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Sir Michael Quinlan's Nuclear Nonproliferation Insights

NPEC's executive director Henry Sokolski wrote this chapter commemorating Sir Michael Quinlan's three major insights into the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation as part of Thinking About Strategy, A Tribute to Sir Michael Quinlan.

Jan 03, 2012
AUTHOR: Henry D. Sokolski
ir Michael Quinlan Nuclear Insights (PDF) 0 Bytes

Sir Michael Quinlan’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Insights

I only worked with Sir Michael Quinlan toward the end of his life. I knew of his work and had met him at several gatherings focused on nuclear policy issues before I approached him to write an essay on British nuclear targeting policy and its relation to mutual assured destruction theories in 2002. His final product, featured in my center’s edited volume, Getting MAD: The Origins and Practice of Mutual Assured Destruction, served as the basis for a chapter in his own book, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons.[2] We continued to communicate for several years and he subsequently participated in one of the conferences my center held on preventing nuclear nonproliferation. On the question of nuclear proliferation, though, it was he who sought me out: He told me he was new to the topic, was working on a book, and needed to learn more. Although I was flattered, I am sure he went to many others than myself for help. In any case, his final insights, albeit brief and far from detailed, are useful and, like his views on other nuclear policy issues, uncharacteristically temperate. 

Moderation was his trademark. Concerning nuclear issues, he was nothing if not sensible. He certainly was skeptical of the security advantages of adopting many of the most popular arms control proposals (Comprehensive Test Ban, terminating Trident, adopting no first-use pledges and minimum nuclear deterrence strategies that focused on targeting cities, etc.).
[3] Yet, he also believed it was critical for all nuclear weapons states to do what they could to reduce their security reliance on nuclear arms and make as many reductions in their nuclear weapons arsenals as possible. 

His main reason for encouraging states to deemphasize nuclear weapons was his worry that non-weapons states would be more likely to acquire them with catastrophic results. He certainly did not believe, as some arms control proponents now insist, that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) required immediate nuclear disarmament to fulfill Article VI. Nor did he believe that nuclear arms reductions with the Russians (which he did favor) would change the minds of any dedicated proliferator. Instead, he saw good faith efforts to reduce existing nuclear arsenals as a legal requirement of the NPT, which if ignored or flaunted, risked an international drift toward following the superpowers’ penchant for relying on nuclear weapons, thereby creating a world vexed with an increasing number of nuclear weapons states.

This unusually modulated set of views placed Quinlan squarely outside of the mainstream of most analytical writings on these topics. That current group breaks out into one of two ideological camps: The first so favors going to zero nuclear weapons, it works matters almost as if we have already achieved this state. Although they do analyze how one might reach such a state, such analysts are far more enthusiastic about spelling out the advantages of such a world and explaining how one might mitigate whatever problems might arise after such a disarmed state is actually achieved (e.g., how one could maintain deterrence without nuclear arms, deal with nuclear breakouts, etc.). 

The second camp sees things quite differently: It is enamored with explaining the deterrent value of nuclear arsenals, showing how nuclear weapons have prevented wars in the past, and explaining the value of nuclear testing to keep one’s deterrent force credible. It makes the case, intentionally or not, for nuclear testing and expanding existing nuclear arsenals with few, if any, discernable limits. Neither world, it should be noted, is one we are likely soon to live in.

In any case, when one turns to the question of horizontal nuclear proliferation and how best to stem it, what one gets from each of these dominate camps is nearly tautological. The first insists that the moral example of the superpowers’ disarming will carry the day everywhere eventually and that, therefore, going to zero is critical to block the bomb’s further spread. The second argues that nuclear deterrence and alliance guarantees to provide security for others is our best chance to keep the maximum number of states from ever needing or wanting to go ballistic or nuclear. Beyond this, neither of these groups seems inclined to dirty their hands grappling with operational concerns regarding nuclear nonproliferation or even to encourage others to do so. 

Nearly the opposite is the case with Sir Michael Quinlan’s analysis. Indeed, one can hardly consider his views regarding the relation between vertical and horizontal nuclear weapons proliferationwithout also considering his characterization of the operational challenges governments faced in trying to reduce this threat and his clear desire that these challenges be tackled. In this regard, his diagnosis (he reduced his thoughts to three) was refreshingly succinct. 

