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Nonproliferation for Global Security Foundation - NPSGlobal

Apr 21st
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The Value of Confidence to Control Regional Proliferation Risks


Irma Arguello

"Improving the proliferation resistance of the nuclear fuel cycle though new governance norms" The Royal Society June 28th & 29th 2010


The concepts that I will share here are a key part of the study "Options for a Balanced International Management of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" which the NPSGlobal Foundation has been carrying out with the NTI- Nuclear Security Project’s support.

First, I must say that I think that it is an excellent idea, given the current situation of the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime and the IAEA’s overload that experts within the international community work in cooperation to seek creative ways to reduce proliferation risks derived from the nuclear fuel cycle. And in this specific category I place the design and implementation of innovative governance rules.

When we talk about governance, we are mainly talking about individual and collective behavior and, in this sense, it is good to analyze behavioral patterns considered successful, to identify their strengths, and their ability and potential to be applied to other different environments and circumstances.

The case of Argentina and Brazil can be useful for such analysis. Both countries have got a long nuclear tradition, of about 60 years. In practical terms, Argentina and Brazil have developed enough technology to master nuclear power, research reactors and sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, with industrial enrichment (ultracentrifugation) in the case of Brazil, and gaseous diffusion at a pilot plant level in Argentina. There have been also efforts to develop reprocessing technology, mostly in Argentina, but the pilot plant was never completed. It is important to remark that, at the present, both countries are free of HEU and plutonium.

Although Brazil and Argentina almost never clashed, there were times in the past when the nuclear issue was a matter of a great rivalry. It could have even prompted a nuclear arms race within the region, mostly during successive military regimes in both countries (60s and 70s) but fortunately it did not happen. The good sense of democratic governments which succeeded such military elites significantly reduced the danger in this sense.

Nevertheless, proliferating ambitions have not been totally eradicated, and they still persist in small groups who show up from time to time. Those groups still flirt with the idea of keeping the nuclear arms option open. They are dazzled by what they perceive as benefits of possessing nuclear weapons (mainly pride and international recognition for this particular case) and at the same time, they look down on the extreme burden they involve.

Given the circumstances, the key challenge concerning nuclear matters was to find innovative ways to increase mutual confidence and to prevent potential risks of proliferation.

In this sense both countries transformed rivalry into cooperation by developing an innovative model of "Neighbour-to-Neighbour Control”. This model is in effect since 1991, when a key bilateral agreement was signed, and both countries jointly developed the Common System for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (SCCC) (which is a set of safeguards procedures applicable to all the nuclear materials used in all the nuclear activities performed within the jurisdictions or in the territories of Argentina and Brazil) and the bilateral agency responsible for its implementation, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) (an entity responsible for verifying that the nuclear materials existing in both countries are being used for exclusively peaceful purposes).

The dynamics of the ABACC include a tight cooperation with the IAEA. Reciprocal inspections of nuclear facilities are carried out in each country, for instance, the verification of a nuclear site in Argentina is performed by Brazilian specialists, and the verification of a nuclear site in Brazil is made by Argentine ones. The management of the bilateral agency and the decision making process is also performed on a common bilateral ground. At the same time the ABACC is integrated harmoniously with the IAEA’s verification schemes under the commitments of the “Comprehensive Safeguards” that both states adopted even before its accession to the TNP in the 90s. Even so there is clear superposition of activities as inspections are mostly performed in parallel.

The relevant point here is that the setting up of the relationship as well as the bilateral governance has been a "Bottom- Up" rather than a "Top- Down” process. It means that the commitments made by both countries arise from mutual interest, rather than because the external imposition derived from the NPT or any other control regime. This fact considerably strengthens the model.

A fact that still raises a major concern within the international community is related to the non signature of the IAEA’s Model Additional Protocol neither by Brazil nor by Argentina. It closes the Agency’s the option for more intrusive verifications. In my view, this issue has not been enough discussed in both countries and it should be done, with an active participation of societies. The NPSGlobal Foundation is currently devoted to open a space for such a debate.

In the bilateral relation mutual trust and knowledge play a key role to make this model of governance effective to reduce risks of proliferation. The continued interaction among experts from both countries leads, in practical terms and beyond of safeguards’ management by the book, to the fact that ABACC officials are able achieve a full understanding about “who is who” in the bilateral nuclear arena and, therefore, they eventually could get information about undeclared activities or facilities and/or about potential transgressions to commitments taken under the nonproliferation regime. All this puts both countries’ officers in a position of natural advantage in knowledge versus inspectors from outside the region.

These practices turn out a sort of informal application of concepts underlying the Additional Protocol but within the bilateral environment.

A model such as the one described may have the potential to be extended to a regional basis within contexts where there is a reasonable -but not extreme- level of conflict. This is the case of nuclear expansion in Latin America. A possible model of regionalization leaves on the hands of the regional entity the first line of verification acting by IAEA’s delegation, which, in turn, controls the regional Agency. This scheme would be cost effective and would avoid duplications between both agencies.

This dynamics, however, does not impede that some elements underlying the bilateral model of governance can be also useful to design even more complex models to be applied to highly conflictive regions, and to the entire global community, as well.

In this sense, elements which should not be absent in the core of any model, despite of its scope of application are:

• Transparency between partners

• Mutual confidence

• Balance

• Respect for each partner’s interests

• Shared management by stakeholders

• Voluntary scheme

• Protection of proprietary/ restricted technologies

What have been described does not imply, at any rate, the dissemination of sensitive technologies. The key would be to work on behavior rather than on control of technology, which should always remain on its owners’ hands.

Some concerns could be raised about a potential lack of impartiality derived from a close relationship among inspectors, which could lead to underestimate proliferation risks.

To this argument can be opposed the fact that partner countries are assumed to tend to preserve their national interests, and it is hard to imagine that they will endorse proliferation intentions on neighbours. In terms of speculation, the inclusion of a moderate number of partners, could help reduce such concerns and to increase the efficiency and credibility of the model versus the conventional IAEA’s centric verification scheme.

Finally it is convenient to admit that a potential regionalization of this governance model as well as assumptions about states’ interests and behaviors, because of their controversial nature, will surely require a deeper discussion.


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