Nonproliferation and the Nuclear Renaissance

Nicolas Loris /

This morning Heritage Research Fellow Jack Spencer testified before the Committee of Foreign Affairs to discuss nonproliferation in the era of a nuclear renaissance. The full written testimony can be found here. Below is a highlighted summary of the oral testimony:

While the nonproliferation regime is under stress, it is not broken. That being said, there is no question that a global nuclear renaissance will present new and unique challenges. But if met appropriately, I believe that a global nuclear renaissance is not incompatible with nonproliferation objectives.

The challenge for the United States will be to integrate its principles into a new rule-set that governs peaceful nuclear commerce. The following recommendations can help meet this challenge

First the U.S. must take the lead in developing an international nuclear fuel supply program. Such a program must be at the center of any strategy to save the nonproliferation agenda in an era of nuclear renaissance. The international component of the Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is a good first step, but must evolve further. Because fuel supplies can never be unconditionally guaranteed, the program should assure fuel access as long as certain nonproliferation guidelines are followed by participant countries. Another important component will be that fuel suppliers maintain title of the fuel throughout the fuel cycle. This means that supplier nations must also have a workable spent fuel management strategy.

This should be expanded upon to codify new rules to govern commercial nuclear activities broadly. The most effective way to protect U.S. interests in an era of nuclear renaissance is to ensure that the rules and norms of the global nuclear industry are consistent with American ideals such as free-markets, openness, and transparency. As part of this effort, fuel supplier states should agree to open their markets to international competition.

Third, the United States must not cede control of any nuclear fuel services to an international body such as an international fuel bank or an international nuclear waste management agency. While an international fuel bank could have some merit as an insurance policy for countries whose fear of being denied access to fuel would limit their participation in a larger nuclear fuel supply program, such an effort must not be used to control nuclear fuel distribution broadly. Furthermore, the international community should not be responsible for managing nuclear waste. Instead, each nation should operate under its specific rules and regulations as they pertain to nuclear waste issues.

Instead of ceding power to international bodies, the U.S. should take a more active role in safeguards and verification. The International Atomic Energy Agency currently has a monopoly over this responsibility. While the IAEA has a critical role in promoting safety, security, and cooperation in the nuclear field, safeguards and verification need additional oversight. A more active U.S. role, especially in activities involving fuel services, would have multiple benefits. First, it would allow the IAEA to focus its efforts on high-risk countries and activities. Second, it would provide another level of scrutiny for potential proliferation concerns—especially those associated with nuclear fuel services.

And finally, the U.S. should reiterate its support of the enduring role of Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The reality is that any country can pursue whatever technologies that it chooses. As the article states, countries’ rights to pursue peaceful nuclear technologies are “inalienable.” This inalienability, however, is not absolute in the context of the NPT. It is contingent on fulfilling their obligations and responsibilities under the pact. Any nonproliferation regime that does not respect the rights of individual states will ultimately fail. The key is to devise a system that promotes buy-in from both suppliers and consumers of nuclear fuel services. If the system is economically rational, credible, and reliable, then peaceful nuclear countries should find participation beneficial.

Only those that would seek to use nuclear technology for nefarious purposes would find benefits in operating outside of the system. This is not a nonproliferation policy problem or commercial nuclear problem, but a hostile regime problem. Preventing hostile regimes from acquiring nuclear capabilities requires the political will to use the available tools effectively.