Regarding the NPT, he argued, 

“There are three general weaknesses of the regime, which the review conference ought to tackle. One is verification, which I have referred to. In 1991, when Iraq’s books were forcibly opened, as it were, we made the uncomfortable discovery that the verification regime had not been working. That needs to be tackled by universalizing the Additional Protocol. 

I have also mentioned the second issue, which is the need to do something about the right of withdrawal. I do not think that it is politically feasible to amend the treaty and to remove the right to withdraw, but it would be good if international agreement could be reached on a package of rather disagreeable consequences, well displayed in advance, which any country seeking to withdraw without a compelling reasons must expect to undergo.

The third priority would be to devise better, more generous arrangements to deal with the nuclear energy problem which seems to me to be bound to become – or will, in all likelihood become – more salient. At present there is no solid arrangement for giving help with nuclear energy without creating the threshold problem that Iran is currently exploiting.”

When it came to suggesting detailed approaches the challenges he identified, Sir Michael was quick to note that this was not a topic about which he was a “master”. This is evident. He certainly does well enough in focusing on the need to make NPT withdrawal much more difficult. Yet, he hardly details how to master the verification problem, and admits he has no clear idea of how to go about sharing civilian nuclear energy without creating ever more Irans.

In regard to verification, Sir Michael’s did have some specific recommendations including universalizing the Additional Protocol. Its adoption would give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) some additional inspections authorities. Yet, operationally, it is hardly a catch-all solution. In fact, if not complemented with other additional measures, its implementation could actually reduce the number of routine inspections of declared nuclear sites.

More important, focusing exclusively on the desirability of the Additional Protocol, masks many other inherent IAEA inspections limits. These restrictions are imposed not by the lack of adherence to the Additional Protocol or of insufficient safeguards resources, but by the laws of physics and the limits of human nature. 

First, the IAEA never was able to provide timely detection of military diversions from bulk handling plants, much less timely warning of such diversions. This was something the IAEA’s original American authors were well aware of. Thus, when the agency was created in the mid 1950s it was understood that the IAEA would hardly detect all diversions. Indeed, it was conceded that it was more likely than not that the agency would be unable to account for roughly 10 percent of fuel making production annually – i.e., enough for the operating state to make scores of bombs.

In the 1950s, though, most senior U.S. officials hardly deemed this to be fatal since it was believed (mistakenly) that such diversions were too “small” to matter. More important, they believed the IAEA could afford to detect nuclear diversions after they occurred and that it did not even matter if it could only detect military diversions until aftera violator had already acquired several bombs. Again, mistakenly, these officials thought a proliferator could only threaten the U.S. strategic if it had enough weapons to knockout all of America’s key military industrial targets – a feat that would require hundreds of bombs. Surely, the IAEA could detect such a massive diversion, it was argued, and so long as it could, its porous inspection system was thought to be more than adequate.

Thankfully, such thinking is longer prevalent. It has since been replaced with the view that the diversion of even one nuclear weapon’s worth of nuclear fuel is too much. Yet, the ability of the IAEA to detect such a diversion early and reliably is hardly at hand. Nor, given the imperative to detect such diversion early enough to intervene to prevent the production of even one bomb, is the IAEA ever likely to acquire such a capability: Several dangerous nuclear activities (e.g., nuclear fuel making, and large power programs in noncooperative states) are either difficult to monitor or so close to being a bomb reliable, timely detection of diversions are simply not possible. 

Then, there are the inherent limits imposed by humans and organizational dysfunction. As the civilian nuclear system grows in size and complexity and the means of hiding illicit activities and materials from IAEA inspectors increases, merely “growing” the IAEA in size and authority may not be a complete answer to the problems it must address. Worse, with an organization’s increased size and competing goals (to expand nuclear energy projects, to inspect them, to share information, to keep safeguards information confidential, etc.) come systemic errors that may be difficult or even impossible to anticipate. 

Charles Perrow in his path breaking work, Normal Accidents details how nuclear power plants are themselves so complex as to be prone to accidents normally no matter what safety control systems one devises for them. Certainly, the experience of the U.S. Nuclear Regulator Commission (NRC) in maintaining safety at these plants is instructive. Despite the clear desire of both the NRC and the nuclear operators of the reactors the NRC inspects to avoid a nuclear accident, there have been repeated cases where the safety inspection system has failed to anticipate or prevent major incidents, near accidents, and major cockups (e.g., TMI).
[9] How well might a system of inspections work, such as those the IAEA implements or is planning to implement, if the inspected parties do not share the agency’s objective of preventing diversions and are actively trying to defeat the IAEA’s inspectors? The question sadly answers itself.

Although Sir Michael was not intimately familiar with these points, his participation in NPEC’s review of the IAEA system in 2006 and 2007 was more than enough to make him aware just how limited any verification regime might be for the NPT. This much is evidenced by Sir Michael’s third concern that “At present there is no solid arrangement for giving help with nuclear energy without creating the threshold problem that Iran is currently exploiting.” 

He was eager enough to try to devise “better, more generous arrangements to deal with the nuclear energy problem” in no small part because he suspected (although he was far from certain) that nuclear power’s expansion to many other countries might well be inevitable. He also was willing to believe that the creation of multilateral fuel banks deserved support as possibly just one such “generous arrangement”.
[10] He knew, however, that the problems associated with the sharing nuclear energy without producing more Irans would require far more.

Indeed, unlike most experts in the field, Sir Michael fully appreciated the Janus-like quality of nuclear energy. Most nuclear policy makers still underestimate it. They would like to believe that the reports by Albert Wohlstetter and by the Ford – MITRE study group of 1975 and 1977 are still correct in suggesting that there is a clear, bright line between boiling water with uranium to produce civilian electricity and making nuclear fuels, which can bring states to the very brink of making bombs.

Indeed, this view still serves as the basis of almost all of the major nuclear supplier states’ current nuclear nonproliferation policies. According to this view, all states have a per se right to build and operate large power and research reactors so long as they declare them and allow occasional international inspections. Similarly, they have a clear right to make nuclear fuel but because of its nuclear weapons proliferation implications, should be discouraged from fully exercising this right. Towards this end, nuclear supplier states should supply non-weapons states with nuclear fuel and take back spent fuel from their reactors and so deprive them of a rationale for enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium. Furthermore, all states also should support the creation of regional and international fuel banks to assume these responsibilities to build confidence that these services will always be available. Finally, according to this view, any state, such as Iran or North Korea, should be sanctioned if they covertly attempt to undertake these activities lest others follow their example. This is how the U.S. and its key partners see matters. Yet, how sound are these policy positions? The short answer is not much.

The link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation was first examined at the end of WWII by the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which called for internationalization of the entire nuclear fuel cycle. One of the report's key conclusions was that inspection of national programs could never provide adequate security. When an international atomic authority proved impractical, though, the US adopted the very approach the Acheson-Lilienthal group said would not work: Starting in the mid l950s, the US spread civilian nuclear technology under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program. The rationale here, which has echoed ever since, was that security problems were in the distant future and by then there would be an effective international control solution, and anyhow, it’s the best we can do. It was a combination of idealistic hope that there would someday be an effective system of international inspections and enforcement measures, together with commercial cynicism that we must proceed with atomic power’s expansion to lock in market share. 

The next major review of U.S. and international civilian nuclear policy came with the Ford administration in 1975 and 1976. It was driven by the realization that increasing numbers of countries were getting plants for large-scale separation of plutonium from power reactor fuel and that no system of inspection could warn in time of any possible diversion of such plutonium to bombs. President Ford concluded security had to come first and that we should not employ reprocessing and plutonium recycle until the world was ready to cope with the associated dangers of proliferation. It looked then that so long as countries employed light water reactors (LWRs) in a “once-through” mode and did not extract plutonium from the spent fuel, the security problems could be kept under control and we and others could safely gain the benefits of nuclear energy. As there was no economic advantage to reprocessing, this policy line seemed practical, and it became more or less the gold standard for conforming to nonproliferation in subsequent U.S. administrations.

Yet, over the last three decades, it has become clear that the security dangers associated with nuclear power programs are considerably greater than even the Ford and Carter administrations realized in 1976, and that our current system of nuclear controls are failing to keep up. In specific, since 1976, we have learned that:

The spread of centrifuge uranium enrichment design and advances in manufacturing skill around the world has made this previously inaccessible nuclear fuel making technology now available to many countries. It is especially worrisome because it lends itself to small-scale, clandestine operation, and facilities that are small by commercial but potentially potent in military terms. Nuclear power programs provide the justification for pursuing the technology, most notably in Iran, but also elsewhere. 

Supposedly proliferation-resistant power reactors can in fact be the source of copious quantities of essentially weapons-grade plutonium, a matter that was not well understood at the time of the Ford review. It is possible to extract plutonium quickly from spent fuel in a small clandestine plant built for short-term operation.

There is much more available information today about nuclear weapons design and computing and manufacturing skills available to make nuclear weapons. 

It used to be thought that it was extremely unlikely that countries would cheat on their international undertakings related to nuclear energy. We now know and that a number have done so, such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, South Korea, Romania, Algeria, Israel, India, and Pakistan. 

Countries that have a responsibility to enforce international and bilateral nonproliferation agreements sometimes have not wanted to know about possible cheating because it would create a politically awkward situation that required action. (Kissinger, for example, told Nixon in 1969 that it was not to our advantage to find out whether Israel had the bomb. When Israel tested in 1979 the U.S. pretended Israel didn’t even though Israel had signed the Limited Test Ban).

Even when international violations are clear, international organizations take a long time to decide on a response.

The US and Russia no longer control their Cold War client states. 

We have experienced inspection and intelligence failures and missed nuclear programs and impending tests – Iraq before the Gulf War, India, Israel, North Korea before 1992, Syria's reactor, and Iran' s enrichment activity.

Although it is argued that the IAEA has learned from its past failures and that these failures are no indication of future performance, there are intrinsic limitations on how effective such a system can be against a country intent on defeating it. There are essential problems of inspection system overload. Politically, the system can't afford many false alarms; but if the reaction level is set to avoid false alarms it is not effective at sounding alarms when they should sound. 

President Bush and now president Obama have torn a hole in the NPT by giving India a pass (in the hope that India will buy US reactors, which they probably won't). This is a key indication that–aside from rhetoric–the administration does not take the connection between nuclear power and proliferation seriously.

This last point on India was one that Sir Michael was all too painfully aware of and publicly noted. He hoped that there would be some way to get the US-India deal turned around in a fashion that would encourage India to reduce its nuclear weapons related activities. Although he did not clearly know how or if this could be done, he clearly did not want to see any more India – like deals being cut.

His concerns regarding the India deal are suggestive of the kinds of policy questions nuclear supplier states should be asking regarding the further expansion of nuclear power to more and more states. Such nuclear expansion, with the increased cost of nuclear construction and the growing availability of cheap natural gas, is not yet a given. But how wise would it be for governments to proceed with plans to spread large nuclear power programs to scores of states in the Middle and Far East before the security risks of doing so are fully addressed? Presidents Ford and Carter deferred the commercial use of plutonium-based fuels three decades ago because the security risks such commerce raised could not be addressed. Should we not insist on living up to the same standard today? 

The question ought to answer itself. That it hasn’t is largely because analysts and officials have failed to reflect on two related issues. The first is whether or not nuclear power is our best investment to boil water while reducing carbon emissions. The second is whether or not we can adequately safeguard civilian nuclear programs against military diversions. 

Regarding the last question, Sir Michael clearly understood that current inspection procedures were not good enough. In private conversations I had with him, it was clear that he was concerned that the IAEA could not reliably find covert facilities (e.g., enrichment programs in Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea; and production reactors in Syria). He also was briefed on the agency’s inability to account for many bombs worth of materials generated in declared nuclear fuel plants that could be used directly to make bombs (e.g., separated plutonium reprocessed in Japan and the UK). 

In harboring these worries, he was hardly alone. Recently, the U.S. Congress followed the guidance of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and approved legislation that would have required the executive to work with the IAEA to routinely report on the extent to which the agency could meet its own timeliness detection goals and whether these goals were too liberal to be effective. The Senate did not take action. The executive branch said such a report was unnecessary. In fact, it is sorely needed.

Regarding the economic competitiveness of nuclear power, there is increasing evidence it is not yet a good buy. This evidence, however, is not being reflected in government policies for the simple reason that many governments have already invested heavily in commercial nuclear ventures and seem already to have decided the issue. One must hope that this is not the case.

Recently, John Rowe, the CEO of America’s largest nuclear utility, Excelon, publicly announced that it would not make economic sense for his utility to invest in building any new power reactors for one or two decades given the growing availability of cheap natural gas. Rowe also explained that studies his company had done make it clear that the price of CO2 would have to rise to 100 dollars a ton before it would make sense to build new power reactors to reduce carbon emissions. Until then, he noted that his company had determined that the smartest course to reduce carbon emissions for the least expense would be to improve the efficiency of existing reactors, to promote increased electricity efficiencies (through load pricing and enhanced monitoring), and to invest in natural gas and renewables.
[15] Of course, there are nuclear power projects underway in the US but their future turns on access to government loan guarantees: No private bank would risk investing in such questionable ventures. 

