The Indispensable NPT: Black Swans and Black Boxes

The Indispensable NPT: Black Swans and Black Boxes

Delay has been unkind to the 50th anniversary celebration of the NPT. The Treaty’s Tenth Review Conference was to be held in 2020, but after Covid delays the Conference will now convene at the United Nations in New York from 1-26 August. These last two years have witnessed two ‘black swan’ events – unexpected and hugely disruptive – adding new contentious issues to the already overloaded and fraught agenda for the Tenth Review Conference.

Russia’s ‘operations’ in Ukraine

The most damage has arisen from Russia’s ‘operations’ in Ukraine. As the conflict in Ukraine unfolded, Moscow used increasingly menacing language open to the interpretation of a threat to use nuclear weapons. To further sharpen these concerns, President Putin issued a televised order on 27 February for Russia’s nuclear forces to move to the heightened alert status of a “special regime of combat duty.” The exact significance of that order is unclear, but the message received abroad, and presumably intended, was one of escalation and commonly if incorrectly interpreted as Russia having put its nuclear forces on ‘high’ rather than ‘heightened’ alert.

This invocation of nuclear weapons dramatically highlighted the failure of all nuclear armed states party to the NPT – China, France, the UK, the United States and of course, Russia – to meet their obligations under Article VI of the treaty to take effective steps to get rid of nuclear weapons.

And it occurred only a matter of weeks after the leaders of those five nuclear weapon states (NWS) issued their solemn if ritual pre-Review Conference joint statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races – and reaffirming their conviction that  “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

It is clear that collaboration among the five NWS in support of the NPT, maintained even throughout the Cold War, has now reached a new low level.

Russia’s military actions in Ukraine have also impacted nuclear safeguards, safety, and security which will inevitably and properly be the subject of debate at the NPT Review Conference, but will induce a sharp division between Russia and Ukraine and their respective friends.

Article III of the NPT mandates international inspections (safeguards) to provide assurance that a country’s nuclear activities remain in peaceful use. The International Atomic Energy Agency, commonly referred to as the UN’s ‘nuclear watchdog’, performs those NPT safeguards inspections and draws conclusions about the observance of states of their non-proliferation commitments. Despite pandemic constraints and increasing demands for its services, the IAEA has continued to provide highly professional technical conclusions about the adherence of countries around the world to their NPT obligations.

The IAEA also makes a major contribution to helping countries meet their obligations under Article IV of the NPT – facilitating access to the benefits of nuclear science and technology.  Keys to this cooperation include ensuring the safety and security of nuclear technology.

But the IAEA has encountered extraordinary challenges in maintaining the continuity of safeguards coverage in Ukraine, and in ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s large civil nuclear power infrastructure.

The Chernobyl nuclear complex, site of the devastating accident at one of its four nuclear reactors in 1986, lies just across the border with Russia and was occupied by Russian forces on the first day of the conflict. While the reactors are no longer operational, the site contains vast amounts of radioactive materials needing constant management. Russian forces withdrew at the end of April, allowing the IAEA to provide support to the Ukraine operators to ensure the safety and security of the site. However, safeguards data was lost and at the time of this writing the IAEA reported that it was still experiencing “a partial loss of safeguards data transfer.”

The second site of concern is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzya. The facility has been controlled by Russian forces since 1 March but continues to be operated by Ukrainian staff. In late July, the head of the IAEA, Director General Rafael Grossi, said that the situation at the plant was alarming and called for urgent acceptance of an IAEA mission to help assure safety, security, and safeguards.

Nuclear Propelled Submarines

The second ‘black swan’ issue that has arisen since the original scheduling of the NPT Review Conference is the Australian decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This was inevitably followed by Brazil indicating to the IAEA its wish to have consideration given to arrangements for its long-standing interest in nuclear propelled submarines.

In September 2021, the governments of Australia, UK and the United States declared their intention to work towards an arrangement whereby Australia could gain access to nuclear propulsion technology for use in submarines. The announcement was particularly surprising because several countries had previously expressed interest in acquiring this technology from the United States and had been firmly rebuffed. Brazil, on the other hand, has for decades been working to develop its own nuclear propelled submarine. Australia and Brazil appear set to be the first NPT states aside from the five NWS to acquire this technology.

The drafters of the NPT inspection regime left a placeholder for the issue of nuclear materials to be used on non-explosive military activity such as nuclear-powered submarines.  This issue arose because at the time (late 1960s) the model NPT safeguards agreement was being negotiated, at least two counties, Italy, and Netherlands, were interested in naval use of nuclear power. But nothing came of those proposals and the issue was dormant until the late 1980s when Canada canvassed the option, but subsequently decided against. Now thirty years on, Australia approached the IAEA to consider an arrangement to cover its prospective acquisition of a nuclear propulsion unit for its next generation of submarines. Brazil no doubt wishing to protect its own interests has subsequently asked the IAEA to consider its anticipated requirements.

Australia wants a ‘black box’ nuclear propulsion unit from an existing nuclear submarine builder – either United Kingdom or United States. The ‘black box’ will simplify IAEA arrangements ensuring no diversion of nuclear materials to explosive use. Some Canberra-based experts have argued that Australia will probably prefer to use weapons grade high enriched uranium (HEU). Experts have also pointed out that opting for an HEU lifetime core could have safeguards advantages in that the black box would not need to be opened while under the control of Australia. On the other hand, this approach could reasonably be seen as legitimising continued use of this weapon grade material. Due to its proliferation sensitivity, there has been a decades-long quest by many countries, including, Australia, to minimize the uses of and commerce in HEU.

Brazil’s nuclear submarine program will have very different characteristics. Brazil intends to build its own reactor and to have indigenous fuel cycle capabilities, especially enrichment, to provide its own fuel – these capabilities amount to a high degree of nuclear proliferation latency and will require extensive measures to safeguard against diversion. It will use low-enriched fuel, so presumably requiring refuelling of the reactor during the submarine’s lifetime thereby adding to the degree of difficulty in devising a safeguards regime.

Demonstrating the underlying geostrategic nature of the Australian submarine ambitions, China has led an aggressive, multi-faceted, and mostly misleading attack on the proposal during IAEA meetings in Vienna, and will assuredly continue its questioning at the NPT Review Conference.

Others will be more concerned to ensure that the arrangements agreed to for both Australia and for Brazil set good precedents by establishing proliferation-proof arrangements matching the highest non-proliferation standards.

The Indispensable NPT

These new issues together with the long list of intractable problems ranging over fifty years ensures that the Review Conference will be more substantive and more difficult than ever. Its President-designate, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Argentina, has left no stone unturned in preparations: three formal preparatory meetings and numerous regional and bilateral consultations. And a raft of NPT parties has been actively preparing for over five years, seeking to find resolution to challenges (think Iran and DPRK nuclear programs), drafting papers on the many issues on the agenda, and proposing language for any final document. Despite the growing number of critical voices outside governments, there is an undiminished recognition amongst an overwhelming majority of countries that the NPT remains an indispensable element of their national security.

Image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe