Atoms for Peace: Catalyzing Bombs for Cheats
Review of Atomic Assistance: How "Atoms for Peace" Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity,
by Matthew Fuhrmann, Cornell University Press, 2012.
Published by The Nonproliferation Review, 2013, Vol. 20, No. 1, 179-184.
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In a world where officials presume there is a clear, bright line between generating nuclear electricity and producing nuclear weapons, Matthew Fuhrmann's Atomic Assistance: How "Atoms for Peace" Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity is a sorely needed slap of reality. His thesis, captured in the book's title, certainly is timely: recent assessments of North Korea's experimental light water reactor and the use of American drone flights to check on weapons-grade, plutonium-laden spent fuel discharged from Iran's Bushehr reactor underscore how even purported proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants can produce nuclear weapons-usable plutonium and how their fresh fuel can be used to accelerate weapons uranium production.
There also is the broader point that "peaceful" power programs unavoidably bring states quite far toward the development of a nuclear weapons option, affording them relevant dual-use training, staffing, nuclear supplies, and technology transfers. It is not, as Fuhrmann explains, that most countries that maintain "peaceful" nuclear programs get bombs, but rather that most countries that get bombs develop civilian nuclear energy programs first. After states master the technical challenges relating to the production of "peaceful" nuclear energy, Fuhrmann notes, getting a bomb option is a decision that would be easier than otherwise to make (i.e., far less expensive, time consuming, and technically risky than starting from scratch).
The historical examples Fuhrmann highlights to make this point--India's and South Africa's nuclear programs--are forceful. Once India and South Africa gained the "peaceful" nuclear infrastructure, staffing, and nuclear fuel-making plants needed to support their civilian programs, the political, technical, and financial costs of taking the momentous step of making nuclear weapons were so low, there was little or no resistance to doing so. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's specific reasons for giving the final approval when she did, Fuhrmann notes, are still unknown, other than that the costs of acquiring a bomb by 1972 were so low that her decision to proceed seemed irresistible. He also explains that in South Africa's case, the decision to develop nuclear weapons came after its civilian nuclear program was complete, but well before the Soviets posed any security threat to Pretoria.
This may not sit well with academics and officials who insist that the ultimate way to stem proliferation is to reduce the security threats that encourage proliferators to acquire nuclear weapons. Their case is tautologically sensible. Yet Fuhrmann's analysis suggests that other, less pressing factors can also tip the scales prompting states to go nuclear.
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