Reducing Risks from Naval Nuclear Fuel

November 13, 2018

The Institute for International Science & Technology Policy at The George Washington University published a new Occasional Paper titled “Reducing Risks from Naval Nuclear Fuel,” with chapters authored by CNS Scientist-in-Residence Dr. George M. Moore and Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Executive Director Laura Rockwood. The following are excerpts from the  paper’s introduction. 

The use of nuclear fuel to power naval vessels has provided distinct advantages to countries able to master the technology, especially when it comes to enhancing the stealth and range of submarines. Those countries with the resources and impetus to proceed down this path have leveraged their nuclear-weapon programs. Japan and Germany were exceptions to this rule, and they limited their experimentation to nuclear-powered ships for civilian purposes. Canada contemplated nuclear submarines in the 1980s but ultimately abandoned its plan. Financial and technical hurdles make the naval nuclear club exclusive, but no legal barriers exist. In fact, parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) with or without nuclear weapons are free to develop nuclear fuel for non-proscribed military applications.  This “naval nuclear loophole” poses several dilemmas. The first is a well-known monitoring problem that arises because nuclear material for military reactors arguably passes in and out of the civilian and military sectors throughout its life cycle. The only inherently military segment of the naval nuclear fuel cycle involves the use of the fuel aboard the military vessel, although some information associated with the composition of the fuel and its irradiation along the way might be sensitive.


The essays in this volume address some of the problems that nuclear naval fuel poses for the nonproliferation regime and for nuclear security. Frank von Hippel’s analysis, “Mitigating the Threat of Nuclear Proliferation from Nuclear-Submarine Programs,” describes the risks broadly and suggests that some navies could achieve the same effectiveness with conventionally powered submarines that feature new technology, and at a lower cost. Von Hippel also discusses the significant barriers to acquiring the requisite enriched uranium from foreign suppliers. Matias Spektor’s contribution, “Brazil’s Nuclear Naval Fuel: Choices and a Road Map for Productive Engagement,” lays out the current status of Brazil’s program and recommends steps for building confidence in Brazil’s intentions. Laura Rockwood’s essay, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion: Seeking Verification Processes,” suggests potential pathways for developing an international project to devise monitoring schemes. As a former lawyer for the IAEA, Rockwood expertly lays out historic precedents for developing new norms and approaches for safeguards. George Moore’s essay, “The 6 Percent Solution: LEU-Fueled Reactors and Life of-Ship Reactors for the US and UK Navies,” lays out the rationale for the United States and United Kingdom switching to low-enriched uranium fuel. Peter Lobner describes the US naval nuclear program in detail in his essay, “Assessing Challenges to Completely Eliminating Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in US Naval Reactors.” A former nuclear submariner, Lobner lays out mission and procurement considerations of the US Navy.

For bureaucratic, political, and economic reasons, steps that could mitigate the risks that naval nuclear fuel pose for proliferation and nuclear security have been unpopular. The four nuclear security summits held between 2010 and 2016 successfully challenged the status quo regarding HEU in the civilian nuclear sector but left HEU in the military sector untouched. Legal routes to further restrictions, such as amending the NPT, completing a fissile-material treaty, or bringing the nuclear-weapons ban into effect, are long, arduous, and possibly not worth the effort. In the interim, therefore, it makes sense to explore whether countries with naval nuclear programs can take actions individually or together that would support norms to reduce the proliferation and security risks associated with existing and future programs. This compilation of essays explores whether norms such as greater transparency in the form of new monitoring approaches, restraint in the use of HEU stocks, and a global cap on uranium enrichment levels might be feasible or achievable.

Download the paper.

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