Nuclear sales to China?

By , Richard Wilson is chairman of the department of physics at Harvard University.

The report that the United States is considering the sale of nuclear reactors to China raises once again the question of consistency in the US policy of attempting to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons.

At first glance, the proposal will not add to the number of nuclear weapons in the world, nor to the number of nations possessing them. The sale of reactors , and any nuclear fuel, would be accompanied by guarantees that such reactors and fuel would not be used for making bombs.

This is a believable guarantee, because China has demonstrated that it has other reactors, and other uranium which will make bomb-grade fissionable material much more easily. But, as we follow the logic carefully, there are traps down this road.

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Four years ago the US Congress was in considerable turmoil about selling nuclear fuel to supply the Tarapur reactors in India. India made the same guarantees as China and is happy to repeat them and in addition allow limited international inspection to be sure that the guarantees are kept. Again, the guarantees are believable. India has indeed exploded a nuclear device, but has not used fuel from Tarapur for that purpose. India has four heavy-water reactors , two at Rajastan (one supplied by Canada) and two more nearly complete at Kalapakkum, which have on-line fuel changing facilities and are better suited for the ''short burn'' necessary to produce bomb-grade plutonium.

Yet the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1978 forces us to break our agreement with India to provide fuel for Tarapur. Three distinct reasons have been advanced for breaking the agreement. First, we are upset that the India of Gandhi and Nehru exploded a nuclear device and is no longer a symbol of peace; second, we are upset that India hoodwinked Canada and, while obeying the letter of an agreement not to use Canadian fuel for bombmaking, broke the spirit by substituting its own fuel in the Canadian-supplied Rajastan I reactor; and third , we want to send signals to Pakistan that we disapprove of India's bombmaking.

We are willing to use civilian nuclear power and a country's need for energy to exert pressure on that country to desist from its military programs. This pressure can be exerted until a country has a well-developed manufacturing capability of its own for nuclear power plants.

The same principle is likely to arise in Israel. At the time of President Mitterrand's visit in March, it was announced that the Guy Mollet committee set up in the 1960s on nuclear cooperation between India and France, was being reactivated, and that one of the topics for discussion is the sale of nuclear reactors to Israel. Presumably, American reactor manufacturers will want to be allowed to compete for this business. Yet Israel has not signed the NPT, has rejected all international inspections, and probably has atomic bombs waiting to be assembled. Even if China agrees to inspection of the particular reactors, the situation is not the same as for India - in India we broke an agreement and in China and Israel there are no agreements to break.

It is, unfortunately, cheaper to make a bomb than to make a large nuclear power reactor. Suppose, therefore, we agree to sell reactors freely to all countries that have made bombs and make trouble for other, less-developed countries. Do we not invite others who merely want reactors to make bombs first? Is it more sensible to sell reactors to a country, such as South Africa or Israel, which has not signed NPT and only accepted limited inspection, and to worry (as the American public worried in June 1981) about selling reactors to a country, such as Iraq, which has accepted all inspections the international community requested?

These are important questions, and other political considerations must clearly be involved. But in general, these political considerations should be used to extend our caution rather than to relax it.

Priority should be given to supporting international treaties such as NPT. The sale of one or two reactors to China, or to Israel, will not bail out the US nuclear reactor industry; nor will it solve, by itself, the energy problems of these countries.

In the absence of such overriding political considerations, US policy should try to be consistent; one consistent possibility is to sell nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel only to nations that have signed NPT or agree to full-scope safeguards on all nuclear facilities in their countries. To those countries which have signed NPT nuclear materials may be sold for civilian purposes in the spirit of NPT to encourage their economies but to discourage them from acquiring facilities which could be used secretly for bombmaking.

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