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HOME > TOPICS > The Nonproliferation Regime      
The Nonproliferation Regime

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) represents three basic bargains. The first is encapsulated in Articles One and Two of the treaty. They prohibit states with nuclear weapons from transferring them or the means to make them to states that lack nuclear weapons, and ban nonweapons states from acquiring them. The second NPT bargain is set forth in Articles Three, Four, and Six. These articles stipulate that the nuclear weapons states will negotiate in good faith to disarm and will share the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy with nonweapons states. In exchange, the nonweapons states pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons and to allow international inspections of their civilian nuclear facilities and materials to verify whether non-nuclear weapons states are in compliance with the treaty and are not diverting peaceful nuclear activities or materials to make nuclear weapons.

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Sep 26, 2021 "'Fast Reactors' Also Present a Fast Path to Nuclear Weapons," The National Interest
Some Washington insiders are now betting the proposed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill may stall in the House but be reconsidered at a later date. If they’re right, it may not be all that bad. As Victor Gilinsky and I note in our The National Interest piece, “‘Fast Reactors’ Also Present a Fast Path to Nuclear Weapons,” the current bill funds several worrisome fast reactor commercialization programs. These are listed under Energy Department’s “advanced reactor” program. Fast reactors produce tons of weapon-grade plutonium. Initially, they also will use uranium much more highly enriched than conventional nuclear fuel (i.e., to roughly 20 percent—the very figure the United States and other countries worry Iran enriching to as it brings Tehran quite close to making weapons-grade fuel). You would think this would be a technology the United States wouldn’t want to push or popularize. Yet, under the proposed infrastructure bill, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the world’s richest individuals, are slated to receive massive federal subsidies to commercialize their Natrium fast reactor. This program’s boosters (which include the Secretary of Energy, who touts it as the department’s flagship advanced reactor project), claim fast reactors will not only reduce carbon emissions, but make money. To hedge their bets, though, they are already talking about exporting them. This is a weird way to save the planet. Fast reactors make tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Strategic Command’s Admiral Richard made this clear when he warned Congress that China’s “peaceful” fast reactors could easily bulk up Beijing’s nuclear weapons arsenal. India has gone further: It openly boasts its fast reactor is part of its nuclear weapons expansion program. Washington has long discouraged nonweapons states from enriching uranium or reprocessing uranium. It’s a sound policy and why Victor and I argue Congress should line out proposed spending to commercialize or export fast reactors. If we are serious about promoting peaceful, economic electrical generation, we have to hope Congress will.
Op-Eds & Blogs
Sep 08, 2021 Iran Leaving the NPT: Our Next Headache (Occasional Paper 2105)
Iran is increasingly putting Washington in a nuclear bind. On the one hand, it refuses to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its uranium enrichment-related activities or to clarify its past suspect nuclear weapons pursuits. On the other, it has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 2015 nuclear deal unless Washington lifts economic and trade sanctions against Iran and allows it a robust “peaceful” nuclear program. It hardly helps that Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent — close to weapons-grade. Israel, meanwhile, is also turning up the heat. Israeli military officials publicly oppose President Biden’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and are planning to take covert and overt military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. How will this story end? The short answer is we don’t know, but one possibility — that Iran will try to withdraw from the NPT — now needs to be taken seriously. Are we ready for this? NPEC thought it would find out. Early in August, it held a week-long diplomatic simulation of a crisis in which US intelligence confirms that Iran intends to withdraw from the NPT. The Israelis fortify this finding in the game by sharing and, subsequently leaking, photographic intelligence that Iran is building several implosion devices. The game featured some prominent players, including a former UN deputy general director for disarmament, a former director of the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center, a former assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, and players from Egypt and Israel. Rather than spoil the drama of how the game unfolds, I've attached the game’s key takeaways below. The most important of these is that the United States will have to work much harder to develop its own sources of intelligence on Iran and far more closely with key allies and the IAEA if the NPT’s restrictions are to prevail not just in a crisis with Iran, but, with any bad luck, with future Irans.  
Occasional Papers & Monographs
Jul 20, 2021 "Bill Gates' Fast Nuclear Reactor: Will It Bomb?" The National Interest
Last month, Wyoming became ground zero for the future of nuclear power. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and the state of Wyoming announced their intent to construct a commercial fast reactor demonstration plant, known as the Natrium project. Experts are already debating the project’s merits. Can it really be built for just four billion dollars? Are sodium fast reactors more or less safe than current thermal reactor designs? Why are two of the richest men in the world asking the Department of Energy for millions of dollars of subsidies in the project? Will the project ever be completed? All of these questions are in play. One question that’s not – the project’s nuclear weapons proliferation implications – however, needs to be. As Victor Gilinsky and I note in the attached piece that The National Interest just ran, “Bill Gates’ Fast Nuclear Reactor: Will It Bomb?” Bill Gates’ nuclear firm, TerraPower, plans on exporting the Natrium reactor. What’s worrisome is the reactor can’t work without uranium enriched to 20% (something we don’t want Iran or other countries to do because it brings nations close to getting bomb-grade) or the recycling of nuclear explosive plutonium (another nonproliferation no-no).  India and China are also interested in fast reactors. New Delhi wants to use theirs to make bombs; Beijing may as well. That’s why the United States has historically opposed commercializing such reactors and their related fuel cycles.  Before our government pours more money into such fast, “advanced small reactors,” it should identify what the associated proliferation risks are of pushing these projects.  
Op-Eds & Blogs
May 27, 2021 Grim Prospect: Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (Occasional Paper 2103)
As Secretary of State Blinken returns from his trip to Israel after its shooting match with Hamas, the question arises, just how peaceful is the Middle East ever likely to be. The immediate crisis and the shooting may be over in Israel but the long-term prospects for the region include the very grimmest of futures — nuclear proliferation and, with any bad luck, nuclear war. Sound breathless? Maybe, but in the last 36 months, Iran’s, Turkey’s, and Saudi Arabia’s leaders have all threatened to get nuclear weapons and withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. One or more of them might actually follow through. After that, nuclear use in the region is hardly out of the question. How bad might that be? I commissioned a graduate of MIT’s school of nuclear engineering, a contract analyst, Ms. Eva Lisowski, to find out. Using a variety of publicly available computer models, Ms. Lisowski assessed how much harm even a low-yield, nuclear weapon might do in the Middle East. She evaluated how many casualties these weapons would inflict against the populations in five major Middle Eastern cities — Tehran, Riyadh, Dubai, Cairo, and Tel Aviv (for the full report, click here). What she discovered was disturbing: A one-kiloton device detonated at ground level would be at least as deadly as the 15 and 20 kiloton nuclear weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons dropped in 1945 were detonated at 1,600 feet to maximize their blast effects against buildings. One-kiloton ground-bursts, in contrast, maximize prompt radiation and fallout effects against people. The modeled casualty numbers, which ranged from scores to hundreds of thousands, were disturbingly high. Ms. Lisowski's findings have major nuclear control implications. Her study was funded not only by private charitable foundations (Scaife, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and MacArthur), but by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. The question the bureau study asked was what might it take to verify and enforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) over the next two decades. This report suggests that, at a minimum, it will require more nuclear inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently assumes that it takes 8 kilograms of plutonium and 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. These numbers (what the IAEA refers to as "significant quantities" or SQs) are a bit on the high side even for a 20-kiloton Nagasaki bomb. They are dangerously obsolete, however, and far too high for a one-kiloton device, which requires not 8, but only 1 to 3 kilograms of plutonium and not 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, but 2.5 to 8 kilograms. This discovery would be academic were it not that the IAEA continues to use its SQ figures to determine how often it should inspect civil nuclear facilities and materials to prevent and deter them from being diverted for military purposes. If, as this study maintains, the agency’s SQs are three to eight times too high, then the agency’s recommended frequency of inspections (what it refers to as their “timeliness detection goals”) are also way too low. None of this makes for pleasant reading. But ignoring or hiding these facts or, worse, lying about them will hardly help. Our government, as well as like-minded states and the IAEA, need to sort this out.   _______________________________________________________________________________________________________ On June 7, 2021, Eva Lisowki gave a presentation on this report. To view her Powerpoint slides, click here. To watch the video recording, see below.  ________________________________________________________________________________________________________    
Occasional Papers & Monographs; Presentations; Audio & Video
May 14, 2021 "Offer more for more to stop Iran from going nuclear," Al Jazeera
Given the shooting in the Middle East not only in Israel, but between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, reviving the nuclear deal is getting far more difficult than it was before. Compounding these difficulties is that the Iranian election June 18th is likely to produce more radical, militant rule. This suggests the talks may go nowhere.  But, as NPEC’s Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan and I wrote today in Al Jazeera, this is not the only possibility. As Israel, the Gulf states, and Iran continue to shoot at one another, it’s pretty clear that dialing in their concerns will be essential. As we note in our piece, they now have “more say in whether the bomb spreads throughout the Middle East than Germany, Britain or Russia.” Operationally, what does this mean? Two things. First, if any truly sustainable deal with Iran is to be struck, it will only be credible if it addresses Israeli and Gulf Arab fears that Iran might get the bomb even after signing a deal, and Iranian concerns that Israel might continue to attack Iran even if Tehran agrees not to stockpile any more enriched uranium. Second, the Biden Administration will have to drop its “less-for-less” approach of merely giving some sanctions relief for some Iranian nuclear restraint and instead offer more for more. What that “more” might be is unclear but it would likely have to include Iran dropping enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of spent reactor fuel and Israel and Saudi Arabia agreeing to additional nuclear restraints as well.  These, to be sure, are big asks. But shooting for anything less is unlikely to produce any lasting limits on the nuclear planning now in play in the region. 
