Nuclear Energy and Proliferation

January 21, 2008

By Otfried Nassauer

Nuclear Issues Paper No. 4
By Otfried Nassauer, BITS

The complete paper (32 pages, 155 KB, pdf) can be downloaded here.


Any civilian nuclear fuel cycle and especially some of the elements thereof confront the world with certain security-related risks. Nuclear materials, nuclear know-how, and technology can be proliferated. Nuclear experts can travel or migrate. This is and has been well known for decades. History provides us with telling examples. The very existence of a wide range of specific precautionary measures such as nonproliferation policies, specific export controls, personnel screening, and reliability programs for employees are additional proof per se that proliferation risks are real.

With proliferation returning to the top of the international security agenda, proliferation risks resulting from all types of nuclear programs are getting additional attention again. The current debate about the Iranian nuclear program is a good example. Iran’s program is mistrusted not only because Iran secretly imported nuclear technology and violated some of its obligations as a non-nuclear member of the NPT under the IAEA safeguards. Iran is also not trusted because of the world’s experience with Iraq and North-Korea. The Iraqi example made it clear that a country could run and hide a military nuclear program from traditional IAEA-controls. North Korea may have even obtained nuclear weapons through a “civilian” nuclear program despite nonproliferation safeguards. Although North Korea was facing massive international suspicions as well as sanctions, the country succeeded in at least coming sufficiently close enough to developing a nuclear weapon to risk withdrawal from the NPT. Today, many nations are keen to prohibit Iran from becoming another North Korea. Even if the Iranian nuclear program as well as the country’s intentions were entirely civilian, as Tehran claims, Iran would be mistrusted. “After North Korea,” all new civilian nuclear programs consisting of more than light-water and light-water research reactors are likely to be met by a much higher level of skepticism. Iran is only the first country to face this new, emerging nonproliferation environment. Others are likely to follow.

This paper contains a short survey of the proliferation risks associated with the civilian use of nuclear energy. It looks at the major elements of the fuel cycle and their potential to play a role in proliferation. It takes a look at state and non-state actors and their capability to exploit proliferation risks of civilian nuclear installations for getting access to nuclear materials, nuclear technology, and nuclear know-how. It conducts a short survey of the major nonproliferation measures already in existence or under consideration. Finally it takes a short look at the future. What are the prospects for the civilian use of nuclear energy and what implications for future proliferation risks can be predicted?