09.11.2013 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The U.S. and the making of Nuclear World

irannuclearThe much heated debate in the Western media on the ‘probable’ use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and the US’ attempts to use this ‘use’ of weapons of mass destruction to legitimize an attack on Syria has left virtually minimum room for investigating as to how the world has come to a point where the use or threat of the use of WMDs by any state is taken to be a threat to the whole ‘humanity.’ Similarly, the Iran-USA conflict over nuclear proliferation has also much to do with the same question. When one tries to dig deep into history to find answer(s) to this question, one thing becomes quite obvious that the US played a very significant role in constructing a nuclear powered future. The crisis we faced in Iraq, and are facing today in Syria or in Iran, is basically a legacy of the first expansion of modern weapons technology by the US which started in the mid-1950s and lasted roughly a decade. And, today after 60 years, the world is still struggling with the inadvertent, and at the same time, unmanageable consequences of those initial efforts to create the nuclear age. The US, by trying to intimidate certain states into accepting either de-nuclearisation of their nuclear programmes or entering into Non-proliferation treaty , is actually trying to undo what it itself did in the past. It is again trying to contain those forces which it itself created, and struggling to tackle the so-called ‘unintended consequences’ of its own policies.

 In his December 1953 speech to the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced what came to be known as the Atoms for Peace program. This programme was supposed to bring dazzling benefits to the millions of people of the third world as nuclear technology could be used in the fields of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. At one level, Atoms for Peace was about co-operation, and at the other level, it was to serve strategic and commercial purposes. This programme was actually at its core a Cold War gambit, and its main purpose was to establish and strengthen strategic ties, especially with developing countries, by promising to share what many people saw as the most modern of technologies. Between 1955 and 1958, the United States signed more than forty nuclear cooperation agreements with a range of governments, including apartheid South Africa, Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain, the shah of Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel, and many others. Today, it is widely acknowledged that in the search for influence and advantage, Atoms for Peace and similar programs created problems for the countries that supplied nuclear know-how and technology as well as those who were being encouraged to pursue it. It fueled regional rivalries and became the bane of the international community. Some of the countries that participated in such programmes went on to set up nuclear weapons programs using the knowledge and resources acquired under these programs. The foreign political, economic, and technical support for nuclear science and nuclear energy programs helped create powerful nuclear complexes that have today distorted the development of both science and energy policy in those developing countries. Rather than a blessing, the nuclear age became in many ways a costly burden.

Between 1956 and 1962, the United States awarded Atoms for Peace program grants to 26 countries for the purchase of nuclear research reactors. The recipients of these grants included Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Sweden, and Taiwan, all of whom went on to develop nuclear weapons programs. Most of these programs were eventually abandoned, but some succeeded. In addition to these research opportunities, there were also training programs. The Argonne International School of Nuclear Science and Engineering ran from 1955 to 1960 and trained 413 students from 44 countries. Another Argonne program ran from 1960 to 1965 and trained 256 students from 29 countries. The Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology hosted 115 students from 26 countries between 1959 and 1965. These training programs were aimed at fostering the nuclear knowledge base in client countries, but this turned out to include the know-how necessary to build nuclear weapons. A 1979 report of General Accounting office concluded, “While some of the training related directly to such key technologies as uranium enrichment and reprocessing, other aspects, in our opinion, could also have enhanced, at least indirectly, a nation’s nuclear weapons capability.” 

As a matter of fact, Iran was one of those countries which benefited hugely from these programmes. In the early 1970s, the shah of Iran proposed a very ambitious nuclear power program aimed at building more than 20 reactors. The United States encouraged and supported this vision by what was then a key strategic ally in the Middle East. Iran was also very wealthy after the increase in oil prices that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and offered a lucrative market for many U.S. goods and services. In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed a National Security Decision Memorandum, “U.S. – Iran Nuclear Cooperation,” that laid the basis for the planned sale of nuclear reactors to Iran at an estimated cost of more than $6 billion. And in 2005, after thirty years later, with Iran accused of having a nascent nuclear weapons program, Kissinger explained the U.S. rationale: “They were an allied country, and this was a commercial transaction. We didn’t address the question of them one day moving toward nuclear weapons.”

