Expert Urges Rethink of Curbing Tech Transfers as Nonproliferation Tool

An individual gazes at centrifuge uranium-enrichment engines in the Eurodif SA/George Besse 1 factory in southeastern France, circa May 2012. A new academic paper contends that technological export controls alone may be ineffective in stopping countries from pursuing nuclear arms.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
May 28, 2014, 10:58 a.m.

A new aca­dem­ic pa­per con­tends that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity’s fo­cus on “sup­ply-side” tech­no­logy con­straints to stop nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion is fail­ing.

In a pa­per pub­lished on Tues­day in In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity, R. Scott Kemp ar­gues that poli­cy­makers are overly re­li­ant on lim­it­ing in­ter­na­tion­al mar­ket ac­cess to cer­tain sens­it­ive tech­no­lo­gies and sub­stances that can be used to pro­duce nuc­le­ar fuel. This fol­lows the be­lief — which the au­thor thinks is “mis­guided” — that with the ex­cep­tion of a few ad­vanced in­dus­tri­al na­tions, a coun­try’s ca­pa­city to de­vel­op nuc­le­ar arms “hinges on its abil­ity” to im­port the ne­ces­sary equip­ment.

Kemp, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or at the Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy’s Nuc­le­ar Sci­ence and En­gin­eer­ing De­part­ment, ex­amined 21 cent­ri­fuge pro­grams around the world. He found that while ac­cess to tech­no­logy once served as a con­straint, it ceased do­ing so in the 1970s and 1980s. Kemp’s his­tor­ic­al ana­lys­is con­cludes that 14 coun­tries have been able to ac­quire gas cent­ri­fuges “us­ing only a min­im­um of tech­nic­al and hu­man re­sources” that ar­gu­ably could be at­tained by “many or most of today’s de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.”

“That this is pos­sible should not be sur­pris­ing: the tech­no­lo­gies needed to make nuc­le­ar weapons have re­mained stat­ic, where­as the in­di­gen­ous cap­ab­il­it­ies of states have stead­ily grown over the last half-cen­tury,” he wrote.

Kemp, a one­time sci­ence ad­viser on non­pro­lif­er­a­tion is­sues at the State De­part­ment, ar­gues that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity should re­cal­ib­rate how much en­ergy it de­votes to “sup­ply-side” meas­ures, in con­trast to ap­proaches aimed at dis­suad­ing states from pur­su­ing atom­ic arms in the first place. In an in­ter­view with the MIT News of­fice, Kemp said, “We need to get past the idea that we can con­trol the des­tiny of na­tions by reg­u­lat­ing ac­cess to tech­no­logy. In­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity must ul­ti­mately re­sort to the dif­fi­cult busi­ness of polit­ics.”

At the same time, Kemp does not ar­gue for end­ing reg­u­la­tions on ac­cess to sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar tech­no­lo­gies al­to­geth­er. He notes that they are use­ful in con­strain­ing the spread of high­er-per­form­ance cent­ri­fuges, as well as “non­cent­ri­fuge modes of nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion.”

In a lim­ited num­ber of cases — such as Libya and Ir­aq — sup­ply-side con­straints can ac­tu­ally bol­ster in­tern­al lim­it­a­tions a gov­ern­ment might face in es­tab­lish­ing the re­search in­fra­struc­ture ne­ces­sary to sup­port an ef­fect­ive war­head de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, Kemp said. Both coun­tries at­temp­ted to pur­sue nuc­le­ar weapon pro­grams dec­ades ago, but they were ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful.

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