A Pox on Both Our Houses; Moscow and Washington are playing with nuclear matches
At the Moscow news conference following his summit meeting with President Bush, Vladimir Putin highlighted a disturbing inconsistency in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy: How, the Russian president complained, could America keep objecting to Moscow's completing two nuclear power reactors for Iran, when Washington is still backing the construction of two similar machines for North Korea? Iran, after all, hasn't formally violated its pledge to allow full international inspections of its nuclear facilities, whereas North Korea has. Worse, America's own intelligence community recently announced its belief that North Korea has covertly built one or more nuclear weapons -- something Iran has yet to do.
President Putin has a point. Indeed, in many ways these two projects -- and the security risks they run -- are all too similar. Both projects involve construction of two large reactors of light water design. Both entail exhaustive training of hundreds of local personnel to operate and build the plants. Both require the transfer of technical information that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself recently withdrew from the public domain for fear its availability could help terrorists make nuclear weapons or sabotage U.S. or allied nuclear power reactors. Then there are the reactors themselves. They're large -- each capable of generating 1,000,000,000 watts of electricity and plutonium for scores of bombs each year. Thus, 12 to 15 months after Iran or North Korea begins operating these twin machines, either nation would have enough plutonium to make over 100 nuclear weapons; in 36 months, each would have material sufficient to build an arsenal on a par with Great Britain or France.
In defending these projects, American and Russian diplomats have glossed over these dangers. They insist that the plutonium these reactors normally produce is not of the highest quality -- not "weapons grade" -- and that, in any case, it would be easy to detect the use of the reactors for weapons purposes.
Perhaps, but as former U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory director Hans Mark has pointed out, plutonium of any grade -- including that
normally produced in power reactors -- can be used to make nuclear weapons. Indeed, in the 1960s, the U.S. government tested a nuclear device using power reactor grade plutonium. More important, during the first 12 to 15 months of these reactors' operation, the plutonium produced is almost entirely weapons grade. And if Iran or North Korea is willing to risk being detected, these reactors can continue to be operated "inefficiently" to produce more of such weapons material.
To these points, both American and Russian diplomats insist that Moscow or Washington could always cut off the supply of uranium fuel that Iran or North Korea would need to operate the reactors and that, in any case, neither Pyongyang nor Tehran has yet demonstrated an ability to extract the plutonium from light water reactor spent fuel. Again, these points are misleading. After all, both Iran and North Korea are known to have covert nuclear weapons programs in which the processing of uranium and extraction of plutonium figure prominently. Because of their "peaceful" reactor projects, they also have continued access to foreign nuclear power technology. So long as this continues, it is difficult to see how either Russia or the United States could keep Tehran or Pyongyang from developing any nuclear-weapons related capabilities they might need.
What makes all this even more worrisome, is that neither Moscow nor Washington seems to have a clue as to what to do were either North Korea or Iran caught using these reactors for military purposes. The last time Russia had to deal with a similar proliferation problem on its border was in the 1960s with China. As it became clear that Beijing wanted to use Russian nuclear know-how to acquire weapons of its own, Russia cut off nuclear and military sales, sought U.S. permission to target China's arsenal, and was forced to fortify its adjacent border with thousands of troops for nearly a quarter century.
As for the United States, its reaction to North Korea's first illicit use of its reactors was to promise Pyongyang in 1994 that we would supply it with 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year and two large modern nuclear reactors, and would normalize relations in exchange for its promise eventually to comply with its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty pledges. That was nearly a decade ago. Now the White House is about to decide if the United States should offer Pyongyang new concessions, and in August, the reactors' foundations will be poured in the hope (against all experience) that such generosity might entice Pyongyang to change its ways.
As for Iran's likely acquisition of nuclear weapons, the only official U.S. policy response discussed to date (and this privately) is to offer Iran a nuclear-power-for-nuclear-restraint deal similar to that already struck with North Korea. Encouraging both of these countries to build large plutonium-producing reactors, of course, is one way to make our policies toward them consistent. But if Washington and Moscow are serious about making the world safer from nuclear terror, then it's past time we recognize that regimes intent on making bombs, like Iran and North Korea, are hardly worthy recipients of our nuclear technology and know-how.