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Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism: Research by the Nuclear Control Institute

Opposition to the 30-year agreement between Japan and the United States concerning air transportation of frightening quantities of plutonium has received a serious setback. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 to reject the agreement. On March 21, the full Senate reversed the Committee’s recommendation. By the end of April, 1988, Japan will have essentially carte blanche to acquire at least 150 metric tons of plutonium from spent uranium that is legally subject to U.S. approval for activities such as reprocessing and international shipments.

The U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals combined are estimated to include 200 metric tons of plutonium. If European and Japanese projects for reprocessing spent fuel from civilian reactors proceed as planned, there will be an estimated 400 metric tons of plutonium controlled — or, rather, poorly controlled — by the nuclear energy sector in the year 2000. (Leventhal and Hoenig, 1987:5)

Acquisition of 7 to 10 kilograms of plutonium by a terrorist group or renegade state would be sufficient to construct a crude but effective nuclear bomb. The possibilities for acquiring such kilogram quantities, whether by violent seizures or quietly diverting plutonium in bulk processing and storage installations, will multiply as tons of plutonium are reprocessed each year. Both the Department of Defense and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are uneasy with the terms of the plutonium agreement.

One barrier to Senate approval of the Japan-U.S. agreement stemmed from Alaska’s opposition to proposed flight plans to fly plutonium cargos from Europe to Japan through Canadian airspace, with a refueling stop in Alaska. Science for Peace became involved in Canadian opposition to this flight plan. Alaska’s opposition to the agreement was muted by a new flight plan which involves a non-stop Arctic route from Europe to Japan that avoids flying over land in either Canada or Alaska. This route involves flying through the narrow Bering straits and thus the risk of straying into Soviet airspace. Presumably these arrangements will include careful coordination with the Soviets to avoid a ruclear KAL47.

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington-based think tank focusing on nuclear proliferation issues, is a key actor in the opposition to the Japan-U.S. plutonium agreement. The NCI has both conducted solid research projects on the issue and skillfully communicated the results and conclusions to the U.S. Congress. A recent full page advertisement that the NCI placed in the New York Times (April 18, p. A13) was part of an effort to mobilize broad public pressure to stop the plutonium agreement.

The objective of this review is to 1) synthesize the NCI’s analysis of the plutonium agreement and its implications and 2) give an overview of the NCI’s research on non-proliferation issues. The NCI approach to research on proliferation is particularly interesting because the goals include not only analyzing the problem but also developing concrete strategies for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

A compact statement of the NCI’s analysis of the plutonium agreement is contained in testimony presented by its president, Paul Leventhal, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 2, 1988. With reference to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 (NNPA) and long-standing goals of U.S. policy, Leventhal begins his testimony by stating that “…it is useful, I think, to come directly to the point: the proposed agreement with Japan is illegal and dangerous.”

The flaws of the agreement are: 1) it provides an unprecedented blanket, long-term consent to Japan to receive plutonium from nuclear weapons states (France and Great Britain) and to use this plutonium not just in existing facilities but in any future bulk-handling and facilities and reactors which Japan builds; this contrasts with NNPA requirements of case-by case review procedures for each transaction; new facilities will be authorized to receive plutonium on the bases of simple “notification” by Japan without any requirement that the changes be made public or be subjected to effective Congressional oversight and public review.

Secondly, the plutonium will be transported by air even though no certified safe cask has yet been developed, much less tested, for bulk shipment of plutonium in large cargo planes; 3) future safeguard requirements for new facilities that process or use plutonium are set not in terms of arrangements that could effectively secure the plutonium but in terms of the services which the International Atomic Energy Agency, with its already limited resources, will be able to provide; 4) “timely warning” of proliferation risks will be provided almost exclusively by vague, political statements and evaluations rather than concrete safeguard and physical security arrangements; 5) in practical terms, the agreement is such that the United States has no suspension rights if Japan’s handling of plutonium involves proliferation risks.

In short, the Reagan administration’s plutonium agreement with Japan provides as much protection against proliferation as its present policies provide protection against acid rain.

