02 Jun 15. The disappointing outcome of the 2015 Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference will deprive the nuclear non-proliferation regime of updated benchmarks for the next five years. This weakens the ability of the states which are party to the treaty to multilaterally address the key issues within the NPT’s three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It may also open the way to alternative and not necessarily genuine multilateral approaches. The lack of a final NPT consensus text will also affect the way in which we deal with the enrichment of uranium and the separation of weapons grade plutonium; issues which have haunted the international community since the early days of the nuclear era and which lie at the heart of the Iranian nuclear problem today.
The Legacy of Reprocessing and Enriching
The first attempt to multilaterally address enrichment and reprocessing issues goes back to the Baruch plan of 1945, a U.S. initiative aiming at placing the whole field of atomic energy, including “all phases of the development and use of nuclear energy”, under the control of an international body. Despite the early establishment of the IAEA, this project never saw the light of day. No meaningful progress was made, even with the entry into force of the NPT in 1970. The principle of the “inalienable right… to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” has been interpreted as including a “right” to produce the fuel necessary to feed nuclear power plants. But this interpretation was not expressly included in the language of the Treaty. To this day this issue remains unclear, ambiguous and controversial.
A limited number of countries possess the capacity to reprocess and enrich. The five NPT nuclear weapons states (NWS) were the first to acquire this technology and non-NPT, nuclear armed countries (India, Pakistan, Israel) followed suit. Even non-nuclear weapon states such as Germany and the Netherlands joined the UK in the URENCO enrichment consortium. Italy and Iran (during the time of the Shah) became the financial partners in the French EURODIF enrichment project. Japan encountered no major obstacles in carrying out its ambitious reprocessing program and Argentina joined Brazil in mutually verifying their respective fuel producing activities.
One of the main tasks of the Zangger Committee, established by a small group of NPT partners, was to prevent the proliferation of this costly and controversial activity. Further efforts were aimed at convincing countries that they would be better off receiving assurances from nuclear fuel suppliers rather than embarking into enriching and reprocessing. From 1977 to 1979 the issue of strengthening of assurances of nuclear supplies while minimizing the proliferation risk was at the center of the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) process. In 2004, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) established specific conditions which a recipient state must meet to be eligible for enrichment and reprocessing (ENR). That same year the Bush administration tried to introduce a “golden rule” arrangement providing that only countries already possessing enrichment and reprocessing technology would be entitled to this technology. This issue was also addressed bilaterally: in its 1972 agreement with the U.S., South Korea agreed to renounce enriching and reprocessing in exchange for nuclear supply assurances. More recently, the United Arab Emirates accepted the U.S. 2004 “golden rule” in a bilateral agreement, while South Korea and the U.S. have renegotiated their 1972 agreement. The new text is not yet public, though it appears that Seoul, which has become a major nuclear energy producer, will receive more leeway for reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium.