chapter  11
18 Pages

“A glaring defect in the system”: nuclear safeguards and the invisibility of technology


Since the 1960s, nuclear-armed states have struggled, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to manage the fate of technologies related to budding nuclear programs around the world. As diplomats and scientific experts considered handing over to the IAEA the responsibilities for ensuring civilian nuclear technologies were not diverted towards nuclear weapons programs, their arguments opened painful sores in international relations. Most famously, Indian and Brazilian diplomats characterized the dogged insistence by nuclear-weapon states on rigorous safeguards as an attempt to put the divide between “haves” and “have-nots” on a permanent basis. This so-called “nuclear apartheid,” with its potent anti-colonial rhetoric, stood as a justification for these countries’ nonparticipation in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) for decades.2 It is true that by suggesting strict standards for exports of nuclear materials and equipment and linking such exports to the acceptance of invasive verification mechanisms Western diplomats risked alienating the countries of the socalled developing world. Protecting sovereignty and economic development is a familiar theme, debated within various global regulatory regimes, from the NPT to environmental accords. However, the narrative of strict “haves” and loose “have-nots” sidesteps the fact that the strongest efforts to maintain a lax interpretation of what constituted nuclear equipment came just as often from the exporting states, as these actors were hoping to ensure markets for a range of technologies. This development can best be gleaned from examining episodes from the history of negotiating and implementing “safeguards” provisions, the rules by which nuclear transactions between states have been monitored by governments or by international organizations. Establishing the provisions governing the implementation of international nuclear safeguards has never been a mere technical issue, but instead has been a smorgasbord of technical, political, commercial, national security, and social factors. Even its most basic challenge was hotly contested, namely identifying “triggers” – the kinds of transactions that would necessitate some kind of procedure to ensure that materials intended for peaceful use were not diverted to military ends. In the 1960s, discussions were entwined with other sources of tension: the credibility of the brand-new IAEA and its role vis-à-vis the European

Atomic Energy Community (Euratom); the French nuclear weapons program; American hopes for a multilateral nuclear force in Europe; commercial tenders for reactors in India; and the Chinese Communist bomb test, to name just a few. In those years, the nations of the world invested considerable energy into the question of what counted as worthy of safeguards. At the IAEA, the safeguards agreements negotiated in 1961 and 1965 became the foundation of interpreting nuclear proliferation under the NPT in subsequent years. This chapter highlights how easily national imperatives, especially commercial pressures and security concerns in supplier states, dictated loose interpretations of what should “trigger” safeguards. My analysis is inspired by scholarship showing how the ambiguous notion of what it means to be a “nuclear thing” led to interpretive disparities about how to apply safeguards, to report transactions, or even to require health protection for workers.3 It is also informed by scholarship emphasizing how commercial pressures and bureaucratic decisions rendered humans, material, and even entire countries invisible to would-be regulators.4 Here I focus not on what equipment ended up in international accords, but rather on the ways the United States and other Western powers encouraged technological invisibility, relaxing restrictions rather than tightening them. Documents from safeguards negotiations reveal considerable anxiety about the invisibility of certain nuclear transactions. At a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, for example, British delegate M.I. Michaels made an economic analogy, pointing to Gresham’s Law – the economic notion that “bad money” pushes “good money” out of circulation. In the nuclear realm, he said, lax interpretations of what constituted a nuclear technology would drive out stringent ones. In what he called a “glaring defect in the system,” he argued that the IAEA safeguards agreements would allow a huge amount of nuclear-related technologies to pass from one country to another without being noticed by the IAEA.5 What Michaels feared was precisely what ended up happening, as fewer aspects of global trade were ultimately identified as “nuclear” than might have been. Nuclear supplier states not only tolerated technological invisibility, but also actively exploited loopholes within their own nonproliferation policies. In part this was due to lack of firm will on the part of the United States’ government in the early 1960s about nonproliferation, providing ample opportunities for European nuclear suppliers to find ways to avoid scrutiny. Europeans (especially Britain, France, and West Germany) routinely pushed for exceptions to US nonproliferation strategies: Britain hoped to avoid inspections in its dual-use military facility; France struck deals with American companies despite the US knowing the equipment would be used in weapons research; and the FRG clamored not only for a multilateral nuclear force but also a Europe-only inspections program. By the time of negotiating the NPT, most of the supplier states were only grudging partners in strict nonproliferation, with only tepid commitment to restrictions on trade.6 The result was an ongoing tolerance of technological invisibility, in which supplier states, despite being aware of the connection between specific equipment and possible weapon programs, sought to loosen rather than constrain nuclear trade.