Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: The Need to Build Trust

In recent years nuclear power has enjoyed a revival. This poses a serious proliferation danger due to increased access to dual-use technologies. This creates a dilemma: “how can the international community encourage the peaceful use of nuclear energy [a right guaranteed under Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)] while curbing the spread of nuclear weapons?” (Yudin, 2010, p.xi). One solution to this problem is the multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, all proposals to this end have been met with suspicion from non-nuclear supplier states. In his Multilateralizion of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: The Need to Build Trust (2010), Yury Yudin, a Senior Researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), explores the concerns of non-supplier states and looks at what future proposals should include in order to alleviate these concerns.

Yudin identifies the core problem as being a lack of trust amongst states. Non-supplier states are concerned that a multilateral mechanism would entrench the “two-tier” division between Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States that exists under the NPT. They also worry that their right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes will be compromised, as will their access to advanced technologies. This concern is not completely unfounded. Some proposals for multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as the 2004 Bush proposal and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, contained preconditions that non-supplier states had to forgo the domestic development of sensitive fuel-cycle technologies (Yudin, 2010, p.9). There is also a serious concern that supplier states might form a “cartel” under the cover of non-proliferation and multilateralization, a concern that is reinforced by the fact that there are only eight suppliers of nuclear fuel who represent nine countries, most of whom are political allies (Yudin, 2010, p.27). Non-supplier states also fear that multilateral fuel supply could never be as reliable a source of energy as having their own domestic sources.

In order for the multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle to be successful, future proposals must take into consideration the concerns of non-supplier states. A future multilateral mechanism should provide sufficient incentives (political, economic etc) for non-supplier states not to obtain proliferation-sensitive technologies by ensuring that they can enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy without direct access to certain technologies (Yudin, 2010, p.xii). It should not, according to Yudin, be dependent on the condition that non-supplier states forgo their right to develop fuel cycle facilities (2010, p.xii). For Yudin, it is also important to stress that any future multilateral mechanism is inclusive, allowing for broad participation by all states. This would help allay the concerns held by non-supplier states that the nuclear powers might be attempting to form a “cartel” (Yudin, 2010, p.xii).

Yudin’s study concludes by acknowledging that denationalization might not prevent those who are determined to develop a weapons option from going their own way. But, he stresses, you have to start somewhere. While present proposals might not be completely proliferation-proof they represent only the beginning of a long and complicated process (Yudin, 2010, p.55).

– William Eichler, London