Monday, November 28, 2005

A Nuclear Venezuela?

Two of the factors that contributed to America's rise as a world power were its abundant natural resources and the lack of a serious rival in its own hemisphere. Venezuela's current regime calls both of these attributes into question. It provides a temporarily successful alternative economic philosophy to sway its neighbors, and exploits its status as a key oil supplier to the US to hold our displeasure in check. In his latest effort to put a burr under our saddle, President Hugo Chavez's has expressed his ambition to bring nuclear power to Venezuela. It's hard to ignore the coincidence with the current international effort to bring Iran's nuclear program under control, but despite superficial similarities, this is probably more worrying in its generalities than its specifics.

While the economics of nuclear power in Iran appear unattractive, as I've described at some length, Venezuela is in a different position. It, too, has significant reserves of natural gas, but their proximity to growing markets makes them potentially more valuable than Iran's. And with an abundance of extremely heavy, low-quality oil, Venezuela might just be able to exploit nuclear power to leverage its hydrocarbon resources for export, in much the way that Iran has professed that it seeks to--spuriously, I believe.

So while it is entirely possible that Venezuela's desire for nuclear power stems from legitimate aspirations, it also neatly illustrates the challenges we face in preventing a wide variety of unreliable regimes from acquiring technology and materials that can be diverted into weapons, either directly by these regimes or indirectly through leakage into black-market channels such as those of A.Q. Khan's former nuclear hardware-and-knowhow network.

The seemingly inevitable final result of all this will be a nuclear detonation, somwhere, at some time in the future. The social, economic, and human consequences of that prospect ought to provide a tremendous incentive for the development of nuclear power that isn't only environmentally safer, but that inherently circumvents proliferation concerns. A fuel cycle based on Thorium, rather than Uranium, is one possibility, as one of my readers suggested a few months ago. Absent such a development, we're liable to find ourselves forced to choose between increasingly unsustainable double standards between the nuclear "haves" and "have nots", or a draconian international non-proliferation enforcement mechanism--an IAEA with real "black helicopters."

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