The Bush Proposals to Curb Nuclear Proliferation

Rhetoric versus Reality

President George W. Bush outlined a seven-point agenda to strengthen the world's efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in a February 11 speech at the National Defense University. Some of his points, with additional development and funding, could become significant initiatives, while others are old proposals that the president did not support with increased funding in his fiscal year 2005 budget request. Still others are in conflict with administration programs that actually further the spread of nuclear weapons. Below, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) experts compare the president's rhetoric with reality.

  1. Bush's Proposal: "First, I propose that the work of the Proliferation Security Initiative be expanded to address more than shipments and transfers" to interdict lethal materials in transit.

    NRDC Response: Expanding the Proliferation Security Initiative to include increased cooperation among law enforcement agencies is a worthy proposal. Let us hope that it will be backed by a shift in priorities and funding, primarily within the intelligence community and the budget for intelligence activities.

  2. Bush's Proposal: "Second, I call on all nations to strengthen the laws and international controls that govern proliferation. At the U.N. last fall, I proposed a new Security Council resolution requiring all states to criminalize proliferation, enact strict export controls, and secure all sensitive materials within their borders. The Security Council should pass this proposal quickly. And when they do, America stands ready to help other governments to draft and enforce the new laws that will help us deal with proliferation."

    NRDC Response: This is a worthy proposal, but it does not go far enough. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards requirements have well-known loopholes and even criteria that are technically incorrect. For example, the agency sets the amount of weapon-usable material required to make a nuclear bomb at 8 kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. These amounts are technically wrong and indefensible. One-kiloton yield pure-fission nuclear weapons can be made with amounts that are approximately eight times smaller than the IAEA threshold.

  3. Bush's Proposal: "Third, I propose to expand our efforts to keep weapons from the Cold War and other dangerous materials out of the wrong hands. In 1991, Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar legislation. Senator Lugar had a clear vision, along with Senator Nunn, about what to do with the old Soviet Union. Under this program, we're helping former Soviet states find productive employment for former weapons scientists. We're dismantling, destroying and securing weapons and materials left over from the Soviet WMD arsenal. We have more work to do there."

    NRDC Response: This is a worthy proposal, but the president's claims don't match reality. Nunn-Lugar funds are not being used to "dismantle and destroy" Russian nuclear weapons (as opposed to missile silos and obsolete strategic bombers and submarines). In fact, the recently signed Moscow Treaty between the United States and Russia allows Russia to keep SS-18 "heavy" strategic ballistic missile systems that would otherwise have been destroyed under the START II and START III treaties. Despite years of cooperation, the United States still has no firm idea of how many and which types of Russian nuclear warheads and bombs have been dismantled. As former Senator Sam Nunn has indicated, the Nunn-Lugar program suffers from inadequate funding. President Bush cites the 2002 G-8 Summit agreement to provide $20 billion over 10 years, but even here the participating countries used accounting tricks to avoid increasing previous commitments. Moreover, some of this money is earmarked to build a plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Russia that many observers believe will increase the potential that plutonium will be diverted and used for illicit purposes.

    President Bush so far has refused to commit to destroying more than a few hundred of the more than 10,000 nuclear weapons still in the United States nuclear weapons stockpile. The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) negotiated with Russia in 2002 -- the Moscow Treaty -- does not require the elimination of a single nuclear missile silo, submarine, missile warhead, bomber or bomb.

  4. Bush's Proposal: ". . . but the treaty [the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] has a loophole [that] has been exploited by nations such as North Korea and Iran. These regimes are allowed to produce nuclear material that can be used to build bombs under the cover of civilian nuclear programs.

    "So today, as a fourth step, I propose a way to close the loophole. The world must create a safe, orderly system to field civilian nuclear plants without adding to the danger of weapons proliferation. The world's leading nuclear exporters should ensure that states have reliable access at reasonable cost to fuel for civilian reactors, so long as those states renounce enrichment and reprocessing. Enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

    NRDC Response: Which states would be required to consent to these new restrictive arrangements is by no means clear, and the president has not advanced any initiative that would lessen the highly discriminatory character of his proposal. Also, uranium enrichment clearly is needed to produce fuel for light water reactors, the type of commercial power reactor most widely used throughout the world. The issue here is creating long-term multilateral fuel supply arrangements that would make national possession of uranium enrichment plants unnecessary. On the other hand, reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is not required to generate nuclear power and is, in fact, grossly uneconomical. President Bush should call for a global ban on spent fuel reprocessing, including bans by longstanding U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and France, and revise the counterproductive, proliferation policies advanced by his own administration.

