Thursday, May 6, 2010
Ron Smith: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons
Removing the fissile material would be different, but how different would depend on what is done next. If the components of the weapon (the weapon ‘pits’) were merely held close-by the difference might be small. Assuming the party whose material it is, has access to it, it would, again, be merely a question of how long. The assumption here is that the nuclear material (in whatever form) is held within the jurisdiction of the sovereign-state that owns it and that, whatever undertakings have been given, they could assert themselves if they thought it essential to do so. This would apply even if the material in question is subjected to deep geological ‘disposal’.
There is however a way round this difficulty and that is to insist that the fissile material in question is converted into civilian power –reactor fuel and loaded into a suitable plant. This has happened already to plutonium from the United States’ stockpile of weapons-grade material, which was sent to France in late 2004 and then returned as Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. This has now been ‘burned’ in a US reactor. Weapons grade uranium can be disposed of in the same way and in both cases the highly-sensitive fissile material cannot be recovered.
There are, however, serious problems to this project and many of these turn on the problem of verification. Clearly a global arrangement of this kind would require an extensive and extremely intrusive bureaucracy to satisfy all parties that every weapon, all pits and every scrap of fissile material had been accounted for. How easy would this be in the contemporary world? And this is only part of the problem.
The verification regime would have to make quite certain that no new weapon-suitable material came into existence. We might note here the difficulty that the International Atomic Energy Agency is having in satisfying itself about what Iran is doing. The extent of the potential difficulties may be seen from the fact that Iran was also found to be building a plutonium-production reactor in Syria, as well as all the activities it was engaged in within its own borders. This was the reactor that Israel destroyed last year.
Having uranium enrichment capability is not illegal in itself but enriching beyond the 3 to 5 per cent required for modern light-water reactor use, certainly is. Again, countries that are closing the nuclear fuel cycle by extracting plutonium from spent fuel (reprocessing), will also have the capability to extract plutonium from a production reactor that is making weapons-grade material. All these activities can be the subject of continuous monitoring (and they are in many places in the world) but in the absence of trust they represent a significant vulnerability. Monitored activities like this are also vulnerable to ‘break-out’, where the state concerned merely expels the nuclear inspectorate and uses its approved capability for overtly military purposes.
There is also the problem that much of this discussion depends upon the technology staying more or less static, which is extremely unlikely. As far as enrichment is concerned, we may now be on the brink of third generation technology. The first generation process depended upon the isotopes of uranium being separated by gaseous diffusion. In the second, the crucial process was centrifugal, with, again, numerous ‘passes’ being required to achieve the desired enrichment. In both cases the process is extremely energy intensive and the plant requirement is extensive. The third generation looks as if it will be laser-based, with separation achieved in a single pass. It will undoubtedly pose new problems for non-proliferation and even more so for nuclear abolition.
There would only be one certain answer to this and that would be to curtail or completely abandon the civilian nuclear industry. In the judgement of this writer, this would be too big a price to pay. Not only does nuclear technology provide more than 15% of the world’s electricity, but non-power (‘research’) reactors are the source of a wide range of medical and industrial isotopes, as well as semi-conductor material for our computers. Even partial restrictions on the civilian nuclear industry, such as the proposed ban on reprocessing (the ‘Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty’) would have a substantial price at a time when civilian nuclear power generation is appealing to more and more states around the world.
Given that the whole nuclear industry is not abandoned, there will be many states that have the technology and the ‘know-how’ to make nuclear weapons (whether they have had them before or not). Given a change in their security situation, the only question would be how long would it take?
The project of bringing about a world without nuclear weapons needs to answer these questions if it to become anything other than a pious dream. To this date, no such answers have been supplied. But then we do have the consolation of nuclear deterrence, about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago.
at 9:34 AM