Why would the United States sign such an agreement? Leventhal points out that almost all of Japan’s enrichment requirements are presently supplied by the U.S. Department of Energy and that these orders make up nearly one-quarter of DoE’s enrichment business. The Japanese have made commitments for enrichment services through the year 2000 that could produce between $260 and $435 million annually for the DoE.

The fear on the past of some elements of the U.S. nuclear establishment is that if the U.S. did not negotiate this type of agreement, Japan would take its business elsewhere. Current worldwide enrichment capacity exceeds demand by 2-to-1. If Japan gave notice today, it could cancel all its contracts with DoE without penalty after 1995. By the year 2000, Japan will have the capacity to enrich half of its own uranium needs. The other half could come from European facilities or even the Soviet Union. There were also fears that Japan could sever relationships with U.S. vendors for co-development and manufacture of major components for the current generation of reactors and for advanced reactor designs. (Leventhal, 1988:12) These co- development efforts are viewed as crucial to the survival of the ailing U.S. nuclear industry, which has no new domestic reactor orders on its books.

Leventhal counters this position by responding that Japanese decisions to continue to enrich uranium in the U.S. and engage in joint nuclear research and development has less to do with the plutonium agreement that with perceptions of 1) the reliability of the U.S. enrichment industry and 2) the capacity of the U.S. reactor sector to generate innovations.

Lawsuits by U.S. uranium producers to ban DoE enrichment of foreign uranium, the accumulated $8 billion debt associated with DoE enrichment activities, financial disputes between the DoE and the Tennessee Valley Authority, doubts concerning government financing for the next generation of enrichment technology, and the possible privatization of the DoE’s enrichment facilities create uncertainty for all foreign purchasers of U.S. enrichment services. This uncertainty, rather than pique over U.S. requirements on plutonium reprocessing, will be the determining factor in Japanese decisions on enrichment contracts. Similarly, if Japan thinks the U.S. is the most interesting partner for developing nuclear technologies, it is unlikely to drop this partnerships because of non-proliferation policies as applied to plutonium shipments.

The thrust of Leventhal’s arguments on the plutonium agreement indicate the general orientation of the NCI. Many of its board members and people who have conducted research for the Institute have been associated with the nuclear energy industry. In contrast to the mainstream of the industry, which downplays the proliferation and terrorism risks of nuclear energy, and has a rosy vision of the capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency to control these risks, the NCI looks these problems straight in the eye.

For example, the NCI sponsored the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, which included 26 experts from 9 countries. The results have been published in P. Leventhal and Y. Alexander, eds., Preventing Nuclear Terrorism (1987). A good synthesis of the task force’s research is presented in an article by Leventhal and Hoenig (1987). This research demonstrates the vulnerability of nuclear power stations to either violent attack or slow infiltration by terrorist groups which are increasingly sophisticated and ruthless in their techriques. The volume highlights the large gap which exists between the IAEA’s mandate to safeguard civilian reactors and the budget, equipment, and personnel which is availaMe to perform this task.

Particular attention is paid to the dangers of plutonium fuel cycles. This builds upon an earlier study which Canadian physicist Walter Patterson conducted under the auspices of the NCI (see Patterson, The Plutonium Business, 1984)

The military vulnerability of plutonium-based energy production is highlighted by the current “nuclear Watergate” in West Germany. Federal investigators have demonstrated that the nuclear fuel company Nukem had illicitly shipped plutonium and Cobalt 60 in canisters purporting to contain only low level waste. Between 1982 and 1987, Nukem’s subsidiary Transnuklear distributed $10 million in bribes to nuclear industry employees and government inspectors. At this point, it is not certain whether the scandal only involves a corrupt means of handling wastes or, more gravely, whether plutonium was being sold abroad for use in weaponry. Nonproliferation experts are reserving judgment on the issue until further evidence is in (Energy Economist, 1988:6-7).

With respect to links between nuclear energy in general and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the NCI’s stand is the following:

The Nuclear Control Institute supports the “once-through uranium fuel track” … which ends with disposal of spent fuel deep in the earth without separating the plutonium. This prevents the introduction of bomb material at any stage of the nuclear power program.

