The ‘nuclear revival’: taking stock, managing concerns


The so-called ‘nuclear revival’ is considered by some observers to be the next major challenge for the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is considered by some to set in motion the rapid diffusion of nuclear technology to states in volatile regions, namely North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It is, some argue, likely to cause these states to engage in ‘nuclear hedging’, that is, the deliberate stockpiling of nuclear capacity and expertise to keep open the option of quickly building a nuclear weapon if security conditions take a turn for the worse. Iran’s behavior, in particular, is seen as the potential catalyst for a nuclear ‘tipping point’, ‘cascade’ or ‘proliferation epidemic’ in the Middle East. The safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is already financially strained and is said to be incapable of handling the rapid influx of new nuclear facilities that comes with a nuclear revival. The non-proliferation outlook for this predicted revival has so far been, to say the least, rather pessimistic.

The pessimism of some in the non-proliferation community is juxtaposed by the extreme optimism of nuclear energy advocates with regard to the extent of nuclear energy’s resurgence. The IAEA, for example, projects in its high-end scenario that nuclear energy generation will increase from its current 372 gigawatts electric (GWe) to 807 GWe by 2030. The World Nuclear Association’s (WNA) high-end scenario predicts 1203 GWe of nuclear generating capacity by the same year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) 2003 study predicted 1,000 GWe of nuclear by 2050, but in 2009 said that this was ‘less likely’ than they initially anticipated.

Historical projections for nuclear power capacity have invariably been overly optimistic. For example, the IAEA projected that during the 1980s—when more reactors were connected to the grid than any other decade—there would be 14 new countries using nuclear power with a combined low-end predicted capacity of 52 GWe by 1989. As it turns out, the actual capacity of these countries by 1989 was just shy of 9 GWe, nearly 6 GWe of which belonged to South Korea alone, with reactors in only 4 of the 14 countries. However, the ability of the IAEA to make accurate projections is dependent on the predictions of its member states, which are often overly optimistic for political reasons. Past predictions, be they from the IAEA, governments or others have almost always been wrong.

The reality is that ten years into the forecasted ‘nuclear revival’ neither the optimistic projections for nuclear energy growth nor the pessimistic predictions for the non-proliferation regime’s ability to cope appear to be accurate. Of course, the lack of any significant increase in nuclear energy production means that the predicted burden on the non-proliferation regime has not materialized, but the pessimism is unfounded regardless. Countries in which new nuclear build is taking place, or is expected to, are generally not considered proliferation threats because they are either existing nuclear weapon states, or already have well established nuclear industries and a demonstrated apathy towards possessing nuclear weapons of their own, like Canada or Japan.

The main proliferation concern—potential new entrants in volatile regions—have shown little rigour in pursuing their nuclear energy ambitions. The Survey of Emerging Nuclear Energy States (SENES) of the Nuclear Energy Futures (NEF) Project—a partnership between the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC), Carleton University—currently lists 34 states pursuing nuclear energy. Of these, only Iran has actually made significant headway in the past decade to connect a nuclear power reactor to its electrical grid, but it began its ongoing quest to do so under the Shah in the 1970s. All states pursuing nuclear power will face some problems of cost, industrial bottlenecks, personnel constraints and nuclear waste, but aspiring states face unique challenges of their own. Since many of these states are poorer, less developed countries, they often lack the institutional capacity, physical infrastructure and finances to support a large-scale, multi-billion dollar nuclear power plant project.

The risk, or concern, is that these new states will obtain the expertise in nuclear engineering and related disciplines that would allow them to go on to eventually develop nuclear weapons, most notably in the form of highly-trained scientists. Though the relationship between nuclear energy and weapons is complex, a nuclear power programme is nonetheless a potential stepping stone toward weapons development, and also a potentially highly effective cover for masking nefarious intent. Many fear that Iran is using its nuclear power programme for exactly that reason.

Despite these fears, if most aspiring nuclear energy states are not making any real progress towards acquiring nuclear energy then it goes almost without saying that the associated proliferation challenges of a nuclear revival are much less likely to materialize. This means that the burden on the IAEA and its safeguards system may not be as profound as many might expect.

IAEA safeguards
That the predicted revival in nuclear energy has not fully materialized, however, should not be taken as an indication that the IAEA, or its safeguards, are any less important. The humbler scale and pace of nuclear energy expansion still means an increase in the number of nuclear power reactors, increased trade and transport and perhaps more states with sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies. As new facilities are built, the IAEA will need to expand on its existing safeguards capacity.

The post-Gulf War emergence of the Additional Protocol as the highest standard of verification for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has gone a long way to improving the effectiveness of the safeguards system. It is a step closer to the ‘anytime, anywhere’ verification that was envisaged—but not enshrined—in the IAEA Statute. It is only sensible, then, that the first step in improving the current state of safeguards is to try to increase the number of states implementing Additional Protocols, which as of September 2010 stood at 102. Regrettably, those states that do not have an Additional Protocol in force include 18 of the states in the SENES project.

Interest by these states in technical cooperation from the IAEA and from nuclear suppliers may be just the opportunity needed to convince them that an Additional Protocol is both worthwhile and important. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) seems to be setting an example, agreeing to have an Additional Protocol in place as a condition of supply in its nuclear cooperation agreement with the US. However, the Additional Protocol is not likely to become an absolute requirement for nuclear cooperation in the near future. Developing countries and particularly prominent non-aligned countries already feel overburdened by safeguards, and many chafe at what they view as an imposition beyond what is already expected of them by the NPT, seeing it as a form of inequality or even as a way of depriving them of technology.

As important as the Additional Protocol is, attempting to make it mandatory may be unproductive. Nuclear suppliers may, however, be able to incentivize the adoption of Additional Protocols through measures such as increased cooperation, assistance programmes and training, rather than through the imposition of punitive steps such as technology denial.

IAEA safeguards and nuclear export controls are an important part of the non-proliferation regime, and are effective in ensuring that states are responsible with their nuclear technology and material. They have proven invaluable in helping deter states that might otherwise consider the pursuit of nuclear weapons. These supply-side measures, though effective non-proliferation measures, are not as important as the reality that most states today simply do not want nuclear weapons The demand, except in increasingly rare instances, is just not there, and the IAEA’s relatively recent changes to its safeguards philosophy is perhaps in part a reflection of that.

For states in which the Agency has sufficient confidence that all nuclear activities taking place are intended for purely peaceful purposes, the IAEA’s ‘integrated safeguards’ system streamlines monitoring activities, thereby allowing it to allocate resources more effectively to states with problematic nuclear programmes like Iran. It is also shifting towards what it calls information-driven safeguards, a more holistic approach to verification that involves analyzing information beyond traditional accounting methods, including undeclared activities and intelligence information provided by states. These two initiatives are exactly the right kind of efforts that the IAEA needs to make in order to cope with potential increases in the number of nuclear facilities it is responsible for safeguarding.

The IAEA itself is a veritable bargain for developed states, which primarily view it as a verification body. The Agency’s 2010 budget was US$444m, with an additional target of US$158m in extra-budgetary contributions. To give an example of the return on investment that states receive for their money, in 2008 the IAEA had 237 safeguards agreements in place with 163 states covering 1,131 facilities, and conducted 2,036 on-site inspections.

The problems currently faced by the IAEA, revival or not, revolve primarily around resources, with the IAEA hampered by budgetary constraints imposed on it by many member states. If the number of new nuclear facilities is to increase even at a gradual pace, the IAEA will struggle to cope financially.

As former IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei cogently put it to the Board of Governors in 2009: ‘I will be cheating world public opinion to be creating the impression that we are doing what we’re supposed to do, when we know we don’t have the money to do it.’ Dr ElBaradei and a 2008 Commission of Eminent Persons both recommended a doubling of the budget by 2020 to account for the increasing safeguards burden placed on the Agency as new facilities are built. Such a doubling would probably be wise, and will certainly go a long way to assuage any enduring concerns about a possible nuclear revival, if member states can be convinced of its necessity.

Even when the IAEA’s increasingly effective verification system successfully detects cases of non-compliance, international responses to them are not always effective. So far, determining the form that these responses take has been done on a somewhat ad hoc basis and with mixed results ranging from economic sanctions, military strikes and Security Council-mandated decommissioning programmes. Nuclear hedging presents an additional challenge: even if countries are pursuing nuclear power to hedge against regional rivals it is difficult to divine true intent because the technologies involved are inherently dual-use. Iran has done well so far to keep much of the world in doubt about its ultimate aim, despite being recently caught hiding a secret enrichment facility near Qom. Thankfully, Iran’s behavior appears to be the exception rather than the norm.

Implications for non-proliferation
It is probably inevitable that at least a few new states will succeed in their ambitions to acquire nuclear power. The report of the CIGI-CCTC NEF Project, The Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 and Its Implications for Safety, Security and Nonproliferation details the numerous constraints standing in the way of a substantive nuclear revival. In doing so, it identifies those aspiring states that are most likely to overcome those constraints and succeed in their nuclear ambitions, as Iran is poised to do. Though most aspiring states have so far only taken the easy steps towards acquiring nuclear power, the report identifies several that have the potential to make significant headway by 2030, namely: Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the UAE and Vietnam.

The problem with many of the commonly used terms such as ‘tipping point’ or ‘proliferation cascade’ is that they inevitably falter at the level of the individual state. It is simple enough to imagine strategic scenarios in which a domino effect leads to many new nuclear-armed states, but it is difficult to identify individual states that would actually follow such a course in a world increasingly characterized by economic and social integration.

Egypt is a prime example. Not only is it one of the aspiring nuclear energy states that has the potential to succeed in its plans, but it is frequently referred to as a ‘usual suspect’ in the proliferation context because of its long and complicated nuclear history, including a minor reporting failure in 2004 that was eventually put down to a lack of clarity over what was required of it under its IAEA safeguards agreement. Egypt has a poor relationship with the undeclared nuclear-armed state of Israel, including violent clashes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite this violence, though, Egypt never devoted resources to the serious pursuit of nuclear weapons to counter the Israeli arsenal, nor did Israel threaten to use its own against Egypt. It would be ahistorical to assume that Egypt, or indeed other Middle Eastern states, would automatically follow suit were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. If this logic applies to Egypt it also applies to the less conflict-prone states in the Middle East and elsewhere as well.

The proliferation problem that the expansion of nuclear energy to new states poses to the non-proliferation regime is essentially unchanged from what it has always been: detecting and dealing with rare cases of NPT non-compliance as they arise. It is not about managing the rapid influx of new nuclear-capable states eager for a nuclear weapons capability. Between the unlikelihood of a significant nuclear revival, increasing recognition of the IAEA’s worth and need for resources, and the genuine apathy that most states feel toward nuclear weapons, in terms of non-proliferation, nuclear energy’s resurgence may not be as alarming as might initially have appeared to be the case.

Justin Alger.
Justin Alger is a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC) at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has worked on nuclear energy research for the past four years as a primary researcher on the Nuclear Energy Futures Project and as a part of his graduate studies. He holds a Master’s in International Affairs from Carleton University, and an Honours Bachelor’s in History from McMaster University.

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