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HOME > TOPICS > The Nonproliferation Regime      
The Nonproliferation Regime

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) represents three basic bargains. The first is encapsulated in Articles One and Two of the treaty. They prohibit states with nuclear weapons from transferring them or the means to make them to states that lack nuclear weapons, and ban nonweapons states from acquiring them. The second NPT bargain is set forth in Articles Three, Four, and Six. These articles stipulate that the nuclear weapons states will negotiate in good faith to disarm and will share the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy with nonweapons states. In exchange, the nonweapons states pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons and to allow international inspections of their civilian nuclear facilities and materials to verify whether non-nuclear weapons states are in compliance with the treaty and are not diverting peaceful nuclear activities or materials to make nuclear weapons.

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Mar 15, 2021 "For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
  When it comes to nuclear power, officials and the public tend to make projections untethered from the realities of economics or national security. Consider the current enthusiasm for “advanced” fast reactors. These make nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and reuse it as fuel. Never mind that electricity from such reactors costs a multiple of what’s produced from current reactors or that it’s impossible to keep close track of the weapons explosive plutonium they produce and consume. Congress and the Department of Energy fawn over commercializing them because they are viewed as being “advanced.” The press and public meanwhile, can’t resist celebrating the billionaire philanthropic backers of such reactors — Mr. Gates and Mr. Bezos — who now are seeking federal subsidies to support their “charitable” fast reactor dreams. This is all exciting but if our government is serious about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to curb our enthusiasm. As Victor Gilinsky and I argue in the attached Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, “For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go,” our current ardor over fast reactors is but a revival of an old faith in plutonium-fueled reactors that has repeatedly disappointed. In 1945, scientists thought the world was running out of uranium and that nuclear power could only progress by transmuting the globe’s vast amount of uranium 238 into fissile plutonium fuel in fast reactors. Almost as soon as the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency completed its first fast reactor, though, cheap uranium was discovered nearly everywhere. Unwilling to take yes for an answer, nuclear engineers then argued that thousands of conventional nuclear power plants would “soon” be operating and would be so popular that the world would run out of — you guessed it — uranium. That also never happened. Put aside the frightful negative economics of playing with highly toxic plutonium fuel and the construction complexities of fast reactors, there is a profound nuclear proliferation problem with playing with plutonium that we ignore at our own peril. Plutonium can be inspected but, unlike low enriched uranium, not ever enough to prevent incremental or abrupt diversions to make bombs. That’s why Presidents Ford and Carter suspended commercial use of plutonium-based fuels as a matter of US policy and urged other states to do the same. The UK, Germany, France, and Japan all terminated their fast reactor programs. Russia, China, and India are the only countries building them. None are yet willing to place their commercial plutonium activities under International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. India admits it will use its reactor to make bombs. This August, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will undergo its 10th five-year review. The aim of the conference is to strengthen the barriers to further nuclear weapons proliferation. If the United States and like-minded nations are serious about supporting the NPT, Victor and I argue they need to support ending the commercial use of plutonium, which is unnecessary, uneconomic, and clearly proliferation-prone.  
Op-Eds & Blogs
Feb 19, 2021 "Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes," Foreign Policy
Wednesday, President Biden phoned Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the official read out of the call, no mention was made of Israel’s nuclear program. As a result, it is unclear if Biden committed to pledging not to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons or to confirm their existence as long as Israel feels threatened. Israel has demanded every American president since Bill Clinton make this pledge in writing. In the attached Foreign Policy piece, “Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes,” Victor Gilinsky and I argue Biden shouldn’t. Israel has a triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and was recently rated the world’s eighth most powerful state, just behind Japan. After the Abraham Accords, Israel is unlikely to be pushed into the sea. On the other hand, pressure is mounting on Washington to uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) promise to limit its nuclear forces. Last fall, the United States called on China to abide by this NPT pledge and after extending New START, the Biden Administration announced its desire for China to join in follow-on nuclear reduction talks. The Administration is currently attempting to engage Iran to renew and fortify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Yet, it will be difficult to do so credibly without acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal — something currently forbidden by Executive order of anyone holding a US security clearance.  The same also is true of dealing with Egyptian threats to hold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference hostage if Washington refuses to participate in talks to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is expanding its nuclear activities at Dimona. All of this suggests its time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands. Washington pretend Israel has no bombs. All of this suggests it's time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands.
Op-Eds & Blogs
Dec 06, 2020 "A Biden Plan for Riyadh and its Neighbors," Foreign Policy
Among the foreign policy dogs that are yet to bark, is Biden’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are anticipating a chillier tone, but when asked the Biden team had no comment. Last December, Biden said he’d stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and make them “the pariah that they are.” Holding Saudi Arabia accountable for pursuing nuclear weapons and committing human rights violations makes sense. The question is how. The attached Foreign Policy piece by NPEC’s Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan supplies an answer: Rather than shunning Riyadh, Washington should afford them tough love. The Saudis believe the US will soon abandon them and that they’ll soon be at the mercy of mullahs from Tehran. Washington and other Western capitals can ease these concerns, which are shared in other Middle Eastern capitals, and in exchange should get them to clean up their proliferation and human rights act. The best way to do this, Spacapan argues, would be to form a league of Western and Middle Eastern states to enhance the region’s security, energy, economic, and social development. “Even if the coalition started somewhat small – just the US, UK, EU, Saudi Arabia, and smaller Arab states such as Jordan, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, and Tunisia – it would,” he notes, “demonstrate that the US and its western allies will not soon leave Saudi Arabia at the mercy of Iran or other outside powers.” This alone could damper Riyadh’s drive to go nuclear. America’s ties to Riyadh epitomize the dilemma that plagues its foreign policy: Maintaining relations with influential authoritarians is only politically sustainable if you get them to behave better. Ignoring human rights violations and nuclear proliferation would contradict American values, but abandoning states rarely improves matters. The idea of creating a league is surely ambitious. The alternatives, which mostly amount to doing nothing or spending a great deal in reactionary military operations, recommend trying. It is something a Biden Administration should consider.
Op-Eds & Blogs
Oct 22, 2020 Strategic Deterrence: Its Future if the Bomb Spreads
Just before this week's presidential election, Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. envoy for arms control, pleaded with NATO members not to share sensitive nuclear technology with China. He made this request to pressure Beijing to join nuclear arms negotiations with Washington and Moscow. Certainly, reaching limits on the future growth of Russian and Chinese nuclear forces is desirable. In China's case, special attention needs to be paid not just to how many warheads it has, but to how it might exploit its "peaceful" civilian nuclear infrastructure to ramp up those numbers. Limiting such a possible ramp up should have a more prominent place on America's arms control agenda. Mr. Billingslea's NATO plea is a start. What more is needed? Last week, I spoke to this question before the Air Force Association's Nuclear Deterrence Breakfast Series. It is unclear just how large China plans to make its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Compounding this uncertainty is China's latent capacity to make many hundreds of nuclear weapons by tapping existing and planned uranium enrichment and plutonium recycling plants. This possibility puts our Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, on edge. With any bad luck this could prompt them to go nuclear. To address this, the United States should propose a time-out on reprocessing and cap existing enrichment capacities at their current levels throughout the Pacific Rim, including the United States. I make a number of other suggestions at the close of my talk.  
Presentations; Audio & Video
Oct 15, 2020 "Say No to Enrichment and Reprocessing In the Middle East," Foreign Policy
One foreign policy promise both Biden and Trump have made is to prevent further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East by cutting a nuclear deal with Iran. Biden wants to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement Trump pulled out of. Trump says he wants to cut a “better” deal... But as Victor Gilinsky and I explain in our Foreign Policy piece, “To Prevent Proliferation, Stop Enrichment and Reprocessing in the Middle East,” blocking the bomb’s further spread in the Middle East requires more than just “fixing” Iran. The Saudis have threatened to acquire nuclear weapons and have secretly been working with the Chinese on processing uranium. Washington also must soon review and renew the terms of its civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with Turkey (whose president, Recep Erdogan, recently said Ankara has a right to acquire nuclear arms), as well as with Egypt (which once harbored weapons ambitions) and Morocco.   Unfortunately, the United States now has not one, but three different nonproliferation standards in the Middle East.  Each takes a different approach to limiting uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel (enrichment can produce weapons-grade uranium; reprocessing nuclear weapons explosive plutonium).  In the case of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, Iran is allowed to enrich and may eventually reprocess as well. Meanwhile, the deal Washington cut with the UAE requires Abu Dhabi to uphold what is referred to as the nonproliferation gold standard by forswearing both activities. In the case of Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, Washington only prohibits enriching and reprocessing of U.S.-origin nuclear materials.  As Victor and I argue, this conflicting patchwork is unsustainable. In its place, the United States should promote the Gold Standard from Morocco through Iran, including Israel. This means Iran should give up enriching and reprocessing as the UAE already has and the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Israelis should. This would not impact Israel’s current nuclear weapons arsenal. But it would cap it and point the way for [Israel’s] security to depend less on nuclear weapons.  Our proposal for a no-enrichment and no-reprocessing zone in the region also would help address Middle Eastern states’ demands to move towards a nuclear weapons free zone. In fact, it would be more feasible, and if achieved, have more lasting significance since it would preclude the possibility of non-nuclear states in the region making nuclear weapons.    
