Alternative proliferation methods? The nuclear fuel cycle and hydrodynamic testing

Nuclear security, that is, the protection of nuclear materials, technology, and knowledge, is an ever changing field in which academics, policy makers and industry representatives must be forever vigilant for potential new forms of proliferation and security challenges. The fourth annual UK Project on Nuclear Issues Conference at the Royal United Services Institute on the 29th of May highlighted new and old challenges to nuclear non-proliferation and security. Issues raised included the proliferation of nuclear technology via scientists and engineers, how the norm banning nuclear testing can be circumvented by other methods, and particularities of the nuclear fuel cycle that constitute potential for proliferation.

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The proliferation of nuclear knowledge is certainly a worrying issue, but perhaps even more pressing is the possibility of circumventing necessary IAEA safeguards and reporting requirements to develop and test a nuclear warhead without ever alerting the international community. The issue of hydrodynamic testing (how materials react under extreme pressure, e.g. in a nuclear bomb) was highlighted by Paul Willis-Patel, who was primarily concerned with the possibility of a state using hydrodynamic testing to circumvent the global norm on not testing nuclear weapons, as enshrined in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Hydrodynamic testing provides incomplete and inconclusive evidence of the efficacy of a particular warhead, but it is an effective way to prove that one is researching warhead designs, providing a certain deterrent capability. Furthermore, while hydrodynamic testing may not be against the letter of the CTBT, it probably violates the spirit of the treaty and the norm. However, since states like the US and Russia conduct hydrodynamic testing, it is unlikely this method will be outlawed. It has been suggested that Iran’s Parchin testing site has been used for hydrodynamic testing, an action with no civilian purpose, raising further suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program.

The possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon without a warhead detonation test has already been proven possible by Israel. Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapon state, and it almost certainly possesses an arsenal of around 200 nuclear warheads. Israel has never conducted a nuclear test, with the possible exception of a joint South African-Israeli test in the Antarctic Ocean in 1979. However, expert analysis has not been able to prove or disprove that the incident was a warhead detonation. Ambiguity in Israeli nuclear policy is of course intentional, and serves the purpose of maintaining positive international relationships while also enjoying the perceived deterrent benefit of nuclear weapons possession despite the possibility that they actually serve to destabilize the region. Israel’s lack of a verifiable nuclear warhead test is not necessarily a detriment to its policy of deterrence, because the mere threat of nuclear weapons is sufficient in almost all cases. Israel has the capacity to construct hydrodynamic testing facilities, and it is possible they have done so. As a result, while a live warhead test is certainly a stronger demonstration of one’s commitment to, and skill at, producing nuclear weapons, the creation of a slightly less credible nuclear deterrent is feasible without detonating a nuclear warhead. The cases of Israel and Iran, particularly given current concern about Iran’s nuclear program, demonstrate the importance of governments and industry being aware of the ways that warhead testing can be circumvented in order to catch potential proliferators.

Before a state can test a warhead, by detonation or analogous substitutes, it must acquire nuclear materials and knowledge, through legal or illegal means. In the current international climate, nuclear proliferation is most commonly seen as an issue that must be dealt with at a multilateral level on the international stage to stop state-state, or state-nonstate transfer of technology. However, less attention is given to the smaller, and much more difficult to expose, ways that nuclear proliferation is and could be taking place. For example, an engineer uploading a picture of an engine to Facebook to show their friends (a personal example from Kentaro Ide, a speaker at the conference) is not only illegal, but a risk. Mr. Ide spoke of the necessity for greater industry-government cooperation on planning of nuclear material and technology export controls in order to simplify and clarify the laws so that the engineers and scientists know what is and is not a violation. Individual pieces of nuclear knowledge may not lead to any significant breakthroughs for actors attempting to construct nuclear weapons, but the gradual accumulation of such information may contribute to further illicit proliferation. It is also the principle at the heart of non-proliferation that is at stake, for if minor technical knowledge is shared due to misunderstandings of export controls, it is possible that greater mistakes may be made in the future.

The acquisition of nuclear materials for civilian energy purposes is probably the most sensitive area of nuclear development, because the same materials and processes are used to create the fuel for a nuclear warhead. For example, the current P5+1 talks with Iran, while relatively successful so far, are now focused on the right of Iran to engage in uranium enrichment and the quantity of centrifuges it can possess. The most sensitive areas of the fuel cycle are the uranium enrichment process and the reprocessing of spent fuel, which can provide highly-enriched uranium or plutonium respectively for a warhead. Furthermore, the acquisition of uranium and related materials is highly regulated by international bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and thus sourcing the fuel for a civilian or military nuclear program can be exceedingly difficult for so-called “pariah” states.

At the conference, Katie Redmond, Consultant Systems Engineer at Jacobs Engineering, spoke about the nuclear fuel cycle, and the potential for nuclear material proliferation at various stages of the cycle. Ms. Redmond argued for the greater adoption of light-water reactors due to their smaller plutonium output and the creation of international nuclear fuel banks which would store enriched uranium for civilian energy use. While international nuclear fuel banks are a product of the “nuclear enlightenment,” they are almost certainly beyond the current international community’s ability to cooperate. Furthermore, the use of light-water reactors requires low-enriched uranium, and states controlling enrichment facilities would in effect control the global nuclear fuel supply even more directly than the Nuclear Suppliers Group does currently. In essence, greater consolidation of control over nuclear materials and knowledge in the hands of the current nuclear powers would almost inevitably propagate the current nuclear apartheid and allow for greater strategic control over a key fuel source.

The P5+1 talks with Iran are heavily focused on the right of Iran to enrich uranium, which it believes necessary to control its energy policy independent of international suppliers’ often capricious policies towards supplying Iran. As a result, states like Iran would almost certainly not consent to having their entire nuclear fuel supply controlled by any other state, or by an international fuel bank. Ms. Redmond highlighted another possible method for weapons production, which is to enrich Thorium in order to make U233, a fissile material which could be used in a warhead. However, U233 is a difficult material to use in a nuclear warhead and would require intensive research before it could be used. A greater threat than thorium is the possibility of using plutonium, derived from nuclear reactors, to produce a weapon. It is here that Ms. Redmond’s call for the use of light-water reactors is most influential, because light-water reactors produce significantly less plutonium than other models. A contemporary example of heavy-water reactors being perceived as dangerous is the Iranian facility at Arak, which produces a large quantity of plutonium. If the Arak facility were converted to a light-water reactor, or relatively simple and verifiable changes were made to reduce plutonium production, such as those already proposed by Iran, the international community would be far more likely to support the Iranian civilian nuclear energy program.

At the upcoming 2015 NPT Review Conference, governments should focus closely on the stages of the nuclear fuel cycle to clarify the current legality of the enrichment process, particularly in regards to states such as Iran. Clarification of the NPT obligations would provide states with a much needed point of reference when discussing the possible risks of the nuclear fuel cycle, and how to minimize them in the future. The international community must also treat the concerns of states within and outside the NPT as valid, for without an open and balanced dialogue about the NPT and CTBT regime, states are likely to become ever more disgruntled and disillusioned. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that the 2015 conference be a success, and that it involve the participation of the key non-NPT states of Israel, Pakistan, and India. The existence of states outside the NPT, and disgruntled states without an outlet within it, fundamentally undermine the integrity of the regime and act to slow global movements towards disarmament. Governments must accelerate their efforts to meet the goals of the 2010 Action Plan, particularly the expansion of the regime to include all states and the creation of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.
Image Flickr (David Daly)
These are the views of the author.

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