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The Other NPT

By / 5.18.2010

Nuclear Controlled AreaThis month 189 countries are gathered at the United Nations in New York for a review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This review, which has occurred every five years since the treaty was indefinitely extended in 1995, is designed to give the member states the opportunity to discuss how the goals of the treaty are being met — or not. In broad terms, the treaty obliges those members with nuclear weapons to get rid of them and those members without nuclear weapons to never seek them, while promoting peaceful use of the atom by all.

The NPT, as the treaty is informally known, has been highly successful to date: a slow but steady global spread of nuclear power has occurred, while at the same time, many countries have elected to halt nuclear weapons programs and join the treaty regime; three countries — Israel, India and Pakistan — have never ratified the treaty and are either known or believed to have nuclear weapons; only one country — North Korea — has abandoned the regime and developed weapons; and only one country — Iran — is currently believed to be developing a nuclear weapons program while still notionally adhering to the treaty. One of the reasons the NPT has been so successful in promoting nuclear power while damping the spread of nuclear weapons are the guidelines created by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG, a consortium of the countries that build and supply the vast majority of the materials required to build and maintain a nuclear power or nuclear medicine program. These guidelines exist “to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices which would not hinder international trade and cooperation in the nuclear field.”

It is time, however, to consider a different NPT, namely, a Non-Proliferation Tax. This NPT is the indirect price everyone pays for keeping dangerous nuclear materials and nuclear technologies out of the hands of those who might use it for nefarious purposes. But don’t worry — this isn’t a new tax up for debate.  Rather, it’s part of the current taxes individuals and businesses already pay.

Some of what we get out of this tax is obvious: funding U.S. diplomats and technical experts to work on these issues at the United Nations and other international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to coordinate U.S. work with the NSG. Other efforts are well known, such as those led by the U.S. Departments of State and Energy collectively known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program — or Nunn-Lugar Program, for the Senators most responsible for writing the 1992 legislation that created the program. These programs have helped to secure Russian nuclear weapons and fissile materials and to provide Russian and other former Soviet weapons scientists with the training to find work in non-weapons fields; they are being expanded to cover other topics, such as the life sciences, and other parts of the world, such as South and Southeast Asia.

Other efforts that are funded by this non-proliferation tax include the Proliferation Security Initiative, PSI, and the Second Line of Defense, SLD, program. The PSI is a program, started under the G.W. Bush administration and is a collaboration among some 95 countries to intercept illicit shipments of nuclear equipment and materials. The SLD program, also started under the G.W. Bush administration, is installing radiation portal monitors at border crossings and major seaports all over the world in an effort to detect smuggled fissile materials and improvised and stolen nuclear weapons.

Some of these programs are expensive — the SLD program will cost billions of dollars, and the U.S. has spent many more billions over the past 15 years — but the importance of the programs is also irrefutable. Some have calculated that this cost is $50 per month for every household in the U.S.

The problem, though, is that the cost of nuclear proliferation isn’t always obvious to the people, companies, and industries that directly benefit from the nuclear power sources that this money safeguards.  After all, the programs are run by the U.S. government and funded by U.S. taxpayers, not by ratepayers or by the nuclear industry. The goal, then, should be to ensure that nuclear power spreads in a way that doesn’t require a significant growth in the non-proliferation tax. This requires careful examination of new enrichment and reprocessing technologies, to make sure that development and commercialization of these new technologies will not make it harder to safeguard the facilities that use them or to detect covert programs. It also requires the broad industry-wide information sharing program suggested in my last column.

This is not an insurmountable problem, but requires that a holistic view of the costs of the proliferation of nuclear technologies be taken as we see an expansion of nuclear power.