Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, writes about one realistic approach to halting nuclear proliferation in today's Washington Post. A joint US and Russian program to provide cheap nuclear fuel if nations using it return spent fuel to the two countries for reprocessing.
For several years, Russia has sought to become a core participant in a new network of global nuclear-fuel-service providers. At the mid-August 2006 summit of the Eurasian Economic Community, Putin again proposed that Russia (and other states that already possess advanced civil nuclear technologies) sell uranium fuel at modest prices to countries lacking their own enrichment facilities — provided the recipients returned the fuel. The original suppliers would then store and reprocess the spent nuclear fuel under international oversight.
Although Taiwan, South Korea, and other countries have expressed interest in storing spent nuclear fuel in Russia, the provisions of their atomic-energy agreements with the United States forbid them from transferring U.S.-origin nuclear material elsewhere without prior American consent. U.S. law requires a separate Russian-American accord before such shipments may occur. Until recently, American concerns about Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation and Russian plans to reprocess the spent fuel into plutonium have blocked such an agreement. The need for enhanced multinational collaboration to counter nuclear proliferation, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and provide additional energy sources has appropriately led the U.S. administration to reassess its position.
Requiring the return of spent nuclear fuel to its original suppliers would advance global nuclear-nonproliferation goals by depriving recipient countries of opportunities to reprocess it and extract plutonium. Guaranteeing developing states the right to purchase and store fuel internationally at modest cost would make it unnecessary for them to develop national uranium-enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Without such sensitive technologies, Iran and other countries would find it much harder to use a civilian nuclear-power program to acquire nuclear weapons. Any government that persisted in developing a costly indigenous nuclear-fuel cycle — despite assured access to international nuclear-fuel services — would raise the alarm that they were driven by military rather than economic motives.
This initiative would at least give some assurance that nuclear proliferation concerns were minimized. Even the Russians suspect that Iran is working on weapons, not energy. If a system like this can be set up, it would help deliver nuclear energy without adding to concerns about weapons.