Countries including the United States are moving forward with aggressive plans to expand their reliance on nuclear plants to meet demand. There is much talk of a renaissance in the nuclear-power industry.
For Perry, power reactors themselves are not the issue; it is their fuel and the means to produce it that focuses his attention.
"The danger then is that the countries use their commercial reactor program as a steppingstone to get to their nuclear-weapons program. We saw that happen — precisely happen — in North Korea, and we think we see it happening in Iran today," he said.
A way to address this problem is already on the international table for consideration: a plan for a common "fuel bank" run and supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency. From it, countries new to nuclear-power generation could buy their fuel and then return and exchange it once they have exhausted it producing electricity.
According to Perry, this idea "has been proposed by many people and particularly by the NTI, the Nuclear Threat Initiative," a non-governmental agency chaired by Nunn. Warren Buffet has given $50 million to the U.N. to establish the fuel bank.
"So there have been serious and substantial efforts made in this regard," Perry said.
The trouble is in getting sovereign nations who want nuclear power to agree to use the bank. In Perry's view, there is no practical justification for any country to enter the business of making its own fuel.
"It is not economical, and they do it either for one or two reasons: either because they want to use this capacity to make fuel as an entry into a nuclear-weapons program, or they do it simply for national prestige — some mistaken view of what national prestige is all about. But there is no commercial reason for doing it," he said.
Perry believes if a broadly supported international fuel bank can be established, then even a full-blown resurgence in civilian nuclear-power generation would pose far less risk than it might otherwise, at least when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"The problem lies in countries insisting on making their own fuel," he said.