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Expert: Curbing Tech Transfers Isn't Stopping Nuclear Proliferation

A crane picks up containers with uranium to be used as fuel for nuclear reactors to load them aboard the Atlantic Navigator ship, on a port in St. Petersburg, Russia.

A crane picks up containers with uranium to be used as fuel for nuclear reactors to load them aboard the Atlantic Navigator ship, on a port in St. Petersburg, Russia. // Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

A new academic paper contends that the international community's focus on "supply-side" technology constraints to stop nuclear proliferation is failing.

In a paper published on Tuesday in International Security, R. Scott Kemp argues that policymakers are overly reliant on limiting international market access to certain sensitive technologies and substances that can be used to produce nuclear fuel. This follows the belief -- which the author thinks is "misguided" -- that with the exception of a few advanced industrial nations, a country's capacity to develop nuclear arms "hinges on its ability" to import the necessary equipment.

Kemp, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, examined 21 centrifuge programs around the world. He found that while access to technology once served as a constraint, it ceased doing so in the 1970s and 1980s. Kemp's historical analysis concludes that 14 countries have been able to acquire gas centrifuges "using only a minimum of technical and human resources" that arguably could be attained by "many or most of today's developing countries."

"That this is possible should not be surprising: the technologies needed to make nuclear weapons have remained static, whereas the indigenous capabilities of states have steadily grown over the last half-century," he wrote.

Kemp, a onetime science adviser on nonproliferation issues at the State Department, argues that the international community should recalibrate how much energy it devotes to "supply-side" measures, in contrast to approaches aimed at dissuading states from pursuing atomic arms in the first place. In an interview with the MIT News office, Kemp said, "We need to get past the idea that we can control the destiny of nations by regulating access to technology. International security must ultimately resort to the difficult business of politics."

At the same time, Kemp does not argue for ending regulations on access to sensitive nuclear technologies altogether. He notes that they are useful in constraining the spread of higher-performance centrifuges, as well as "noncentrifuge modes of nuclear proliferation."

In a limited number of cases -- such as Libya and Iraq -- supply-side constraints can actually bolster internal limitations a government might face in establishing the research infrastructure necessary to support an effective warhead development program, Kemp said. Both countries attempted to pursue nuclear weapon programs decades ago, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

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