How to Salvage the NPT Conference
As treaties go, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a house divided: The philosophical assumptions underlying its two main thrusts are fundamentally opposed. NPT's Pillar I - nuclear disarmament - urges nuclear nations to renounce those dread weapons and cast them off, while Pillar II - non-proliferation - recognizes that at least some non-nuclear states will seek to acquire the very weapons the treaty claims must be abolished.
In practice, this means the NPT is, if not all things to all people, at least different things to the different nations that have signed the document.
Witness the shrewd understanding of NPT fault-lines demonstrated by Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his widely-reported opening statement at the 2010 NPT RevCon - review conference, in NPT-speak - earlier this month. Ahmadinejad's audacious effort to use Pillar I - nuclear disarmament - to pistol whip countries focused on Pillar II - nuclear non-proliferation - was a masterfully Machiavellian attempt to gridlock the conference more tightly than the taxis idling in front of United Nations Plaza. A lecture on the failure to renounce nuclear weapons by a country rushing to acquire them: If there isn't a word for chutzpah in Farsi, someone in Teheran ought to invent one.
Not surprisingly, as the UN session drones into week three with 189 country delegates dutifully trooping to the podium to present their talking points, developments far from Turtle Bay highlight both the importance of the NPT process - and its relative impotence. Case in point: Dimitry Medvedev's trip to Damascus last week - the first state visit by a post-Soviet leader to Syria, a state second only to Iran in suspicions that it is a NPT scofflaw. While Medvedev's public remarks were pro-forma, Russian news outlets quoted Syria's Bashar al-Assad as saying discussions included the prospect of Russian help building nuclear reactors. That's unwelcome news, considering the intelligence consensus that the secret Syrian site bombed by Israel in 2007 was a nuclear weapons facility built with North Korean help (and, some suggest, Iranian funding).
Such stories, added to Ahmadinejad's Broadway-worthy one man show, underline why none of us should hold our breath in hopes that the 2010 NPT RevCon will deliver a nuclear security breakthrough.
Which is not to say there's no prospect for some progress on the nuclear security front. The best hope? The NPT's Pillar III - which enjoins treaty signatories to advance the peaceful sharing of nuclear power.
While the nuclear haves and have-nots play pugil sticks with Pillars I and II, here are three ways to make Pillar III a catalyst for consensus:
Expand Safe Sources of Supply. If the NPT's stated goal is to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons while holding open the promise of peaceful nuclear power to non-nuclear states, it's in the interest of all current nuclear powers to extend those benefits without opening the door to proliferation. The offer for Iran to send its uranium on a round-trip ticket to Russia - where it would be enriched and returned in a form suitable for energy use but not weapons production - was instructive: Ahmadinejad's Iran said no, since nuclear energy is not what it's after. (As this piece goes to post, Iran has accepted a revived offer brokered by Brazil and Turkey to swap uranium for finished fuel. Iran's rethink just happened to be timed to coincide with the new push at the UN for biting economic sanctions.) Iran aside, countries that truly seek nuclear materials as an energy source and not for a weapons program should welcome the idea.
Of course, such an offer is meaningful only if it is backed up by reliable and ready supplies of nuclear fuel. Countries that commission nuclear power plants while foregoing uranium enrichment will be wholly dependent on a few foreign sources of enriched fuel to feed their reactors. The possibility that supply could be suspended or slowed by foreign suppliers creates a constant pressure to undertake a domestic enrichment program. Hence the concept of Enrichment Banks: Reliable sources of supply, under the control of an impartial consortium pledged to keep politics out of the power equation. Non-Governmental Organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative - co-chaired by former Senator Sam Nunn and staked by investment guru Warren Buffett's $50 million seed-capital pledge - are ready to make enrichment banks a reality; they could use a push by the NPT process to drive this concept forward.
Recycle and Reuse. In a world where more and more of us faithfully separate paper and plastic for curbside pickup, it's time we recycled the spent nuclear fuel contained in casks lined up like toppled tenpins in Paducah, Kentucky and in spent fuel pools in 33 states across the U.S. Just because Jimmy Carter said "no" to uranium reprocessing 33 years ago is no reason for us to hold the future captive to the technological limitations of 1977. After all, that was 1977 BG - Before Gates - as in Bill, who had just gotten around to dropping out of Harvard and trade-marking the name Microsoft. Today the very same Gates, alongside computer visionary Nathan Myhrvold, is enthusing about harnessing technology to burn the 99 percent of uranium remaining in a "spent" fuel rod. He's even put a company together to profit from it. More energy, less nuclear waste and fewer worries about radioactive materials falling into the hands of terrorists - that's not just win-win, it's win-cubed. And it's not just notional: Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and France are all engaged in reprocessing spent fuel for re-use. The only question is whether the U.S. will jump in - or whether Gates and his mates will have to outsource the "energy miracle" they're intent on creating.
The NPT RevCon should make this the consensus position: If we're serious about stemming proliferation, we've got to stop proliferating spent fuel that serves no use but to tempt terrorists and threaten our environment. It's time to reprocess.
Explore Alternative Sources of Nuclear Energy. Early on in the nuclear era, researchers weighed uranium against thorium as a source for nuclear fuel supply. Uranium became the fuel of choice; thorium was put on the shelf. That's changing today, as researchers note that thorium-based fuel burns far more efficiently, leaving behind comparatively little radioactive waste - and trace plutonium in a state unsuited to weapons use. We'll still need uranium - much more than we presently produce, as a matter of fact - but thorium can help reactors consume uranium more efficiently, even burning off plutonium in the process. Skeptics claim that thorium-fueled reactors will still produce materials with possible bomb-grade potential - a serious question, which deserves a fact-based answer. And yet if the current NPT regime in conjunction with IAEA safeguards provides a rational basis for states to enjoy uranium-based nuclear power without fear of nuclear weapons proliferation, couldn't a similar safeguard regime be developed for thorium?
Once again, the U.S. is late to the game gauging thorium's energy potential, as India, Russia, France, Canada and China are already pressing forward with various plans to demonstrate thorium technology. The exception that proves the rule: Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid are co-sponsors of the Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act, a bill directing the U.S. Department of Energy to assess the commercial use of thorium-powered reactors. In addition to the potential benefits outlined above, there's a bonus: While the U.S. currently imports more than 80 percent of the uranium used for nuclear fuel, the U.S. Geological Service reports the United States has the world's largest reserves of thorium.
None of these steps are silver-bullet solutions to the world's ravenous energy needs, but each can be part of a multi-front effort to break global dependency on fossil-fuels, reduce our collective carbon footprint - and do so in a way that guards against nuclear proliferation.
With the New York RevCon heading into its final week, will the NPT conferees fight their way through the two-Pillar stalemate to find consensus? As the arguments over Pillars I and II provide plenty of heat, watch Pillar III for signs of light on our ability to separate nuclear power from nuclear peril.