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The European

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Good Intentions, Deadly Consequences

By Kate Hudson22.12.2011Global Policy

The civil use of nuclear power cannot be divorced from the history of the atomic bomb. We cannot continue to export reactor technology for civil use without undermining attempts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The furore surrounding the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s alleged development of a nuclear weapons programme should provide a moment of reflection for those who perceive “military” and “civil” uses of nuclear material as clearly delineated or hermetically-sealed spheres. The grandstanding of nuclear-armed Western states decrying Iran’s nuclear activities has the all too frequent whiff of great power hypocrisy. This is especially stark at a time when the UK government is pushing forward with replacing Britain’s “Trident” nuclear weapons system to the tune of over £100 billion, despite slashing spending across public services including schools and hospitals. But beyond these commonly accepted double-standards, the Iranian case also provides an interesting example of the wider systemic problems of nuclear proliferation. Iran has for a long time defended its uranium enrichment as solely intended for the production of nuclear energy. However, concerns remain in the West that this enriched material is being diverted for the secret development of nuclear weapons. The concerns are not without foundation: indeed they lay bare the intrinsic link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. What’s more, the realities are just as applicable in the West, or anywhere else for that matter, as in Iran. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) codifies the right of signatories to use nuclear materials for civil energy production in return for a commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. This is a right which Iran vehemently defended at the NPT Review Conference in 2005. Yet the IAEA’s capacity to verify that enriched uranium is used exclusively for civil energy is severely limited. As it is the institution charged with providing the necessary checks on the development and use of nuclear materials, this is distinctly worrying. Enriched uranium is one of the building blocks of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. When enriched to 3% it can be used in nuclear power plants to produce energy, but refined to 90% it can be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The movement and tracking of nuclear material is something which the IAEA has struggled to come to terms with and there is little faith internationally that nuclear power can be restricted to “civil” uses around the world, as the current clamouring from Western states makes clear. Indeed, the UK government itself stated in 1983 that in agreeing to allow IAEA inspections, this was in no way “intended to provide an assurance… that material from the civil nuclear programme would not be used for defence purposes”. In saying this, the UK government knew all too well that the IAEA would have no hope of knowing whether or not it had diverted nuclear materials for the production of nuclear weapons. Now, twenty-eight years later, the U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies blithely inverts this logic and condemns alleged discrepancies in Iran’s enriched uranium figures as a “provocative expansion” of its nuclear activities. Of course in the Iranian case the facts are as yet unclear, but what is already clear and has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years is as follows. The development of nuclear power does not exist within a vacuum and is fundamentally implicated with the development of the most destructive and indiscriminate weapons the world has ever had the misfortune to create. This is true in Iran, as it is true the world over.