Pure Fusion Research and Nuclear Disarmament: An Unholy Alliance

Posted in Other | 11-Jan-10 | Author: Yogesh Joshi

National Ignition Facility (INF)

President Obama has made the early entry into force of the CTBT as the cornerstone of the new administration's nuclear policy. The irony is that the spirit of the CTBT was subverted again, only a few days before President Obama's historic declaration in Prague last year.

On 31 March 2008, the US Energy Department declared the completion of the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The project was carried under the auspices of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency responsible for the Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship Program (NSSP) undertaken by the US to affirm the viability of its nuclear stocks in the absence of any nuclear testing since the 1992 self-imposed moratorium on testing. The Facility located in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California promises a substantial breakthrough in nuclear fusion research and consists of 192 giant lasers, which will produce nearly two million joules of ultraviolet energy. When concentrated on a fuel pellet of frozen hydrogen (deuterium and tritium), it causes the fuel to compress under high temperature and pressure resulting in a mini-fusion reaction, though only for some micro-seconds. It took over 15 years and a whopping US$4 billion for the Facility to be completed.

The grandeur of such a scientific accomplishment is rightly acknowledged primarily because it will be the first instance where a controlled fusion reaction would be possible, much ahead of the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) project. It will also allow the scientific community to unravel the mysteries of our solar system by providing a real laboratory simulation of complex processes involved in the formation of celestial objects. Nevertheless, what is important here is to observe is the effect such technology will have on global nuclear disarmament.

The NIF has three stated goals - national security, energy production and basic scientific research. However, what have sustained this highly promising but equally suspect project are not its non-weapon uses but rather its importance in sustaining American dominance in strategic nuclear weapons. Since the moratorium came into place, the US has resorted to sub-critical tests and computer simulations to fix the reliability problem of its ageing nuclear weaponry. Since none of them involve full nuclear detonations, they are virtual in nature. What the NIF provides is a real nuclear explosion and the data obtained can then be used for upgrading the weapon designs and also to produce, probably pure fusion nuclear devices, though there are still substantial impediments to be overcome to make it possible.

The US Department of Energy suggests that these explosions are permitted under the CTBT because first, they are too small to be counted as nuclear explosions (with a yield of less than 4 pounds of TNT) under the Treaty and second, based on the understanding that the NPT allowed Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) research (pure fusion reactions) and that the CTBT does not explicitly prohibit it. These arguments are untenable. The minimum yield of the explosions can be well under the limit of 4 pounds but explosions of over 10 pounds are also possible in the facility. Without any monitoring and verification, true determination of the yield is impossible and would need blind faith by the international community in US pronouncements. Also, a number of countries are turning to ICF research and without verification it poses potential proliferation risk.

Further, what is more damning for the whole disarmament process is the blatant violation of the spirit of the CTBT. To say that the Treaty does not prohibit certain acts does not mean that it allows them, either. Articles I and II of the CTBT clearly state both prohibition and prevention of nuclear explosions as well as of processes leading in this direction. This means that even research done in the NIF is illegal in nature. Further, even if the US has not ratified the CTBT, it is still bound by Article XIV of the Vienna Convention on Treaties which enjoins the signatories of an international Treaty to refrain from actions which can undermine that particular Treaty( in this case the CTBT).

NIF symbolizes the parochial understanding where disarmament is conflated with Non-proliferation. Once Non-proliferation is made paramount at the cost of disarmament, non-proliferation loses its normative vision of a nuclear free world and also loses its legitimacy in the international community. This also underlines the fact that technology can be used for both monitoring compliance with treaty provisions as well as to subvert the essence of the treaty itself. It tells us about the division of the world between those who have the abilities to secure themselves both through material power and the power of the law and those who lack in both. Advanced nations use international law to restrict nuclear weapons among a chosen few and then twist the legal obligations restricting them using their advanced scientific expertise and huge resources. This seriously dents the legitimacy of international law and creates genuine grievances among those who have given up their rights to pursue nuclear weapons. Since technology has become such a pivotal element, any serious discourse on global disarmament would require those countries that have the knowledge and resources to undermine the norms guiding the disarmament process to act in good faith by not using science to evade their international obligations.