Siamese twins - The civilian and military use of nuclear technology

The civilian and military use of nuclear technology can be compared to Siamese twins. They are so closely connected that one can hardly separate them. The civilian use of nuclear technology can create knowledge, materials and technology that can also be used for a military nuclear programme. Comprehensive nuclear programmes - even if they are purely civilian by nature - therefore often create concern that the real intention is the desire to possess nuclear weapons. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a risk that must be taken very seriously. The presence of a broad range of specific export controls and non-proliferation regulations attests to this. The year-long dispute over the nuclear programme of Iran is a current example of this.

How to get an atomic bomb: Two technical alternatives

Whoever wants to build nuclear weapons can do this in two ways: Either, one can aim at constructing a nuclear weapon that is based on fission, requiring highly enriched uranium, or one can try to construct a hydrogen bomb that is based on the principle of fusion and needs plutonium. Both materials must first be sourced. In its natural state, uranium only contains a small share of the fissile isotope U-235 that first will have to be enriched to a higher concentration through great technical effort. The element plutonium, on the contrary, is only created when uranium is irradiated in a nuclear reactor.

Both ways to build a nuclear weapon, therefore, are inherently difficult. The implementation of how to construct a uranium bomb is relatively easy. Yet, the uranium enrichment process needed for a uranium bomb is a highly complex technical process and is very expensive. The opposite is the case for the hydrogen bomb. The technological requirements to create plutonium are quite basic whereas the construction of such a weapon is far more complex. The knowledge gleaned from the civilian use of nuclear energy and research- or nuclear fuel cycle facilities can be useful for any of the two. Whoever, for example, needs fuel elements for nuclear reactors, research reactors or nuclear propulsion for vessels has to enrich uranium. The same goes for whoever wants to build nuclear weapons with a uranium core. These differences are more gradual than fundamental. Light water reactors, for instance, require two- to five per cent enriched uranium while research or ship reactors more often than not use much more highly enriched uranium, or even uranium that is just as highly enriched as weapons-grade uranium (20 to over 90 per cent).

There are various technologies to enrich uranium—the use of centrifuges is the most common. They can enrich uranium to various degrees, that is, prepare it both for civilian and military purposes. Uranium enrichment plants are operated by the five traditional nuclear powers (United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China) as well as by Pakistan, Iran, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, South Africa and Brazil. There are smaller (experimental) plants in Australia and South Korea, amongst others. It is suspected that North Korea has an undeclared military enrichment programme.

Research reactors operated with weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium also constitute a high risk. Research or ship reactors can be used for legitimate reasons to produce more highly enriched uranium than would be necessary for nuclear power plants.

A similar scenario applies when looking at the production of plutonium. Irradiating uranium fuel elements in nuclear reactors either results in plutonium for power reactors or weapons-grade plutonium. The outcome depends on the type of reactor, used fuel and length of irradiation. While light water reactors are not the ideal choice for producing weapons-grade plutonium, heavy water reactors and some other reactor types are much better suited. When irradiated fuel elements are reprocessed, the plutonium generated in that process can be chemically isolated and used for weapons construction. Technically, it is even possible to build a device with plutonium from power reactors. The building of reactors that are well suited for the production of plutonium and the use of reprocessing technology often raises concerns about proliferation. Military reprocessing plants not only exist in the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states but also in Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Commercially-run plants were built in Great Britain, France, Russia and Japan. There are smaller (experimental) plants in other countries.

Rules for non-proliferation

To meet this concern, many efforts have been made to stop the further deployment of nuclear technology by the military and to ensure that the civilian use of nuclear technology does not turn into a preliminary step or even camouflage of military use. These efforts, however, are challenged by the fact that the civilian and military uses are very closely linked, and that the contradictory policy to foster its civilian and to stop its military use has prevailed over many decades.

The most relevant international law governing this topic is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is to prevent the creation of other nuclear powers. Its non-nuclear members commit themselves not to develop nuclear weapons or to otherwise gain access to such weapons. The five nuclear members have pledged not to help the non-nuclear members in any way or form to obtain control over nuclear weapons or to build such weapons themselves.

Furthermore, based on this Treaty, a system of security safeguards was established that were intended to support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna in its efforts to monitor the exclusive civilian use of nuclear installations and nuclear materials in the non-nuclear member states of the Treaty and also in the nuclear member states—should they wish so.

To prevent the proliferation of the military use of nuclear technology is not the only task of the NPT and the IAEA. They have also received the mandate to foster civilian use and to enable other countries to follow suit. Germany is among the countries that lobby for the right to the comprehensive civilian use of nuclear technology to become part of the Treaty. Given the Janus-faced nature of nuclear technology, this is obviously counterproductive where the goal of non-proliferation is concerned. It opens up avenues for countries to use the technology and to build facilities claiming that they have the right to the civilian use of nuclear technology, fully aware of the fact that these facilities can be used for civilian and military purposes.

Meanwhile, the NPT member states partially blockade each other. One group of members, amongst them the nuclear weapon states and many industrialized countries, would like to close the present opportunities to bypass the security safeguards of the IAEA through new, stricter non-proliferation rules. A second, larger, group insists that the Treaty must not allow a long-term nuclear two-class society of legal nuclear weapons haves- and haves-not. They call upon the owners of atomic bombs to bindingly and more quickly meet their obligation under this Treaty to 'zero' nuclear disarmament. Progress, however, is difficult to achieve.

To guarantee the goal of non-proliferation against all resistance, the countries that possess the necessary nuclear technologies and materials have created a variety of additional multilateral tools: With the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger-Committee, they coordinate their export policy for nuclear technology-relevant goods. Since 2004, initially in the framework of G-8, they have begun to agree on a moratorium on the export of technologies for reprocessing and enrichment plants.

Cooperation can also help non-proliferation. In the 1990s, Western countries have set up several cooperation programmes with the successor countries to the USSR, to prevent their nuclear heritage from contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. One example of the collaboration between the United States and Russia is that of a reduction of the civilian use of highly enriched uranium in research reactors.

Increasingly, enforcement measures are taken to force countries to give up their military nuclear ambitions or to provide proof of the fact that their nuclear programmes solely serve civilian purposes. Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions are used more and more often. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was created as a multilateral tool to stop the delivery of technology and materials. Individual countries, like the United States and Israel, reserve the highly contentious right to take preventative military action to react to nuclear ambitions of other countries.

Such action, however, cannot guarantee success. It remains incomplete, as countries such as Pakistan and North Korea can actively contribute to the proliferation outside of any control regimes. Also, technological advancement enables more and more countries to develop the technology for nuclear technology applications.

In the end, only a global waiving of the military and civilian use of nuclear technology—a double zero solution—can guarantee a wider protection against the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. This would also contribute to a more realistic vision of a verifiable and irreversible nuclear weapons-free world. Should Germany continue along its path of its renunciation of nuclear weapons and the exit from the civilian use of nuclear energy, this would be a strong signal for others, that a leading European country with high-tech capabilities does not need a nuclear status.

Sources and further information:

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