In addition to providing nuclear technology and training in nuclear programes, the US also provided the world with highly enriched uranium—a necessary element of making a potential nuclear bomb. From the beginning, most domestic U.S. research reactors were fueled with weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). In contrast, the early U.S. research reactors supplied to foreign countries used low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. By 1958, however, the United States began to export HEU for use in research and other reactors. This helped the United States to avoid the problems associated with having different sets of reactor designs and fuels for use at home and abroad, and took advantage of its rapidly growing stockpile of HEU that began to accumulate after 1956, following a massive four-year expansion of its fissile material complex. From that point forward, weapon-grade HEU became the default fuel for research reactors worldwide. The drive to use HEU even led some operational research reactors to be converted from LEU to HEU. In total, the Western supplier states (all of whom had nuclear weapons) provided nearly 50 countries with HEU to fuel hundreds of civilian research reactors that were built up until the mid- 1970s. The United States alone exported almost 26,000 kilograms of HEU to fuel research and other prototype reactors. Today, nearly 100 metric tons of civilian HEU (both in fresh and spent fuel) remain worldwide, far less than the 1,600-metric-ton global military HEU stockpile, but enough for making thousands of nuclear weapons or explosive devices.

 Today, we see what apparently seem to be non-proliferation efforts by the US and its allies. These are in reality attempts to maintain the Western hegemony by wresting other countries’ drive towards nuclear weapons. All this started when China did nuclear tests in 1964. It made the US realize that further spread of nuclear weapons, especially in those areas where it might want to intervene, would seriously jeopardize its strategic interest—hence, non-proliferation treaty of 1968. The United States, following India’s nuclear test in 1974, launched a series of initiatives in response. Among these was the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which established agreed rules for the international sale of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The United States also initiated the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactor (RERTR) Program in 1978, aimed at converting research reactors using HEU to LEU fuel and targets. It is an irony of history that the US and other supplier countries are now offering the recipient countries ‘huge’ financial assistance to return the HEU fuel that was once given as a ‘gift.’ As of 2008, after three decades of U.S. and international efforts to eliminate the use of HEU in the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, only 14 countries have been cleaned out of the material. And, If not for recent concerns about nuclear terrorism, progress would be even less significant. Under the most optimistic assumptions, it will take at least 10–20 years to consolidate and dispose of the fresh and spent fuel recovered from these facilities. Most facilities may simply be shut down rather than converted.

However, the current US led ‘campaign’ to de-nuclearize the world is only one side of picture; for, the US continues to support the spread of nuclear technology again under the notion of ‘peaceful’ uses. The World Nuclear Association, an industry lobby group, reported in July 2008 that nuclear energy was under “serious consideration” in more than 30 countries that do not currently have reactors. Other analyst have identified nearly 20 countries that have no nuclear power plants, and in many cases few nuclear scientists and engineers, yet since 2006 have announced plans to build one or more reactors by 2020. They include Algeria, Australia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and Yemen. And, as part of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the United States signed up 21 countries, including Ghana, Senegal, Jordan, and many former Soviet states, as well as former Soviet-client states in Eastern Europe, thereby using nuclear technology as a means of exerting influence in the regions which were outside its ambit until the end of the Cold War. The US’ famous argument that that the proliferation risks are small from the light water power reactors (LWRs) that are now being offered for sale and risks would be even smaller if limits were imposed on countries having their own uranium enrichment and plutonium separation (reprocessing) plants. However, a 2004 report by Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, and Harmon Hubbard pointed out the need “to revise the conventional wisdom that LWRs are a safe proposition for siting in just about any country so long as there are no accompanying commercial uranium enrichment facilities or reprocessing facilities.” The report highlighted that “contrary to conventional wisdom LWRs can be copious sources of near-weapon-grade plutonium that can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons” and that “small, clandestine reprocessing plants could provide the reactor’s owners with militarily significant quantities of nuclear explosives.”

 However one may judge the risks of particular technologies, some things are clear. Expanding nuclear power around the world will inevitably lead to a further increase in the stocks and flows of uranium and plutonium, materials that are fundamental parts of the nuclear fuel cycle and could be used to make nuclear weapons. The US’ dualistic policy of facilitating spread of nuclear technology and at the same time launching the so-called pre-emptive strikes against countries such as Iraq on the pretext of building WMDs is leading the world towards serious disorder and conflict. It is obvious that the risks involved are high, and it would be very difficult to reject the threat of further proliferation in future until the US and its West European allies change the policy of using modern weapons technology as a means of spreading influence around the world. And, given the current international political and economic system, it is quite obvious that the Western attempts at globalizing prevailing nuclear energy technologies would only trouble the world for decades to come.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs. Exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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