New Nuclear Dual-Use Risk: Beating Swords into Ploughshares?


By Dr. Paul Dorfman

Dr. Paul Dorfman discusses whether new civil nuclear programs could cross over into military nuclear programs, and what this means for global non-proliferation efforts.

According to key global finance advisory and asset management firm Lazard, new nuclear power systems perform poorly compared to renewables’ storage, energy efficiency, cost, roll-out speed, and management. So why invest in new nuclear? 

Prof. Andy Stirling and Dr. Phil Johnstone, from the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), argue that the answer lies in the clear and present link between civil and military nuclear infrastructure. This is because civil nuclear energy maintains the skills and supply chains also needed for military nuclear programs, without which the costs of nuclear military capabilities could become politically unsupportable.

As they point out, the U.K. Government’s ‘Civil Nuclear: Roadmap to 2050’ report includes sets of statements on civil and military nuclear ambitions in order to “identify opportunities to align the two across government”,strengthening existing interconnections between civil and military industries’ research and development, and thereby minimizing costs for both the weapons and power sectors. 

More recently, in March 2024, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak explicitly linked military nuclear weapons production capability with civil nuclear power generation development. French President Emmanuel Macron has gone further, saying that “without civil nuclear power, no military nuclear power, without military nuclear, no civil nuclear”. And the fact is that 90% of all new nuclear construction projects worldwide involve corporations controlled by states with nuclear weapons.

New Nuclear, New Proliferation Risk

The increasingly tense geopolitical environment makes nuclear a controversial issue, with nation states concerned that neighbors might use notionally civilian nuclear programs for military ends. In this sense, there are unique challenges and perceived opportunities when it comes to new civil nuclear ambitions.

Choice of offensive or defensive doctrine affects the way other states evaluate their respective security and, in turn, influences the probability of cross-over between civil and military nuclear capacity. Indeed, current movements in military doctrines share the common denominator of adopting more offensive postures.

Meanwhile, according to the U.K. Royal Society, all forms of nuclear production pose weapons development risks, as “there is no proliferation proof nuclear fuel cycle – the dual use risk of nuclear materials and technology and in civil and military applications cannot be eliminated.”

Unhelpfully, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs), which are the best new hope for fissile fuel, could make the weapons proliferation problem even worse as any potential SMR roll-out to either developed or developing countries is likely to increase nuclear proliferation and security risks. This is especially so if any of those states prove politically unstable or have relatively limited resources to support a robust nuclear security and regulatory infrastructure.

Representatives of the Saudi Nuclear Society and Saudi Society for Medical Physics sign a cooperation agreement on training, education, and community service in December 2022, © Saudi Nuclear Society

Nuclear Cross-over in an Increasingly Unstable World

Unless uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies are effectively regulated against the diversion of civil materials for military purposes, the reality is that new nuclear plants can provide the cover to develop and make nuclear weapons. Whether that capability is turned into actual weapons depends largely on political inclination. 

Saudi officials have made it clear on more than one occasion that there’s another reason for their interest in civil nuclear energy technology which was not captured by the royal decree on the Saudi nuclear program – the relationship of the civil program to nuclear weapons. More recently, Saudi Arabia is pushing for the right to produce nuclear fuel, a move that poses further significant proliferation risk. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has voiced concerns about Saudi intentions and safeguards.

Unfortunately, the IAEA’s support for Saudi’s civil nuclear clashes with their position on the Kingdom’s military ambition. This is not the first time that the UN nuclear regulator has been caught in this uncomfortably dualist situation.

More worryingly, the Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, has just met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to “agree on a new engagement between Syria and IAEA with a view to providing confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy for the benefit of its people”. Given the deeply problematic military and human rights history of al-Assad’s regime, the IAEA’s actions seem profoundly concerning, and bring the IAEA’s role in the global nuclear arena into sharp focus. 

Thinking this through, an important question springs to mind. Due to the apparent potential for civil-military nuclear cross-over, could the IAEA’s mission – to work for “the safe, secure and peaceful application of nuclear science and technology” – inevitably result in weapons proliferation by default?

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on March 19, 2024, in Damascus, © IAEA

Irrational Paradoxes

Back in Eastern Europe, although Ukraine runs a substantive civil nuclear power program, it’s no longer a nuclear weapons state. Ukraine, once briefly the third-largest nuclear power in the world, made the decision to give up nuclear weapons on the basis that the U.S., U.K., and Russia would guarantee Ukraine’s security via the Budapest Memorandum.

In this sense, both Putin’s invasion of an independent state and subsequent nuclear weapons threats highlight the very real practical distinction between unilateral and multilateral nuclear weapons disarmament in an increasingly unstable world.

And then there’s Zaporizhzhia, where a civil nuclear power plant has become a target of war at the very same time that Russia’s role as a major player in the global civil nuclear power sector continues to expand via Moscow-backed international nuclear new-build projects and technology, uranium supply and enrichment, and spent nuclear fuel management.

The sarcophagus covering the reactor number four building of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine.

Direction of Travel

While it appears reasonably clear that civil and military nuclear can enmesh, one must ask whether one inevitably leads to the other. While the usual concern is that civil nuclear infrastructure leads to military development, according to former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia is bucking the trend: “Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to establish […] a civil nuclear capability […] a civil nuclear energy industry is not a requirement for us to go through the submarine program.”

In other words, despite the new nuclear submarine AUKUS deal, the current Australian government has no plans to develop new civil nuclear infrastructure.

So, does that start to negate the civil-military nexus hypothesis? Well, it’s not that nuclear military interests are the sole drivers of support for civil nuclear power, but for some states dual-use technology may comprise a significant complementary factor. 

In the end, it’s the direction of travel that counts. While all key energy institutes and research organizations agree that renewables will do the heavy-lifting for the net-zero energy transition, it’s worth considering the implications of U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s speech to Australia’s Energy Forum: “No country has ever been held hostage for access to the sun. No country has ever been held hostage for access to the wind. They have not ever been weaponized, nor will they be.”

Dr. Paul Dorfman is the Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, a Visiting Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, U.K., a Member of the Irish Government’s Radiation Protection Advisory Committee, and a Former Advisor to the U.K. Ministry of Defence Nuclear Submarine Dismantling Project.

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