Stephanie Cooke’s book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age make some interesting points about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Among them, that short-term political and commercial calculations have often overridden concerns about providing dangerous technologies to states that might aspire to developing weapons. In many cases, the examples are not hypothetical; for instance, there was Canadian and American assistance in building the CIRUS reactor that fueled India’s first atomic bombs, and America apparently played an important role in encouraging uranium mining in North Korea.
Lest people think that such shenanigans are a matter for history only, Cooke suggests that up until very recently, India faced a squeeze between being able to use uranium for plutonium production and bomb manufacture, and decided to put bombs above energy needs. The recent American decision to provide fuel to India, despite their weapons tests and rejection of safeguards against future weapons production, seems to show that we are still living in a world where civilian nuclear energy can be effectively used as a cover to advance military programs.
[Update: 8 July 2009] One correction to the above, it was apparently the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that helped North Korea develop its uranium mining program, not the United States as I indicated above. Cooke’s book does a good job of explaining how the dual role of the IAEA as both a promoter of nuclear technology and an enforcer of safeguards reduces how effectively it plays the latter role.