Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski: Serious Rules for Nuclear Power without Proliferation (Working Paper 1302)

Victor Gilinsky, former Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of NPEC, propose five nonproliferation principles to establish a framework for dealing with the main deficiencies in the current NPT regime. 

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in The Nonproliferation Review, © 2014 Taylor & Francis; The Nonproliferation Review is available at:

Feb 25, 2014
AUTHOR: Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski

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

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We try in this paper to step back from the day-to-day struggles in Washington over nuclear nonproliferation policy to ask what measures we would need to have in place to be reasonably confident that expanding nuclear power globally will not increase the number of nuclear weapons-armed states.

We recognize that since the start of the Atoms for Peace Program in the mid-1950s the United States has supported worldwide use of nuclear power. It also has opposed the spread of nuclear weapons and supported measures to control the nuclear weapons proliferation risks inherent in spreading nuclear technology for civilian purposes. The principal administrative elements of this nonproliferation effort are the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the associated inspection activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as various national and international export controls.

In practice, the success of our policies promoting the global use of nuclear energy have raced ahead of the means available to control the associated nuclear weapons proliferation risks, leaving a broad security gap. What passes for U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy – the perennial pushing and pulling over the details of nuclear export controls and agreements – does not begin to address that broad gap.

Unless the members of the NPT agree to deal with the fundament deficiencies of the NPT by interpreting the treaty in a way that sharply limits access to fuels that are also nuclear explosive materials, and agree to universal enforcement of that interpretation, increased world-wide nuclear energy use will carry with it the inevitable risk of the further nuclear weapons proliferation.

Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Nuclear Power: What’s the Worry?

In any effort to assess our current nonproliferation policies, we must remind ourselves of why we still resist the spread of nuclear weapons. In fact, it has become fashionable in some industry and academic circles to discount the dangers on the grounds, chiefly, that proliferation has proceeded more slowly than once feared.

The usual reference is to President Kennedy's 1962 statement that 15 to 25 countries could obtain nuclear weapons. But this was a warning, not a prediction, and a useful one that led to nonproliferation efforts that slowed the process. In view of our experiences with countries falsely claiming to be conducting ―peaceful‖ nuclear programs and later using their facilities for illicit activities or conducting clandestine bomb activities—in India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, and Syria—it is time to heed these warnings again.

There is also a school of thought that even if some more countries obtained nuclear weapons it wouldn‘t make much difference because they would just serve as deterrents. There is a troubling disconnect between this cheerful theorizing—which is not without an element of self-interest—and any awareness of the devastating possibility of nuclear war. Just because the weapons are supposed to be for deterrence doesn't mean they won't be used. Such use is after all implied in the threat that underlies deterrence. And if they are used they are likely to profoundly change the way the world is organized, with unpredictable but likely unhappy consequences. A few years ago Henry Kissinger wrote:

If one imagines a world of tens of nations with nuclear weapons and major powers trying to balance their own deterrent equations, plus the deterrent equations of the subsystems, deterrence calculation would become impossibly complicated. To assume that, in such a world, nuclear catastrophe could be avoided would be unrealistic.

Happily, we have not reached this state. No such weapons have exploded in anger since World War II, and it is a long time since people have seen the results of atmospheric tests. But this has also meant there is not the gut level consciousness about proliferation dangers that there is about the dangers of nuclear accidents. Whereas everyone agrees that expanded use of nuclear power has to be predicated on tough safety rules, there is no corresponding agreement when it comes to rules to protect against nuclear weapons spread, especially when it comes to restrictions on nuclear power programs.

One often hears from nuclear industry sources that civilian nuclear programs are not a proliferation worry because they are an unlikely source of nuclear explosive materials for would-be bomb makers. They argue that just as current nuclear weapons states relied on dedicated military programs, so would any future would-be weapons country.

Our view is different. Leaving aside the correctness of the assumptions about past weapons programs, the past is not here a good guide to the future because conditions have changed fundamentally. Today all non-weapon states are members of the NPT. If one of these countries should decide to obtain weapons, it would have to withdraw or cheat, both courses risking a military response until the would-be bomb maker had weapons comfortably in hand. This would put a very high premium on traversing the period of vulnerability as quickly as possible. Henry Kissinger made this point in the previously cited 2006 Trilateral Commission report: “A policy of using preventive force against aspiring nuclear powers, however, creates incentives for them to acquire nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible…”

That means drawing on bomb material and knowhow where it is most quickly obtainable, which would mean tapping a nuclear power program if there is one, unless of course there are strict measures in place to prevent that. If there is any doubt about this conclusion, consider the following counter-historical: Suppose each of the major WWII belligerents already had civilian nuclear power programs before the war started. Would they not have tapped them rather than started anew to develop independent nuclear weapons programs? The answer suggests why strict nonproliferation measures are important.

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