Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Can We Send Our Nuclear Waste to Siberia?

John McCain's speech yesterday has been making the rounds on the blogosphere. It's received a Bronx cheer from some observers (see Kate Sheppard in Grist here) but on the whole I feel better about it. McCain's stated commitment to multilateral arms control agreement and, particularly, the need for close cooperation with Russia, are both good developments.

Readers familiar with McCain's earlier rhetoric about Russia may find this surprising. He did, after all, say awhile ago that Russia should be kicked out of the G8. This is inconsistent, and my hope is that it signals some moderation in McCain's stance on Russia. One would certainly expect so, given that one of the things McCain is proposing is a repository in Siberia for foreign spent nuclear fuel. As he stated in his speech:
I would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that could collect and safely store materials overseas that might otherwise be reprocessed to acquire bomb-grade materials. It is even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The location of this facility was only clarified by one of his advisors:
Randy Scheunemann, a senior foreign policy and national security advisor to the McCain campaign, said later that the repository could be in Siberia and that if there were sufficient security guarantees, McCain had a "willingness to entertain possibility ... that we could possibly send some of our spent fuel there."

However convenient this might be for American politicians, it is not something that the Russians are likely to agree to. The enthusiasm of the Russian government for providing spent nuclear fuel storage has waned in recent years as their economy has boomed. The concept is unpopular with the Russian public, who are tolerant of the idea of offering reprocessing services but not of becoming "the world's nuclear waste dump." At the same time, international cooperation on monitoring the nuclear fuel cycle is important, so any step towards working closer with the Russians could be interpreted as a good thing.

In any case, the real proliferation danger is associated with the front end of the fuel cycle. McCain's solution to this is reminiscent of internationalization schemes from Atoms for Peace to GNEP:

The most effective way to prevent this deception is to limit the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing. To persuade countries to forego enrichment and reprocessing, I would support international guarantees of nuclear fuel supply to countries that renounce enrichment and reprocessing, as well as the establishment of multinational nuclear enrichment centers in which they can participate. Nations that seek nuclear fuel for legitimate civilian purposes will be able to acquire what they need under international supervision. This is one suggestion Russia and others have made to Iran.

It is interesting that McCain seems to be implicitly endorsing Russia's scheme for Bushehr: allowing the Iranians to possess the VVER-1000 reactor but making them dependent on foreign (i.e., Russian) fuel suppliers. This is in marked contrast to many Congressional critics of Russia's nuclear export policies, who are threatening to block the 123 agreement over Bushehr.

While a fair amount of what McCain proposed in the speech is no more than a pipe dream, on the whole it marks an enormous improvement over the policies of the current administration in several areas, particularly the need for real arms control negotiations with Russia. As such, I'm heartened by it. As Obama has also emphasized the need for such negotiations, there's reason to hope that there will be new arms control efforts irrespective of who wins the election this fall.

6 comments:

Ashutosh said...

what's mcain's take on missile defense?

Sovietologist said...

He's for it, but he said in the speech that he was for trying to cooperate with the Russians on it. The Russians did offer to accommodate the US somewhat on this issue (by offering the use of Russian bases for radar sites); perhaps this is what he's referring to. I don't think that ABMs work well enough to be worth the expense, but this could be an improvement over the Bush Administrations unwillingness to assuage the Russians' concerns on this issue.

Sovietologist said...

This is how he put it in his speech:
"I also believe we should work with Russia to build confidence in our missile defense program, including through such initiatives as the sharing of early warning data and prior notification of missile launches."

DV8 2XL said...

'The most effective way to prevent this deception is to limit the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing. To persuade countries to forego enrichment and reprocessing, I would support international guarantees of nuclear fuel supply to countries that renounce enrichment and reprocessing, as well as the establishment of multinational nuclear enrichment centers in which they can participate. Nations that seek nuclear fuel for legitimate civilian purposes will be able to acquire what they need under international supervision. This is one suggestion Russia and others have made to Iran.'

John McCain - 2008

Now where have I heard something like that before? Oh yes I remember:

'All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also cooperate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.'

para 2. Article IV. TREATY ON THE NON-PROLIFERATION OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS - Signed at Washington, London, and Moscow July 1, 1968

Ashutosh said...

I just finished reading "The Atomic Bazaar" and it seems to depressingly conclude that if countries decide to get nukes, they will and nobody can really stop them.

DV8 2XL said...

Ashutosh said..."conclude that if countries decide to get nukes, they will and nobody can really stop them."

In his essay The Nuclear Game - An Essay on Nuclear Policy Making Stuart Slade writes:

"When a country first acquires nuclear weapons it does so out of a very accurate perception that possession of nukes fundamentally changes it relationships with other powers. What nuclear weapons buy for a New Nuclear Power (NNP) is the fact that once the country in question has nuclear weapons, it cannot be beaten. It can be defeated, that is it can be prevented from achieving certain goals or stopped from following certain courses of action, but it cannot be beaten. It will never have enemy tanks moving down the streets of its capital, it will never have its national treasures looted and its citizens forced into servitude. The enemy will be destroyed by nuclear attack first. A potential enemy knows that so will not push the situation to the point where our NNP is on the verge of being beaten. In effect, the effect of acquiring nuclear weapons is that the owning country has set limits on any conflict in which it is involved. This is such an immensely attractive option that states find it irresistible.

Only later do they realize the problem. Nuclear weapons are so immensely destructive that they mean a country can be totally destroyed by their use. Although our NNP cannot be beaten by an enemy it can be destroyed by that enemy. Although a beaten country can pick itself up and recover, the chances of a country devastated by nuclear strikes doing the same are virtually non-existent. [This needs some elaboration. Given the likely scale and effects of a nuclear attack, its most unlikely that the everybody will be killed. There will be survivors and they will rebuild a society but it will have nothing in common with what was there before. So, to all intents and purposes, once a society initiates a nuclear exchange its gone forever]. Once this basic factor has been absorbed, the NNP makes a fundamental realization that will influence every move it makes from this point onwards. If it does nothing, its effectively invincible. If, however, it does something, there is a serious risk that it will initiate a chain of events that will eventually lead to a nuclear holocaust. The result of that terrifying realization is strategic paralysis.

With that appreciation of strategic paralysis comes an even worse problem. A non-nuclear country has a wide range of options for its forces. Although its actions may incur a risk of being beaten they do not court destruction. Thus, a non-nuclear nation can afford to take risks of a calculated nature. However,a nuclear-equipped nation has to consider the risk that actions by its conventional forces will lead to a situation where it may have to use its nuclear forces with the resulting holocaust. Therefore, not only are its strategic nuclear options restricted by its possession of nuclear weapons, so are its tactical and operational options. So we add tactical and operational paralysis to the strategic variety. This is why we see such a tremendous emphasis on the mechanics of decision making in nuclear powers. Every decision has to be thought through, not for one step or the step after but for six, seven or eight steps down the line."


He goes on to say:

"Aha, I hear you say what about the mad dictator? Its interesting to note that mad, homicidal aggressive dictators tend to get very tame sane cautious ones as soon as they split atoms. Whatever their motivations and intents, the mechanics of how nuclear weapons work dictate that mad dictators become sane dictators very quickly. After all its not much fun dictating if one's country is a radioactive trash pile and you're one of the ashes. China, India and Pakistan are good examples. One of the best examples of this process at work is Mao Tse Tung. Throughout the 1950s he was extraordinarily bellicose and repeatedly tried to bully, cajole or trick Khruschev and his successors into initiating a nuclear exchange with the US on the grounds that world communism would rise from the ashes. Thats what Quemoy and Matsu were all about in the late 1950s. Then China got nuclear weapons. Have you noticed how reticent they are with them? Its sunk in. They can be totally destroyed; will be totally destroyed; in the event of an exchange"

I think that he has mad some very pertinent observations, and we have to re think our knee-jerk reaction to the news that some minor Power
might acquire a nuclear arsenal.

One analyst from RAND was asked what Saddam Hussein would have done if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons in 1990. He replied that he didn't know what he would have done but he did know what he would not have done - he would not have invaded Kuwait.