. It would show how the truth is actually the opposite of each of the arguments listed above. Again, such a counter-narrative has not yet been made.

This volume, which features roughly half of the research the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) recently commissioned on the assumptions currently driving U.S. and international nonproliferation policies, is part of a larger effort to do so. It eschews contentions that the spread of nuclear weapons and related capabilities is a manageable, minor security issue. Here it spotlights the work of two security scholars. François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M University. Both argue that nuclear weapons proliferation is more likely to occur with the spread of civilian nuclear technology and that such nuclear proliferation constitutes a threat to international security–certainly if there is nuclear weapons use, but even if there is not.

In a separate study, Scott Kemp of Princeton takes on the conventional wisdom that uranium enrichment is extremely difficult and expensive for states to master and that, therefore, it will be easy to persuade states to forgo making their own nuclear fuel. As with small reprocessing lines, centrifuge enrichment, it turns out, is not all that much of a hurdle. Worse, it is an activity that can be hidden relatively easily from IAEA inspections until it is fairly simple to break out to acquire nuclear weapons.

Then, there is the problem of persuading states not to make their own nuclear fuel.  History has not been kind to those that have tried.  In his brief set of histories, Richard Cleary of the American Enterprise Institute highlights the disappointment the United States encountered trying to persuade Iran, Brazil, South Korea, and Pakistan to not make fuel.  This history hardly augers well for any future attempts.

Yet another misguided assumption is that governments would want to collect all the intelligence they can on a proliferating state that is violating the rules, and that they would be eager to act on this intelligence. This is not in fact the case. Certainly, the U.S. sat on intelligence regarding A.Q. Khan in Pakistan and acted only very belatedly regarding intelligence concerning North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. Such reticence to act on proliferation information, moreover, is hardly new. In his analysis of the South African flash of 1979, Leonard Weiss details how the U.S. government did all it could to deny the possibility that the Israelis conducted a nuclear test, even though the evidence clearly suggests they did.

In the cases noted above, timely intelligence was actually suppressed. There also is a problem with the way governments choose to interpret the intelligence they get. Consider the case of Iran. Most officials would like to believe that there is still time to head Iran off from developing nuclear weapons. This has encouraged the view that Iran is still far from getting its first bomb.

Greg Jones, NPEC’s senior researcher, though, details how, in fact, Iran’s nuclear weapons capability is so advanced that it no longer is a problem to be solved so much as a fact to be reckoned with. That many intelligence officials cannot bring themselves to agree to this in public suggests how uncertain relying on their intelligence findings would be to assure timely “counter-proliferation” actions to manage nuclear weapons proliferation.

How, then, are we to prevent more Irans? Mr. Jones suggests that we tighten the nuclear rules. This, then, brings us to the most important of this preliminary report’s offerings:  the nonproliferation principles and steps recommended in “Serious Rules for Nuclear Power without Proliferation.” Victor Gilinsky and I developed this chapter initially as a thought exercise. What would a proper set of nonproliferation rules look like if one did not put nuclear power sales and promotion first but instead emphasized security?

As we see it, this question has only been seriously tackled twice before:  in 1946 with the Acheson-Lilienthal Report on the international control of nuclear power, and in 1976 with the Ford-Carter executive branch decisions to defer the use and production of commercial plutonium-based nuclear fuels. The Acheson-Lilienthal proposals were rejected by the Soviets. Shortly thereafter, the Eisenhower Administration decided to share U.S. civilian nuclear energy internationally in the hopes that the control issues raised in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report could be solved later. This gave rise to the Atoms for Peace program, the creation of a loose set of nuclear controls administered by the IAEA, and the wholesale export of nuclear technology internationally. Atoms for Peace remained U.S. policy until 1974, when this approach was literally blown away by India’s “peaceful” nuclear explosion of a bomb made of plutonium that was produced using “peaceful” U.S. and Canadian civilian nuclear assistance. Shortly thereafter, the London Suppliers Group secretly agreed to restrict the export of nuclear fuel-making technologies to non-weapons states, and Presidents Ford and Carter announced U.S. efforts to defer the commercial use of plutonium-based fuels both domestically and abroad.

That was over thirty years ago. Now, after Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, A. Q. Khan, and Syria, there is cause to review the bidding once again. Certainly, the experience of the last three and a half decades has challenged the assumptions that drove the nuclear policies of Presidents Ford and Carter. These policies presumed that we could detect nuclear fuel-making. Uranium enrichment centrifuges, which are relatively easy to hide, were not yet readily available then, nor had much thought been given to just how small one could make a dedicated, covert reprocessing plant. It also was presumed that if illicit nuclear activities were detected, swift, effective international enforcement would follow. Our experience with Iran and North Korea, though, has jilted many of these notions. In fact, the U.S. and others now find it challenging just to maintain existing nuclear nonproliferation controls, much less to tighten them.

