The Hiroshima Report is a tour de force in its comprehensiveness and clarity in examining the status of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear security. I commend the excellent work of the report’s authors and staff.
In my comments, I would like to focus on one of the biggest international challenges to nonproliferation: how states can walk up to the line of crossing into nuclear weapons capability by developing uranium enrichment plants or reprocessing plants. Both of these technologies are dual-use in that the same enrichment plant can be used to make low-enriched uranium useful for fueling peaceful nuclear reactors or to further enrich to high enough concentrations of the fissile isotope uranium-235 useful for powering nuclear weapons. Similarly, reprocessing plants can be used to separate plutonium and other fissionable materials for recycling into new fuel for reactors or for manufacturing those materials into nuclear weapons.
Very few non-nuclear weapon states have one or both of these technologies. Those non-nuclear weapon states that are presently active in enrichment are Brazil, Germany, Iran, Japan, and the Netherlands, and in reprocessing, only Japan has an active commercial reprocessing plant and does not have nuclear arms. Thus, the one non-nuclear weapon country that has both enrichment and reprocessing is Japan.
Japan, as the report underscores, has a special responsibility. It has taken extra steps to instill confidence that its nuclear program is well safeguarded and secure. In particular, it was the first major nuclear power producing nation to ratify and apply the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. It has also established a center of excellence on nuclear security. However, as Dr. James Acton rightly points out in his commentary, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has raised concern among neighboring states, and its potential near term restart of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant could further increase concern about a growing stockpile of separated plutonium. Japan’s actions have influenced other nations, in particular, Iran, whose leaders have often said that they want their nuclear program treated like Japan’s.
Could the new deal with Iran reached during the weekend of 22-23 November have implications for Japan and other non-nuclear weapon states like South Korea that aspire to acquire enrichment or reprocessing capabilities? The short answer is yes in that I believe it will affect the issue of the right to enrich, the effectiveness of safeguards, the cap on nuclear material stockpiles, and the enforcement ability of the UN Security Council.
Probably the biggest issue, certainly for Iran, is rights. Iran’s red line in the negotiations has consistently been to receive recognition from the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (the P5+1) that Iran has an official right to continue enriching uranium. While the recent deal with Iran does not explicitly endorse Iran’s right to enrich uranium, one could argue that the deal gives de facto approval because it allows Iran to continue enriching uranium. This is despite the UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to cease uranium enrichment. The facts on Iran’s ground, namely about 11,000 working centrifuges, create a reality that the P5+1 diplomats could not ignore. While international sanctions helped bring Iran to the negotiating table to open itself up for compromise, these sanctions were not sufficient to compel Iran to stop enrichment. Any additional sanctions, short of war, would likely not have moved Iranian leaders to cease this activity. The domestic political reality was that even a reformer like the newly inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had to uphold Iran’s national pride in joining a select club of nations that have mastered enrichment. President Rouhani never seriously considered giving up on enrichment.
Continued Iranian enrichment will most likely affect U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements. For instance, it will be harder for the United States to argue to the Republic of Korea in the negotiations over the renewal of their nuclear cooperation agreement that Korea cannot enrich uranium or pyroprocess spent nuclear fuel. The latter activity is designed to recycle fissionable material in certain types of reactors. While some in the U.S. nonproliferation community have argued for a so-called gold standard like the U.S.-UAE nuclear deal in which the UAE pledged to not enrich or reprocess, the agreement with Iran will further lend support to those who argue that the United States needs to consider nuclear cooperation agreements on a case-by-case basis.
In regards to safeguards, the deal with Iran moves in the direction of more effective monitoring. The deal stipulates that there will be daily inspections or at least inspectors constantly present to monitor suspect facilities. In some respects, this is similar to the continuous presence of safeguards inspectors at the Rokkasho reprocessing facility. While having an inspector continuously present does not guarantee that there will not be a diversion of nuclear material, this serves as an additional measure that almost all non-nuclear weapon states do not apply to their facilities. But Japan, as noted above, is in a special status. Indeed, Iran is in another special category that requires it to prove its peaceful intentions. The next deal with Iran should include additional provisions for near-real time monitoring of enrichment facilities, as well as other activities that could further Iran’s breakout capability into a nuclear weapons program.
The deal sets a cap on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran is allowed to hold and requires Iran to convert its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to forms that would impose barriers to diversion into a weapons program. This meaningful action has implications for Japan. One could argue that Japan should substantially reduce its stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium to instill greater confidence that it could not use this material for weapons purposes.
Finally, the deal with Iran calls into question whether the UN Security Council is an effective body for enforcing compliance with safeguards. As mentioned, Iran flouted the resolutions calling on ceasing enrichment. However, the resolutions did serve the purpose of bringing together the P5 although there were disagreements among the major powers. But the fact that the P5 is also the five official nuclear weapon states underscores that the Security Council derives its power from the "haves" while the "have-nots" do not have permanent seats. I recommend that the supporters of The Hiroshima Report can next take on the challenging task of reforming the international political system to make it more amenable to nuclear disarmament and enforcement of nonproliferation.
Dr. Charles D. Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, is the author of the book Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know.