On the 25th Anniversary
Of the Nuclear Control Institute
Nuclear Control Institute got started 25 years ago after I landed a $7,500 contribution from an anonymous member of the Rockefeller family. Wade Greene, the Rockefeller program officer who has been so helpful to a number of non-profit organizations fighting proliferation and promoting arms control, called it a “stimulative grant” to encourage giving by other foundations. But I had just lost my job on Capitol Hill, when the majority of the Senate switched to the party other than the one my boss and subcommittee chairman, Gary Hart, belonged to. So, I wasted no time and applied the Rockefeller check to renting a desk in the corridor of a small law firm located in a town house in downtown Washington. With the desk came a posh conference room, suitable for holding meetings with other non-governmental organizations with an interest in plutonium and proliferation, and NCI was born.
In those days, NCI stood for The Nuclear Club Inc. The name was too clever by 5/8ths. But we used it anyway in a full-page New York Times ad, on Sunday, June 21, 1981, to launch our fledgling organization. The ad posed the question, “Will Tomorrow’s Terrorist Have an Atom Bomb?---a question, unfortunately, still highly relevant today, as is the answer. Remarkably and sadly, the ad that launched us a quarter-century ago reads almost as if it were written today. Since then, NCI’s name has changed, but our mission---to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to nations or to groups---remains the same.
The ad’s creator was Julian Koenig, an original member of our Board. He is a Madison Avenue legend, now retired, whose credits included Volkswagen’s original “Think Small” campaign and the naming of Earth Day.
At first, Mr. Koenig expressed reluctance about joining our board, but I assured him that NCI would have to solve the plutonium problem in five years, or he and I probably wouldn’t survive to talk about it anyway. I was wrong on both counts. We haven’t solved the problem. We are still around to talk about it. To paraphrase Faulkner, NCI has endured, if not prevailed.
In 2003, a year after I retired, I reorganized Nuclear Control Institute into a Web-based program. An archive of more than 300 catalogued boxes of NCI’s papers, accumulated over a quarter-century of operation and supplemented by my earlier U.S. Senate papers, has been established at the National Security Archive, an affiliate of the George Washington University Library. A word-searchable electronic archive of NCI’s core documents over this period is also being established on the NCI website.
Nuclear nonproliferation has always been a fierce and bruising fight. There is always more money and power going the other way. NCI and others who have labored in this field over the years can take some satisfaction in having held off the worst for this long. But the outlook is ominous.
It has been 30 years since my Senate work on the initial investigation, hearings and legislation that led to enactment of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. But a worldwide plutonium industry, spawned by the reprocessing of U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel, nonetheless developed because of the exploitation of waivers and exceptions in this law to provisions that were intended to prevent such a dangerous industry from developing. More progress has been made in curbing commerce in bomb-grade uranium, but even here exceptions have been carved out of U.S. nonproliferation law to permit unnecessary and expanding commerce in this bomb fuel for the production of medical isotopes. Nuclear Control Institute continues to try to close this dangerous loophole through the untiring efforts of NCI senior policy analyst and University of Texas professor, Alan Kuperman.
My greatest satisfaction over the past 25 years has been to witness the development of a global nonproliferation regime based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act’s requirement of “full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply.” This provision was based on an idea I developed in my Senate work. When it became law, requiring that U.S. nuclear exports go only to countries that accept international inspections of all their nuclear facilities, the nuclear industry and bureaucracy roundly condemned it as “sterile unilateralism” and as a nonproliferation example that other nuclear-supplier nations would never follow. But the international Nuclear Suppliers Group eventually adopted it when it was discovered after the first Gulf War that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program had proceeded in secret facilities with the benefit of undeclared nuclear exports. Also, it was becoming obvious that India and Pakistan, which never joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, were utilizing technology imported for use in safeguarded plants to build their nuclear weapons programs in unsafeguarded plants.
