Friday, August 21, 2009

That Doesn't Even Make Any Sense

I've been eternally mystified by the insistence some arms control types have that restricting the domestic deployment of civilian nuclear technology will somehow forestall proliferation abroad. The classic example of this is the Ford/Carter reprocessing ban. Given that reprocessing continued in the UK, France, Russia, and Japan, it seems that this policy failed to make much of an impression, and given the ability of North Korea to build a basic plutonium extraction plant, it hasn't done anything to halt determined would-be nuclear states. But that doesn't stop certain observers from claiming that this policy was actually a success and should be used as a model for future US nuclear energy policy. The most recent example is James M. Acton's article in the August/September issue of Survival, "Nuclear Power, Disarmament and Technological Restraint." As the author puts it:
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.

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.
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?

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.


DV8 2XL said...

"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.

I can never let this one go by without correcting it.

Canada developed an indigenous heavy-water reactor for several reasons, not the least of which was to promote a nuclear cycle that could not be easily turned to nuclear weapons.

The common accusation that India used Canadian reactors to produce plutonium for weapons is patently false. India had two licensed CANDU reactors and began nuclear weapons tests shortly after they became operational in 1972. However, international observers have concluded that no plutonium was diverted from the safeguarded CANDU reactors. The plutonium for the initial bombs came from the older CIRUS (Canada India Research U.S.)reactor and open pool design which was indeed built by Canada, AND supplied with heavy water by the U.S., but was fueled with HEU that came from elsewhere when it was used to produce weapons grade Pu.

South Korea does own and operate CANDU's and does have a Canadian designed pool type research reactor, but doesn't openly have a weapons program.

There is no real advantage using a CANDU as a Pu breeder over a LWR just because of on-power refueling and it is best to keep in mind that North Korea used a LWR not a HWR to make weapons-grade material for their devices.

Sovietologist said...

I agree that the Canadian-HWR example is spurious, not merely because it was much more complicated than Acton makes it out to be, but because it clearly doesn't matter all that much. Experience suggests that if Canada had done what Acton suggests, and refused to sell India any kind of HWR technology, that the Indians would simply have found a different route to the bomb. They could have built simple water-graphite or gas-graphite plutonium production reactors which were well within the technical capability even of India in the 1970s. After all, North Korea managed it despite being extremely isolated, impoverished, and technically backward. The technically easy path to nuclear weapons has been in the public domain for decades, and no amount of hand-wringing over export controls will change this fact, nor will crippling our domestic nuclear industry because there's a distant possibility that would-be nuclear states will somehow be able to duplicate difficult-to-master next generation technologies.

DV8 2XL said...

The unfortunate thing is this myth of nuclear fuel processing being the handmaiden of nuclear weapons as a generally accepted truth has become so entrenched that it is now assumed to be a given even by most on the pronuclear side. However any critical examination of the available evidence shows that this is certainly not the case among the Secondary Nuclear States, and that the situation is a good deal more complex than many on both sides want to believe.

We have got to get rid of this simplistic idea that if this technology isn't controlled nations will be 'tempted' to make nuclear weapons and that unchecked will this will lead to a domino effect is pure fantasy based on the overactive imaginations of Cold War strategists who were working with no real precedents to guide them. It presumes that the nation in question is going to treat the acquisition of this capability as lightly as they would any other item of military hardware.

If you recall, it was assumed by those theories there would be more than a dozen new nuclear weapons States by the turn of the century - is is obviously just not so. Even if the question of suppling weapon-grade fissile material is removed, it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a weapon. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars, and the idea that such a project would be carried out simply because a nation has enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities does not belong in any rational discussion of the issue.

A State arming itself with nuclear weapons is not a trivial matter for the country in question. A nuclear weapons program is a unbelievably expensive undertaking ("we were eating grass" as they said in Pakistan) and no nation decides to engage in such a project lightly.

Events, real events on the ground have proven these theories simply wrong, and they should not be applied to evaluate the issue. It is time to rethink the whole foundation of proliferation risk based on historical fact rather than inductive reasoning. Proliferation myths, like most of the nuclear mythos that grew as a consequence of a mix of ignorance, inexperience and Cold War propaganda, have been shown to be false. Continuing to expect policy to follow those falsehoods is ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst.