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The New Nuclear Century

Spring 2009 Tête À Tête

The New Nuclear Century

frechetteOn the tenuous state and future of nukes, nuclear states and nuclear proliferation with the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations

GB: Does Iran have a nuclear weapon?

LF: I don’t think so, but it is certainly acquiring the capacity to have one if it so wishes.

GB: So what’s to be done about Iran (on the nuclear front)?

LF: There is no magic solution to the Iranian challenge. I do not believe that military action would solve the problem, and it could have very dangerous long-term consequences. This leaves the diplomatic route. There is a need for a much stronger coalition if we want the pressure to be effective. China and Russia have sent ambiguous signals, and many leading developing countries have watched from the sidelines.

GB: But it seems quite improbable at this stage that Iran will fold to diplomatic considerations. What does a world with a nuclear Iran look like?

LF: Iran may not “fold to diplomatic considerations,” as you put it, but it could very well bend if it were submitted to intense, coordinated and unequivocal pressure from all major powers, as well as from its neighbours – which is not the case at the moment. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, there is a high risk that other countries in the region would follow suit.

GB: What about North Korea?

LF: The six-party talks remain the best avenue. Good bilateral relations between the US and China are essential on this file.

GB: More generally, how robust is the existing international nuclear anti-proliferation regime?

LF: The non-proliferation regime is fraying at the edges. Three major countries have stayed out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) altogether, and there have been too many cases of breaches on the part of signatories: we had the cases of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Libya, and now we are dealing with North Korea and Iran. We need more than the current piecemeal approach to shore up the NPT. We need to accelerate the pace towards total nuclear disarmament, and place uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities under some form of international control. Only a non-proliferation regime that is based on equal treatment for all countries will be sustainable in the long-run.

GB: Total nuclear disarmament? Is that at all realistic?

LF: No one is talking about instant, unilateral disarmament. This will be a long process, requiring a high level of trust among nuclear power states, as well as robust verification mechanisms. It is admittedly a challenging proposition, but the alternative is not the status quo: it is the multiplication of countries with nuclear weapons capabilities. This is no doubt the reason why such hard-nosed experts like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz are now advocating complete nuclear disarmament, and why the American and Russian presidents themselves have put the issue back on the agenda.

GB: Looking ahead 15 years, how prevalent will nuclear energy be in the mix of international energy sources?

LF: I do not see a major shift in nuclear energy’s share of the energy mix, but given the growth in energy demand that can be expected in the coming decades, just maintaining the current share will mean a significant increase in the number of nuclear power plants operating around the world. Current projections, even tampered by the current economic crisis, show a large number of new plants being built over the next 15-20 years.

GB: Which countries will emerge as winners as a result? Which countries as losers?

LF: I do not think there is a question of winners and losers. The nuclear option will make sense for some countries and not for others. Countries with civilian nuclear programmes do not necessarily have an advantage over those that do not, except if they are highly vulnerable to disruption from their traditional energy suppliers.

GB: What are some of the key exogenous factors or shocks that could change some of the above futures?

LF: I see two particularly important factors. One is technology. Technological advances that permit the production of cheap and green energy sources in the massive quantities required could make the nuclear option less attractive, especially for those countries primarily motivated by a desire to reduce greenhouse gases. The other is geopolitical developments. Major conflicts in energy exporting regions, escalating tensions in relations between exporters and importers, and disruptions caused by terrorist attacks could make the nuclear option more attractive for those concerned with energy security

GB: What are to be ‘best practices’ or key instruments – legal or other – in international nuclear governance in the coming decades?

LF: Many basic tools of international governance in the nuclear area already exist, but the treaties and conventions have to be better respected, and that includes practical steps towards full nuclear disarmament. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the central institution in nuclear matters, must also be given the means to fulfill its responsibilities to ensure that the spread of nuclear energy production is done in optimal conditions of safety, security and non-proliferation.

Three specific new steps could be taken to strengthen the existing system: 1) achieve universal acceptance of more intrusive inspections by the IAEA under the so-called Additional Protocol, 2) achieve the entry into force of the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and 3) negotiate a treaty to curtail the production of new fissile material necessary for the production of nuclear weapons.

GB: How would this strengthening impact non-state actors?

LF: The measures described above are intended to reduce the risk of proliferation by states. The risk coming from non-state entities like terrorist groups is not so much that they could lay their hands on an actual nuclear bomb, but that they could disseminate radioactive material by detonating a conventional bomb. There is already a fair amount of international cooperation on issues regarding the protection of nuclear installations and radioactive material, but more could be done to ensure that all countries take all necessary precautions.

GB: Who’s to lead in setting these best practices?

LF: Many countries have traditionally been in the forefront of international initiatives to strengthen international nuclear governance. Canada is one of them. As the number one producer and exporter of uranium, as a major exporter of nuclear technology, and as a country with strong historical credentials on issues of non-proliferation and disarmament, Canada is very well placed to play an active role on the international scene. These issues should go up the priority list of the Canadian government as it gets ready for the next review conference of the NPT in 2010.


Louise Fréchette is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and former Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. She is a member of the Advisory Board to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament established by the governments of Australia and Japan in October 2008