Special Commentary: Carnegie 2013 Nuclear Policy Conference

23 Apr, 2013    ·   3891

Arun Vishwanathan takes note of the important issues emerging from the discussions at the Conference

In the midst of the ‘proliferation’ of cherry blossoms in Washington DC, the 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference was held at the Ronald Reagan Building on April 8 and 9, 2013. The fifteenth annual international nuclear conference organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) witnessed attendance by over 800 government officials, experts and students from 46 countries. 

The following paragraphs are an attempt to flag the important issues (in no particular order) which were discussed at the Conference. In a welcome change, the conference, rather than focussing solely on much discussed issues like Iran and North Korea, chose to centre the sessions on four main themes: deterrence, non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear power/industry.  This being said, Iran, North Korea and - to a lesser degree - South Asia did figure prominently in the sessions, primarily regarding the efficacy of sanctions, the implications of regime-change on non-proliferation and the discussions on the FMCT.

Proposed Changes in IAEA Safeguards  
The IAEA Director General, Yukiya Amano, in his keynote address on April 8 spoke, inter alia, of the proposed state-specific safeguards. These changes seek to modify the IAEA inspectors’ role from that of ‘accountants’ to one of ‘investigators.’ Amano described the shift as an effort to efficiently utilize the IAEA’s resources and achieve an early detection of any diversion of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities. The proposed changes envision modifying how safeguards may be implemented. This involves moving beyond the current system which is based on the quantity of nuclear material in a state and/or the size of its fuel cycle. The new system will consider the state as a whole. Such a system would be more focussed, and take into account state-specific factors, so that it would fit within the overall nuclear profile of the state.

Iran's Nuclear Programme
The Iranian nuclear programme and the vexing foreign policy challenges that it poses were touched upon by several of the speakers and panels. Apart from the IAEA DG, Yukiya Amano and a talk by the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, sessions on proliferation and regime change assessed the efficacy of sanctions for non-proliferation. The speakers in this session  made a conscious attempt to desist from discussing Iran and North Korea and provide a larger historical context. However, by the end of the session, Tehran and Pyongyang formed a large part of the discussions. An interesting comment on the Iranian threat perceptions by Bjian Khajehpour drew the ire of the Pakistani participants. Mr Khajehpour stated that Iran’s greatest threat perception is a Talibanised Pakistan!

The discussions on the efficacy of sanctions highlighted the fact that sanctions should have very specific goals and must not be a substitute for foreign policy. More importantly, they  reiterated the well-known fact that sanctions often have unintended consequences which include inflicting hardships on the general public, thereby unwittingly creating conditions which are conducive for smuggling and black marketing. Indeed, in the Iranian case, sanctions have had unintended consequences like shortage of medical supplies among others.

North Korea
The recent developments in the Korean peninsula were also in the spotlight during the conference. The April 9 keynote address by MJ Chung, member of the South Korean National Assembly highlighted the complex set of challenges that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons poses for the region, the US and South Korea in particular. Though one did feel that Dr Chung was playing to the domestic gallery back home, he did ruffle a lot of feathers by calling for the re-introduction of tactical nuclear weapons which were withdrawn in 1991. Drawing on the deterrence logic and describing the threat to Seoul from Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons as ‘extraordinary,’ Dr. Chung stated that South Korea might ‘exercise its right to withdraw from the NPT, match the North’s progress and commit to stop if North Korea stops its nuclear program.’

The North Korean nuclear weapons issue also raises the related question of American ‘extended deterrence,’ how the US can strengthen it while at the same time balancing its commitment to reducing its stockpile. MJ Chung in his address also touched upon the issue stating that extended deterrence might deter Pyongyang from using nuclear weapons but it cannot deter the North from developing nuclear weapons. This raises the additional question of how the US works towards reassuring its allies in Europe, West Asia and Northeast Asia given the varied security environments.

Future of Nuclear Energy 
Several sessions in the conference dwelled upon the future of nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima world. Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Allison Macfarlane stressed the importance of ‘strong and effective regulatory controls to enhance the efficiency with which nuclear materials can be safely and securely used’. The NRC chief also stressed that countries considering nuclear power should ponder the issue of waste disposal at the very outset.

