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7 May 2008, No.7

Article IV and the nuclear fuel cycle
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will


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On Tuesday, delegations concluded their remarks on regional issues and moved onto cluster 3, peaceful uses of nuclear energy—another divisive issue in the NPT context. Proposals for multilateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle have added another dimension to discussions on the implementation of Article IV.

The nuclear fuel cycle includes the mining and processing of uranium ore; conversion, enrichment, and fabrication of uranium into fuel for use in a reactor; and reprocessing of spent fuel or disposal of waste. Along with costs to human health and the environment at every stage of the cycle, the technology and processes used to make fuel for nuclear reactors can be used, with some adjustment, to produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium suitable for use in nuclear weapons.

This has led some states, particularly developed ones, to propose multilateral control and other measures related to the fuel cycle, intended to reduce the risk of proliferation-sensitive technology and know-how. Since 2006, a dozen proposals have been submitted to the IAEA that seek to either place nuclear fuel cycle facilities under multilateral control and/or guarantee a fuel supply, either to those states that choose not to develop the indigenous capacity to produce nuclear fuel or as an incentive to provide an alternative to indigenous production. While there appears to be broad consensus on the desirability of fuel assurances, many proposals have been met with great caution, in particular by developing states, which are wary of additional restrictions on their development of nuclear technology and of becoming dependent upon a cartel of advanced nuclear supplier states.

On Tuesday, the Non-Aligned states repeatedly reminded the PrepCom of the “inalienable right” of all NPT states parties to engage in research, production, and use of nuclear technology for non-weapon purposes, without discrimination. Indonesia’s representative argued that just as the “existing fuel cycle mechanism,” governed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, is a market based system controlled by states that have the capacity to provide nuclear material and technology, “attempts to develop a multilateral fuel cycle have also been too much influenced by business interests of the industry and strategic interests of nuclear capable states.” He outlined some additional drawbacks to these attempts, saying,

Some might argue that multilateral approaches point to the loss or limitation of State sovereignty and independent ownership and control over nuclear technology, leaving unfairly the commercial benefits of such technology to only a few countries. Others might argue that multilateral approaches could lead to further dissemination of or loss of control over sensitive nuclear technologies which may result in wider proliferation risks.

He argued that any multilateral fuel cycle arrangement must be a “complimentary mechanism for strengthening the existing non-proliferation regime” and that it “should not terminate or restrict the right to develop nuclear technology, including sensitive technology.” Likewise, Malaysia’s representative insisted that any such initiatives should focus on “finding an optimum arrangement that would satisfy both the objectives of assurance of supply and services, as well as non-proliferation assurances,” while pointing out that non-proliferation assurances already exist, through the IAEA safeguards system. Brazil’s delegate noted that some of the proposals ignore the successful track record of safeguards, and argued that exceptional cases of proliferation shouldn’t be used to justify the reinterpretation of Article IV.

Some Western delegations recognized the need for a balanced, cautious approach to control of the fuel cycle. The European Union’s representative noted that any multilateralization efforts require “pragmatic solutions that reflect economic reality and the real needs of the recipient countries, and conform to the most stringent safety requirements and responsible waste management.” The Netherlands’ Amb. Landman agreed that any scheme for nuclear fuel assurances should keep open the option for states to develop their own fuel cycle activities, but that fuel assurances should offer “attractive alternatives” on a non-discriminatory basis. He recognized that there is a lack of trust about both the motives and content of some of the proposals on the table, and called for an open, transparent, and honest dialogue with all parties. Austria’s delegate said, “The confidence crisis about the use of this technology can only be overcome by establishing an international system that is fair and treats all states in an equal manner.”

There is division among states parties, however, not just over control of the fuel cycle, but also over the development and use of nuclear energy altogether. While emphasizing that all states have the right to be able to develop nuclear technology for non-weapon purposes, some delegations outlined the dangers of the technology and processes associated with nuclear energy. Amb. Macmillan of New Zealand explained that her country “has rejected nuclear power generation for itself, as we do not believe that nuclear power is compatible with the concept of sustainable development, given the long-term costs, both financial and ecological, of nuclear waste and the risk of nuclear proliferation.” She argued, “there are other, more sustainable energy sources that could be developed, and that any responsible discussion about nuclear power should be balanced, and include consideration of the serious risks and costs as well as any potential benefits.” Pointing out that her country has also “refrained from producing nuclear energy,” Norway’s representative argued that its use might “have potentially severe environmental implications.” She advocated for sufficient resources to be dedicated to finding “sustainable and environmentally sound solutions” to the problems of nuclear waste. Speaking to the environmental damage of uranium mining, the representative of the Kyrgyz Republic, on behalf of five Central Asian states, outlined the problems caused by tailings and radioactive wastes left behind in Central Asia by uranium mining industries.

Last week during presentations, participating NGOs urged governments to consider what controls over nuclear technology are necessary in order to sustain a nuclear weapon free world, including establishment of an International Renewable Energy Agency (see above article for more details on IRENA). They also called for a prohibition on the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, emphasizing, however, that the phase-out of nuclear power is the only truly proliferation-proof solution.

For more information on proposals for multilateralization of the fuel cycle, please see Michael Spies, “Controlling the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Disarmament Times, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2008, available at www.lcnp.org.

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