Op-Eds & Blogs
Sep 25, 2020 "Let's Try an Honest Nonproliferation Policy in the Middle East," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Yesterday, something quite odd occurred. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Under Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs David Hale was asked what our government’s nonproliferation goals were in striking a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. Was the Trump Administration aiming to get Riyadh to agree to the “Gold Standard”? This would require Riyadh to forswear enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel—two activities that could bring it to the brink of making bombs. This was hardly a trick question: In May of 2018, Secretary Pompeo publicly testified that the United States was pushing this objective. Yet, yesterday, Under Secretary Hale refused to confirm this, pleading the matter was classified. It’s not entirely clear why Mr. Hale refused to go on the record. But he did have cause to be cautious. Increasingly, Washington is getting crosswise with itself as it pushes U.S. power reactor technology exports to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, saddling them and Iran with a patchwork of conflicting nuclear nonproliferation conditions. As Victor Gilinsky and I note, in the attached Bulletin of Atomic Scientists piece “Toward an honest Middle East nonproliferation policy,” America’s agreement with the UAE requires it legally forswear enriching uranium and reprocessing entirely and adopt intrusive international nuclear inspections. In contrast, Washington agreed to allow Iran to enrich in a limited fashion. Meanwhile, current U.S. agreements with Turkey and Egypt permit them to enrich in an unlimited manner so long as they do not use U.S. – origin materials. The proposed agreement with Saudi Arabia, if there is one, may be some kludge of these three approaches. The United States needs to simplify. In specific, Washington should push the Gold Standard for all existing civilian nuclear programs in the Middle East and encourage states there not to build any additional large reactors. This may be difficult, but it should be our goal. Given the abundance of cheap natural gas, solar energy, and new opportunities to connect Middle Eastern pipelines and grids, nuclear power in the region no longer makes economic sense. It does, however, pose a worrisome security risk both for nuclear bomb making and presenting tempting missile targets. Pretending otherwise or, worse, being silent when we should speak honestly about these liabilities is a luxury we can no longer afford.  
Op-Eds & Blogs
Aug 05, 2020 Unsafeguardable - - Enriching Uranium and Reprocessing Spent Fuel
Last week's revelation that Saudi Arabia has been secretly collaborating with China to produce uranium yellowcake put a spotlight on the Saudi's worrisome nuclear program. Admittedly, producing yellowcake is only the first step toward enriching uranium. The long pole in the technical tent to make nuclear bombs is enriching uranium and reprocessing spent reactor fuel. The Saudis insist they want to enrich. Once they do, however, preventing possible military diversions to make bombs will be nearly impossible. The attached in-depth research by Greg Jones, "Can Bulk Nuclear Fuel Facilities Be Effectively Safeguarded?" drives this point home. His short answer to his own question about enrichment and reprocessing plants is no, effective safeguards are not possible. First, would-be bomb makers can hide enrichment and reprocessing facilities from international inspectors, make a bomb and not get caught until one or more weapons are in hand. Second, even declared enrichment plants making low enriched uranium that can't be made into bombs can be converted so quickly to produce weapons-grade uranium that little can be done before a nuclear weapon is built. Finally, measuring what declared enrichment and reprocessing plants produce is still so inaccurate that a would-be bomb maker could incrementally divert enough nuclear explosive material to make one or more bombs worth without tipping off any inspector. For all these reasons, it's best to prevent enrichment and reprocessing activities from ever starting in countries that lack nuclear weapons.  This is especially true of a country like Saudi Arabia, which, in addition to hiding its latest nuclear collaboration with Beijing, lied about Jamal Khashoggi's ghastly murder, and covertly bought a Chinese missile factory. These three strikes ought to make cooperating with Riyadh on nuclear energy, much less, trusting them with enrichment or reprocessing, out of bounds.  Greg Jones' analysis, of course, speaks to much more than just the Saudi case. It clarifies what kind of nuclear activities -- reprocessing and enrichment -- the U.S. and other nuclear supplier states should say no to. Thinking that we can let safeguard nonweapon states from diverting enrichment and reprocessing to bombs, is a mistake.
