scholars and rogues

It's not just hawks who question whether nuclear power is an 'inalienable right'

deproliferatorThe Deproliferator

Those advocating nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels have been dealt some serious blows. A recent report disclosed that:

Each 1000 MW [megawatts] of nuclear power that is forced into the supply mix would cost between $16 billion to $41 billion more than a mix of efficiency and renewables. If the 100 aging nuclear reactors currently on line in the U.S. are replaced with these high cost nuclear reactors, the excess costs could be well in in the range of $1.6 trillion to $4.1 trillion.

Also, citing economic woes, the nation’s largest electric and gas utility, Exelon, indefinitely postponed plans to build two nuclear reactors. Then, the province of Ontario suspended competitive bidding to replace two nuclear reactors. Meanwhile, Moody’s investor rating service is considering downgrading utilities seeking to build nuclear reactors for failing to deal with exorbitant costs.

A number of progressives had been coming around to nuclear energy as a clean fuel and a solution to dwindling energy reserves. If they had known the industry would be dead in the water, they could have spared themselves the embarrassment of appearing to be in denial about safety and nuclear waste issues.

But, because it’s a source of nationalist pride, costs are not a concern for the nuclear power development program of another state — Iran, of course. Not only that, it enjoys considerably more support from American progressives than nuclear power in the United States does. For them, setting aside reservations about Iranian nuclear power serves another purpose besides energy concerns. It’s an attempt to undermine any impulse that American and Israeli hawks might harbor toward bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Not only progressives, but a variety of players on the political spectrum, contend that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons guarantees Iran the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Hawks, however, are unable to distinguish between LEU (low-enriched uranium) and HEU (highly enriched). To them all uranium is created equal and those who advocate nuclear power knowledge and technology for Iran are just the latest in a long line of liberals rolling over for the enemy.

Arguably the opinions of hawks count for less when we have an administration that doesn’t believe negotiations are a reward for, but an incentive to, peaceable relations. But advocating anything nuclear for Iran leaves progressives wide open to charges that it’s aiding and abetting the enemy.

(Even easier pickings for hawks are those progressives willing to concede Iran the bomb. Nukes, goes the argument, have a way of turning erratic states into rational actors.)

In fact, a germ of truth can be found in the hawks’ position. The assertion that Article IV of the NPT guarantees all signers the “inalienable right” to nuclear energy is a vast oversimplification, according to Christopher Ford in a recent paper. (As Cold War nuclear theorist Albert Wohlstetter facetiously wrote, since when did inalienable rights include, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plutonium”?) But what else would you expect from a member of the Hudson Insitite like Dr. Ford, who was the Bush administration’s Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation?

Actually, now that he’s free of the imperative to promote the Bush administration’s ticky-tack nuclear agenda, which used petty, legalistic ploys to to help the United States evade responsibility for disarmament leadership, Dr. Ford’s work is proving valuable. But he’s still what could be called a “small stater”: He favors preventing small states from arming before we disarm. 

President Obama seems intent on using the opposite, traditional approach to disarmament — demonstrating leadership in arms reductions partly in hopes of convincing small states that the need for nuclear weapons no longer exists (if it ever did). As he recently said at Moscow:

The notion that prestige comes from holding these weapons, or that we can protect ourselves by picking and choosing which nations can have these weapons, is an illusion.

Dr. Ford might reserve for the larger states such as the United States the right to “pick and choose” which smaller states are the beneficiaries of nuclear knowledge and technology for peaceful purposes. His position can be summed up in this passage from his paper Nuclear Technology Rights and Wrongs: The NPT, Article IV, and Nonproliferation:

The bottom line, however, was that the United Nations recommended that proliferation impact — and the closely related criterion of safeguardability — be made the keys to determining what technology can and should be permitted to national governments.

In fact, there’s merit to his concern that the inalienable-rights contingent “would turn Article IV into a mechanism for undermining the rest of the Treaty by facilitating the spread of the (fissile material production) technologies that are critical to making nuclear weapons.” Plus, Dr. Ford has nuclear history on his side. He writes of  Wohlstetter, who warned. . .

. . . of the dangers of a situation in which, “in return for their. . . promise not to make or accept nuclear explosives,” non-weapons states would. . . acquire “civilian technologies that would [lead them down] the road to nuclear explosives.” Wohlstetter characterized the NPT as. … “a highly ambiguous and uncertain set of compromises, reflecting but not resolving [among other things] the problem of encouraging civilian nuclear energy while discouraging military nuclear energy.”

After all, as the first report of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission pointed out, as quoted by Dr. Ford, the manufacturing processes of nuclear power and weapons are “identical and inseparable up to a very advanced state of manufacture.”
Just like, domestically, progressives view nuclear power as the lesser of two evils between it and coal, they view nuclear energy in Iran as the lesser of two evils between it and war. But the lesser evil in the second case can be halved — by enticing Iran to set aside its nuclear enrichment and avail itself of an international fuel bank. 
In the long run, however, it may be impossible to wean a state like Iran off its own nuclear enrichment program unless the large states, beginning with the United States, take dramatic steps toward disarmament. These include following through on the preliminary agreement with Russia to slash nuclear arsenals and draft a new START treaty. We also need to renew our commitment to the NPT at its review conference next year and, as well, ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Maybe then small states will no longer feel a perceived need for nuclear weapons. They can stop thinking (if indeed they are) of nuclear energy as a precursor to nuclear weapons and save themselves a lot of grief as well as money by thinking instead in terms of fuel banks.

3 replies »

  1. I’m sure that the phrase, “(Even easier pickings for hawks are those progressives willing to concede Iran the bomb. Nukes, goes the argument, have a way of turning erratic states into rational actors.)” isn’t your argument as North Korea couldn’t be considered to be exhibiting rational behavior.


  2. That fuel bank is a BS idea. Just like the world today is at the mercy and dependant on a few oil producing countries you are advocating handing control of the hope and future of the human race to a few psychopaths who decide who gets to live (by giving them energy) and who dies (by withholding energy). Haven’t you learned the people in the nations of the world are not the enemy.