Op-Eds & Blogs
May 02, 2021 "Dangerous Decisions about Advanced Nuclear Reactors Could Lead to New Threats," The National Interest
  Last week, the U.S. State Department launched a $5.3-million program to promote the overseas deployment of U.S. “advanced” nuclear reactor technologies. The Department views these reactors as being cheaper and safer than the current generation of nuclear plants. It’s unclear, however, how these reactors might be fueled and what nuclear materials they might produce. State and Congress need to find out. In the attached piece, posted by The National Interest, Victor Gilinsky and I spotlight the Department of Energy’s (DoE's) recently announced Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). It just funded Bill Gates’ TerraPower Natrium fast breeder reactor. This plant’s original design included an onsite reprocessing plant to help fashion plutonium-based fuels for the reactor. Plutonium is a nuclear weapons explosive. The current plan is to run the Natrium design on 20 percent enriched uranium but it could revert to running on plutonium. Congress needs to nail this down. TerraPower’s CEO recently testified that there was a significant overseas market for the Natrium design and that he “anticipated growing Natrium output” from 300 megawatts “back up to gigawatt scale.” If these plants were to be powered with plutonium-based fuels, they would require an inventory of many hundreds of bombs’ worth of the nuclear explosive. Once on line, a one-gigawatt reactor could make nearly 100 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year. When asked about China’s fast reactor program, the head of U.S. Strategic Command voiced his concern that it would afford Beijing a “very large source of weapons-grade plutonium,” one that might push China’s future weapons arsenal to “the upper bounds.” When asked about this, the U.S. Energy Department (DoE) demuredthat the advanced fast reactors it was developing “incorporate nonproliferation considerations.” What this means is anybody’s guess. Before Congress funds DoE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, it should make sure that DoE's fast reactors won't be using plutonium or require reprocessing. 
Op-Eds & Blogs
Mar 15, 2021 "For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
  When it comes to nuclear power, officials and the public tend to make projections untethered from the realities of economics or national security. Consider the current enthusiasm for “advanced” fast reactors. These make nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and reuse it as fuel. Never mind that electricity from such reactors costs a multiple of what’s produced from current reactors or that it’s impossible to keep close track of the weapons explosive plutonium they produce and consume. Congress and the Department of Energy fawn over commercializing them because they are viewed as being “advanced.” The press and public meanwhile, can’t resist celebrating the billionaire philanthropic backers of such reactors — Mr. Gates and Mr. Bezos — who now are seeking federal subsidies to support their “charitable” fast reactor dreams. This is all exciting but if our government is serious about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to curb our enthusiasm. As Victor Gilinsky and I argue in the attached Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, “For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go,” our current ardor over fast reactors is but a revival of an old faith in plutonium-fueled reactors that has repeatedly disappointed. In 1945, scientists thought the world was running out of uranium and that nuclear power could only progress by transmuting the globe’s vast amount of uranium 238 into fissile plutonium fuel in fast reactors. Almost as soon as the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency completed its first fast reactor, though, cheap uranium was discovered nearly everywhere. Unwilling to take yes for an answer, nuclear engineers then argued that thousands of conventional nuclear power plants would “soon” be operating and would be so popular that the world would run out of — you guessed it — uranium. That also never happened. Put aside the frightful negative economics of playing with highly toxic plutonium fuel and the construction complexities of fast reactors, there is a profound nuclear proliferation problem with playing with plutonium that we ignore at our own peril. Plutonium can be inspected but, unlike low enriched uranium, not ever enough to prevent incremental or abrupt diversions to make bombs. That’s why Presidents Ford and Carter suspended commercial use of plutonium-based fuels as a matter of US policy and urged other states to do the same. The UK, Germany, France, and Japan all terminated their fast reactor programs. Russia, China, and India are the only countries building them. None are yet willing to place their commercial plutonium activities under International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. India admits it will use its reactor to make bombs. This August, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will undergo its 10th five-year review. The aim of the conference is to strengthen the barriers to further nuclear weapons proliferation. If the United States and like-minded nations are serious about supporting the NPT, Victor and I argue they need to support ending the commercial use of plutonium, which is unnecessary, uneconomic, and clearly proliferation-prone.  
Op-Eds & Blogs
Feb 19, 2021 "Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes," Foreign Policy
Wednesday, President Biden phoned Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the official read out of the call, no mention was made of Israel’s nuclear program. As a result, it is unclear if Biden committed to pledging not to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons or to confirm their existence as long as Israel feels threatened. Israel has demanded every American president since Bill Clinton make this pledge in writing. In the attached Foreign Policy piece, “Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes,” Victor Gilinsky and I argue Biden shouldn’t. Israel has a triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and was recently rated the world’s eighth most powerful state, just behind Japan. After the Abraham Accords, Israel is unlikely to be pushed into the sea. On the other hand, pressure is mounting on Washington to uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) promise to limit its nuclear forces. Last fall, the United States called on China to abide by this NPT pledge and after extending New START, the Biden Administration announced its desire for China to join in follow-on nuclear reduction talks. The Administration is currently attempting to engage Iran to renew and fortify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Yet, it will be difficult to do so credibly without acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal — something currently forbidden by Executive order of anyone holding a US security clearance.  The same also is true of dealing with Egyptian threats to hold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference hostage if Washington refuses to participate in talks to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is expanding its nuclear activities at Dimona. All of this suggests its time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands. Washington pretend Israel has no bombs. All of this suggests it's time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands.
Op-Eds & Blogs
Dec 06, 2020 "A Biden Plan for Riyadh and its Neighbors," Foreign Policy
Among the foreign policy dogs that are yet to bark, is Biden’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are anticipating a chillier tone, but when asked the Biden team had no comment. Last December, Biden said he’d stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and make them “the pariah that they are.” Holding Saudi Arabia accountable for pursuing nuclear weapons and committing human rights violations makes sense. The question is how. The attached Foreign Policy piece by NPEC’s Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan supplies an answer: Rather than shunning Riyadh, Washington should afford them tough love. The Saudis believe the US will soon abandon them and that they’ll soon be at the mercy of mullahs from Tehran. Washington and other Western capitals can ease these concerns, which are shared in other Middle Eastern capitals, and in exchange should get them to clean up their proliferation and human rights act. The best way to do this, Spacapan argues, would be to form a league of Western and Middle Eastern states to enhance the region’s security, energy, economic, and social development. “Even if the coalition started somewhat small – just the US, UK, EU, Saudi Arabia, and smaller Arab states such as Jordan, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, and Tunisia – it would,” he notes, “demonstrate that the US and its western allies will not soon leave Saudi Arabia at the mercy of Iran or other outside powers.” This alone could damper Riyadh’s drive to go nuclear. America’s ties to Riyadh epitomize the dilemma that plagues its foreign policy: Maintaining relations with influential authoritarians is only politically sustainable if you get them to behave better. Ignoring human rights violations and nuclear proliferation would contradict American values, but abandoning states rarely improves matters. The idea of creating a league is surely ambitious. The alternatives, which mostly amount to doing nothing or spending a great deal in reactionary military operations, recommend trying. It is something a Biden Administration should consider.
Op-Eds & Blogs
Oct 22, 2020 Lecture at the Mitchell Institute, "Strategic Deterrence: Its Future if the Bomb Spreads"
Just before this week's presidential election, Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. envoy for arms control, pleaded with NATO members not to share sensitive nuclear technology with China. He made this request to pressure Beijing to join nuclear arms negotiations with Washington and Moscow. Certainly, reaching limits on the future growth of Russian and Chinese nuclear forces is desirable. In China's case, special attention needs to be paid not just to how many warheads it has, but to how it might exploit its "peaceful" civilian nuclear infrastructure to ramp up those numbers. Limiting such a possible ramp up should have a more prominent place on America's arms control agenda. Mr. Billingslea's NATO plea is a start. What more is needed? Last week, Henry Sokolski spoke to this question before the Air Force Association's Nuclear Deterrence Breakfast Series. It is unclear just how large China plans to make its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Compounding this uncertainty is China's latent capacity to make many hundreds of nuclear weapons by tapping existing and planned uranium enrichment and plutonium recycling plants. This possibility puts our Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, on edge. With any bad luck this could prompt them to go nuclear. To address this, the United States should propose a time-out on reprocessing and cap existing enrichment capacities at their current levels throughout the Pacific Rim, including the United States. Henry Sokolski makes a number of other suggestions at the close of his talk.  
Presentations; Audio & Video
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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.
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