The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), whose tenth review conference is coming up in August, is in trouble, and not only because of the crescendo of complaints about the failure of the nuclear-armed states to implement nuclear disarmament. The treaty is threatened with irrelevancy because its controls have not kept up with the times. It was drafted over 50 years ago, when it was widely believed that nuclear energy represented the future and would soon take over the generation of electricity. Not surprisingly, countries put few treaty restrictions on access to technology or materials other than to impose international inspection, and even that was circumscribed. We now have a more realistic view of the dangers of access to fuels that are also nuclear explosives (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and also of the limited economic utility of these fuels for powering reactors. If we want an effective NPT, we have to eliminate these dangerous materials from civilian nuclear power programs. Dealing with uranium enrichment is complicated because nuclear power plants use enriched uranium fuel, but that should not hold us back from eliminating the danger we can eliminate—plutonium.
It has since turned out that all of the “expert” thinking about plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors taking over electricity production was wrong. Contrary to the projections of the 1960s, nuclear energy’s prospects are limited, uranium is not scarce, extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel is hugely expensive, and the plutonium-fueled reactors are expensive to build, which eliminated the economic arguments for the so-called plutonium economy. This is now clear to all but messianic believers in nuclear energy.
But the vestiges of this technological archaism continue to animate national bureaucracies that deal with the NPT, including that of the US, and the IAEA, as well. Perhaps the most glaring examples of the residual attachment to plutonium is Japan, which accumulated an enormous stockpile of plutonium and China, which, like Japan, plans to open a large reprocessing plant to separate more for two large fast breeder reactors. The US Energy Department is planning an expensive fast reactor to test fuel (the Versatile Test Reactor) for a mythical future commercial generation of such reactors. These steps legitimate similar actions elsewhere and undermine effective nonproliferation controls.
At a more fundamental level, the United States needs to speak clearly to dispel the myth—one that still grips some NPT member countries—that nuclear power is an essential technology without which a country cannot consider itself as advanced. To get into the details would take us too far afield. But, as an indication of current nuclear prospects, consider the collapse of the highly vaunted “nuclear renaissance” at the beginning of this century that was to lead to construction of dozens of plants in the United States. US nuclear operators filed license applications for 31 large units. They ultimately canceled all but two, and those two are years behind schedule and already double the original cost, which led the original contractor, once proud Westinghouse, to file for bankruptcy.
America’s utility sector has been consistent on this score: It is not going to build any additional large nuclear reactors and doesn’t extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel. This message presented at the 2021 NPT Review Conference would help clear the decks for an honest assessment of what is needed for protection against access to nuclear weapons. If plutonium and reprocessing (its separation technology) are generally permissible, and only barred when worries arise in special cases like Iran, the NPT will ultimately undo itself.