September 2003

Op-ed: Need for nuclear transparency

Daily Times, September 25, 2003
By M V Ramana

Original address:

[Posted 25/09/2003]

Fissile materials are dangerous substances and the peoples of the world have a right to know who has how much of these. If nuclear programmes are to continue, peace-loving people around the world should at least demand maximal transparency not just of Iran but also all countries with nuclear infrastructure

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given Iran a deadline of October 31 to demonstrate full transparency and establish that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. The resolution followed a series of disturbing disclosures about Iran’s nuclear activities that have seriously undermined its credibility. Whereas previously it was only the US that made shrill allegations about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, these disclosures have now shifted the burden of proof onto Iran.

Till recently, Iran was considered to be in good standing by the IAEA. But in September 2002, following revelations by an Iranian opposition group, Iranian officials confirmed to the IAEA that Iran was building two undeclared nuclear facilities — a uranium enrichment site at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. This February, IAEA officials visited these sites and discovered that they were quite advanced. More recently the IAEA found traces of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU, or uranium with a uranium-235 content greater than 20 per cent) at the centrifuge facility.

All of this does not amount to confirmation that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme. But it certainly seems to have taken steps towards acquiring unsafeguarded fissile materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons. The availability of unsafeguarded fissile materials — HEU or Plutonium — is often the greatest hurdle in the path of nuclear weapons acquisition.

Iran’s nuclear programme dates back to 1967, when the US supplied it with a 5 MW research reactor. Iran was then ruled by the Shah and allied with the US. In 1970, Iran ratified the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) promising not to develop nuclear weapons. Falling for the widespread delusion that it is sensible to produce electricity from nuclear reactors, Iran began constructing its first commercial nuclear reactor at Bushehr in 1974 with German assistance. Work on the reactor was halted due to the 1979 revolution. The reactor site was bombed repeatedly during the war with Iraq. (Iran for its part attacked the Tuwaitha nuclear facility near Baghdad in 1980 — a year before Israel destroyed the Osiraq nuclear reactor.)

US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme started with the 1979 revolution. During the 1980s, it pressured many European countries that were interested in a contract to complete the Bushehr reactor to withdraw. Iran then signed an agreement with Russia to complete the Bushehr plant and build additional reactors. The US has continued to oppose Russia’s involvement in building the reactor.

The US stance on Iran is typical of its general policy: if it did not trust a country, then it would oppose that country’s nuclear programme, no matter how scrupulously that country adhered to the NPT or other treaty commitments. (With allied countries, on the other hand, the US tolerates, or even supports, most nuclear activities. This is exemplified by Israel, which reportedly has the largest nuclear arsenal among the countries outside of the five nuclear weapon states (NWS), but has received large amounts of aid and active nuclear cooperation from the US.)

Hypocritical though it may be, this US policy is a striking illustration of the close relationship between nuclear power and weapons. There are two primary reasons for the overlap. The first is that all nuclear reactors produce weapons useable plutonium. Unless the spent fuel is safeguarded or monitored, a country with a reprocessing facility to extract the plutonium could make nuclear weapons. Similarly facilities for the enrichment of uranium for use in light water reactors, can also be used to produce weapons useable HEU. In general, many of the physical steps involved in the two pursuits are the same and the infrastructure for one can contribute substantially to the other.

Second, as part of a nuclear energy programme, people have to be trained in various aspects of nuclear physics and technology. These people can then apply the same skills to nuclear weapons research and development. Making nuclear weapons, therefore, would become a matter of choice and not of capability.

Of course, a country does not need a nuclear energy programme to make weapons. It could build a facility, most likely in a clandestine fashion, to enrich uranium and produce weapons useable fissile material. But the task is made considerably easier by nuclear energy programmes.

Therefore if nuclear programmes are to continue, peace-loving people around the world should at least demand maximal transparency with respect to the associated activities and materials. This is a demand that should be made not just of Iran but also all NWS.

Indeed, just like Iran’s commitments under the NPT, NWS are also treaty bound to open up their nuclear complexes. At the 2000 NPT review conference, NWS agreed to increased transparency with regard to their nuclear weapons capabilities. This was part of a set of thirteen “practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI” — the one that requires NWS to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Needless to say, NWS have not complied to any substantive extent with either Article VI or even the call for increased transparency.

The only countries that are not members of the NPT are India, Pakistan and Israel. But this should not mean that they have no responsibilities. In the final analysis, the reasons for transparency do not stem only from treaty commitments. Citizens of any country should be entitled to know how much destructive capability has been accumulated under their name. And for stable and real peace between Pakistan and India, there has to be verifiable nuclear disarmament, a prerequisite for which is transparency.

Fissile materials are dangerous substances — the US killed over 200,000 people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima with about six kilograms of plutonium and 50 kilograms of HEU respectively — and the peoples of the world have a right to know who has how much of these. That could be the first step in ridding the world of all fissile material, which in turn is the only guarantee that they will never be used to wage nuclear war.

M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream.

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