submarines in Third World: a proliferation issue ?
dos Santos Guimar„es*
Nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) acquisition by Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT) - Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) Navies does not imply
nuclear weapon proliferation risks higher than those related to stationary
research and power reactors. It must then be recognized that stringent
restraints on supplies and political pressures on governments, both
exercised very effectively by NPT - Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) against
NPT-NNWS indigenous development of SSN and associated fuel cycle facilities,
are fundamentally based on geopolitical and military strategic objectives.
This practice is far from being related exclusively to the NPT spirit:
in fact, it is a matter of freedom at seas and not of nuclear proliferation.
Key words: nuclear submarine, nuclear proliferation.
The potential cause-effect relation between SSN development and nuclear
weapons production by de jure NPT-NNWS is a subject that has been scarcely
discussed by unclassified sources. The general issue can be stated as
Given their cost, environmental impact and possible connection to
the proliferation of nuclear weapons, are SSNs the most appropriate naval
technology for facing realistic threats to the national security of a
When stated this way, the debate on the wisdom of SSN acquisition is strongly
reminiscent from the long-standing controversy about the desirability
of using nuclear power as an energy source in both developed and developing
countries, particularly NNWS.
The discussion on the connection between the nuclear power and the spread
of nuclear weapons was particularly spirited during the Carter government
in the USA. This concern was stemmed from the Indian “peaceful bomb”
explosion, in 1974, and from the perception that nuclear power industry
would expand rapidly after the 1973 oil crisis. Although all de jure NPT-NWS1
have produced their own explosive materials at facilities dedicated to
that purpose, the perceived lesson from the Indian test was the establishment
of a civilian nuclear power program could provide a convenient rationale
for the acquisition of SFM2 and related technologies, that
were also relevant to the production of nuclear weapons.
Particularly worrisome in this regard were HEU3 and Plutonium.
HEU is produced from natural Uranium or LEU4 by enrichment
processes . Plutonium is produced from similar materials, but previously
irradiating them as fuel or blankets in nuclear reactors , and then by
reprocessing processes5. Plutonium is produced from similar
materials, but previously irradiating them as fuel or blankets in nuclear
reactors6, and then by reprocessing processes. The prevailing
view regarding these "sensitive" technologies has been their mere possession
"elevates" a NNWS to a de facto NWS status.7 The possibility
that a nuclear device might rapidly be made leads prudent adversaries
to act as if the weapon had already been made. To avoid this possibility,
an international safeguard regime was established by NPT agreements and
currently enforced by IAEA8 .
Reactors, enrichment, reprocessing and other nuclear facilities in NNWS
9 are internationally safeguarded, in order to detect and deter
the production or diversion of weapon grade SFM10 . However,
NWS non proliferation establishments have more often than not regarded
this regime with skepticism. They do not have full confidence that safeguards
could detect such actions in a timely manner, i.e. before their effective
use in nuclear weapons 11. Even so, the “time to production”
is the basis of the safeguard system, whose enforcement measures should
be as strict as this time is supposed shorter. Nevertheless, from a technical
point of view, SFM acquisition only constitutes a first step to whom are
procuring an explosive device12 : the further steps are also
submitted to other international safeguard regimes13 .
Today, one can verify that the fears about the spread of nuclear power,
potentially leading to a “horizontal” nuclear weapon proliferation
14 , have not been materialized. Mainly due to concerns about
reactor safety, slow economic growth and high costs of the required infrastructure
and reactor construction, nuclear power industry has hardly diffused beyond
those states where it had already been implemented by the 1970’s.
The focus of proliferation concerns has been on the efforts of some countries15
to develop a nuclear weapon capability through unsafeguarded dedicated
facilities16 . Meanwhile, the nuclear power industry17
establishments and their critics have been involved by the consequences
of TMI and Chernobyl accidents18 and by the optimistic prospects
offered by growing international awareness about the potential seriousness
of greenhouse warming impacts19 .
Meanwhile, supposed - or publicly assumed - plans of several NNWS to acquire
SSNs20 have added a new heat to the proliferation debate. Historically,
the development of nuclear reactors for naval propulsion in NWS preceded
their use as power sources for civilian applications. For instance, the
commercial PWR is a direct descendant of submarine reactors developed
for US Navy21 in the early 1950s. In contrast, NWS nuclear
propulsion of naval vessels was developed later than nuclear weapons acquisition.
