A new CIGI study, “From Nuclear Energy to the Bomb,” offers a clear and compelling review of one of the central challenges of disarmament diplomacy.

This study[i] comes out of the Nuclear Energy Futures project of CIGI and provides a clear account of the real and potential links between a state’s peaceful nuclear energy capacity and the capacity to acquire a nuclear weapon. Its conclusions?

The scientific knowledge acquired through a basic nuclear energy program – that is, one that does not involve uranium enrichment or reprocessing of spent fuel – provides the basic foundation of scientific knowledge  and, especially, the core personnel and infrastructure on which a nuclear weapons program can be pursued. But that doesn’t mean that the steps toward weaponization are thereafter simple. Hiding the pursuit of a bomb from inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency is, fortunately, a major challenge, and increasingly so. And mastering the knowledge, technology, and manufacturing capacity to build a warhead is neither simple nor speedy.

But the sobering reality is that, given time and intention, more and more states will be able to do it. Acquiring uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing capacity for energy purposes represents a further and significant step toward bomb-making capacity. Author Justin Alger concludes that “a state’s capacity to make the leap from power production to assembling a nuclear device is typically considered a matter of time rather than ability.”

But before coming to that clear conclusion, the paper takes you through a careful review of the proliferation risks and challenges linked to nuclear energy production. Here is Mr. Alger’s own account of the main findings:
• “Nuclear energy and weapons are inextricably linked by the scientific principles that underscore both, but beyond this basic understanding the intricacies of the technical relationship between the two are complex.

• “A once-through nuclear program provides a basic foundation in nuclear science and reactor engineering for a nuclear weapons program, but does not provide knowledge of sensitive fuel cycle technology or bomb design and assembly.

• “A peaceful nuclear energy program does, however, provide a state with much of the expertise, personnel, infrastructure and camouflage it would need to begin work on a weapons program should it chose to do so.

• “Acquiring a peaceful nuclear energy infrastructure does enhance a state’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, but capacity is only one consideration and of secondary importance to other factors that drive state motivations for the bomb.”

The paper’s final comment is particularly important: “Understanding the technical connection between peaceful nuclear energy and nuclear weapons is important, but it is only one consideration. The motivation of states to acquire nuclear weapons, rather than their technical capacity to do so, is the more important concern.”

In the end, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons will not be achieved by denying states either the knowledge or the materials to build them. Any state with an emerging industrial capacity and a scientific community will in time be able to gain access to nuclear materials and technical capacity – after that it’s political. It becomes a political and security calculation.

In a recent discussion at George Washington University, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made the same point with regard to Iran: “…[T]he question is, can we…in a limited period of time bring the Iranians to a conclusion that…Iran is better off without nuclear weapons than with them, and not just in the security sense, but economically and in terms of their isolation in the international community….[T]he only long-term solution to this problem…is the Iranians themselves deciding [that] having nuclear weapons is not in their interest….[M]y hope…has been that…we could, through…both carrots and sticks, persuade them of a smarter direction for Iran.”[ii]

And, of course, that political calculation is influenced by a myriad of considerations, not the least of which is the progress, or lack of it, made by the rest of the international community in pursuit of the now broadly declared objective of a world without any nuclear weapons.

Pursing that goal is, of course, not without its conundrums. A significant number of industrializing states, with even modest regional hegemonic ambitions, will become increasingly reluctant to permanently forswear nuclear weapons if they see other states indefinitely retaining nuclear arsenals and using them to wield added influence within the international community. On the other hand, states that already have nuclear weapons will remain reluctant to disavow and eliminate them if they are convinced that other states are bent on acquiring them.

On the plus side, diplomacy bent on eliminating nuclear weapons is currently on the ascendancy – and this study of the links between nuclear energy and the bomb is a timely contribution to those efforts.

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[i] Justin Alger, From Nuclear Energy to the Bomb: The Proliferation Potential of New Nuclear Energy Programs, Nuclear Energy Futures Paper No. 6, September 2009, Centre for International Governance Innovation. Available at: http://www.cigionline.org/sites/default/files/Nuclear_Energy_Futures%206.pdf.

[ii] Transcript, Conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Discuss American Power and Persuasion Oct. 5, 2009, at George Washington University with Frank Sesno and Christiane Amanpour. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/staticfile/GW/News%20and%20Events/2.%20This%20Week%20at%20GW/Sidebar/clintongatestranscript.pdf.


The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.