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Proliferation resistance involves the establishment of impediments or barriers to the misuse of civil nuclear energy systems to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
These impediments can be institutional or technical. In this research paper for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, John Carlson, Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, seeks to provide a general introduction to technical aspects.
Proliferation resistant measures are important to increasing the difficulties faced by proliferators. Although not specifically aimed at countering terrorist activity, measures taken for proliferation resistance may also reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring fissile material.
Today the subject of proliferation resistance is receiving increasing attention in light of two major developments – the anticipated substantial growth in nuclear power programs, and the increasing interest in plutonium recycle, i.e. recovery of plutonium from spent fuel for re-use in reactors.
Unless appropriately addressed, these developments, particularly plutonium recycle, potentially present major challenges to the non-proliferation regime – and could also lead to increased risk of terrorist access to fissile material.
Reflecting the experience of proliferation to date, non-proliferation effort is particularly focused on detecting clandestine nuclear activities and countering illicit procurement of sensitive equipment and materials.
But an emerging issue is the risk of break-out by states that may acquire enrichment or reprocessing overtly but repudiate peaceful use commitments in the future.
The greater use of plutonium recycle and the prospective introduction of fast neutron reactors present non-proliferation challenges – but in view of the substantial advantages these reactors offer for efficiency of uranium utilization and management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, they are attracting interest by a growing number of states.
These developments can be pursued in ways which will enhance non-proliferation objectives, e.g. through advanced spent fuel treatments that avoid production of separated plutonium.
It is essential to ensure international commitment to appropriate conditions, especially proliferation resistance. There is no magic bullet to eliminate all proliferation risk – no presently known nuclear fuel cycle is completely proliferation proof. But a combination of institutional and technical measures can give needed robustness to non-proliferation and counter-terrorism efforts.
Some suggestions are made at the end of this paper which Commissioners may wish to consider in their deliberations on this subject.