A Peaceful Application of Nuclear Energy?
There was a difference between IAEA and NPT safeguard approaches: the
first considered that nuclear energy should not be used for “not-well-defined”
military purposes, while the second impose that nuclear energy should
not be used for “well-defined” explosive warfare purposes.
This fact leaded to some ambiguous interpretations in the past, that are
According to IAEA statute22 , the agency shall insure, so far
as it is able, that assistance provided by it, or at its request or under
its supervision or control, is not used in such a way as to further any
military purpose. This provision implies, for instance, that safeguards
would be designed to ensure that enriched Uranium supplied for use in
a civilian power reactor would not be used in nuclear weapons or in non-explosive
military applications, such as naval propulsion or military satellites.
This is the basic undertaking of older IAEA safeguard agreements23
, which prohibits the use of safeguarded materials and facilities in such
way as to prevent any further “military purpose” use.
Nevertheless, NPT agreements prohibit the diversion of nuclear material
from “peaceful activities” to “weapons or other explosive
devices”, but do not include any prohibition to “non explosive
military applications”. These agreements includes provisions that
allows a State to withdraw nuclear material from general safeguards while
it is being used for a “non-proscribed military activity”,
such as fuel for a submarine propulsion reactor. As with NPT text itself24
, which guarantees full access to peaceful nuclear technology to all NNWS
parties, this provisions were inserted at the behest of several NNWS that
were unwilling to forego any of the perceived benefits of nuclear energy
beyond nuclear weapons and nuclear explosive devices, specifically including
nuclear-powered naval vessels.
To harmonize these originally different approaches and differently from
the former ones, the actual IAEA safeguard agreements25 incorporate
the NPT principle, including provisions to withdraw from general safeguards
26 materials to be used in “non-proscribed military activities”,
as SSN propulsion.
The official opinion of the Secretariat of the IAEA, in response to an
Argentinean representative on the Board of Governors request, resulting
from the presence of British SSN in the South Atlantic27 ,
is extremely relevant. It was directly questioned the degree of compatibility
among Treaty of Tlatelolco28 , the safeguards agreements in
force, and the IAEA statute, referring to the legitimacy of non-explosive
military applications of nuclear materials. The report29 established
that the differences among the various types of agreements do not convey
any incompatibility30 . Reasonably, it can be concluded that
SSN propulsion is not incompatible with a nuclear program exclusively
directed to peaceful ends, as the Brazilian one.
dos Santos Guimarães is a Brazilian Navy Engineering officer. His
undergraduate studies were in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
at University of São Paulo. He has a PhD in Ocean Engineering by
University of São Paulo and a MSc. in Nuclear Engineering by French
Institut National des Sciences et Techniques Nucléaires. His naval
career includes EEZ patrol and SAR sea duty, and engineering design and
project management activities at the Naval Technological Center in São
Paulo. He is also MBA program professor at FAAP and USP
- USA, UK,
France, Russia and China.
Fissile Materials: Uranium and Plutonium odd isotopes, currently being
discussed the inclusion of Americium isotopes.
Enriched Uranium, with U-235 mass content beyond 20%.
- Low Enrichment
Uranium, with U-235 mass content up to 20%.
- even existing
other experimental or low scale processes as the old “calutron”
device, jet nozzle, chemical and laser separation, the only current
industrial enrichment processes are diffusion and centrifugation, the
first one being said as an obsolescent technology.
reactors, Heavy Water Reactors and ex-URSS RBMK reactors are particularly
well fitted for this purpose.
- as India,
Pakistan, Israel and South-Africa are said to be.
Atomic Energy Agency.
- in NWS,
only facilities self-declared as “civilian” are subjected
containing more than 93% of U-235 mass content or containing significant
amounts of Pu-239.
- For instance, the USA government has strongly promoted an world-wide
program to substitute safeguarded research reactor HEU fuels by poorer
performance LEU fuels, even in western alliance NNWS.
- material production must be followed by the development of highly
accurate detonation systems, reflector materials, miniaturization of
assembled parts in order to be portable by an operational vector (missile,
aircraft), and, last but not the least, the development of this same
vector. For more information on this subject, see MORLAND and also DUVAL
and LE BAUT.
- Indeed, the development of vectors are effectively submitted to safeguards
established by Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
- increasing in the number of de facto NWS.
- Iraq and North Korea, more recently
- without full success, considering the demonstrations of Pakistan capabilities
in response to new Indian explosions in 1998
- the major part of industrial power reactors formed by Light Water
Reactors, both Pressurized (PWR) and Boiling (BWR) types, PWR being
largely the most spread type
- Severe accidents: USA Three Miles Island PWR reactor core fusion and
ex-URSS RBMK reactor reactivity excursion leading to graphite chemical
explosion followed by uncontrolled fire
- The hope of many nuclear power advocates lies on the development of
reactors having a higher degree of inherent safety than the current
reactor designs. This new reactor generation would lead to a nuclear
renaissance. In order to avoid the results of fossil fuel combustion,
safer reactors may be the solution by which many countries will either
reactivate former nuclear programs or establish new ones. See BECK.
- For instance, Brazil has publicly assumed its nuclear propulsion program
in the late 1980’s
- see Duncan, F., Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, Naval Institute Press,
Annapolis, EUA, 1990
- IAEA statute, Article III
- IAEA INFCIRC/66/Rev. 2, which included in its scope specific items,
i.e. materials in specific facilities
- NPT Article IV
- IAEA INFCIRC/153, which included in its scope all nuclear material
- idem, Paragraph 14, “Non-Application of Safeguards to Nuclear
Materials to Be Used in Non-Peaceful Use”
- during the so-called “Falklands or Malvinas War”.
- Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and
- IAEA Report GOV/INF/433.
- for more details on this subject, see MADERO and TAKACS.
for Nuclear Weapons?
One could suppose that all technological capabilities to be acquired by
a third world NNWS developing a SSN facilitate a further acquisition of
nuclear weapons. Such kind of statement would be a very tendentious one,
as these capabilities also facilitates social and economic growth. Obviously,
the potential “spin-off” effects arising from a nuclear propulsion
program fall well beyond the sole weapon applications.
There is no doubt that any development of nuclear fission applications
enhances the potential capacity of a country to produce nuclear weapons.
However, to make them is a political decision. If a country has the entire
infrastructure required but no political will, the production of a nuclear
weapon is clearly put aside. The political intention is what really counts,
and not the sole technical capability. An example of strong political
will against such a decision was given by Brazil, whose Constitution31
unambiguously bans nuclear weapons from its national territory.
A NPT-NNWS that wishes to obtain enriched Uranium for submarine reactors
could produce materials locally at safeguarded facilities and invoke the
exemption provisions to withdraw a given amount of these material for
non-proscribed military activities, as SSN propulsion fuel, without triggering
safeguards agreements. Through the same rationale, it could even legally
buy the required material from a NPT-NWS or NPT-NNWS32 . Based
on this lone fact, it could be supposed that some nuclear material in
a NPT-NNWS would rest outside IAEA safeguards, but this conclusion is
A NPT-NNWS possessing Uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities
to produce nuclear submarine fuel cannot claim such plants as not subjected
to IAEA safeguards since they would be dedicated to a non-explosive military
use. Such an interpretation violates NPT spirit, as there are no means
to verify that nuclear facilities ostensibly being used in a non-proscribed
military activity were not being misused to make nuclear weapons. The
NPT-NNWS is only allowed to withdraw the material strictly necessary to
SSN operation. Their fuel cycle facilities and remaining materials shall
be kept safeguarded. The withdrawn material shall be submitted to specific
safeguards provisions, defined by multilateral agreements among IAEA and
interested parties. By some slightly different means, the continuity of
safeguard enforcement should be assured.
For instance, this is the path followed by Brasil and Argentina. In 1991,
these countries signed the so-called Bipartite Treaty to safeguard their
indigenous nuclear facilities, creating an independent agency for nuclear
material inventory control33 . IAEA was then invited to fully
participate in this particular safeguard regime, and the so-called Quadripartite
Treaty 34 was signed in the same year, being currently enforced35
. This treaty defines specific provisions for the use of materials produced
by safeguarded facilities in nuclear propulsion36 . In this
case, their “special procedures” assure safeguard enforcement
without disclosing technological and military classified information on
SSN design and operation.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is then an eminently political and
non-technical subject. Both de jure and de facto NWS countries obtained
SFM through programs specifically directed to that purpose. Consequently,
they have followed the shortest and most economic way toward the objective
pursued, which is not a SSN “deception” way. Thus, one can
reasonably conclude it is not credible that a country procuring a nuclear
explosive would choose such an indirect route as the development of a
- Brazilian Constitution Art. 21, §XXIII a, promulgated in 1988
- Indeed, this kind of transfer occurred in the past, when USA sold
enriched Uranium for the initial fuel of French first nuclear propulsion
plant land prototype
- Agência Brasil-Argentina de Contabilidade e Controle ABACC
- Brazil adhered to NPT in 1998, Argentina some years before
- Article 13, “Special Procedures”
“Proliferant” Fuel Cycle?
Even not been proscribed by NPT, naval propulsion is a military application
of reactor technology. Regarding nuclear proliferation implications, this
fact could lead anyone to conclude there is a major difference between
the fuel cycles of SSNs and stationary - power or research - reactors.
International and/or multilateral safeguards could be seen as having more
difficulties to deter the diversion of nuclear materials from a SSN fuel
cycle. Technically, this is not the case at all.
Although most civilian power reactors use LEU fuel, natural Uranium can
also be used, as in the Canadian CANDU reactors37 . Nonetheless,
due to constraints on space in a submarine and the operational requirement
for infrequent refueling, submarine reactors use Uranium fuel in an enrichment
higher than stationary reactors. Indeed, current US submarine reactors
are said to use weapon degree HEU38 . By other hand, France
developed an alternative LEU fuel technology39 for submarine
reactors in the 1970s, and there are indications that Russia may also
use LEU fuel40 .
Currently, naval propulsion reactors are compact PWR-type41
. The fuel enrichment is not necessarily “weapon grade”, nor
this kind of reactor is suitable for Plutonium production. Therefore,
in proliferation grounds, a reactor for propulsion is exactly the same
as a new variety of the many research and power reactors that are operating
throughout the world42 , without anyone claiming they may represent
a possible violation of the status quo. Additionally, for a country looking
for nuclear weapon capability, the use of Plutonium43 through
reprocessing natural or LEU fuel after a short period passing through
a stationary “research” reactor, easily refueled, would be
much more attractive, as fuel reprocessing is largely easier and cheaper
than Uranium enrichment.
Despite this fact, it must be considered that Uranium enrichment plants
can be converted from the low enriched to the highly enriched product,
with a degree of difficulty that depends on the type of enrichment process
employed and on whether the conversion may be carried out avoiding detection
by safeguard inspectors. From this perspective, centrifuge plants are
particular concerned due to its operational flexibility and modular construction.
The selectivity and separation capacity of laser enrichment processes
also imply particular concerns, even in laboratory scale. However, these
proliferation risks arising from SSN safeguarded fuel cycles are technically
equivalent to power and research reactor fuel cycles, as they have exactly
the same nature.
was placed at the origin of Indian “peaceful bomb”
- some references
mention the figure of 97.3%!
- “caramel” fuel, with less than 10% of U-235 mass content
- For a technical approach of the use of LEU/HEU fuel in nuclear submarines
see LANNING and IPPOLITO. See also GUIMARÃES.
- Even if USA and ex-URSS tried to use intermediate and fast liquid
metal cooled reactors (first Seawolf, Alpha class), and gas reactors
promises, PWR still remains the best technical solution.
- even better than some “suspicious” reactors, good for
Plutonium production, as mentioned before.
- This was the way said to be choose by India, Israel and North Korea.
A Rationale for Regional Nuclear Weapon Races?
Considering her capital value for naval power, SSN acquisition by a NNWS
could be considered as a factor inducing a nuclear weapon proliferation
reaction in other countries, which feel themselves threatened by such
change in regional naval power balance. However, the nuclear propulsion
is a part of a conventional weapon system, and the supposed reaction would
be totally out of proportion, being much more reasonable for the concerned
countries to react by developing their own SSNs. By the same rationale,
one could also conclude that a “weapon race” will be started
by the incorporation of any totally non-nuclear weapon system altering
the pre-existing balance of power. Furthermore, a country that can react
by a proliferation way will need a significant technical-scientific infrastructure
in the nuclear field, which must also be subjected to international and/or
multilateral safeguard agreements.
There is a widespread consensus among strategists that future naval warfare
will heavily rely on the submarine - particularly the SSN - rather than
on surface ships. This view is corroborated by NWS continuous development
of ever-more sophisticated SSNs44 . This fact provides a strong
incentive to SSN acquisition by militarily significant Third World NNWS,
and even by western alliance NNWS.
