Transfer of nuclear technology a time bomb

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am


The panic button on Iran is being pressed again. A report by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggests that Iran has taken more significant steps towards developing a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the warnings from Israel are coming thick and fast, reminding us that, if necessary, it will bomb Iran's nuclear research facilities. All this is grist for the mill for the doomsayers who believe it won't be long before countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt decide to develop their own bomb.

Lost in the mists is the fact that the US encouraged the ambition of the Shah of Iran to develop a nuclear industry and gave it the capability of enriching uranium, albeit for civilian electrical needs.

Whatever happens in Iran, the world has to find a way to put a stop to the nuclear countries giving to perhaps would-be proliferators the means to enrich uranium, even if the purpose is only to develop an alternative source of energy.

Most of the world is now willing, by and large, to abide by arrangements like the 2009 deal between the US and the United Arab Emirates which led to the latter passing a law banning the construction of enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities in exchange for access to a reliable source of nuclear fuel. Strangely, the US is now shooting itself in the foot in the less strict deals it is today negotiating with Jordan, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

The conventional opinion is that civilian nuclear co-operation does not lead to the proliferation of nuclear armaments. Many scholars argue that nuclear weapons spread when states have a demand for the bomb, not merely when they have the technical capacity to build it. But they are wrong

A country that is helped with building power reactors and has its scientists trained abroad is on the road to building a bomb, if it wants to. The biggest reason is that scientists cannot help themselves.

The Soviet Union, for example, trained North Korean nuclear scientists and completed construction of a research reactor at Yongbyon in 1965. This provided the knowledge for the North Koreans to produce plutonium and explode a bomb in 2006.

Only now, with fingers badly burned, is more caution colouring nuclear sales. The agreement made with the UAE should be the template for all future deals, but it isn't in every case.

More than that, the financial aid given to the IAEA needs to be sharply increased so it can improve its safeguards and inspections regime to make sure at an early stage that nuclear facilities are not being used for military purposes. If the IAEA had had more money and authority 20 years ago, the Iranian nuclear industry would never have travelled as far as it has.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist