Much is made of the “next generation” of nuclear reactors in the debate over nuclear power in Australia. They are touted as safer than older reactors, and suitable for helping Australia move away from fossil fuels.
Nuclear becomes latest round in energy wars
However, international projections predict nuclear power will stick around beyond 2040. It is forecast to reduce the carbon footprint of other nations, in many cases fuelled by our uranium.
To choose wisely on nuclear power options in future, we ought to stay engaged. Renewables in combination with hydro storage might fail to fully decarbonise the electricity sector, or much more electricity may be needed in future for desalination, emission-free manufacturing, or hydrogen fuel to deal with an escalating climate crisis. Nuclear power might be advantageous then.
All recent commissions of nuclear power stations, such as the Korean APR-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, or the Chinese Hualong One design, are large Generation III type light water reactors that produce gigawatts of electricity. Discouraged by investment blowouts and considerable delays in England and Finland, Australia is not likely to consider building Generation III reactors.
The company NuScale in particular promotes a new approach to nuclear power, based on smaller modular reactors that might eventually be prefabricated and shipped to site. Although promoted as “next generation”, this technology has been used in maritime applications for many years. It might be a good choice for Australian submarines.
NuScale has licensed its design in the United States and might be able to demonstrate the first such reactor in 2027 in a research laboratory in Idaho.
These small reactors each produce 60 megawatts of power and require a much smaller initial investment than traditional nuclear power stations. They are also safer, as the entire reactor vessel sits in a large pool of water, so no active cooling is needed once the reactor is switched off.
However the technical, operational and economic feasibility of making and maintaining modular reactors is completely untested.
If Australia decided to build a nuclear power station, it would take decades to complete. So we might also choose one of several other new reactor concepts, labelled Generation IV. Some of those designs are expected to become technology-ready after 2030.
Generation IV reactors can be divided into thermal reactors and fast breeders.
Thermal reactors are quite similar to conventional Generation III light water reactors.
However, some will use molten salts or helium gas as coolant instead of water, which makes makes hydrogen explosions – as occurred at Fukushima – impossible.
Some of these new reactor designs can operate at higher temperatures and over a larger temperature range without having to sustain the drastic pressures necessary in conventional designs. This improves effectiveness and safety.
Fast breeder reactors require fuel that contains more fissile uranium, and they can also create plutonium. This plutonium might eventually support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle. They also use the uranium fuel more efficiently, and generate less radioactive waste.
However, the enriched fuel and capacity to produce plutonium means that fast breeders are more closely linked to nuclear weapons. Fast reactors thus do not fit well with Australia’s international and strategic outlook.
An alternative to using conventional uranium fuel is thorium, which is far less useful for nuclear weapons. Thorium can be converted in a nuclear reactor to a different type of uranium fuel (U-233).
The idea of using this for nuclear power was raised as early as 1950, but development in the US largely ceased in the 1970s. Breeding fuel from thorium could in principle be sustained for thousands of years. Plenty of thorium is already available in mining tailings.
Thorium reactors have not been pursued because the conventional uranium fuel cycle is so well established. The separation of U-233 from the thorium has therefore not been demonstrated in a commercial setting.
India is working on establishing a thorium fuel cycle due to its lack of domestic uranium deposits, and China is developing a thorium research reactor.
To choose wisely on nuclear power and the right technology in future, we can stay engaged by:
Australia has already joined the international Generation IV nuclear forum, a good first step to foster cooperation on nuclear technology research and stay in touch with reactor developments.
Australia could deepen such research involvement by, for example, developing engineering expertise on thermal Generation IV reactors here. Such forward-looking engagement with nuclear power might pave a structured way for the commercial use of nuclear power later, if it is indeed needed.
As tensions remain at fever pitch between Tehran and Washington, Iran continues to breach limits agreed in the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, its future has become more and more uncertain.
Iran has enriched uranium beyond the level agreed in the deal. A UN report published in late September confirmed reports that the Iranian nuclear agency had begun operating more advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium.
The Western media report these events by relating them to the materials needed for a nuclear weapon. Yet Iran insists that it “will never pursue a nuclear weapon” and that all of its activities are necessary for civilian nuclear power.
The difference between peaceful civilian nuclear energy programmes and the military production of nuclear weapons seems an obvious distinction. And yet, there have been major shifts in the policy regarding this line since explosive nuclear fission was first achieved in the US in 1945. These are partly rooted in a simple and relatively uncontested principle, that there is there is no strict technical difference between the fissile material used in a civilian energy nuclear reactor and that used in a nuclear weapon.
After World War II, the US initially restricted access to “all data concerning the manufacture or use of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power” in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
This meant strict restrictions were put in place on exchanging information on nuclear technology even between the US and the UK, otherwise close allies. The policy was based on that principle that there was little practical difference between the knowledge necessary to build nuclear reactors and that needed to produce “atomic” weapons, such as those the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
US President Harry Truman strongly believed that by restricting access to its information about all nuclear technology, the US could maintain a technical barrier to the production of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world. He was so convinced of this, that he defied the scientific consensus that the Soviet Union tested a bomb in 1949, saying:
I am not convinced the Russians have achieved the know-how to put the complicated mechanism together to make an A-Bomb work, I am not convinced they have the bomb.
However, the Soviet Union had indeed tested a device, albeit with the help of some technical espionage. Then, despite the restrictions on information sharing, the UK tested a weapon in 1952. By the end of 1953, the Soviet Union had followed the US in successfully exploding a thermonuclear weapon.
The initial hopes for a US technical monopoly were dashed. Reversing previous policy, US President Dwight Eisenhower told the UN in 1953 that “the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone”. As part of the Atoms for Peace programme, the US spearheaded the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to help apply atomic energy to other areas of life such as agriculture and medicine, as well as the production of energy.
Over the next 20 years, much previously secret information and technology was shared around the world. For example, the US provided research reactors and enriched uranium to a wide variety of countries including Iran. There was a general tone of optimism over the future of civilian nuclear energy.
This laissez-faire attitude towards the “peaceful uses” of nuclear technology was even enshrined in Article IV of the 1970 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty, which stated a “inalienable right” to “research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.
This distinction between the civilian and military uses of nuclear technology started to unravel after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1974. This device, supposedly nicknamed the Smiling Buddha, was technically developed outside of the agreements that India had with Canada, who supplied it with nuclear reactors, and the US, who supplied heavy water, needed to sustain a nuclear reaction in those reactors.
However, this outside nuclear assistance was crucial to the nuclear weapons programme. As Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission between 1972 and 1983, later wrote: “The initial (nuclear) cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear programme has been built.”
Despite India’s attempts to brand the test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, it set off a flurry of concern within the US as well as in other supplier countries including the Soviet Union, UK, and Canada. The worry was that if India, not seen as a developed nation, could produce a nuclear explosion on the back of nominally civilian nuclear assistance, so could others. The worldwide energy crisis of the early 1970s had led many countries to pursue nuclear energy and the Indian example made the growing spread of nuclear technology appear an ominous and menacing development.
The tenor of the debate had changed. For example, in 1975 a deal was announced in which West Germany agreed to provide Brazil with a complete civilian nuclear fuel cycle, potentially including the abilities to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. The New York Times called this “nuclear madness”.
A general reorientation in nuclear policy began. Since then, the nuclear story has generally been one of viewing civilian nuclear programmes as a pathway towards a military nuclear weapons capability. Restrictions on the transfer of and access to nuclear materials and technology have increased. For example, the US and other suppliers began to co-operate in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to restrict access to nuclear technology, for example by not exporting the technology for producing plutonium or enriching uranium.
Yet, academic research shows that the technical capability to enrich uranium is within reach of nearly all states. Although civilian power programmes increase the technical capacity of a state to build nuclear weapons, they have important countervailing political effects that limit the odds of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Despite this, public and media opinion seems tilted towards the view that the US or other supplier states can control the development of nuclear weapons through technical constraints. As such, it seems unlikely that the set of circumstances that produced the JCPOA in the first place – a deal built around restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities – will happen again.
Looking at the state of policy on energy and climate change in Australia, it’s tempting to give in to despair. At the national level, following the abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee last year, we have no coherent energy policy and no serious policy to address climate change.
In this context, the announcement of two separate inquiries into the feasibility of nuclear power (by the New South Wales and federal parliaments) could reasonably give rise to cynicism. The only possible case for considering nuclear power, in my view, is that it might provide a way to decarbonise our electricity supply industry.
Yet many of the keenest boosters of nuclear power have consistently opposed any serious measure to address climate change, and quite a few have rejected mainstream science altogether.
Yet in a situation which all responsible people view as a climate emergency, we can’t afford the luxury of despair. For this reason, rather than dismissing these inquiries as political stunts, I made a submission to the federal inquiry setting out the conditions required to allow for any possibility of nuclear power in Australia.
The submission was picked up by the national media, which largely focused on my proposal to lift the state ban on nuclear power and implement a carbon price.
The reception from commentators on the right, who want the ban lifted, and from renewables advocates, who want a price on carbon, suggests a middle ground on nuclear power may be achievable.
Three fundamental problems arise immediately when considering the prospect of nuclear power in Australia. First, the technology is expensive: more expensive than new fossil-fuelled power stations, and far too expensive to compete with existing fossil fuel generators under current market conditions.
Second, given the time lags involved, any substantial contribution from nuclear power in Australia won’t be available until well beyond 2030.
Third, given the strong public opposition to nuclear power, particularly from the environmental movement, any attempt to promote nuclear power at the expense of renewables would never get broad support. In these circumstances, any investor in nuclear power would face the prospect of losing their money the moment the balance of political power shifted.
On the first point, we have some evidence from the contract agreed by the UK government in for the construction of the Hinkley C nuclear power plant. This was the first new nuclear construction project to be approved in an OECD country for a number of years.
The agreement to construct Hinkley was based on a guaranteed “strike price” of £92.50/ megawatt hours (MWh), in 2012 prices, to be adjusted in line with the consumer price index during the construction period and over the subsequent 35-year tariff period. At current exchange rates, this price corresponds to approximately A$165.
Prices in Australia’s National Electricity Market have generally averaged around A$90/MWh. This implies that, if new nuclear power is to compete with existing fossil fuel generators, a carbon price must impose a cost of A$75/MWh on fossil fuel generation.
Assuming emission rates of 1.3 tonnes/MWh for brown coal, 1 tonne/MWh for black and 0.5 tonnes for gas, the implied carbon price ranges from A$50/tonne (to displace brown coal) to $150/tonne (to displace gas). On the basis that nuclear power is most plausible as a competitor for baseload generation from brown coal, I considered a price of A$50/tonne.
The central recommendations of my submission were as follows:
Recommendation 1: A carbon price of A$25/tonne should be introduced immediately, and increased at a real rate of 5% a year, reaching A$50/tonne by 2035.
Recommendation 2: The government should immediately adopt the recommendations of its own Climate Change Authority for a 40% to 60% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 2000 levels, and match other leading OECD countries in committing to complete decarbonisation of the economy by 2050.
Recommendation 3: The parliament should pass a motion:
Rather to my surprise, this proposal received a favourable reception from a number of centre-right commentators.
There are immediate political implications of my proposal at both the state and federal level. It will be more difficult for the Coalition-dominated committees running the two inquiries to bring down a report favourable to nuclear power without addressing the necessary conditions – including a carbon price. If the government’s hostility to carbon pricing is such that a serious proposal for nuclear power cannot be considered, it will at least be clear that this option can be abandoned for good.
In the admittedly unlikely event that the Coalition government shows itself open to new thinking, the focus turns to Labor and the Greens.
Given the urgency of addressing climate change – a task that is best addressed through a carbon price – it makes no sense to reject action now on the basis that it opens up the possibility of nuclear power sometime in the 2030s. And, if renewables and storage perform as well as most environmentalists expect, nuclear power will be unable to compete even then.
Political hardheads will doubtless say that this is all impossible, and they may be right. But in a world where Donald Trump can win a US presidential election, and major investment banks support UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “impossible” is a big claim
In the absence of any prospect of progress on either energy or climate, the grand bargain I’ve proposed is at least worth a try.
Iranian officials this week revealed that the country’s nuclear program will break the limit for uranium enrichment, set under the terms of the deal struck in 2015 between Iran and world powers including the United States under former president Barack Obama.
The nucleus of a uranium atom is a very rich source of energy. The splitting of a uranium atomic nucleus – a process called nuclear fission – produces more than 20 million times more energy than a strong chemical reaction such as burning a molecule of natural gas.
Atomic nuclei are made of two types of subatomic particles: protons and neutrons. All uranium atoms contain 92 protons, but can contain varying numbers of neutrons. Each specific combination of neutrons and protons is called an isotope. Isotopes are named according to the total number of protons and neutrons – hence, uranium-238 (U-238) contains 92 protons and 146 neutrons, whereas U-235 contains three fewer neutrons.
U-235 undergoes nuclear fission more readily than U-238, making it more valuable as a source of nuclear energy. What’s more, only U-235 can sustain a “nuclear chain reaction”, in which enough neutrons are released during nuclear fission to trigger fission in neighbouring atomic nuclei. This process is necessary to efficiently release large amounts of energy – either in a controlled way, such as in a nuclear power station, or in an uncontrolled explosion such as in a nuclear bomb.
Natural uranium, however, contains just 0.7% U-235, and 99.3% U-238. Commercial nuclear reactors designs generally require uranium fuel with U-235 concentrations of between 3.5% and 5%.
Uranium enrichment is the process of artificially increasing the proportion of U-235 in a sample of uranium to meet this requirement.
The technical details of uranium enrichment technology are highly classified, but we know the most efficient technique uses a process called centrifuge enrichment.
This involves reacting the uranium with fluorine to form a gas called uranium hexafluoride (UF₆). This is then spun at very high speeds in a series of centrifuges.
UF₆ molecules containing the heavier U-238 isotope are forced to the outside of the centrifuge, where they are removed. The remaining gas is thus richer in U-235, hence the term “enrichment”.
By feeding the mixture through a succession of centrifuges, the uranium becomes successively more enriched. Higher levels of uranium enrichment are therefore more expensive and time-consuming.
A typical 1-gigawatt commercial nuclear reactor contains one reactor and uses around 27 tonnes of enriched uranium fuel per year, although this depends on the quality of the nuclear fuel used. In a commercial market this costs around US$40 million, which is a small fraction of the US$450 million revenue that would be generated if we assume an electricity price of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The technical details of nuclear weapons development are more closely guarded still. But we know that a uranium fission weapon requires tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, with U-235 concentrations of around 90%.
While the level of enrichment is much higher, there is no difference in the equipment used to make weapons-grade uranium, as opposed to nuclear fuel.
The same facilities used to produce 27 tonnes of 3.6% U-235 fuel for a commercial reactor could conceivably also be used to make one tonne of U-235 enriched to 90% – roughly enough for 20 nuclear weapons.
However, the post-processing of the UF₆ to make nuclear fuel is considerably different to that required for a weapon. In the case of nuclear fuel, it is formed into uranium oxide pellets and encased in zirconium alloy tubes. Weapons require pure uranium metal.
Under the treaty, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.6%, and to only stockpile enough fuel to run its single commercial nuclear reactor for one year.
It has already breached the stockpiling limit, and has now broken the enrichment limit.
In theory, these breaches could allow Iran’s nuclear reactor to run more economically and for a longer time before the fuel needs to be replaced. However, these higher-enrichment fuels require very specialised processing, and only a handful of companies worldwide have the technology to do this. The waste handling required for the spent fuel is also more sophisticated.
Whatever Iran’s ultimate aim, and despite the diplomatic tensions, its uranium enrichment levels are not yet near those required for nuclear weapons.
The most ambitious effort to peacefully constrain the nuclear aspirations of a nation hangs by a thread. Eight years of patient and difficult negotiations to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme were cast aside when president Donald Trump withdrew US support for the deal in May 2018.
Since then, tensions between Iran and the US, a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – alongside the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China – have escalated. Last November, the US inflamed things further by re-imposing economic sanctions targeting both Iran and the states that trade with it.
The US decision in early May to deploy an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers, in response to what Washington said was an imminent Iranian plan to attack US assets, has kept tensions at a boil.
Washington stated that the latest show of force was in response to a “campaign” of recent attacks, including a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, explosive devices that damaged four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, and drone attacks by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline. Iran has denied any association with the incidents.
More recently, the US withdrew waivers which were part of the JCPOA deal with Iran. By revoking the waivers that enabled Iran to ship abroad excess supplies of enriched uranium and heavy water, the US has left the Islamic Republic pondering whether it should continue to comply with certain key parts of the deal.
Is a war coming between the US and Iran?
Iran’s foreign affairs minister, Javed Zarif, and Iraq’s foreign minister, Ali Alhakim, held a joint news conference in May, during which Zarif called on European states to do more to preserve the nuclear deal. Zarif also called the deployment of extra US troops to the Gulf region “extremely dangerous and a threat to international peace and security”.
A supportive Alhakim stated: “The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side.”
Certainly, sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy. The Iranian currency has hit a record low against the US dollar amid continued economic difficulties following the reimposition of sanctions, and the purchasing power of Iranians has dropped significantly. Indeed, Iran’s economy in 2019 is expected to fall deeper into recession, with estimated negative growth of 5.5% or higher.
Tehran has requested that the European signatories to the nuclear accord – France, Germany and the UK – keep the pact alive. The JCPOA sets a 3.67% limit on uranium enhancement (enough to fuel a commercial nuclear plant) and bars Iran from accumulating supplies of more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium and 130 tons of heavy water, a coolant used in nuclear reactors.
Tehran has rightly said the deal agreed to end Iran’s financial isolation in return for the strict limitations on its nuclear activities. But by bolstering sanctions, the US has scared organisations and banks into diminishing, ceasing or avoiding altogether business with Iranian partners, with serious repercussions for Iran’s economy.
Europe, by and large, has supported diplomacy with Iran. It has argued that Trump’s rejection of the deal compromises the pragmatic wing of Iran’s administration and plays into the hands of hardliners. The EU has long had questions about Tehran’s missile program, and its involvement in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but it has viewed these as separate from the nuclear agreement.
The economic sanctions have certainly put the moderate Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani under pressure, both internationally and domestically. Iranian hardliners argue that Iran surrendered too much in the agreement.
Rouhani has perhaps come up with a clever way of deflecting domestic criticism of him – at least for now – by suggesting that the Islamic Republic hold a referendum over its nuclear program. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) stated that Rouhani, who recently was openly chastised by the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made the suggestion at a gathering of senior Iranian editors on May 25.
Khamenei, who has the last say on all issues of state in Iran, has not yet responded to Rouhani’s recent proposition. The Islamic Republic has seen just three referendums since 1979: one on its change from a monarchy to an Islamic republic, and two on its constitution.
In the meantime, Iran has also threatened to quadruple its uranium-enrichment production limit, but stressed that even this uranium would not be enhanced beyond the 3.67% limit set by the JCPOA, making it unsuitable for developing a nuclear weapon. Rouhani has also said that Tehran will keep its excess enriched uranium and heavy water rather than exporting it.
If Europe fails to find a way for business and investors to work with Iran without being penalised by US sanctions, however, Rouhani has said that Iran will begin enriching uranium even further. In principle, this more highly-enriched uranium could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon. This would send Iran back on its way towards making a bomb, and mark the end of the JCPOA.
According to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) most recent quarterly report, Iran’s enriched uranium and heavy water stocks have grown but have not exceeded the ceilings set in the nuclear agreement. This suggests that Iran continues to comply with the JCPOA – for now, at least.
So far, Iran has also abstained from getting entangled in military brinkmanship with the US. But Trump may soon face a tough choice: either engage in a military clash with Iran or return to the JCPOA. The latter may be a u-turn too far for the bellicose president.
Either way, it is difficult to convince nations to surrender nuclear weapons once they have them. In this case, everything peaceful should be done to ensure that Iran is prevented from acquiring one in the first place.
US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to decertify the Iran nuclear deal threatens the future of the landmark agreement, creates greater instability in the Middle East, and weakens America’s position in the wider global order.
Adopted in October 2015, the agreement was the culmination of 20 months of intense negotiations between Iran and a US-led coalition made up of the UN Security Council P5 nations (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) as well as Germany. It significantly limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and achieve a domestic nuclear weapons capability.
In exchange, a range of longstanding US and EU economic sanctions were removed against Iran. This allowed access to wider export markets for its beleaguered oil industry and permitted greater amounts of external investment – particularly from interested parties in Europe and China.
Iran was permitted to retain a civilian nuclear program for power and medical purposes. However, this was subjected to regular checks by international inspectors to ensure no nefarious activities were taking place.
Further reading: Why now? Understanding the Iranian nuclear breakthrough
The US president is required to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days. If non-compliance is detected, the president’s decertification begins a congressional process that can end with the reimposition of sanctions.
Many saw the agreement as a significant and positive foreign policy legacy for former president Barack Obama. It was a rare achievement for an administration that largely fumbled in its approach to the Middle East.
Consternation over Trump’s inability to effectively handle the Iran deal began long before he was sworn in as president. On the campaign trail, Trump described it as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” without clearly stating why.
As president, Trump has sullenly recertified the agreement twice. But he always indicated he wanted to assume a more hostile stance toward Iran.
While taking a harder line toward Iran is hardly a desire Trump holds alone among Republicans, he has offered little coherent vision on an alternative. Aside from vague threats of violence and suggestions he could “renegotiate” the agreement, Trump has provided little in the way of viable policy options.
In the case of the former, short of regime change, this would only lead to a more hostile Iran and a greater probability of nuclearisation – just as it did in similar circumstances during the Bush years.
For the latter, Trump is unlikely to be able to mobilise the necessary partners to return to the negotiating table. Nor could he entice an antagonised Iran to trust future US commitments after it feels the US has once again duped it.
Trump’s justification for decertification stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit”. This is despite other partners in the negotiations, and his own advisers, indicating that Iran remains compliant with the agreement.
Trump cites Iran’s support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program and backing of Syria’s Assad regime, as a dereliction of its commitment to the deal.
The problem with this logic is two-fold and interrelated.
First, none of these activities are included in the nuclear agreement. While they are certainly challenges to be responded to with a combination of carrots and sticks, the deal was never designed or intended to resolve them.
Second, Trump seems to expect that the agreement should act as a panacea to the wider challenge of Iran for the US. This attitude ignores the complex, slow and ongoing nature of adversarial diplomacy.
Normalising Iran within the international system – the ultimate goal of US engagement – is a process that will likely take decades. In this endeavour, an all-or-nothing attitude only serves to weaken Washington’s position in any ongoing delicate negotiations, where both parties need to walk away with some sense of accomplishment, dignity and confidence in their partners.
Obama was starkly aware of such realities. He knew that while he might not be able to curtail all of Iran’s regionally destabilising activities, discussions on the nuclear issue in isolation could offer a path forward.
The decertification also reinforces Trump’s disdain for multilateralism as a key tool for promoting US interests and resolving international problems.
Not only does Trump’s decision incense America’s partners in the deal, it also joins a long list of multilateral frameworks, alliances and agreements he has either abdicated, threatened or weakened. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and NATO.
US participation and leadership in these institutions directly serves its own international interests: it helps it shape the norms and standards by which other countries engage in the global arena.
But, by undermining these same structures through such non-consultative and unilateral actions, the US disincentivises other countries from adhering to the rules-based international architecture it has sought to sculpt since 1945.
This has direct relevance for normalising Iran’s behaviour. It has viewed the international system as arrayed against it since at least the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Under such conditions, getting Iran to embrace a less revisionist and disruptive approach to foreign policy through socialisation and co-operation will hardly be helped by undermining a key structure of rapprochement.
At a wider level, such unilateralism harms US relations with its more traditional allies, which view it as a less reliable and predictable partner.
Trump’s transactional worldview may put little stock in national prestige. But such qualities can be just are crucial to the long-term diplomatic relationships of international affairs as short-term material concerns.
Should the US wish to maintain its global primacy, it cannot simply devolve into a bully power and expect others to remain in lock-step with its goals. While most US presidents have seemed to grasp this concept to varying degrees, it seems wholly beyond Trump’s neophytic views on grand strategy in foreign affairs.
On Wednesday a historic ceremony will take place in the UN General Assembly – the opening for signature of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it. More than 40 are expected to sign today, and more will sign over the coming weeks and months. As it was adopted by a vote of 122 to one, it can be expected that close to 100 countries will sign before year’s end and it will enter into force in 2018.
The agreements is long overdue. It is 72 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 71 years since the first resolution of the newly formed UN General Assembly called for “the elimination from national armaments of the atomic weapons”.
It comes at a time of deeply disturbing resurgent nuclear threats and risks of nuclear war, which are considered by most experts – such as the 15 Nobel laureates among the custodians of the Doomsday Clock – to be as high as they have ever been.
It will provide the first comprehensive and categorical prohibition of the world’s most destructive weapons. The treaty makes clear that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of these weapons means they can never be used again, and consequently should be eliminated. It affirms that as the risks concern the security of all humanity, all countries share this responsibility.
Countries that join the treaty must not develop, test, produce, possess, transfer, receive, station, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. There are provisions outlining a pathway for those that have nuclear weapons now, had them in the past, or host nuclear weapons, if they can verify they are rid of their nuclear weapons, related programs and facilities.
The treaty is carefully crafted to complement other disarmament treaties, in particular the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Not only is the content of the nuclear weapons treaty historic, but the process of its genesis has also transformed the moribund nuclear disarmament landscape. For the first time, a nuclear disarmament treaty has been led by the countries without the weapons, and has an unequivocal humanitarian basis.
The level of involvement of civil society was unprecedented, particularly Japanese hibakusha (those who survived the atomic bombs) and nuclear test survivors, including from Australia.
The UN was used for the first time in 21 years to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty, because it’s most inclusive and democratic forum, the General Assembly, is able to adopt substantive measures by vote.
This is in stark contrast to the NPT conferences and the Conference on Disarmament, which are paralysed by a requirement for consensus.
The treaty was able to be completed from negotiating mandate to adoption in eight months, with only four weeks of actual negotiations. This was because of a widespread determination to seize this landmark opportunity on the part of many states, who were more willing to put aside parochial agendas than I have ever witnessed in a nuclear forum over the past 35 years.
Fierce opposition came from nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent countries (including Australia), as a US document to its NATO allies demonstrates. Strong political and economic pressure exerted on many countries by the US, UK, France and Russia, despite peeling off some smaller and weaker countries, proved ineffective.
Pressure on countries not to sign, most publicly US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ admonition to Sweden, will likely ramp up. However, the treaty is a triumph of the interests of common humanity, and is not going away.
The dangerous brinkmanship and extreme threats traded between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are only the latest explicit threats to use nuclear weapons by a succession of leaders, including Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, and leaders in India and Pakistan.
Relations between the US and Russia are at their worst in 30 years, with a resurgent Cold War escalating. Relations between the US and China are at their lowest point in decades. Pakistan and India are expanding their nuclear arsenals faster than anywhere else. Both sides are implementing deployments and policies for early use of nuclear weapons if war erupts.
North Korea’s escalating development and testing of both nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles demonstrate that any determined nation can develop both.
The fundamental problem is what South African ambassador Abdul Minty described as “nuclear apartheid”, with the countries possessing nuclear weapons busy modernising and determined to retain them, rather than fulfil their obligation to disarm. This is an inevitable driver of nuclear proliferation.
As former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said:
There are no right hands for the wrong weapons.
No human should have the power to end the world in an afternoon. If nuclear weapons are retained they will eventually be used. The crisis relating to North Korea, for which there is no military solution, highlights again that our luck could run out any day.
The countries that have foresworn biological and chemical weapons now need to do the same for nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a credible pathway to the verified, time-bound elimination of weapons posing the most acute existential threat to people everywhere.
All countries – including North Korea, the US and Australia – should join the treaty.
While North Korea’s reckless behaviour in pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has diverted international attention in recent weeks, another crisis-in-the-making should be regarded with equal concern.
What the world does not need right now is another nuclear crisis on top of efforts to build a global consensus to deal with North Korean brinkmanship.
And yet that is what is at risk from a policy tug-of-war in the Trump administration between those who believe Iran is living up to its obligations – however imperfectly – under a 2015 agreement to freeze its nuclear program and those who want to toughen its provisions.
US President Donald Trump has described the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a centrepiece of his predecessor’s foreign policy – as the “worst deal ever”.
Under a Congressional mandate, the administration is obliged to certify the agreement every 90 days. On the advice of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has done this twice, but a festering issue has bubbled to the surface ahead of the next certification deadline on October 15.
Administration hawks are pushing for a renegotiation of the original agreement – something that Iran would almost certainly resist, along with other parties to the deal.
These include, apart from the US, the remaining four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. China and Russia could be expected to be especially resistant.
Any US action to withhold certification or seek to alter the terms of the JCPOA risks prompting an international crisis in which the US would find itself isolated from its natural allies. And all this at a moment when global consensus is required to deal with North Korea.
Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, might be pressuring the US to toughen its stance against Iran more generally, but if the JCPOA became a casualty of these pressures, an even more chaotic Middle East would be a likely result.
Israel’s campaign againstthe JCPOA has been relentless, and in this it finds itself aligned with Saudi Arabia in ways that have the potential to shift regional alignments.
In the Arab vernacular: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
In the US, concern about the administration’s commitment to the JCPOA has stirred arms control experts to counsel against steps that would jeopardise an agreement, however flawed, that appears to be working.
Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 (during which the JCPOA was negotiated), warned this week of risks to the agreement.
In a commentary for CNN, Countryman wrote:
The president campaigned on rash promises, including plans to tear up the deal, and he made it clear this summer that he still expects to pull out of the “worst deal ever”.
Sadly, he may do so even without any evidence to justify such an extreme course of action.
Countryman noted that just last week the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported that all parties to the JCPOA – including Iran – are in “full compliance” with the agreement.
This is the eighth time the agency, in its regular reports mandated by the JCPOA, has confirmed that the nuclear deal is working.
This expert assessment is not being challenged directly by members of the administration antipathetic to the agreement, but an attempt appears to be underway to reinterpret the JCPOA to take into account Iran’s behaviour more broadly.
This was never the intention.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave voice to this strand of administration thinking in a speech earlier this month to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in which she questioned Iran’s adherence to the spirit of the agreement. Haley said:
Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it.
Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments? Is the agreement in the national interests of the United States.
Haley answered her own question by launching an ad-hominem attack on Iran more generally, including criticism of its continuing development of a ballistic missile capability.
The ballistic missile issue is not dealt with in the JCPOA, rather in a separate UN resolution.
Haley’s suggestion that certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA should be shifted to Congress is problematical since that body overwhelmingly opposed the deal when it was negotiated. She told the AEI:
Under the law, if there was such a referral Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-right violations.
This process would almost certainly destabilise the JCPOA.
In an editorial, the New York Times forcefully expressed its misgivings:
If Mr Trump blows up the nuclear deal, then what? None of the original opponents of the deal, in or out of Congress, including Mr Trump, have offered any plausible alternative for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an alternative, a reckless decision to honour a reckless campaign promise invites Iran to pursue an unfettered path to a bomb. And if deals with the United States cannot be trusted, North Korea will have one more reason to keep pursuing its nuclear program.
In all of this one might have sympathy for Tillerson, who has been tasked with seeking to toughen provision of the JCPOA in consultation with America’s allies.
Tillerson is reportedly arguing for an extension of the freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program beyond the 2025 and 2030 limits specified in the agreement. Those discussions will continue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week when foreign ministers of the JCPOA signatories have been asked to convene to discuss the issue.
Indications are that the US will have some difficulty persuading the representatives of China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany to revisit the JCPOA.
One option being canvassed by the US is for a separate set of agreements that would seek both to limit Iran’s missile development, and extend the “sunset” provisions on its nuclear enrichment program.
New French president Emmanuel Macron has expressed lukewarm support, but it seems unlikely Germany’s Angela Merkel would fall into line if such a step risked the overall agreement struck after two years of painstaking negotiations.
Indeed, this week Merkel proposed talks on the North Korea crisis along lines of the negotiations with Iran:
I could imagine such a format being used to end the North Korea conflict. Europe and especially Germany should be prepared to play a very active part in that.
From an Australian perspective, no purpose would be served at a moment when it wants the focus to remain on North Korea by a separate crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Australia might be “joined at the hip” to the US, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words, but when it comes to an issue like America’s threats to blow up the JCPOA, Australia would be advised to endure a bit of separation anxiety.