How Industry Can Help Strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The NPT bans the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons and commits the five original nuclear weapons states (NWS) to engage in effective and verifiable nuclear disarmament (Article VI).

Every five years, the parties to the NPT gather to “review” the treaty’s performance, identify any weaknesses, find ways to strengthen it, and shore up political support for its continuation.  

By far and away, the Article VI disarmament issue captures the greatest attention among NPT parties, NGO experts and members of the public. The disarmament proponents base this on the NPT “grand bargain”. If the five NWS are permitted to possess nuclear weapons, then other NPT parties (the have-nots) must see real disarmament take place. That was the deal. Without progress on Article VI, the treaty risks unravelling and potential collapse.

The role of nuclear industry – as the source of much civil nuclear technology and material – is confined to preventing horizontal proliferation, which it does by complying with export controls laws and regulation.

But that’s not the only deal underpinning the NPT. There’s another – and that’s where the nuclear industry has an important “enabling” role to play.

[What follows is drawn from the presentation I gave at "Thematic Seminar on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy" organized by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) in Vienna last November in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference.]

In the original purpose of the NPT, another “grand bargain” between the haves and the have-nots is found in Article IV.

Paragraph 1 says nothing in the treaty will affect the “inalienable right” of all parties “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.

Paragraph 2 says all parties “undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technologic information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

In addition, parties “shall also cooperate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”

What do we draw from this?

First, developing countries have the right, should they so decide, to enjoy the benefits coming from the peaceful use of nuclear energy, such as:

  • Medical isotopes for diagnoses and cancer treatment
  • Clean air from emissions-free power generation
  • Copious clean power (heat & electricity) to supply growing needs
  • Technology moving to smaller, simpler reactors with passive safety – e.g. SMRs

Second, industry is a key player in producing these benefits – as technology designers, builders, manufacturers, suppliers, operators. Industry can therefore be an essential enabler of Article IV peaceful uses and thus uphold the NPT’s “grand bargain”.

Third, an avenue to pursue in strengthening the NPT would be to examine how and where the nuclear industry can support the peaceful uses envisioned in the treaty – especially “with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world”.

What would such enabling components and actions include?  I can think of two main areas.

  1. Build national capacity and professional competences through technical cooperation
  • Start at ground level with “country specific” needs and aspirations
  • Enlist NGOs (e.g. World Institute for Nuclear Security) to perform audits to determine capacity needs/gaps in areas of safeguards, safety, security
  • Design programs for training, capacity-building, needed competences – especially in building a safety and security culture
  • Strengthen Technical Cooperation programs and funding at IAEA and other organizations
  • Utilize best operational experience (OPEX) practices from industry and regulators
  1. Build multilateral financial organizations support for nuclear’s role in development
  • Do they include emissions-free nuclear energy in their programs? Lack of funding support stifles prospect of enjoying benefits of peaceful uses
  • Support for nuclear energy from organizations (e.g. World Bank, IMF) gives industry/private sector signal to invest and bring new technologies to market
  • New/advanced nuclear technologies – especially SMRs – promise to be cheaper, simpler, more affordable, more effective in addressing energy needs
  • Potential market demand in developing countries – a new Article IV vision?

On this 50th anniversary of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, let’s look afresh at Article IV – the promise to facilitate the use of nuclear energy for peaceful, beneficial purposes.

Can we re-imagine and effectively enable peaceful uses – “without discrimination and with due consideration to developing areas” (as the treaty says)?  I believe we can – if we seriously enlist the support of the nuclear industry to find ways and means to assist capacity-building and other forms of technical cooperation.  Will it strengthen the treaty? I strongly believe the answer is again – yes.