MEMBERS' activities

Iran and a New International Framework for Nuclear Energy

  • AUTHORJohn Carlson, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
  • Nov 4, 2016

Below is an excerpt.

As early as the end of the Second World War it was recognized that nuclear fuel cycle technologies developed for military purposes—specifically, uranium enrichment and reprocessing—had major potential for peaceful applications but remained inherently dual-purpose, and if not controlled appropriately, could be diverted to military use. The very first issue considered by the newly founded United Nations was “the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.”1 Unfortunately, given all that has followed, ideas advanced then for international control of the fuel cycle did not gain the support needed to be taken further.

Today the principal international framework for ensuring peaceful uses of the nuclear fuel cycle comprises the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which apply primarily to non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) to verify that their nuclear programs are used only for peaceful purposes. Some of the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded with Iran in July 2015, and the need to address the dangers posed by Iran’s program once key restraints of the JCPOA expire, create both an opportunity and a need to strengthen the international framework for control of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technology.

The usual interpretation of the NPT is that NNWS can develop any nuclear technology provided they do so under IAEA safeguards. But the NPT does not actually say this. Article IV says the NPT does not affect “the inalienable right of all the Parties . . . to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (emphasis added) for peaceful purposes,” in conformity with other key provisions of the treaty. This is not an explicit right to develop a particular technology regardless of the impact on the NPT’s objectives.

Unfortunately the NPT is vague about the extent to which a party can pursue a particular technology, provided this is for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards. As Iran and others in the non-aligned group of states are quick to remind, NPT signatories agree to the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information.”2  Today it is clear that the NPT did not anticipate the problem of the spread of proliferation-sensitive nuclear technologies, and does not adequately address this problem. Hence the effort now to develop multilateral approaches, ensuring sensitive stages of the fuel cycle are not left exclusively in national hands.

It is against this background that President Obama, in his 2009 Prague speech, referred inter alia to the need for a “new framework for civil nuclear energy cooperation, including an international fuel bank.”3 Unfortunately, he has not elaborated on what this new international framework might be.

In recent years, several proposals from various quarters have aimed at reducing incentives for the spread of enrichment and reprocessing to further states.4 Most have attempted to provide states with added assurance that the supply of fuel for nuclear reactors will not be interrupted or withheld for political reasons.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Guidelines specify that:

If enrichment or reprocessing facilities, equipment, or technology are to be transferred, suppliers should encourage recipients to accept, as an alternative to national plants, supplier involvement  and/or other appropriate multinational participation in resulting facilities. Suppliers should also promote international (including IAEA) activities concerned with multinational regional fuel cycle centers.5

There are also the efforts of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC—formerly the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership or GNEP) to develop proposals for comprehensive (cradle-tograve) fuel supply arrangements, such as fuel leasing. In addition, there are fuel supply assurances provided by the United States and also proposed by the United Kingdom and others, fuel banks established by Russia and the IAEA, and Russia’s international enrichment center at Angarsk, in which it has invited other states to purchase shares. But there is no comprehensive effort to draw these various developments and ideas together, and in particular there is no effort to gain support for a new international framework—this is seen to be too difficult politically.

Largely as the result of an effective Iranian campaign, developing countries are especially sensitive to what they see as any attacks on Article IV rights. States that are unlikely to develop enrichment themselves have been vociferous about Iran’s right to do so.

There is no doubt that the proliferation challenge presented by Iran’s nuclear program was part of the context for President Obama’s proposal for a new international framework. The conclusion of the JCPOA is a remarkable achievement. The JCPOA sets out comprehensive confidence-building steps for the Iranian nuclear program, but the underlying issue remains:

Can confidence-building measures provide sufficient assurance if Iran proceeds with a massive expansion of its enrichment program when the applicable JCPOA limits are lifted in 15 years’ time?

The Iranian situation highlights the urgency of developing international consensus on the control of proliferation-sensitive parts of the fuel cycle, addressing the Iranian case and also avoiding similar cases in the future.


1 UN General Assembly Resolution 1, A/RES/1(I), January 24, 1946, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/032/52/img/NR003252.pdf?OpenElement (accessed October 17, 2016).

2 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, March 5, 1970, Article IV, para. 2, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/141503.pdf (accessed October 17, 2016). The article specifies such exchanges are to be for peaceful uses: the key issue here is whether it is possible to ensure that proliferation-sensitive technologies will remain in exclusively peaceful use into the future.

3 See John Carlson, “The Prague Agenda and Nuclear Energy” (presentation given at the Australian Embassy as part of the Australian Ambassador’s 2012 Speaker Series, Washington DC, November 13, 2012), http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/uploads/NewFrameworkWashington.pdf (accessed October 17, 2016).

4 For an overview of the various proposals for international fuel cycle management see Anthony Andrews, Mark Holt, and Mary Beth Nikitin, “Managing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Policy Implications of Expanding Global Access to Nuclear Power” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, October 19, 2012, pp. 17-37), https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34234.pdf (accessed October 17, 2016). See also John Carlson, “Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” in Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation and Policy, ed. J.Pilat and N.Busch. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), pp. 403-15.

5 IAEA, “Nuclear Suppliers Group Guidelines,” INFCIRC/254/Rev.12/Part 1, para. 6(e), November

2013, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/infcircs/1978/infcirc254r12p1.pdf (accessed October 17, 2016).


This paper was originally published in the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. To read the full paper, please download the file on the left, or click here.