The appropriate way to evaluate a strategy of desist and discourage is to ask whether it not only discourages states from taking small-scale research programmes to an industrial level, but leads states to avoid launching new reprocessing programmes in the first place. (Small-scale reprocessing programmes are perhaps even more worrying from a proliferation perspective than their industrial-scale counterparts.) For this reason, the claim from a recent Department of Energy report that 'U.S. opposition [to reprocessing] has not slowed large-scale reprocessing programs in Europe, Japan, and Russia', while true, is also somewhat beside the point. What the Department of Energy's statement really underlines is that, because of the web of political, legal and financial commitments needed to create such multibillion-dollar programmes, it is extremely difficult to stop them once they have been set in motion. This phenomenon, termed 'entrapment' by William Walker, highlights the importance of a policy aimed at stopping such programmes before they have even started. Here, there is evidence that the US moratorium had a positive, albeit modest, effect.And where were these effects felt?
Most Western nuclear-power programmes prior to the mid 1970s were built around the expectation that power-reactor fuel would be reprocessed. The seminal 1976 study Moving Towards Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd? observed that, given contemporary plans, 17 states would have reprocessing facilities and enough separated plutonium for between three and six nuclear weapons by 1985; today, just eight or nine states (including North Korea) are reprocessing. Not all of these stoppages were due to the US moratorium. Some programmes, such as South Korea's and Taiwan's (both of which had a clear military dimension), were avoided because of intense US pressure on both the supplier and recipient of reprocessing-technology transfers. Others, however, were influenced by the moratorium.Acton uses Italy as an example of a state influenced by the moratorium, but ultimately concludes that "the evolution of policy in Italy was driven by a domestic debate about the economics of reprocessing and safety concerns about plutonium," leaving the reader to wonder exactly where it was that the policy had the desired effect. On the whole, it's not at all convincing as a defense of this kind of policy.
The technology which Acton particularly seems to envision for this kind of treatment is Silex laser enrichment:
Realistically, the gas centrifuge is too economically advantageous, and its use too entrenched, to be phased out. The opportunity does exist, however, to forsake enrichment and other nuclear technologies that have not yet been commercialised.I'm not sure why this follows. Silex is an extremely challenging technology which is already subject to what are arguably some of the tightest information controls ever applied to a civilian endeavor. Centrifuge technology, however, is much more achievable to would-be nuclear states and information about it has already been widely disseminated thanks to the efforts of A.Q. Kahn and others. Nuclear proliferators would be fools to pursue Silex, so why should we deny it to ourselves?
Today, for instance, Global Laser Enrichment (GLE, owned by General Electric Hitachi) is attempting to commercialise a new enrichment process (known as the SILEX process) based on lasers. GLE expects that the SILEX process will be more profitable to enrichment firms than other technologies. However, the economic benefits of cheaper enrichment to electricity consumers are slight because enrichment typically accounts for less than 5% of the total cost of nuclear electricity. Meanwhile, laser enrichment is probably even more worrying from a proliferation perspective than the gas centrifuge because detecting a small, clandestine laser-enrichment plant is likely to be even harder than detecting a secret gas-centrifuge enrichment plant of a similar capacity. Regulators should factor such concerns into licensing decisions for all nuclear technologies and be willing to deny applications if they determine that the costs outweigh the benefits, as is almost certainly the case with GLE, for instance. Forsaking sensitive nuclear technologies on non-proliferation grounds would be controversial, but justifiable.
In general, Acton claims that "policymakers, industry insiders and regulators have usually failed to factor proliferation concerns into decisions about nuclear energy." This is a highly questionable assessment, given not only the history of the reprocessing ban in the US recounted by the author. To read the article, one would not know that such international controls have been in place already for decades. Incredibly, Acton totally ignores the existence of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which has been working to discourage nuclear proliferation since 1978. Perhaps one could argue that the efforts of the NSG have been utterly inadequate, but a failure to consider its efforts historically in an article making this argument is, to say the very least, an extraordinary oversight.
For all its shortcomings, however, the article does make an important and often-overlooked point:
The proliferation costs of not selling less-sensitive technologies are frequently underplayed. A dramatic example is the US decision to cut the United Kingdom and Canada out of the development of civil nuclear power after the Second World War. Reluctant to rely on the United States as a supplier of enrichment, Britain and Canada decided to focus on reactors that did not use enriched uranium (GCRs and HWRs, respectively). These reactors are, however, more suitable for proliferation than LWRs (which is not to say that LWRs are proliferation proof). Indeed, the Indian nuclear-weapons programme was based on a Canadian-supplied HWR. South Korea tried to acquire an almost identical reactor in the early 1970s, when it was pursuing a nuclear-weapons option. And, as noted above, North Korea produced plutonium for its weapons programme using a GCR based on a British design.Historically, I think that Acton's example is rather imperfect, but I think the overall point is sound. The UK developed the MAGNOX GCR in order to produce plutonium for its weapons program; it seems unlikely that the US would have provided HEU for weapons use. The Canadians chose HWRs in the 1950s because they determined that developing domestic enrichment capabilities for solely civilian purposes would be prohibitively expensive, and there was no international civilian source for enriched uranium at the time. The US denial wasn't necessarily the issue per se. But it is easy to imagine how an unwillingness to share nuclear technology today could have undesirable consequences. For instance, states denied US reactor technology might turn to India and Russia, which could sell them reactors like the BN-800 that would have less proliferation resistance than conventional LWRs. This is one reason why more sensible arms control wonks have embraced the UAE deal as an example for how nuclear exports should be conducted.
The biggest flaw with Acton's argument, however, is that it is an anachronism in an era when the US dominates the world nuclear field far less than it did thirty years ago. In 1978, the US had much more influence over the civilian nuclear energy field; today, the major American players have been bought out by the Japanese, we have to import critical forgings, and Areva and Rosatom are furiously competing for the export market with offers of financing, fuel cycle services, and other enticements. Acton speaks mysteriously of "a small number of advanced nuclear states," but does this have any bearing on the world situation today? As nations like China and India build up their domestic nuclear industries, US influence continues to shrink, for better or for worse. Any strategy for non-proliferation that is posited on continued American dominance in the nuclear energy field is doomed to failure.