There were two other sessions entitled ‘Wither Nuclear Power’ and ‘Managing Nuclear Power Post-Fukushima’ which discussed at length the future of nuclear power across the globe following the Fukushima accident. The overall sense one got out of these discussions was that the global nuclear industry is going through a rough patch as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Though there are countries like China, India, Turkey among others who are going ahead with their nuclear power plans, they too will have to work towards addressing public concerns. Another point that stood out very clearly is the continued government involvement in the nuclear power business and the continuance of this situation, if the industry is to face up to the problems it currently faces.

Chinese Nuclear Capability and Thinking on Deterrence
In the session which looked at deterrence, disarmament and non-proliferation in President Obama’s second term, the initial discussions focussed on the differences between the US and Russian perceptions and the divergent approaches to the next round of bilateral negotiations. This session interestingly saw the participation of China in form of the PLA’s Major General Yao Yunzhu from the Academy of Military Science. Yao provided a glimpse into Chinese thinking on deterrence issues. She stressed the small, minimal nature of nuclear weapons and pointed out that the deployment of missile defence in East Asia was disturbing for China and had a ‘bearing on Chinese calculation of its nuclear and strategic arsenal’.

On the issue of limitations on the Chinese stockpile in the light of American and Russian discussions on further reductions to their own stockpile, Maj. Gen. Yao sidestepped the question, by harking back to President Hu Jintao’s 2009 statement that ‘when the conditions are appropriate all other nuclear weapon countries should join a multilateral disarmament process’. However, Yao did mention that one such condition would be further reduction of American and Russian nuclear stockpile; while maintaining that ‘China will not try to seek parity with the US and Russia, even when they are downsizing’.

Speaking on the Chinese nuclear arsenal, Maj. Gen. Yao stated that China’s arsenal is small, has the capability to launch a second strike and also has the capability to deter. In response to a question on the tunnels being built by the PLA 2nd Artillery, Yao mentioned that these tunnels - like those built by Russia and the US – are required in order to have a survivable nuclear arsenal. Given the small Chinese arsenal, Yao stressed on the importance of penetration capabilities and on uncertainty rather than on transparency to deter. In this context, Yao stated a certain amount of opaqueness is an integral part of China’s no-first-use (NFU) policy’. In the light of the recent Chinese White Paper and the debate on Chinese No-First Use (NFU), this statement made by Yao seems pertinent.

FMCT and Pakistan
In the session entitled ‘Are Treaties like FMCT and CTBT Still Vital?’, former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Maleeha Lodhi focussed most of the attention and discussions on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) and more importantly on the Pakistani rationale behind its stance on the FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Ambassador Lodhi in the course of this session took great pains to point out that it was the case of Indian exceptionalism as a result of the Indo-US nuclear deal that fashioned and continues to drive Pakistani policy on the FMCT.

Important Takeaways
Proposed state-specific safeguards could prove tricky
: The proposed expansion of nuclear power across the globe will increase the IAEA’s responsibilities. The agency will find itself in a position where it will have to stretch its already meagre human and financial resources, while at the same time performing the onerous task of detecting any diversion of material from peaceful nuclear activities. However, the question that comes to mind is whether by implementing such a change in its safeguards implementation, the Agency is embarking upon a rather slippery slope of trying to gauge a member state’s ‘intentions’. The Iran episode has made it amply clear that gauging a state’s intentions has several shades of grey. In times where the Agency’s actions have come under increasing scrutiny, the new changes should not be perceived by members as being discriminatory. Such a perception will harm the credibility of the Agency – something which is essential for the discharge of its responsibilities. 

India is on a strong wicket: The Indo-US nuclear deal and the growing Indian engagement with the non-proliferation regime and export control mechanisms have put India on a strong wicket. From being created as a response to the Indian 1974 PNE, discussions during the Carnegie conference turned to the impending Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the other export control mechanisms. The world, as they say, has come full circle.