We’re the good guys, right? The U.S. would never help other countries gain access to potentially dangerous nuclear technologies, would it? In general, that’s true. The United States has stringent export controls, and regularly sanctions companies that try to thwart these laws. Export control regulations, however, only cover technologies that have already been commercialized and are being sold for use in other countries. But what about new technologies for enriching uranium or separating plutonium? Should we be concerned about them even before they get built, especially if new technologies are smaller, more efficient, and could make it harder to detect cheating or covert plants?
I think so. After all, as Georgetown University physics professor Francis Slakey notes, “There’s been a number of different technologies to enrich uranium. Every single one of them — despite best efforts to keep secrets — every single one of them has proliferated.” The world’s most famous proliferator, AQ Khan, worked for the European company URENCO, a leading provider of nuclear fuel, in the 1970s. It is widely believed that he simply copied the blueprints for the enrichment technology — like gas centrifuges — that the company used at the time, and smuggled them out the front door, bit by bit. Later, in his native Pakistan, he led efforts to build centrifuges based on those designs and to improve them. Once he had mastered this technology, he offered both enrichment services and centrifuge designs to nearly anyone. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran’s centrifuges are based on the stolen URENCO designs.
So is there anything that we can do to prevent the next AQ Khan from stealing the latest and greatest new gadgets? One of our gatekeepers is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Created as an independent agency in 1974 by Congress to license the commercial nuclear power plants, the NRC also has oversight responsibility for all civilian uses of nuclear materials. Much of its jurisdiction predates the independent agency and is derived from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (when the NRC was part of the Atomic Energy Commission) and requires that the NRC evaluate whether the issuance of a license “would be inimical to the common defense and security or to the health and safety of the public.”
The Commission has a rigorous process in place to ensure that new nuclear power plants, enrichment facilities and storage depots — such as the now-in-limbo Yucca Mountain — all meet rigorous standards for safety and security. The NRC has not yet decided what role it can and should play in nonproliferation. Six members of the U.S. House of Representatives — both Democrats and Republicans — think that nonproliferation is already part of the NRC’s jurisdiction, and they’re recently written a letter to the NRC “expressing support for including a nonproliferation assessment as part of the process for evaluating license applications.”
The American Physical Society (APS), an organization I’m involved with, wants to go a step further. Based on information assembled in our recent report, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing, we noted that one way to ensure the peaceful use of fissile materials was to “elevate the priority of non-proliferation in the NRC licensing process.” Because of this, APS has filed a formal petition for an NRC rule change. If changes are made, nonproliferation would be an official part of the Standard Review Plan for the Review of a License Application for a Fuel Cycle Facility – Final Report (NUREG 1520 Revision 1).
What can NRC do? As part of the license application review process, NRC experts can determine if any of the technology is inherently dual-use or if technology is single-purpose. Single purpose technology — items that would only be used in this particular application — can be placed on export control lists and tightly constrained. For dual-use technologies, some may be placed on export controls lists as well. In addition, the NRC can require that no one — or at most, a very few highly trusted individuals — has access to the complete blueprints for these facilities. In other words, the NRC, in conjunction with other parts of the U.S. Government, can work to ensure that the particular components and ideas needed to make these facilities function properly don’t fall into the wrong hands.
So far, the U.S. has a stellar nonproliferation record. By including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in nonproliferation efforts, we can better secure the country.
Photo Credit: Davi Sommerfeld’s Photostream