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HOME > TOPICS > Nuclear Abolition & The Next Arms Race      
FAS Posts NPEC Case for Tightening US Nuclear Export Nonproliferation Rules

Fukushima and Iran’s use of civilian nuclear energy to get the bomb serve as fair warnings to tighten conditions on future nuclear exports.  Under existing nuclear rules, expanding nuclear power globally also risks spreading nuclear fuel making activities. Since there is no reliable method of using nuclear inspections to assure that such fuel making won’t be quickly diverted to make bombs, promoting the Gold Standard in civilian nuclear cooperation with foreign states is essential to non-proliferation efforts.


Sep 07, 2011
AUTHOR: Henry D. Sokolski
Fukushima and Iran_The Case for Tightening the Nuclear Rules (PDF) 1,765.14 KB

Fukushima and Iran: The Case for Tightening the Nuclear Rules

By Henry D. Sokolski

Fukushima and Iran’s use of civilian nuclear energy to get the bomb ought to serve as fair warnings to tighten conditions on future nuclear exports.  Surely, if we fail to do so when Europe, Japan, and America have slowed new nuclear construction in reaction to Japan’s nuclear meltdowns, we risk encouraging the world’s hungry nuclear suppliers making up the difference with more dangerous exports to unstable regions, like the Middle East.   This would not only risk nuclear competitions in the world’s most war torn regions overseas, but jeopardize public support in the world’s advanced economies for nuclear power’s further development.

Unfortunately, under existing nuclear rules, expanding nuclear power globally also risks spreading nuclear fuel making activities.  This, in turn, risks creating more Irans – i.e., more states that can get to the very brink of acquiring nuclear bombs by enriching uranium or separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel.  The further expansion of these nuclear fuel making activities in India, Pakistan, and China, also risks increasing these emerging nuclear weapons states’ capacity to make significantly more nuclear bombs any time they wish.

The current nuclear control wisdom is that all states have a “right” to engage in such activities so long as they claim that they are for “peaceful” purposes.  Unfortunately, there is no reliable method of using nuclear inspections to assure that such fuel making won’t be quickly diverted to make bombs.  That’s why the U.S. and other states through the United Nations have called on Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel making activities.

It’s also why Presidents Bush and Obama, worked so hard to establish a new, tougher set of nuclear nonproliferation conditions with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the nuclear cooperative agreement the U.S. reached with the UAE in 2009.  Under this deal, the UAE could receive any controlled nuclear goods until it forswore making nuclear fuel and ratified the Additional Protocol -- a set of tough, international nuclear inspection rules.  President Obama sold this agreement arguing that it established a new nonproliferation “Gold Standard” for civilian nuclear cooperation agreements.

Now, that standard is up for grabs as the U.S. State Department is negotiating nuclear cooperative deals with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.  Congress would like these agreements to meet the Gold Standard.  If they fail to do so, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA) has proposed legislation that would require such agreements be approved by a majority vote in both houses. 

This means that after these nuclear agreements are negotiated, it cannot be assumed, as is currently the case, that they would be approved automatically.  Proponents of this legislation note that Saudi Arabia has warned that it must get nuclear weapons if Iran does so and that Jordan and Vietnam refuse to forswear making nuclear fuel and are far from being stable democracies.  They insist that if these agreements fail to meet the Gold Standard, it makes sense to scrutinize them closely and put them to a vote. 

The HCFA has also called for Congressional approval of new overseas efforts to separate or reprocess nuclear weapons useable plutonium from spent fuel generated from US-origin fuel or US-exported reactors.  This would mean that reprocessing such fuel in India or China – two states that might later seize the material to ramp up the size of the nuclear weapons arsenals significantly -- would have to be put to a vote in both the House and Senate.

Industry and the State Department oppose these proposals, arguing that the current automatic approval of nuclear cooperation agreements works fine.  Under the current rules, Congress effectively can only block or amend a nuclear cooperative agreement if it passes a law to do so with an improbable two-thirds majority.  

Also, if the US insists on new nonproliferation conditions before other nuclear suppliers do, State insists it will disadvantage US nuclear exporters and eliminate the “control” U.S. exports would otherwise exercise.   This argument, though, seems strained.  After Fukushima, it’s unlikely that the US will be making many nuclear reactor sales – let alone enough to control the trade unilaterally.  The US-designed reactors that melted down at Fukushima, in fact, were sold on the condition that US nuclear reactor vendors be exempted of any responsibility for damages in the case of an accident.  Now, few, if any, new foreign nuclear customers would be foolish enough to agree to such an exemption.

Nonetheless, the US does have leverage over French and Russian nuclear exporters.  Both want to significantly expand their business in the US.  Japan, Korea, and Germany, meanwhile, are inclined to follow the US on nonproliferation efforts. 

Supporters of tightening the nuclear rules point to this leverage and insist the US should use it to lead.  They also point to history.

After India tested a bomb in 1974 using material it diverted from a “peaceful” US-Canadian-exported cooperative power program, the nuclear industry and our State Department warned Congress against imposing more nonproliferation conditions on nuclear exports lest it undermine US nonproliferation leverage. Congress ignored these arguments, passed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of l978, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group subsequently adopted all of this law’s US export conditions and imposed them internationally.

This history constitutes tough medicine against inaction today.  Indeed, it more than suggests why presuming that we can do no better than we have already done to condition nuclear exports is a mistake.


Henry D. Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, VA and served as a member of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism and as the Defense Department’s Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy under George H.W. Bush. 

To view Everett Redmond II's initial piece, "U.S. Leadership Essential for International Nuclear Energy Programs," click here.

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.
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