Occasional Papers & Monographs
Jun 03, 2020 "Trouble ahead: Other countries can build military reactors free of safeguards," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Earlier this year, the Defense Department kicked off a design competition for micro nuclear reactors that can be deployed with U.S. military forces overseas. Such reactors on U.S. military bases would not be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections because America is recognized to be a nuclear weapons state under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). What's worrisome, is that in principle, countries lacking nuclear weapons could build military reactors free of inspections as well. As Victor Gilinsky and I wrote in the attached Bulletin of Atomic Scientists piece, "Small military nuclear reactors: In need of global safeguards," the NPT does not prohibit non-weapon states from all military applications of nuclear energy--only those that involve nuclear explosives. IAEA safeguards agreements with these states actually include a provision that notes this possibility and excludes these activities from safeguards. To its credit, the IAEA views what is "peaceful" nuclear activity as broadly as possible in order to cover as many activities with safeguards as possible. But as former Brazilian ambassador Sergio Duarte who serves as president of the 2005 NPT Review Conference and chairman of the IAEA Board of Governors, recently noted, "There is no definition of 'peaceful uses' in any multilateral treaty on nonproliferation." Both South Korea and Iran have announced a desire to develop naval reactors that would entail building ground-based prototypes. If the U.S. promotes small reactors as a killer app, it's conceivable it will be giving other countries that lack nuclear weapons ideas. This is a prescription for mischief. The 2020 NPT Review Conference has been delayed until next year. Before it meets, it would be smart to clarify that non-weapons states' military reactors, naval or otherwise, need to be safeguarded no matter what.    
Op-Eds & Blogs
May 28, 2020 "Advanced" US Reactors: New Foreign Policy and Security Concerns
 Over the last few weeks, Defense and Enery officials have made a number of remarkable announcements promoting the export and overseas deployment of "advanced reactors"-- nuclear plants as small as several megawatts electrical (and up) that use new types of reactor fuels. Overturning decades of U.S. policy not to encourage the separation of weapons-usable plutonium overseas, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for nuclear energy announced earlier this month the department's desire to send U.S. spent fuel to France, India, and Japan for reprocessing. This would be part of a larger effort to develop plutonium-based fuels for several proposed U.S. advanced reactor designs. The Energy Department also wants to expand American uranium enrichment capacity to produce nearly 20% enriched fuels for other proposed reactor systems. Small versions of these reactors are intended for export. The Energy Department wants to develop these reactors and their fuel cycles with advanced nuclear nations (e.g., Japan, South Korea, India). The Department of Defense, meanwhile, let out contracts for a microreactor it hopes to begin testing 2023 for deployment at the very edge of battle at military theaters like Afghanistan.    What foreign policy and security concerns do these advanced reactors raise? The short answer is plenty. For starters, they include the possible reopening of America's nuclear cooperative agreements with South Korea, India, and China and persuading other countries to let us insert military reactors on their soil.   All of this should raise eyebrows. Last week, Sharon Squasoni (of George Washington's Institue for International Science and Technology Policy) and I offered congressional staff a short brief, "'Advanced' US Reactors: New Foreign Policy-Security Concerns." The following are the Powerpoint slides, a suggested list of readings, and a brief memo on the Build Act, which the nuclear industry want to use to help finance U.S. advanced reactor exports.  
Presentations
Apr 21, 2020 "Nuclear Test Ban: Don't Test, Don't Ratify, Don't Unsign," The National Interest
Late last week, the State Department caused a stir raising suspicions that the Chinese have been violating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). There were two immediate responses: Some wanted to unsign the treaty, which would clear the way to resume nuclear testing, others pushed back and doubled down on their earlier calls to ratify the treaty. As I make clear in the following analysis I wrote yesterday for The National Interest, neither camp's advice should be heeded. "The United States can't fully verify small nuclear test violations and should not ratify the treaty until it can, but for the same reason," I wrote, "it shouldn't unsign the treaty until it has clear proofs that it can publicly share." As for resuming nuclear testing, it would only further slow our nuclear modernization program and increase its already sky-high costs. On this last point, I share the insights of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's top nuclear weapons designers. "There is something here to irk everyone," I conclude. "Resuming nuclear testing is for chumps; unsigning or ratifying the treaty is for the flamboyant. For now, steering clear of all three is America's best course."
Op-Eds & Blogs
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