Much of this nonproliferation defensiveness is reflected in how the U.S. and others view the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This view is encapsulated in a diplomatic formulation known as “the three pillars of the NPT.” According to this view, the NPT and the nuclear nonproliferation regime rest on three objectives that must be balanced against one another. The first is nonproliferation (as manifested by Articles I, II, and III of the NPT). This roughly translates into IAEA safeguards and United Nations Security Council enforcement measures against NPT violators. The second is nuclear disarmament (as manifested by Article VI of the NPT). It focuses on reducing the NPT nuclear weapons states’ atomic arsenals (almost exclusively the U.S. and Russia). The third is sharing “peaceful” nuclear technology (as manifested by Article IV of the NPT). This can range–depending on who is defining “peaceful”–from the sharing of benign medical isotopes to transferring proliferation-prone nuclear fuel-making technologies.

Putting aside how little of the NPT’s diplomatic history actually supports this popular diplomatic interpretation,2 the key problem with this three pillar formulation is how intellectually self-defeating it is. First, if the nuclear-armed states are judged not to have sufficiently disarmed their nuclear stockpiles, why or how should this be used as the pretext for promoting less nonproliferation? Wouldn’t backing off necessary nonproliferation controls only increase the prospects for more proliferation and, therefore, increase demands for more nuclear armament?

Similarly, how is supplying non-weapons states with ever more “peaceful” nuclear technology a prerequisite for securing more or tighter nonproliferation controls? If the technology in question is truly peaceful and benign, it, by definition, ought to be safe to share without creating any apprehensions that it might be diverted easily to make bombs. In this case, though, why would nuclear supplier states need a nonproliferation incentive to share it? If, on the other hand, a civilian nuclear technology was proliferation-prone and, therefore, not clearly safe to share, why would any state that wants to promote nonproliferation believe it was under an NPT obligation to transfer it?

Again, doesn’t the promotion of nonproliferation presume the sharing of only truly “peaceful” energy and the general encouragement of nuclear restraint? Indeed, why would any state want to trade off the goal of nonproliferation with its presumed benefits? How much sense does any of this make?

The short answer is not much. At the very least, sounder thought ought to drive our nonproliferation policies.

In specific, Victor and I suggest five guiding principles:

1. Locking down the NPT. It is not consistent with the NPT’s purpose for members to exercise the withdrawal provision after gaining technology of relevance to weapons—whether by importing it or developing it domestically—as this was done under the assumption by other members that it was for peaceful uses. Treaty members cannot exercise the withdrawal clause without squaring accounts. As a practical matter this would mean membership in the Treaty was essentially permanent. Under this interpretation North Korea’s 2003 announcement of “withdrawal” while in noncompliance of IAEA inspection requirements left that country in a state of Treaty violation.

2. A technological margin of safety. The Treaty cannot be a vehicle for a state to legally come overly close to a weapons capability. There has to be a technological safety margin between genuinely peaceful and potentially military applications. As a consequence, the “inalienable right” language in the Treaty has to be interpreted in terms of the Treaty’s overriding objective, and thus there have to be restrictions on the kinds of technology that are acceptable for non-military use. Nuclear power needs to develop in a way that does not provide easy access to nuclear explosives. Where to draw the line is now coming to a head in the context of Iran’s nuclear program.

3. Adjusting nuclear sovereignty for greater security. Countries involved with nuclear energy must accept that the inherent international security dangers such involvement implies require them to relinquish a considerable degree of sovereignty to international security organizations, in particular the IAEA inspectorate. In view of the concerns about clandestine facilities, both with respect to enrichment and reprocessing, countries have to agree to essentially unlimited inspection rights for international inspectors if the circumstances warrant. The Additional Protocol is a good start toward expanding inspector’s right, but this unfortunately goes along with a reduction in the frequency of normal inspections.

4. Enforcement. The NPT needs an established enforcement mechanism to deal with Treaty violations in a predictable way. The foregoing rules for operating nuclear power plants in a manner that is consistent with international security are not self-enforcing. There has to be agreement among the Treaty parties concerning reasonably predictable responses to particular violations, and most particularly any effort by a state to withdraw from the Treaty, so as to remove the notion that violators can escape with impunity.

5. Nuclear reductions for all. All nuclear weapons states have to participate in weapons reductions. This is essential for gaining the cooperation of the other NPT members in restrictive measures. In the first instance this includes Britain, France, and China, which up to now have not participated in the reduction process that has involved the United States and Russia. But it also has to include India, Israel, and Pakistan, and North Korea as well. With 190 nations adhering to the NPT, its obligations should be regarded as universal, thus applying to all countries whether they formally joined the Treaty or not. From this point of view, North Korea and the three countries that never joined would be regarded as members who are out of compliance. But by participating in a suitably monitored weapons reduction process, they could be viewed as members in the process of coming into compliance.

As already noted, these findings are only preliminary. Early next year, my center plans to publish its final report. It will reflect all of the research my center commissioned for this project, including some that has yet to be completed. Until then, it’s hoped that the publication of this set of preliminary findings will foster constructive discussion and debate.


1. See, e.g., Steven Kidd, “Nuclear Proliferation Risk – Is It Vastly Overrated?” Nuclear Engineering International, July 23, 2010,


The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1601 North Kent Street | Suite 802 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |