Joshua PollackRethinking Multinational Consortia

At one point in a wide-ranging op-ed back in March, Frank von Hippel made the case for a global switchover to multinational consortia for uranium enrichment:

[It] would make it more difficult for any one country to divert the material to military ends. In fact, Urenco, the West’s most successful uranium enrichment enterprise, is already under the joint ownership of Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

The United States should help shape this industrial model into an international one, in which all enrichment plants are under multinational control. Doing so would make it more difficult for countries like Iran to justify building national enrichment plants that could be used to produce nuclear weapons materials.

The attractions of the proposal are clear enough, in principle – much broader access to state-of-the-art technology without the proliferation risks involved in national fuel cycles. But offering URENCO as an example of how to do it rings false.

Really, has there been a bigger disaster for nonproliferation? Brazil, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and probably others have been the unintended beneficiaries of URENCO centrifuge technology. Perhaps Dutch and German engineers needed their own ISTC years before it was established for the benefit of Russian scientists.

And lest you think it’s just a URENCO problem, consider where North Korea got its reprocessing technology: the defunct Eurochemic consortium based in Belgium. That seems less like a URENCO-style case of massive and recurring intellectual property theft, and more like a giveaway. According to Mark Hibbs in the Feb. 28, 1994 issue of NuclearFuel,

As early as 1970, in open IAEA publications and in so-called external technical reports (ETR), Eurochemic made public schematic blueprints for plant construction, flow charts for process engineering, and operations results. ‘There was no secret about this work,’ an official at KFK [the Nuclear Research Center at Karlsruhe] said.”

The multinational approach remains an attractive idea, on paper. But work remains to be done to establish why it has gone so wrong in the past, and what could be done to prevent similar episodes in the future.


  1. b (History)

    “The United States should help shape this industrial model into an international one, in which all enrichment plants are under multinational control. Doing so would make it more difficult for countries like Iran to justify building national enrichment plants that could be used to produce nuclear weapons materials.”

    I do not see any logic in that sentence. Iran and others have a good argument for building an independent plant. They are threatened by boycotts and embargoes. Those come from multinational efforts and the only response to that is independent capacity.

    • joshua (History)

      Von Hippel doesn’t mention it, but Iran has often been proposed as the host of a multinational facility, to serve as a model for a system of regional enrichment centers.

      One question about that proposal is whether it would be acceptable to any of Iran’s neighbors, the would-be participants, as they build their own nuclear power plants, assuming that they will continue down that track.

  2. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Josh, as always, you raise a number of important points. But the A.Q. Khan example is more of an indictment of security measures than multilateral facilities. The “insider threat” is a tough, tough problem for any institution. But it is very different from state proliferation even if states were the ones to benefit from it. One only has to think about the wikileaks example: why was a supposedly secure computer allowed to have a functioning disk writer? Let’s keep Frank’s (and others) proposals for reducing the likelihood that a facility will be abused to create weapons separate from security concerns.

    However, multinational enrichment ventures *do* represent unique problems. A more appropriate example for your main point might be the German-Brazil collaborations to *develop* enrichment technologies. Those programs, regardless of what Brazil might claim, were responsible for the spread of enrichment technologies to secret programs. When forming multinational joint ventures, proper consideration must be given to prevent the spread of know-how. So far as I know, only the Forden-Thomson proposal has addressed that issue head on and examined the implications and security measures necessary for preventing the spread of sensitive know-how while at the same time providing significant economic incentives to make the system attractive.

  3. joshua (History)

    Thanks, Stranger.

    For anyone not already familiar with the Forden-Thompson proposal, see Geoffrey Forden and John Thompson, “Iran as a Pioneer Case for Multilateral Nuclear Arrangements,” 4th ed., May 2009, at

    • John Schilling (History)

      Interesting, but I’m not sure what the point is. The described arrangement would enable a uranium enrichment facility or facilities to exist within the borders of Iran and under nominal Iranian part-ownership, with minimal added proliferation risk. What benefit does Iran, or anyone else, gain from this arrangement that would not be more easily achieved by e.g. buying stock in URENCO? If the Iranians simply want an assured supply of reactor fuel, that would about do the job.

      I believe that what Iran wants has little to do with a steady supply of reactor fuel, or with nominal ownership of an enrichment facility, or with the geographic location of an enrichment facility, but with operational control of an enrichment facility – which the Forden-Thompson proposal would effectively deny even as the centrifuges spin merrily in Natanz. This is not to say that Iran necessarily wants nuclear weapons in the near future, but they at least get a great deal of diplomatic mileage out of just the possibility. They are going to want something of real value in exchange for taking that card out of play.

      I agree that if Iran does want nuclear weapons in the near future, they will come about as the result of a covert program. A uranium enrichment facility on Iranian soil and/or with Iranian technical staff will inevitably offer some degree of support for such a covert program, but the Forden-Thompson proposal credibly reduces this to a minimal level. Claims that it will actually reduce the risk of covert proliferation are, in my opinion, not credible.

      So, much concrete is poured, metal bent, money spent, and in the end the Iranian flag flies over an enrichment plant that is controlled by a multinational consortium, producing fuel elements that could just as well be made in e.g. Belgium. Meanwhile, Iran either does or does not go ahead and build a nuclear arsenal at the Son of Qom facility. The advantage of this proposal escapes me.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “What benefit does Iran, or anyone else, gain from this arrangement that would not be more easily achieved by e.g. buying stock in URENCO?”