This same picture is roughly in play in Europe and Asia: Government funding is driving nuclear power activities, not private investment. Yet in France, EdF and AREVA are seriously behind schedule and over budget on their two most recent reactor projects in France and Finland. In Asia, costs are lower but corruption is higher and government opacity much higher still. As a result, no one there knows precisely what new nuclear builds will costs. Meanwhile, major new reserves of natural gas are being discovered in North and Latin America, off the coasts of Australia, Egypt and Israel, in Poland, and in China.

All of these points suggest the need to get a better handle on what alternative ways of boiling water might cost. It would be helpful, for example, to get the G-20 states to adopt common accounting rules for comparing the costs not only of their nuclear, but also their nonnuclear power projects. Certainly, the last thing we ought to be doing is spending extra, earlier to reduce carbon emissions with new, expensive, long-term nuclear power projects when other quicker, less risky, less costly ways might be available to reduce emissions and produce power now. 

The point here is that how we see the entire problem of nuclear power and its link to nuclear weapons should be undergoing a slow but steady sea change. Right now conventional wisdom is that we must proceed with nucelar power to reduce carbon emissions. With this as a conclusion, we work backwards to trying to reduce the proliferation risks any which way we can. Perhaps we can enhance safeguards. Perhaps we can persuade others not to make their own nuclear fuel. Perhaps we can figure out how to make reactors and fuel making proliferation resistant. Perhaps we can figure out how to deter future nuclear armed states by pairing them off into deterred pairs. In any case, we argue, we must hope we can because we must spread nuclear power globally.

Perhaps. But the key point of Sir Michael’s three insights on the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation is that these assumptions need to be challenged if only because if nuclear weapons spread, all bets are off. He laid out the problems quite well in this regard. Our challenge, now that he is no longer with us, is to get the answers and to get them right.


*. Executive Director.

2. Cf. Michael Quinlan, “The British Experience,” in Henry D. Sokolski, editor, Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, November 2004), pp. 261-74;                
available at and Sir Michael Quinlan, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009, pp. 115-32.

3. See, Michael Quinlan, Thinking about Nuclear Weapons, pp. 99-111.

4. Idem., pp. 171-75.

5. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, “Global Security: Nonproliferation, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09,” November 26, 2008, Ev 41, available at cmfaff/222/222.pdf.

6. See, Henry D. Sokolski, “Assessing the IAEA’s Abilty to Verify the NPT”, in Henry D. Sokolski, editor, Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008, pp. 20-22.

7. See, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations and Senate Members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy on Executive 1, 85th Cong., 1st sess., 1957, pp. 99-100, 181-82 and “Testimony of Dr. Spofford G. English before the Senate Subcommittee on Disarmament (Extracts)”, March 12, 1958, document 246 in U.S. Department of State, Documents on Disarmament, 1945-1959, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: USGPO, 1960), pp. 956, 959, and 961.

8. See Henry D. Sokolski, Best of Intentions: America’s Campaign against Strategic Weapons Proliferation, Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001, pp. 32.

9. See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 89-100 and 330-ff.

10. See House of Commons, “Global Security: Nonproliferation”, November 26, 2008, Ev 41, p. Ev 35.

11. Albert Wohlstetter, et. al., Swords from Ploughshares: The Military Potential of Civilian Nuclear Energy, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979; and Ford Foundation/MITRE Corporation, “Nuclear Issues and Choices”, New York, NY: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1977.

12. See Victor Gilinsky, Harmond Hubbard, and Marvin Miller, “A Fresh Reexamination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors”, in Henry D. Sokolski, editor, Taming the Next Set of Strategic Weapons Threats, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006, pp. 61-92, available at

13. See, e.g., House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, “Global Security: Nonproliferation, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09”, November 26, 2008, p. Ev 40.

14. See Section 416 of the House Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 (H.R. 2410).

15. See Nucleonics Week, “Financial crisis nips nuclear revival in the bud, WNA told,” September 17, 2009; , available at and W. Rowe, “Fixing the Carbon Problem Without Breaking the Economy,” presentation before Resources for the Future Policy Leadership Forum Lunch, May 12, 2010, Washington, DC available at Rowe_Exelon/100512_Rowe_Exelon_ Slides.pdf

16. These points drawn from Steve Kidd, “Nuclear Proliferation Risk – Is It Vastly Overrated?”, Nuclear Engineering International, July 23, 2010, available at




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