396. Memorandum From Jerry Oplinger of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Non-Proliferation

Attached is the history of non-proliferation policy which you asked for.2 I have tried to hold it to the 15 pages you requested, and the result is a highly compressed and selective account. It is very difficult to write on this subject without some personal bias showing through, but I have tried to keep it reasonably straightforward and non-polemical.

Some more personal and subjective comment seems appropriate however, so I will make it here:

On balance, and judged by its stated objectives, the Carter non-proliferation policy has to be considered a failure.3 A half-dozen countries have moved perceptibly closer to a nuclear explosive capability, and in at least one case (Pakistan) that movement now appears irreversible. Almost all of this slippage involved assistance from Europe, and could have been prevented. Reprocessing plant capacity has more [Page 1013]than tripled; world plutonium stockpiles (most of it of US origin) have grown substantially and appear likely to increase at least tenfold in the next decade. Our own nuclear R&D budget, which we said in 1977 was to be restructured to defer the breeder and develop safer alternatives, continues to fund the breeder at excessive levels and to ignore alternative technologies. While our 1977 objective was to prevent the development of plutonium fuel cycles, we have continued to cooperate with other countries, permitting Japan, the UK, and France to reprocess large quantities of US-supplied spent fuel to support such fuel cycles.

The fault was not with the Carter policies. They rested on three basic principles which seem at least as self-evident today as in 1977: that certain nuclear materials (HEU and plutonium) are explosives and if available in nuclear power programs will make possible rapid conversion to weapons; that misuse of these materials cannot be prevented or adequately controlled by international inspection (safeguards) or any political institution yet devised, and that the technologies which introduce these materials into common use could be deferred for at least many decades without economic penalty. While the dangers of plutonium are obvious, what is not generally understood is that a single fuel charge for a breeder reactor would contain enough high-grade plutonium for hundreds of nuclear weapons; that is comparable to the total stockpile of the US or the USSR in the early 1950’s and is a major strategic threat. Safeguards, whose purpose is only to detect diversion of materials to unauthorized use, are meaningless when dealing with materials which can be made into bombs within a week. Plutonium-fueled reactors are economic only at uranium prices exceeding $100 per pound based on 1977 breeder capital costs; the current cost of uranium is $30 and falling, breeder costs are soaring and these trends now seem likely to push the economic utility of breeders well past 2050.

The failure of US policy in the face of all this has been a failure of will and of implementation at the working level of US government. The policy was entrusted to a bureaucracy which cared less for these facts and their clear implications than for diplomatic harmony. Intimidated by the reactions of foreign nuclear bureaucracies, our diplomats recommended, in a series of critical decisions, actions which quickly eroded both the substance and credibility of our policy. The British and French, poised on the brink of heavy investments in reprocessing plants economically dependent upon US MB–10 approvals, watched us agree to Japanese reprocessing of our fuel, insisted upon commitments to similar approvals as the price of their participation in a misguided international debate (INFCE) which we did not have the votes to win, watched our performance, and decided to ignore us. In response, we approved every single reprocessing request ever presented to us, and adopted a set of guidelines which guaranteed that these projects would succeed [Page 1014]and eventually produce an amount of separated plutonium sufficient not only for their breeder programs, but to create vast economic pressures for recycle in today’s reactors.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil and Iraq, the European suppliers continued to transfer materials and equipment which was either dangerous in itself or subject to controls so weak they permitted these countries to continue other dangerous nuclear activities with impunity. Our allies had learned that we were more concerned with rhetoric than results, that our bottom line was infinitely elastic, that State could be depended upon to argue their interests, and that the practical test of US policy on any important issue would be—not its capability actually to curb proliferation—but its ability to please.

Whether the policies would have led to greater success had they been implemented with the conviction, toughness and tenacity that they obviously required must now be left to the historians. Without those qualities in the people who were responsible for the daily conduct of the policy, the President, and you, never had a fair chance. It is still possible that the logic of events, including the spread of plutonium, and one or more nuclear tests in the Middle East, will make nuclear proliferation a central concern, and what this Administration originally tried to say and do will have an ultimate impact. But the effectiveness of a serious non-proliferation policy is likely to be lower, and the costs considerably higher, next time around.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 15, NSC Accomplishments—Nuclear Non-Proliferation: 12/80. No classification marking. Sent for information.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. An unknown hand underlined the words “be considered a failure.”