      Actually, Iran already owns 10% of the Eurodif consortium, and has since the days of the Shah, but according to the French ministry of foreign affairs, “Under the 1991 French-Iranian agreements, Iran has no access to technology and no right to take enriched uranium.” Nor do they receive dividents anymore.

  4. dave94302 (History)

    The basic problem here is that most of the nuclear programs have an essentially military motivation:
    The purpose of building “civilian nuclear technology” is to gain experience with technology which would be relevant in the event of a future need to build nuclear weapons.

    No serious person can think that these international consortiums would be anything other than a sort of “University of the Bomb” for those countries who want to retain the option of an independent nuclear capability.

    The Iranian, Taiwanese, and South Korean programs all have this character.

    URENCO is a classic example of the process.

    • kme (History)

      Not to mention the Japanese, Brazilian, Argentinian, …

  5. jeannick (History)

    There is the small question of trust too
    after all ,Iran request for nuclear medical supplies
    was stopped cold by the U.S. , that was against the spirit and letter of the NPT
    an international consortia would be the plaything of legalese warfare , much better to have one own or bilateral arrangement with friendly countries
    For what it’s worth , a leasing of the fuel seems to be the
    most benign regime , it certainly would solve a raft of problems

    • joshua (History)

      Do you mean medical isotopes? To the contrary, Iran would have no difficulty getting those from abroad, and the U.S. would not stand in its way. Everyone would much prefer that Iran imported medical isotopes rather than enrich U to near-20% allegedly as a means of preparing to produce its own.

      If one wanted to articulate an objection to consortia from an Iranian perspective, it would have to do with the Eurodif/Sofidif controversy.

  6. mark (History)

    I attended a press conference at the IAEA in Vienna I think it was back around 2005 or so after ElBaradei had committed himself to multilateral fuel cycle centers. There was an event at the IAEA GC on this that prompted the press conference. I listened politely to the mantra from all the panelists about how multilateralizing the fuel cycle would fix it all. Then I said: “Well, there are people in a few P-5 governments who point out that it was one multilateral fuel cycle organization that gave us a uranium enrichment proliferation problem in the first place.” That went over like a ton of bricks. Charlie Curtis of NTI was there on the panel. He responded by saying that “There’s nothing you can do about espionage” suggesting that espionage was project-neutral, in other words, it could happen at Urenco and also at USEC. I’m not so sure. The record of the European problem showed among other things that there was no effective centralized control of the enrichment plants at the security level, and that the Germans and the Dutch and the UK had their own rules. Zifferero even told me that at Urenco’s supervisory board after 1991 and the Iraq revelations it was established that the “They had to put a fence around” Urenco’s German operations specifically, because these heavily relied on sharing a lot of information with outsiders. I know it doesn’t have to be that way, but the lesson is that if you don’t have your security arrangements in place, having a multilateral project may be bigger risk than a national installation. It took the Europeans 20 years to learn that lesson.

  7. archjr (History)

    While this is a great idea from an arms-control point of view (and has been well-examined by many), it suffers from a lack of understanding of the “business” considerations of going multilateral or national. Don’t want to get into details of USEC offering diffusion services, and their current stock price, but the problem is that business incentives are not there without significant government subsidies and more government involvement than the industry is likely ever to want. The IAEA has (carefully, as ever) delved slightly into this subject.

    The other problem is that it is focused on an ideal that has possibly been overtaken by events. No one can credibly suggest that a multilateral organization for production of source material of any kind can prevent the transfer of “sensitive” information, including that prohibited by US law. The information is out there from multiple sources, legit and illegal. Iran has proved this to be an engineering problem, not a scientific one. So in supporting these proposals we should be wary of overselling their advantages in light of the dispersion of knowledge which can never be controlled, only retarded, by national and multinational entities.

  8. jeannick (History)

    .@ Joshua
    “To the contrary, Iran would have no difficulty getting those from abroad, and the U.S. would not stand in its way ”

    I must be getting senile , I was under the impression that the U.S. refused to supply the 20% for the Teheran medical facility , put pressure on Argentina and others not to supply them either and concocted a complicated and wholly unfavorable swap arrangement to get the entire enriched production out of Iran and probably frozen for years
    when Brazil and Turkey proposed a sightly less ludicrous exchange , the U.S. was not amused and scuttled this option ,

    trust is a two way street

    • joshua (History)

      I think I now see where our misunderstanding lies. First of all, there’s a distinction between fuel for TRR and the sort of medical isotopes that TRR produces. I thought you had meant the latter. See Geoff Forden’s Oct. 2009 post for an explanation of the technicalities:

      The U.S. has been supportive of Iranian imports of Tc-99m, to the best of my knowledge, not least of all because it would obviate the TRR issue. U.S. industry does not produce or supply the type of fuel used by TRR, which I believe has been mostly produced in France for many years.

      France, for its part, did not decline to supply the fuel, but in conjunction with the rest of the P5+1, sought to make a deal with Iran to turn the request for fuel into a more complex arrangement that was supposed to operate as a confidence-building measure and a prelude to more far-reaching negotiations. The Iranians agreed in principle in talks in Geneva, but then turned down the specific arrangements negotiated through the good offices of IAEA Director-General ElBaradei.

      For a French perspective in 2009, prior to the Geneva meeting: see:

      Where the Argentines fit into the story, other than having supplied the previous load fuel for TRR many years ago, I have no idea.

      This subject in general was exhaustively covered here at the time.

      As an aside, it was assumed in 2009 that TRR would run out of fuel in 2010. If that’s actually happened, it’s been a very quiet event.

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