    The Department of Energy (DOE) has two nuclear energy research and development (R&D) programs -- Generation IV (GEN IV) Nuclear Systems Initiative and Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) -- that promote the spread of reprocessing technology in non-weapon states. DOE and 10 international partners launched an international R&D effort to develop six new advanced reactor types and their accompanying fuel cycle facilities. The partners include five non-weapon states that formerly had clandestine nuclear weapon programs -- South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Switzerland. DOE and its international partners tossed aside DOE's earlier criteria for developing Generation IV reactors -- which were that the new reactor concept had to compete with fossil fuels and be safer and more proliferation-resistant than current U.S. reactors -- and instead decided to jointly develop several nuclear reactor types that pose increased proliferation risks to the United States and the world, and that previously had failed or were abandoned.

    Three of the six reactor types are "fast reactors" whose fuel cycles typically rely on nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling plutonium, which is sometimes called a "closed fuel cycle" because the plutonium is theoretically recycled through the reactor before disposal. Four of the reactor types that rely on a "closed fuel cycle" are grossly uneconomical and are less proliferation- resistant that the current light water reactors operating in the United States on an "open cycle" without reprocessing. Thus, this international R&D effort will not lead to a commercially viable, competitive nuclear fuel cycle. Nevertheless, if non-weapon states begin work on these technologies, they will develop the expertise, facilities and materials to build nuclear weapons.

  5. Bush's Proposal: "As a fifth step, I propose that by next year, only states that have signed the Additional Protocol be allowed to import equipment for their civilian nuclear programs. Nations that are serious about fighting proliferation will approve and implement the Additional Protocol. I've submitted the Additional Protocol to the Senate. I urge the Senate to consent immediately to its ratification."

    NRDC Response: This is a commendable proposal. It should be noted that there are press reports that Brazil is refusing to sign the Additional Protocol. Brazil is one of DOE's partners in the international R&D effort to pursue development of six new advanced reactor types and their accompanying fuel cycle facilities. DOE is promoting the spread of reprocessing R&D to a country that used to have a clandestine nuclear weapons program and that now refuses to sign the IAEA's Additional Protocol.

  6. Bush's Proposal: "We must also ensure that IAEA is organized to take action when action is required. So, a sixth step, I propose the creation of a special committee of the IAEA board [that] will focus intensively on safeguards and verification. This committee, made up of governments in good standing with the IAEA, will strengthen the capability of the IAEA to ensure that nations comply with their international obligations."

    NRDC Response: This is a commendable proposal, but its effectiveness will depend on the policies promoted by the United States.

  7. Bush's Proposal: "And, finally, countries under investigation for violating nuclear non-proliferation obligations are currently allowed to serve on the IAEA Board of Governors. For instance, Iran -- a country suspected of maintaining an extensive nuclear weapons program -- recently completed a two-year term on the board. Allowing potential violators to serve on the board creates an unacceptable barrier to effective action. No state under investigation for proliferation violations should be allowed to serve on the IAEA Board of Governors -- or on the new special committee. And any state currently on the board that comes under investigation should be suspended from the board. The integrity and mission of the IAEA depends on this simple principle: Those actively breaking the rules should not be entrusted with enforcing the rules."

    NRDC Response: We agree. In general there were many positive aspects in the president's seven recommendations. Notably, he stressed cooperation with other nations and the United Nations rather than the unilateralism that has characterized much of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The measures he proposed had mainly to do with stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, obviously an important goal, but only one part of the larger WMD threat. The administration will have to address more specific measures for how to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological weapons and ballistic missiles.

On the negative side, President Bush failed to address the longer-term problem, and long-term proliferation pressures, arising from a world permanently and inequitably divided into declared nuclear weapons states under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), de-facto nuclear weapon states outside the treaty (India, Pakistan and Israel), non-weapon states that have abandoned the treaty (North Korea) and states with varying degrees of nuclear expertise (Iran) that are presently bound by their treaty commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons but could elect to withdraw from the NPT at any time. Nor did President Bush discuss how and when the United States and other nuclear weapon states would take further steps to fulfill their Nonproliferation Treaty commitments to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. On the contrary, the Bush administration is spending record amounts revitalizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, and is even developing new types of nuclear capabilities, such as earth-penetrating nuclear weapons.

There are two distinct kinds of threats facing the United States, one having to do with the proliferation of WMD by nation states and the second with threats posed by terrorists. The president's proposals focused on threats posed by the spread of nuclear weapons, materials and technologies to nation states rather than those by terrorists.

There was one reference to ballistic missile defense in the speech. President Bush stated, "America faces the possibility of catastrophic attack from ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction." Taken literally, the president apparently meant to imply that not only nuclear warheads, but chemical, biological and radiological warheads could be atop some nation's ballistic missiles aimed at the United States. This is not the case with any of the problem nations -- Iran, North Korea and Libya -- and surely will never be case for stateless terrorists. The more likely route for a terrorist attack using WMD will be to smuggle them into the United States. The $10 billion the president has requested for ballistic missile defense programs in next year's budget could be better spent in addressing the more likely ways that WMD might enter the country (Click here for more information on the potential for smuggling nuclear material.)