November 01, 2011

In Brief: Civilian Nuclear Energy and Proliferation Concerns

There are a lot of smart people in Washington and around the
world evaluating the threat of nuclear proliferation against the backdrop of
growing civilian nuclear energy use. In an October 18 post, I commented on a
report by Dr.
Charles Ferguson who addressed this challenge in the current issue of Foreign Policy
. (Ferguson’s report is worth reading in full.)

Last week, The Wall
Street Journal
reported that some in Japan are advocating that the country
maintain its civilian nuclear energy program, in part to keep its edge with the
technology in case Japan ever needs to develop nuclear weapons.  “I
don't think Japan needs to possess nuclear weapons, but it's important to
maintain our commercial reactors because it would allow us to produce a nuclear
warhead in a short amount of time
," said Shigeru Ishiba, a former
defense minister. But, as The Wall Street
noted, this is a minority view in Japan. Most of the public remains
skeptical about continuing nuclear energy generation, especially in the wake of
the March Fukushima disaster: “Recent
public-opinion polls show the Japanese public turning against nuclear energy
after the March Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident

Nevertheless, the comments raise some interesting questions
about the dual-use nature of civilian nuclear energy technology. In particular,
one cannot help but wonder what other states that are pursuing civilian nuclear
energy programs have the same considerations, even if they are not the dominant
reason they seek to develop a nuclear program. Of course, as Ferguson wrote in Foreign Policy, civilian nuclear energy
use does not necessarily mean an increased threat of nuclear proliferation.
States need the capability to enrich nuclear fuel themselves if they want to
enrich uranium enough to produce weapons grade material – and most states
pursuing nuclear energy programs do not have enrichment facilities; instead they
rely on purchasing nuclear fuel from countries like the United States. (Japan,
it is worth noting, does have enrichment facilities.)

The concerns then likely stem from those countries with
enrichment facilities that may share the technology with others (like North
Korea), and those countries that may decide to develop enrichment programs
themselves. According to Ferguson, “the
threat of peaceful nukes begetting the destructive kind is going to get worse
before it gets better, thanks to technological advances
.” In particular, the
recent announcement of laser
enrichment processing
is quite worrying given that it would allow a
processing facility to “take
up relatively little space -- it could be hidden in a single nondescript
warehouse in an otherwise benign industrial park -- and emit few overt signs of
activity, making it far more difficult to detect than conventional centrifuge