So we have the usual reaction from the usual suspects. The problem is that this reaction comes directly from the 1990s or earlier.
The world is different than it was then. If we’re going to get serious about eliminating nuclear weapons, we have to look at the world we’ve got, not the world we’d like to have.
Four nations decided to be exceptions to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew from the treaty; the other three never joined. All have nuclear weapons. Every other nation on Earth has signed on, although it was the 1990s before that happened. The only way those four nations could sign on to the treaty would be to give up their nuclear weapons. None has expressed a desire to do that.
The NPT Endgame
Endgames are different from mid-games are different from openings, and so it has been for the NPT. We are now in the endgame. Darryl Kimball and others in the arms control community are still playing mid-game.
President Bush recognized that we were in an endgame situation and changed strategy. Unfortunately, his strategy included the ideas that it’s okay for friends to have nukes and that treaties don’t matter. So he straightforwardly went ahead and gave India pretty much what it wanted in terms of nuclear trade without asking for much in return. And he strongarmed the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into approving the deal. All bad messages to send on nonproliferation.
Endgame is to bring the four exceptions into a regime of inspections of nuclear facilities and control of nuclear material like what the rest of the world is subject to under the NPT. If Bush had approached the issue from that viewpoint, the results would have been more positive. But the agreement is in place, if somewhat hampered by internal Indian politics. The agreement includes some international inspection and control, although not as much as would be desirable. The NSG has already been bent, probably not broken, so the question is now whether India, as a part of international nuclear trade, is to be inside or outside that tent.
Generally, it’s better to have outliers where you can watch what they’re doing and perhaps even jawbone them. So including India in the various regimes as a pseudo-NPT nuclear weapon state now makes a certain amount of sense. The next steps should to bring India under the same restrictions as NPT nuclear weapon states.
Israel and Pakistan have said they’d like deals like India’s. Good. But let’s negotiate those deals toward nonproliferation goals as well as trade.
The arms control community took a hard stance against opening nuclear trade with India. Kimball’s blog post continues that hard stance, even after it lost badly during the Bush administration. It’s time for a change.
Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity
Israel presents a special problem. The governments of Israel and the United States will not admit that Israel has nuclear weapons, although that status is clear to the entire world. Early in the NPT game, the ambiguity was genuine and probably more positive than negative because of Soviet support of the Arab nations, facing off US support of Israel in the region.
But, again, we’re a long way from then. We all know that Israel has nuclear weapons, probably between 100 and 200, built at the Dimona nuclear complex. Avner Cohen argues in a new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, that maintaining that secret damages Israel’s place in the world. Offering Israel a deal like India’s without acknowledging its nuclear weapon status would damage the nonproliferation regime even more than the deal with India or India’s getting a seat on the NSG. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity interferes with considerations of the strategic situation in the Middle East, particularly Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It’s time for a change in this narrative, too.
Nuclear Fear for Fun and Profit
Julian Borger reports some details on a recent nuclear material smuggling case. The amount of 89.4% enriched uranium involved was 18 grams. For Wikipedia’s critical mass for a sphere of U-235 (52 kilograms) 2,889 buys of this size would be necessary if the uranium for sale were pure U-235. In other words, what was traded in this sting was far from enough for a bomb.
What is not clear is how much nuclear material is in circulation and whether any has already been bought by extremist groups.Indeed. It is entirely possible that the 18 grams was all these two fellows could put their hands on, motivated by the requests of the government agents posing as buyers. It is also possible that none has already been bought by extremist groups.
Altogether, there have been 21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons grade material, uranium or plutonium, in the region since the Soviet Union collapsed.Not nearly enough for a bomb; and most (all?) of those have involved government stings.
The Guardian gives Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center a full article to expand on fantasies of nuclear terrorism.
The dark netherworlds of nuclear smuggling still pose a terrible danger to us all.Bunn and his colleagues have never shown anything more terrible than those 21 seizures. They haven’t shown that terrorist groups are doing more than playing at nuclear designer, or that they have acquired nuclear material. He says that al-Qaeda was conducting explosive tests in Afghanistan, but he doesn’t say what kind of explosive tests, implying that they were serious design tests, but, given the “designs” found in Afghanistan, this seems unlikely. Nor does he give us a date for those tests, which must have been before 2001.
You can see and hear Bunn and colleagues repeating stuff like this in the movie “Countdown to Zero,” along with others making the point that maybe, possibly, terrorists might be able to make a nuclear bomb. The purpose of “Countdown to Zero” was ostensibly to build popular support for ratification of the New START treaty. But it looks like not many people saw it, and those that did were probably already convinced. Maybe fear doesn’t sell as well as some thought.
New START deserves support because it keeps us and the Russians aware of the status of our nuclear arsenals. It also helps control nuclear materials, although other treaties will address that more directly. New START moves toward the kinds of verification we will need for smaller nuclear arsenals, and it lays the groundwork for bringing in the other nuclear weapons states into arms reduction negotiations. Those are all good reasons for supporting it.
It’s been nineteen years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Things are better there now for workers at the nuclear plants. The chances of their collusion in stealing nuclear material for profit are going down, and their collusion would be necessary to make that material available on the black market.
The scare scenario, of nasty men getting nuclear materials and making a bomb in a garage, isn’t credible. If there were large quantities of nuclear material getting out of Russia, we would have seen something happen. It’s not easy to build a nuclear bomb.
We’ve got too much fear in national politics now. I’ve suggested some directions for a new narrative. Somehow I doubt that the Belfer Center will be able to change theirs.