Assessing the Proliferation Risks of Civilian Nuclear Programmes

The IISS Strategic Dossier on nuclear programmes in the Middle East provides a comprehensive overview of the history of nuclear programmes in the region, an evaluation of national nuclear capabilities and policies, and an analysis of future aspirations. The fact-rich country profiles, which include Israel and Turkey, also assess how each state may react to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. In addition to analyzing the proliferation risks inherent in the nuclear fuel cycle, the dossier assesses policy options, including possible regional arms control measures, that can help allow atomic energy to be harnessed for peaceful uses without engendering a ‘proliferation cascade’.

Nuclear power plants alone are not a proliferation risk. Without enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, power-reactor fuel, whether fresh or spent, cannot be used for the production of nuclear weapons. There are various ways, however, in which reactor projects and related nuclear fuel-cycle facilities could be used to further a nuclear-weapons development programme. This chapter describes these various possible proliferation pathways. It should be stressed that no successful nuclear weapons programme has ever relied on commercial reactors. Most of the states that have pursued weapons programmes went on to construct nuclear power plants, but only after their dedicated military programmes were successful, nearing success or had been abandoned. The scenarios for proliferation activities related to nuclear power plants described here are, therefore, only hypothetical, but they cannot be ruled out, especially in light of the increasing availability of nuclear-weapons-related technologies spread by black-market networks.