However, this danger has not deterred the United States from
providing nuclear energy assistance to many countries. Today, for
instance, Washington is in the midst of negotiating agreements with Jordan and Vietnam that would permit the sharing of nuclear technology, materials, and know-how.
Deals such as these could be a recipe for the further spread of nuclear weapons.
In a new book,
I explore the relationship between peaceful nuclear assistance and
nuclear proliferation. Based on an analysis of global nuclear commerce
from 1945 to 2000, I show that states are much more likely to covet (and
successfully build) nuclear weapons when they accumulate atomic
assistance--particularly if they experience an international crisis after
Iran is just one of several proliferators that benefited from nuclear
energy assistance. India conducted a nuclear test in 1974 using
plutonium that was produced in a Canadian-supplied civilian reactor.
Iraq probably intended to use a French-supplied civilian facility known
as "Osiraq" for military purposes before it was bombed by Israel in
1981. And scientists from North Korea and South Africa received
training--from the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively--under
the auspices of civilian nuclear cooperation that ultimately
facilitated nuclear proliferation.
The international community has instituted a variety of
measures--including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards--
to limit the proliferation potential of peaceful nuclear aid. Yet, as
Iran, Iraq, Libya, South Korea, and others have shown, motivated states
can circumvent existing rules and regulations with relative ease.
Why, then, do countries provide peaceful nuclear assistance?
Suppliers typically offer aid to "buy" cooperation from the recipient
country. For example, the United States assisted Iran's nuclear program
to shore up its military alliance with Tehran and to influence Iranian
policies on oil pricing. Nuclear exporters hope that they can reap the
political and economic benefits of nuclear assistance without
contributing to nuclear proliferation. Yet, in the long run, their
gambles often backfire.
The United States and other suppliers should revise their nuclear
trade policies to prevent history from repeating itself. Requiring
customers to refrain from building indigenous uranium enrichment or
plutonium reprocessing plants (these facilities can produce bomb-grade
materials) after accumulating relevant knowledge through peaceful
nuclear assistance would be a particularly fruitful policy. Washington
has so far expressed little enthusiasm
about applying this policy across the board. However, swift action is
needed to help prevent future crises like the one that is ongoing in
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.