The Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Civilian Nuclear Agreements, and Nonproliferation

January 28, 2011 — Ms. Susan Squassoni joined us for a discussion on the nuclear fuel cycle, the future of civilian nuclear cooperation programs and the implications for nonproliferation.  Ms. Squassoni is a director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  From 2002-2007, she advised Congress as a senior specialist in weapons of mass destruction at the Congressional Research Service. 

Ms. Squassoni provided an overview of the nuclear fuel cycle and discussed how nuclear power is used in civilian capacities.  She explained the distinction between energy and electricity and argued that while many countries have increasingly employed nuclear power as a “green energy alternative,” this can only be utilized for electricity generation.  States remain dependent on traditional sources of energy for uses beyond electricity generation.  For example, even though France has used nuclear power to become an electricity exporter, it still remains dependent on coal, oil and natural gas.  Currently, nuclear power only accounts for 20% of electricity generation in the US and even increased use of nuclear power will not solve the overall energy crisis with regards to fossil fuel usage. 

Regarding challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, Ms. Squassoni explained that the civilian nuclear fuel cycle and the weapons production cycle are very similar.  Most civilian nuclear programs can easily become “dual use” facilities for enriching uranium to weapons-grade level. There is always a possibility that without proper safeguards and compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treat (NPT), countries can reach “break-out” capacity for a nuclear weapon. 

The current debate in the NPT community does not center on whether countries have the right to civilian nuclear power, but whether countries have the right to the totality of the nuclear fuel cycle.  The US and other countries can easily provide low enriched uranium, or non-weapons grade uranium to any country that is willing to accede to regular inspections and agreements not to seek weapons capacity.  This is the crux of the matter in the Iranian case.  The Iranian government argues that it has the right to maintain control over the entire fuel cycle without interference.  However, as Ms. Squassoni pointed out, they are enriching uranium at levels that are far above levels required for civilian use and this uranium could be used in a weapons capacity.

Finally, Ms. Squassoni took questions regarding the future of nuclear energy and security.  Ms. Squassoni emphasized that new safeguards should be created and that a more rigorous multi-lateral approach should to be taken in regards to inspection of future nuclear facilities.  As more countries pursue civilian nuclear power, additional safeguards will have to be created beyond those envisioned in the NPT.

Security for a New Century is a bipartisan study group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information, please call Mark Yarnell at (202) 224-7560 or write to [email protected].




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