But now so-called “outside-the-box" thinking being championed by President Bush and IAEA Director General ElBaradei may soon put an end to all this. Both are advocating a new U.S-India nuclear supply agreement that would do away with the requirement of full-scope safeguards and effectively reward India for developing and testing nuclear weapons. Among the facilities India will be permitted to continue operating outside of safeguards is the original Atoms for Peace reactor that was supplied by Canada in 1960 and which has been used by India ever since to produce plutonium exclusively for weapons! How ironical that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act was triggered by my discovery in 1975 that the U.S. had covered up its secret export of heavy water for this reactor, used to produce the plutonium for India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” of a year earlier. The head of India’s test site has since acknowledged that it was a weapon all along.
The nonproliferation regime that has managed to hold up this long now appears to be unraveling. Pakistan points to the impending nuclear deal with India and demands equal treatment. With China’s help it will likely get it, notwithstanding Pakistan’s supply of uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya through the notorious A.Q. Khan network. Iran is now playing the nuclear suppliers like a Stradivarius, using seemingly endless negotiations to buy time to develop nuclear weapons in undisclosed facilities. Even if Iran eventually agrees to suspend uranium and plutonium fuel cycle activities, little thought has been given to how such an agreement could be verified effectively, given Iran’s longstanding record of concealment, deception and non-cooperation with inspectors---and its further record of collaboration with terrorists. A nuclear-capable Iran could well mean nuclear-capable terrorists. North Korea continues to produce unsafeguarded plutonium for weapons and to develop and pursue testing of long-range missiles. Japanese hardliners respond by continuing to press for nuclear weapons, knowing that because of weak enforcement of U.S. non-proliferation law, Japan is on the way to separating more plutonium from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel than the United States and Russia have, combined, in their arsenals.
My greatest disappointment has been the profound failure to curb global commerce in plutonium even though nuclear power reactors run perfectly well without it. The closest we’ve come to curbing plutonium is the longstanding proposal for a “verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty.”
But the proposed treaty is neither verifiable nor is it a cut-off. As presently drafted in the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the so-called fissile material cut-off treaty is actually a fissile material production agreement. It would halt the further production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons but allow the continued production and use of these bomb-grade materials in civilian power and research reactors even though these reactors can be run on low-enriched or natural uranium unsuitable for bombs.
Advocates of plutonium commerce argue that “safeguards” imposed by international inspectors will ensure that civilian production and use of plutonium cannot be diverted to weapons making. But the laws of physics conspire against inspectors making accurate measurements of plutonium in commercial plants and thus render as unverifiable any treaty that purports to ban military use while permitting civilian use. Common sense also makes clear that India’s neighbors will view with suspicion stockpiles of “peaceful” plutonium and bomb-grade uranium, as Japan’s neighbors do and as the world now views Iran’s “peaceful” fissile materials program.
The only effective fissile material ban would be a comprehensive one---no production for military or civilian purposes. Such a ban could be combined with a
reciprocal and symmetrical arrangement between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear weapon states to begin drawing down excess plutonium stocks and immobilizing them in highly radioactive waste for direct disposal as waste. Excess bomb-grade uranium stocks could be blended down for use as low-enriched uranium fuel in power reactors.
Although some blending down of Russian weapons uranium is taking place for use in U.S. power reactors, the elimination of plutonium is dismissed as politically unfeasible. Most knowledgeable politicians, few that there are, simply refuse to take on the powerful industrial and bureaucratic interests that are hell-bent on making a business out of plutonium and reserving weapons options in the process. The Bush Administration has now thrown caution to the winds and is pushing a so-called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to resuscitate long-discredited technologies for producing and using plutonium fuel worldwide---and also end a 30-year moratorium on commercial plutonium in the United States.
Yet, without a ban on civilian use of bomb-grade materials, nuclear commerce will pose increasingly unacceptable dangers to the world. The bottom-line danger remains the one posed by our original New York Times ad: terrorists going nuclear. As Julian Koenig phrased it so eloquently, “At that moment you can write an obituary for yourself, the world you know and the people you hold dear. This malignant scenario is inevitable---unless you and others who value life speak out for reason. Reason bars access to plutonium or high-grade uranium in nuclear energy programs. For without these nuclear explosives you have no nuclear bombs.”
This is a plea for reason that resonates all the more urgently today.