The missing debate about nuclear security

March 24, 2014

–Behnam Taebi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, specialising in nuclear issues, at Delft University of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Technicians work at a uranium processing site in Isfahan 340 km (211 miles) south of the Iranian capital Tehran March 30, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Today and tomorrow, the Netherlands will host the third Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), but while more than 50 world leaders converge on The Hague to focus on enhancing security of the stockpiles of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities across the world, key elements of the debate on nuclear security will be missing.

As a conference organised by Delft University last weekend on nuclear security, policy and ethics highlighted, a fully comprehensive agenda for the Hague sessions would also include socio-technical and ethical aspects of nuclear security, including nuclear disarmament and expansion of nuclear energy.

Disarmament

The rationale of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is halting the spread of nuclear weapons and knowledge that could lead to proliferation.

In addition, countries that possessed those weapons when the treaty was ratified (United States, United Kingdom, China, France and the-then Soviet Union) agreed to move towards gradual total disarmament. This is what offers moral and legal justification for other countries not to develop nuclear weapons. However, despite first-term gestures by U.S. President Barack Obama (and the NSS is his brainchild), no substantial efforts have been made in that direction.

What is disconcerting to some in the international community is that actually new weapons are being developed – some with euphemistic names such as ‘strategic arms’ or ‘mini-nukes’ – in the name of modernising existing nuclear arsenals. This completely undermines the moral justifications of the NPT and incentivises non-weapon countries to move towards development of weapons themselves.

Nuclear Energy

Another issue that the NSS will not address is the global expansion of nuclear power. There are 30 countries with nuclear energy and another 45 have expressed interest in joining the nuclear club, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The NPT as a treaty provides for the principle of access to peaceful nuclear technology for countries in exchange for them renouncing building nuclear arms. However, there are various challenges, mainly from so-called dual-use technologies that could both be used for both civil and military purposes.

Perhaps the best examples of dual-use technologies are enrichment and reprocessing facilities.  Enrichment of uranium is needed for technical reasons; existing reactors can only run based on low-enriched uranium (3%-5%). However, when enrichment is continued up to 70%-90%, it could be used for military purposes. Whether each nuclear power producing country should have access to such facilities is key. The NPT does give access, even though these facilities carry serious security risks.

What provides for moral legitimacy to halt one member of the IAEA from developing such proliferation-sensitive facilities, while others do so? Iran insists on enriching uranium for its own use, while the so-called P5+1 countries insist on Tehran removing those facilities, or at least offering safeguards that the country will not exceed low levels of enrichment

Another example of dual-use technologies are reprocessing plants. Reprocessing, or recycling of nuclear waste has various safety and environmental benefits – we can reuse the still deployable material for energy production, for instance. However, among these still usable materials is plutonium which is also a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. While civilian plutonium is not weapon-grade, the same reprocessing facilities could be used for destructive purposes.

A good example of how this process can work safely in practice is the deal between South Korea and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Under this arrangement, South Korea has agreed to build several nuclear power plants for UAE and in exchange the latter has renounced enrichment and reprocessing.

Nuclear energy is produced using technologies developed in the 1960s and 1970s when safety was the overwhelming concern and, therefore, the leading design requirement of nuclear reactors. Since then, however, there has been serious advancement in nuclear technologies, particularly in designing and building reactors. Passively safe reactors, for instance, do not rely on human operator to ensure safety.

As safety has been considerably improved, other important criteria have been introduced into reactor design. Reactors can now be developed that produce no, or much less suitable weapons material, while other types of reactors now use resources more efficiently. Advancement of nuclear technology could help us to perfect design and manufacture for each of these criteria, but it confronts us with an important challenge: the safest nuclear reactor is not necessarily the most secure one, and vice versa. So-called breeder reactors, for instance, could allow resources to be used much more efficiently but they operate on plutonium, and the associated recycling thereof, which brings major security concerns.

If the NSS platform was widened to include nuclear disarmament and nuclear energy it would make for a much more effective mechanism to discuss these issues and help bolster the NPT. While these topics will not be discussed in the Netherlands, it is increasingly important that they are addressed by the international community to help enhance nuclear security at a critical time when the club of nuclear countries is set to expand rapidly.

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