U.S. Energy Secretary Outlines Nuclear Nonproliferation Strategy

WASHINGTON — U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham yesterday called for increased international action to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, saying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty needed to be strengthened.

During a speech before the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee, Abraham warned that the current nuclear nonproliferation regime provided countries with a cover to develop nuclear programs under the guise of peaceful intentions, only to later withdraw from the NPT and use their programs to build nuclear weapons. As an egregious example of such behavior, Abraham cited North Korea, which he said has been in violation of its treaty obligations since 1993 with “no concrete progress” to date in resolving that violation (see related GSN story, today).

“North Korea’s activities send a worrisome message to other would-be proliferants — but the responsible nations of the international community must send an even stronger message. We must learn from this chain of events, and not allow it to happen again,” he said.

In his remarks, Abraham was more charitable toward Iran, which has long claimed that it is only interested in nuclear power for civilian purposes. Abraham praised Iran’s recent decision to suspend its uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement, which would allow more intrusive monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities (see related GSN story, today). Tehran’s decision to sign the Additional Protocol and freeze its uranium enrichment program came after negotiations with France, Germany and the United Kingdom (see GSN, Oct. 21).

“If Iran carries out the obligations it has undertaken — especially if it abandons its enrichment and reprocessing activities — it will show what can be achieved when the international community sends the same firm message on the need to comply with nonproliferation requirements,” Abraham said.

To ensure that Iran maintains its promises, Abraham called on Tehran to provide a “full declaration” of all imported materials and components used in its uranium-enrichment program, unrestricted access to IAEA inspectors and to fully answer all questions related to uranium enrichment centrifuge testing and uranium conversion experiments.

In a broader sense, according to Abraham, more needed to be done to address the nuclear proliferation risks posed by countries obtaining uranium enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. He said that countries known to have a questionable commitment to the NPT should be “discouraged” from possessing such capabilities.

Abraham also called for new measures beyond the Additional Protocol to prevent indigenous enrichment or reprocessing programs that could be used for weapons purposes.

“We should look for ways to ensure that the IAEA has the tools it needs to effectively address the problem posed by a state like North Korea, before such a state announces it has established a nuclear weapons capability,” he said.

Earlier this week, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei suggested in a speech before the General Assembly that the processing of weapon-grade materials and the production of new nuclear materials should be limited to facilities under multilateral control (see GSN, Nov. 4).

Strengthening the NPTAbraham yesterday also called for new measures to strengthen the NPT, such as the widespread adoption of the Additional Protocol. He said he was “hopeful” that the U.S. Senate would hold hearings on the protocol in the next few months (see GSN, May 10, 2002).

New measures are also needed to prevent the international trafficking of nuclear materials and technologies, Abraham said. During his U.N. address Tuesday, ElBaradei expressed concern over lingering “deficiencies” in the security of nuclear and radiological materials throughout the world.

“Information in the agency database of illicit trafficking, combined with reports of discoveries of plans for radiological dispersal devices [“dirty bombs”], make it clear that a market continues to exist for obtaining and using radioactive sources for malevolent purposes,” ElBaradei said.

The IAEA has also called for countries to join the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, according to reports (see GSN, Nov. 5). To date, only 33 countries have ratified the convention, which seeks to improve the security of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes that could be attractive to terrorists.

In addition, Abraham said new efforts are needed to improve security at research reactors and other facilities worldwide where stockpiles of nuclear or radiological materials may be housed. He said the United States would provide $4 million to purchase low-enriched uranium for use at a Romanian research reactor after it is converted to use LEU as fuel. In September, a joint U.S.-Russian operation removed stockpiles of highly enriched uranium from the Romanian research reactor facility and transported the material to Russia for conversion into nuclear power plant fuel (see GSN, Sept. 22).

Earlier this week, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced the creation of a new task force designed, in part, to help improve security at research reactors located throughout the world. Abraham said yesterday that the task force had already begun several projects with the IAEA, adding that he was “confident” such projects would help improve the security of radiological materials worldwide. 

November 6, 2003

WASHINGTON — U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham yesterday called for increased international action to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, saying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty needed to be strengthened.