Americas

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons


With the rising problem of climate change, countries are searching for non-carbon producing forms of power generation. Concurrently, global demand for electricity is increasing. In this context, Saudi Arabia is seeking to purchase nuclear power technology from the United States. Nuclear power technology, while a carbon neutral form of electricity generation, can easily be misused for nefarious purposes. In order to promote global nuclear nonproliferation, states need to restrict, rather than promote, nuclear power exports.

Image courtesy of Petr Kratochvil

Signatory states to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) can be divided into two categories – those that do, and those that do not have nuclear weapons. Part of the “grand bargain” of the NPT is that the nuclear have-nots, in exchange for never developing nuclear weapons, will be allowed nuclear technology for “peaceful purposes.” The clause in question comes from Article IV of the NPT: “nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”

Unfortunately, it is too easy for technology associated with nuclear power generation to be used for nefarious purposes. In order to fuel the most common reactor designs, uranium must be enriched to contain around 5% U-235 to U-238 (natural uranium contains only 0.7% U-235). While it takes a great deal of power and effort to get uranium enriched to 5%, once uranium is 20% enriched it becomes significantly easier to go to weapons-grade, or roughly 95% U-235.

Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into usable nuclear fuel by removing the plutonium (Pu-239 and Pu-240) that has accumulated in the fuel as it is burnt in the reactor, and then re-milling the remaining uranium into fuel. But what happens to the plutonium? Plutonium-239 is really only useful for one thing: nuclear weapons. Despite asserting the contrary, it is very possible to use Pu-240 in nuclear weapons.

This is the reason why supporters of the 2009 123 Agreement with the UAE lauded the strict inspection requirements that the UAE agreed to in exchange for US assistance in developing the UAE’s nuclear power industry. This is also why many experts are critical of any effort to spread nuclear power, as the technology can be too easily misused. For example, Canada and the United States sold nuclear technology and materials to India on the basis that they be used for peaceful purposes. It was only through these contributions that India was able to develop its own nuclear weapons, which were first tested in 1974.

Unlike the UAE deal, the proposed deal with Saudi Arabia is believed to be more lax than the “gold standard” 123 Agreement with the UAE. Furthermore, before the JCPOA was signed, Saudi Arabia was reportedly in talks to buy nuclear warheads from Pakistan and missiles adequate enough to reach over the Persian Gulf into Iran. It cannot be guaranteed that Saudi Arabia will use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only.

So what can be done? The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established after the enactment of the NPT to control access to nuclear technology. The NSG sets strict requirements that must be met and verified before any member state can export technology or nuclear fuel. Additionally, many regions of the globe have created, by treaty, nuclear free zones or have regional anti-nuclear weapons agreements (such as the Treaty of Tlatelolco) that have their own inspection or verification requirements. The NSG and various treaties have shown effectiveness in stemming nuclear proliferation.

There are, however, some blind spots. Four nuclear powers, India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, currently remain outside both the NPT and the NSG. They are able to sell technology and nuclear materials at will. Indeed, Pakistan has, in the past, facilitated the sale of nuclear enrichment technologies through its principle nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

With regard to the Saudi Arabia deal, the United States must be able to guarantee that the Saudi government will not attempt to use its nuclear power generation technology for hostile intent. If not, then the United States cannot let the deal proceed.

Sadly, Saudi Arabia has not demonstrated that it is trustworthy enough for this deal. Their suspected involvement in the death of a Washington Post journalist, and the Crown Prince’s pledge to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does, show that the Saudi government cannot be trusted to not use nuclear technology for malicious purposes. The United States is left with only three responsible options: cancel the deal altogether; reconstruct the deal identically to the UAE deal; or insist Saudi Arabia join the NSG before the deal can go forward.  These options are the only way to guarantee that the nuclear materials and technology cannot be used to covertly create nuclear weapons. Nuclear technology is simply too dangerous to be left unsupervised.

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