International Workshop on Radiological Sciences and Applications

Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technologies

Vienna, Austria, March 16-18, 2005



The Critical Vulnerabilities of Civilian Nuclear Operations


The exploitation for peaceful purposes of nuclear knowledge and nuclear technology is inevitably connected to the exploitation of the same phenomena for military purposes. Moreover, many of the key processes that are at the heart of the civilian nuclear industry (particularly, enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel) are at the heart of a weapons production programme. If the problem is not to be disposed of by outlawing nuclear activities for any purpose, then the critical vulnerabilities of peaceful operations need to be identified and measures need to be adopted that offer the greatest assurance that such operations are not misused to produce weapons of any kind. In the light of the enormous positive potential of nuclear power in a world threatened with climate change, as well as the benefits of nuclear materials in medicine and industry, it will be taken that the abolition option is not in the interest of humanity, even if it were viable. To the contrary, it is assumed that nuclear operations will continue to expand in scale and, particularly expand to more countries. The need then is to understand the full range of vulnerabilities and identify the widest range of responses and safeguards that may be employed.


The obvious key danger is that fresh states acquire the capability to produce weapons grade fissile material and then either covertly employ this technology to make weapons, or, at some point, in the future may decide to do so in defiance of their undertakings to that point (ëbreakoutí). An associated danger is that, again in defiance of specific undertakings, states that have the capability (and perhaps a covert programme) may provide knowledge or material (including fissile material) to other states, or even to non-state actors. There is a third general vulnerability and that is that states having such programmes and the associated stocks of material, may fail to adequately protect already made-up weapons, weapons-grade fissile material, or, more generally, radioactive material that might be the basis of radioactive dispersal devices. Of course, these latter dangers apply also to the existing nuclear weapon states (both official and unofficial), although in relation to weapons and weapon-grade material it might be presumed that states with long experience of nuclear weapon production might have evolved more sophisticated systems to protect these things. Some of these vulnerabilities are specifically related to particular process (like enrichment and reprocessing, as noted above), others relate to more general aspects of the nuclear industry and attach to the science and the materials that underlie both civilian and military operations.

Non-Specific Vulnerabilities

States that have any significant nuclear activity, even if it is only a research reactor, or a small power reactor, or even a nuclear laboratory, acquire a general familiarity with things nuclear and a facility for handling nuclear material. As operations grow, with more reactors and, perhaps, the development of ancillary activities, they will develop a cadre of experts and accumulate nuclear material of various kinds. They will also develop relevant non-nuclear technology such as machine tools for precision engineering. At whatever stage it may be, this kind of development represents a non-specific vulnerability. States that have made any progress along this path are in a better position to start a nuclear weapons programme than those that havenít. States, such as Japan or Germany, that have the full range of capabilities, have everything they would need to make nuclear weapons, should they wish to so; it is only a matter of how long it would take. The principal of bureaucratic prudence suggests that they will also have the plans.


Specific vulnerabilities of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle

These may be at the front end or the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and they may relate to sensitive material or sensitive processing capability. At the front end they mainly attach to the process of enrichment and prior uranium hexafluoride manufacture. At the back end proliferation anxieties centre on the accumulation of plutonium in spent fuel and on the existence of plant capable of reprocessing spent fuel. In both cases there is the capacity to covertly produce weapons grade material and thus the possibility that nuclear weapons are made or that material or technology is passed on to third parties who may themselves produce weapons. There is also the danger that states that have some level of nuclear activity may covertly develop the proliferation-sensitive technologies.


The rest of the paper is devoted to a critical review of techniques for containing these vulnerabilities, both those actually in use and those that have been proposed. Prominent amongst these is the safeguards regime and the difficulties it faces, and, at the end of the day, the problem of ëbreakoutí. The prospects for restricting access to certain technologies, is also discussed, together with the obvious difficulties that such a project would face (not the least of which is its apparent inconsistency with terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Then there is the matter of the impact on all of this of technological development. This may be positive or negative. Backend processes that do not entail the separation of plutonium may make proliferation more difficult. On the other hand, laser technology (for example) might make covert production of fissile material altogether easier.


The general conclusion to be drawn from all this is that technological developments together with a determination to succeed on the part of a would-be proliferator will always have the potential to defeat the most careful of counter-proliferation measures. Keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle (or, at least not letting him out any further than he already is) will require a modicum of good faith as well as an elaborate system of safeguards and a determination by the international community to insist on the specific adherence by all parties to their commitments under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Failing this, it is hard to see how unilateral action by parties that see themselves as particularly threatened, can be ruled out and that is a most uncomfortable conclusion.