Michael Spies

Eight days before the lapse of Iran’s Security Council imposed deadline to suspend all uranium enrichment activities, Argentina reportedly announced its plans to expand its nuclear power program including a return to uranium enrichment. A the first step in a multistage initiative named the “Argentina Nuclear Plan” intended to reinvigorate its nuclear energy sector, Argentina will spend $3.5 billion to finish construction of the Atucha II reactor, and in 2010 to begin construction of a fourth power reactor. Like an increasing number of states, Argentina is looking toward the exploitation of nuclear energy as a mean toward reining in greenhouse gas emissions.

Like Brazil, Argentina was a late-comer to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, joining in 1995 ahead of the treaty’s indefinite extension. Also like Brazil, its nuclear history is far from unblemished. Predating the Brazilian program by a number of years, the Argentine nuclear program began in the early 1950s. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, between 1978 and 1990 the military junta which seized power in 1976 actively sought to construct a plutonium reprocessing plant for which no legitimate non-military use could be externally ascertained.

The long rivalry between Argentina and Brazil and their developing nuclear programs led to what many commentators described as a nascent nuclear arms race. Following the restoration of civilian rule in both countries after the early 1980s, both states undertook regional confidence-building measures, including a bi-lateral verification regime known as the Argentine-Brazilian Accounting and Control Commission (ABACC) in 1991. In the mid-1990s both countries joined the Treaty of Tlateloco, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America.

Argentina presently operates two nuclear power reactors, with a combined installed capacity of nearly one gigawatt. This capacity is similar to both Iran and Brazil. Brazil began operating a small industrial scale enrichment plant this year, intended to provide fuel for its civil nuclear program and for naval reactors. Argentina’s nuclear program is under IAEA safeguards, although neither Argentina nor Brazil have signed Additional Protocols with the IAEA, which would give the Agency the authority to inspect for undeclared and clandestine nuclear activities.

As a current member of the Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors, Argentina has been intricately involved in the Iran nuclear situation. It voted against Iran on the September 2005 IAEA Board resolution finding Iran to be in non-compliance with the IAEA Statute and its February 2006 decision to report the Iran nuclear dossier to the Security Council. Argentina served as the president of the Security Council in March 2006, when it read a statement on behalf of the Council calling upon Iran to take the steps “deemed necessary” by the IAEA Board, a reference to the measures referred to as confidence-building measures in the IAEA resolution, including the suspension of enrichment and reprocessing, ratification of the Additional Protocol, and halting construction of a heavy water research reactor. Argentina voted in favor of the July 31 Security Council resolution 1696 “demanding” that Iran halt all uranium enrichment activities by August 31.

Given the central nature of its role in bringing Iran to account for pursuing its own uranium enrichment plans, in defiance of Western concerns and demands, Argentina’s announcement seems ill-timed. But unlike Iran, the Argentines enjoy good relations with the Western industrialized and nuclear powers, and will certainly not face the same stiff resistance to its nuclear plans. Despite the eerily similar dubious origins of its nuclear fuel cycle program, an argument can be made on behalf of Brazil and Argentina that they have long since regained the confidence of the international community. Yet the issue remains that the proliferation of the means to produce nuclear weapons continues unabated.

Regarding the possession of nuclear weapons, the Blix Commission pointedly rejected “the suggestion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy,” further noting that “governments possessing nuclear weapons can act responsibly or recklessly” and that “governments may also change over time” (Weapons of Terror, p. 60). By logic this same argument should naturally extend to the possession of the means to readily manufacture nuclear weapons. Yet, despite the release of periodic IAEA studies calling for multi-national controls on the nuclear fuel cycle, the international community as yet to address the issue in a comprehensive way, electing instead lurch forward combating crisis after nuclear crisis: Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Iran…

Seen in many industrialized and developing states as a viable mean to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign sources of energy, nuclear power is expected to spread in the upcoming decades. A 2003 study by MIT examined a plausible, though likely unrealistic, scenario which anticipates the global expansion of nuclear energy to 1000 gigawatts online by 2050, up from about 360 gigawatts today. The growth of nuclear power on this scale globally, which could only happen with the active assistance of industrialized states, will invariable necessitate the expansion of nuclear fuel cycle capacity. Such expansion will almost certainly guarantee the further proliferation of nuclear fuel cycle technologies and with them the means to manufacture nuclear weapons.

As more states inevitably acquire the means to produce the materials for nuclear weapons (currently only the nuclear weapons possessing states plus Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands) this scenario could easily lead to additional Iran-like confrontations or worse, additional states actually acquiring nuclear weapons in regional and global arms races. The possibility of these trends point to the urgent need for efforts toward a viable, universal, and non-discriminatory framework to address the deficiencies of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, in all its aspects, including the total elimination of nuclear weapons, and the recognition of the inextricable link to the production of nuclear energy. Such a framework should preclude the development of additional national fuel cycle facilities and place all existing facilities under international control, including those facilities operating in nuclear weapons possessing states.