A Radioactive Bank to be Welcomed

CANBERRA – One of the many things the world has learned from the Iran nuclear saga is that its leaders made a mistake, when negotiating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s, in not doing anything to constrain uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. This failure apparently stemmed from the belief – long since proven wrong, certainly in the case of uranium – that the only states ever likely to possess that technical capability already possessed nuclear weapons, or (like Germany) were totally committed never to acquire them.

As a result, any member state can argue for its “inalienable right” under the NPT to pursue any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. Although any such right extends only to activities for “peaceful purposes,” the loophole is gaping. Any technically capable state – and there are now dozens of them – can build uranium enrichment facilities with the official purpose of producing fuel for nuclear power or research reactors, but which are nonetheless inherently capable of producing the much higher-grade fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

It is not for nothing that such facilities have been described as “bomb starter kits,” and that Iran’s progress down that path – whether deliberately designed to give it a latent weapons breakout capability or not – has spooked so many others in the international community. That is why there was so much pressure to produce the deal now on the table, which dramatically limits Iran’s enrichment capability.

While renegotiating the NPT itself to close the enrichment loophole seems for now a lost cause, there are other ways to address this proliferation risk. One of the most important, and long-advocated, strategies is to demonstrate to countries that rely on nuclear power, or are planning to develop it, that they do not need their own uranium-enrichment program to ensure their fuel supply’s security.