The NCI thus maintains that once-through nuclear fuel cycles can be diffused without proliferating nuclear weapons if, and only if, the very real weaknesses of the present arrangements are recognized and corrected rather than being swept under the rug. This stand will surely provoke debate among Science for Peace members.

This stance on once-through cycles is likely to enhance the NCI’s political credibility when it presents anti-proliferation proposals to the U.S. Congress. The proposals are viewed as a means to resolve proliferation problems and not as an indirect way to attacking nuclear power. The presence of former weapons designer Theodore Taylor and retired admiral Thomas D. Davies on the NCI board also reinforce this credibility. The research produced by the NCI indicates a deep knowledge of the nuclear energy industry and the design and construction of nuclear weapons.

The “tritium factor” is now a major focus of the NCI’s aaivities, and this holds a great deal of interest for Canadians (Albright and Taylor, 1988; NCI, 1987; Leventhal and Hoenig, 1987). The NCI proposes that U.S.-Soviet arms-reduction negotiations be couple to a mutual halt in new tritium production. This would serve a as self-enforcing mechanism for maintaining a minimum pace of reductions, due to the 5.5 percent annual decay rate of tritium.

Hydro Ontario’s Tritium Removal Facility (TRF) is initially expected to recover 4 kilograms of tritium annually and eventually go into equilibrium at about 1 kilogram annually. The TRF is expected to produce 57 kilograms of tritium over a 20-year period (NCI, 1987:9). Albright and Taylor estimate that about 10 kilograms of tritium must be produced annually to replace the quantity that has decayed in nuclear weapons (1988:40). Thus it appears that the Pentagon would not be able to maintain its current level of nuclear weaponry even if it had the green light to purchase all of Ontario Hydro’s tritium output. Furthermore, I think that the Pentagon would be loath to depend on a foreign supplier for tritium even if the Canadian government of the day was willing to sell it. The dangers of Ontario Hydro’s tritium exports are more akin to the risks of plutonium fuel cycles: under present arrangements, it is hard to police the diversion of minor quantities which would be useful in the manufacture of several weapons in very dangerous hands.

The three active tritium-producing military reactors in the U.S. are all at least 30 years old. Pressure from the Pentagon and the Department of Energy to fund at least one new multi-billion dollar reactor dedicated to tritium production is strong.

Given the present inclination of President Reagan to negotiate a strategic arms agreement before leaving office, the NCI’s “tritium factor” proposal for arms control is quite timely. One could also remark that the President’s desire for an arms control agreement is in contradiction to his plutonium policy, but nobody has ever accused this man of having consistent strategies.

In conclusion, the research and policy intervention efforts by the Nuclear Control Institute deserve the attention and support of members of Science for Peace. The NCI is located at 1000 Connecticut N.S., Suite 704, Washington, D.C. 20036 (tel. 202-822-8444). Membership is U.S. $25 annually. Their research reports are essential reading on the spread of nuclear weapons.


  1. Albright, David and Theodore B. Taylor. “A little tritium goes a long way”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan./Feb. 1988), pp. 39-42.

  2. Energy Economist, “Nukem’s Plutonium Hitches a Ride”, Energy Economist, No. 75 (Jan. 1988), pp. 6-7.

  3. Leventhal, Paul. “Testimony on the Proposed US.-Japan Nuclear-Cooperation Agreement”, House Foreign Affairs Committee, March 2, 1988.

  4. Leventhal, Paul and Y. Alexander, eds., Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, Cambridge, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1987.

  5. Leventhal, Paul L. and Milton M. Hoenig, “The Hidden Danger: Risks of Nuclear Terrorism’, Terrorism. Vol. 10 (1987), pp. 1-22; “The Tritium Factor”, New York Times, Aug. 4, 1987.

  6. Nuclear Control Institute, “Tritium Factor: Questions and Answers”, Washington, 1987; ‘Dangers in a Plutonium Economy”, Washington, 1988.

  7. Patterson, Walter. The Plutonium Business, New York: Sierra Club-Random House, 1984; “I think I’ll have seen everything when I see plutonium fly…”, Energy Economist, No. 75 (Jan. 1988).

  8. Wald, Matthew. “Turning Point Nears in Production of Fuel for Hydrogen Bombs”, New York Times, Nov. 17, 1987.

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