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Remarks by Michael Spies on Climate Change and the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Civil Society Responds to Weapons of Terror:
Assessing the Final Report of the WMD Commission
October 17, 2006, United Nations, New York

It should not be viewed as coincidence that many major disputes in recent years have centered around nuclear weapons. These disputes, past and ongoing, have not just involved the direct acquisition of such weapons but even just the development of the nuclear fuel cycle. If the status quo prevails, it is likely that more international disputes will take place against a nuclear backdrop.

The WMD Commission is correct in its concern about the spread of nuclear power as a mean to combat climate change. One study shows that an expansion of up to the equivalent of 2,500 large nuclear power plants would be needed to offset carbon emitting sources of electricity, and to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. The expansion of nuclear power on this scale will eventually require the construction of additional uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants. As the Commission notes, the resulting increase in the global flow of fissile material “may increase the risk of misuse and diversion.”

States have many reasons for pursuing the nuclear fuel cycle. As noted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, some of these reasons include:

  • to achieve a reliable supply of fuel;
  • to attain the prestige of mastering advanced technology;
  • to benefit from the creating the technological infrastructure;
  • to sell fuel cycle services on the open market;
  • to achieve a more economic source of fuel;
  • or to develop a nuclear weapon or the capacity to quickly do so;

Other factors that make the pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle desirable include, the need to dispose and recycle spent fuel, the lack of such services regionally, or domestic political considerations. In some extreme circumstances, the rationale may be security considerations and perceived threats from nuclear armed states.

The present and future proliferation crises facing the NPT regime cannot be solely viewed as a problem of compliance. Solving the problems created by the spread of the fuel cycle will not be successful if pursued on an arbitrary, country-specific basis.

There are no easy solutions to the risks posed by the unchecked spread of the nuclear fuel cycle. But solutions that call for a two-tiered international system will likely not succeed, especially in light of the growing number of states interested in the fuel cycle. In this regard, one question I have for Dr. Blix is why the Commission gives credence to such ideas and in particular limiting technology to a small number of “fuel-cycle states”. This recommendation especially seems to contrast against the Commission’s sound rejection of the notion that nuclear weapons are safe in the hands of some, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy. Wouldn’t this same logic hold true for the means to produce nuclear weapons?

Addressing the risks posed by the fuel cycle will likely require a combination various solutions, including the development of credible fuel assurances, and a renewed commitment of the nuclear-weapon-states toward disarmament. For our part, as a comprehensive and non-discriminatory solution we call for the global phase-out of national fuel cycle facilities, including the cessation of the construction of additional national plutonium reprocessing and enrichment facilities and the transfer of existing facilities to international control, less reliance on nuclear energy in general, and the development of alternative, sustainable technologies to combat the global threat of climate change.