The SSN strategic and tactical relevance for sea power is extensively
discussed elsewhere. Here, it will be only pointed out that political
and military scenarios associated to contemporaneous NWS force deployments
should be dramatically changed if the opponent NNWS were deserved by SSNs.
To the extent that SSNs could serve as a surrogate for nuclear weapons,
they may promote international stability: “better a sub under the
sea than a bomb in the basement”. On the other hand, their acquisition
might spur naval weapon races among regional rivals with no net gain in
national or international security. The NWS cannot hope to minimize this
trend by “advocating water and drinking wine”. Rather, they
should follow their own example given in the case of nuclear weapons “vertical”
proliferation reduction, decreasing the reliance on SSNs.
- Seawolf (USA), Severodvinsk (Russia), Barracuda (France) and Astute
Along this essay, the author has tried to demonstrate the legitimacy of
NNWS aspirations for SSNs, regarding the nuclear non-proliferation international
regime. He did not discussed whether SSN technology is really appropriate
to a particular Navy to face realistic threats to NNWS national security,
such a subject resting well beyond his competence.
The message he wished to promote is that may be possible to obtain agreement
between NNWS intending to acquire SSNs and the international community
in the ground of proliferation risks minimization. Possibilities include
promotion of LEU once-through submarine fuel cycle as an international
norm and the development of specific safeguard arrangements that provide
reasonable assurance that SSN fuel materials have not being misused for
weapon purposes. In this regard, multilateral safeguard arrangements,
among IAEA and regional SSN aspirants that are developing their own technology,
could significantly increase confidence in unilateral or NPT commitments.
Meanwhile, even if potential SSN-related proliferation risks are not to
be discarded, they should not be exaggerated. As noted, the emphasis on
non-proliferation was largely based on the expectation that nuclear power
would spread rapidly after the 1973 oil crisis. That prediction did not
become a reality. For similar reasons, such as high research, development,
construction and maintenance costs, technological risks, and stringent
supplying conditions, the number of NNWS acquiring SSNs will also remain
small, at least in short and medium terms . Consequently, there is time
to develop an internationally recognized policy toward SSN acquisition
The emergence of a new class of NSS would tend to reduce both psychological
and military distinctions between NWS and NNWS created by the NPT. As
in the case of nuclear weapon proliferation, the degree of opposition
to such a development, by a particular NWS, depends on the identity of
the NSS. In particular, both military and non-proliferation establishments
in the USA are strongly opposed to any new NSS. The former because it
might limit US Navy freedom of action around the world oceans, and the
latter due to perceived risks of increased weapon proliferation. On the
other hand, both UK and France encouraged Canada SSN ambitions but presumably
they would oppose Latin American ones. Furthermore, Russia leased an SSN
to India and probably also assisted the Indian national SSN program, despite
strong opposition from USA. Finally, China presumably would impose extreme
opposition to an eventual SSN acquisition by an East or Southeast Asian
country, but not to others.
Concluding, the degree of opposition - or acceptance - to a new NSS by
NWS establishments is evidently not related to proliferation issues, but
it is driven by their legitimate national interests.
BAKER III, A.D. World Navies in Review. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings,
Annapolis, Vol. 125, no. 3, p. 76-85, March 1999.
BECK, P. Prospects and Strategies for Nuclear Power. London, The Royal
Institute of International Affairs, 1994.
DUNCAN, F. Rickover and the Nuclear Navy. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press,
DUVAL, M.; LE BAUT Y. L’Arme Nucléaire Française:
Pourquoi et Comment. Paris: Kronos, 1992.
GUIMARÃES, L. Logística de Produção de Combustível
para um Esquadrão de Submarinos Nucleares de Ataque, in Anais do
III Simpósio de Logística da Marinha, Rio de Janeiro, 1998.
LANNING, D.D.; IPPOLITO,T. Some Technical Aspects of the Use of Low-Enriched
vs. High-Enriched Uranium Fuel in Submarine Reactors, in Conference on
the Implications of Acquisition of Nuclear Powered Submarines by Non-Nuclear
Weapons States Proceedings, MIT, Cambridge, USA, 1989.
MADERO, C.C.; TAKACS, E.A. Politica Nuclear Argentina. Buenos Aires: Instituto
de Publicaciones Navales, 1991.
MORLAND, H. The Secret That Exploded. New York: Random House, 1981.