First, North Korea said it was close to having the bomb. Next, Iran revealed it had been secretly developing the capacity to make nukes. Then came Libya's surprise decision to give up its nuclear weapons program. Finally, more proof emerged that Pakistan has been selling nuclear knowhow to unreliable states.
No wonder Bush Administration officials see 2004 as a crucial year for developing new ways to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. "We need more active measures that will aggressively respond to the threat," says a senior Bush Administration official.
Weapons or Juice?
It will be devilishly difficult. At the core of the problem is the ambiguous nature of nuclear fuel. Any regime can argue it is enriching uranium or reprocessing nuclear fuel for reactors that give a country's power grid its juice. Figuring out whether a country is diverting fuel to nuclear-weapons programs requires vigorous detective work. On-site inspections are key, and sometimes they don't work.
What to do? U.N. and U.S. officials are debating two ideas that could be used to bolster the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Both involve taking key parts of the nuclear-fuel business out of the hands of governments. The first idea is championed by Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. He wants to put all operations to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel under international control of an agency such as the IAEA. Countries could still have reactors, but they could not control the creation and storage of nuclear fuel. ElBaradei also wants to expand the use of snap inspections of nuclear sites.
The other alternative would be a kind of rent-a-fuel program. International consortiums such as the German-Dutch-British Urenco, or authorized countries with robust nuclear export industries, such as Russia, would make a business out of enriching, reprocessing, and storing fuel for individual clients, who would give up their right to make their own fuel. Performing these hugely expensive services for many countries together would be far more economical than if a government did it for its own small market. Tracking the fuel's uses through the channels of just a few companies would also be easier than assessing nuclear fuel stockpiles in dozens of countries. The key is "a positive correlation between commercial interests and nonproliferation objectives," says Daniel B. Poneman of Scowcroft Group, a Washington think tank. Sounds intriguing, but the practical issues remain huge. Countries with big investments in enrichment facilities, such as Japan or Israel, for instance, may be unwilling to give them up.
Still, Iran and Libya may provide test cases of the latest ideas. Both have recently agreed to intrusive, unannounced inspections of their nuclear sites by the IAEA. And Iran has agreed to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment operations. If these countries continue to comply, others may feel greater pressure to open up their nuclear sites. That could pave the way for an internationalized approach to handling and tracking nuclear fuel.
The awful truth is that the world is a more dangerous place now than it was even during the Cold War. But new ideas may yet help to lower the nuclear peril.
By Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady