Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members

3. The Risks from New Nuclear-armed states

Why Non-Proliferation Matters

3.1     Ensuring that no new states join the ranks of those already nuclear-armed must continue to be one of the world’s top international security priorities. Every new nuclear-armed state will add significantly to the inherent risks – of accident or miscalculation as well as deliberate use – involved in any possession of these weapons, and potentially encourage more states to acquire nuclear weapons to avoid being left behind. Any scramble for nuclear capabilities is bound to generate severe instability in bilateral, regional and international relations. The carefully worked checks and balances of interstate relations will come under severe stress. There will be enhanced fears of nuclear blackmail, and of irresponsible and unpredictable leadership behaviour.

3.2     In conditions of inadequate command and control systems, absence of confidence building measures and multiple agencies in the nuclear weapons chain of authority, the possibility of an accidental or maverick usage of nuclear weapons will remain high. Unpredictable elements of risk and reward will impact on decision making processes. The dangers are compounded if the new and aspiring nuclear weapons states have, as is likely to be the case, ongoing inter-state disputes with ideological, territorial, historical – and for all those reasons, strongly emotive – dimensions.

3.3     The transitional period is likely to be most dangerous of all, with the arrival of nuclear weapons tending to be accompanied by sabre rattling and competitive nuclear chauvinism. For example, as between Pakistan and India a degree of stability might have now evolved, but 1998–2002 was a period of disturbingly fragile interstate relations. Command and control and risk management of nuclear weapons takes time to evolve. Military and political leadership in new nuclear-armed states need time to learn and implement credible safety and security systems. The risks of nuclear accidents and the possibility of nuclear action through inadequate crisis control mechanisms are very high in such circumstances. If this is coupled with political instability in such states, the risks escalate again. Where such countries are beset with internal stresses and fundamentalist groups with trans-national agendas, the risk of nuclear weapons or fissile material coming into possession of non-state actors cannot be ignored.

3.4     The action–reaction cycle of nations on high alerts, of military deployments, threats and counter threats of military action, have all been witnessed in the Korean peninsula with unpredictable behavioural patterns driving interstate relations. The impact of a proliferation breakout in the Middle East would be much wider in scope and make stability management extraordinarily difficult. Whatever the chances of “stable deterrence” prevailing in a Cold War or India–Pakistan setting, the prospects are significantly less in a regional setting with multiple nuclear power centres divided by multiple and cross-cutting sources of conflict.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Under Strain

3.5     The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not the only reason more new states have not joined the original five – alliance guarantees and, in the early days at least, technological barriers, were probably just as important, and there have been other factors as well, discussed later in this section, and in more detail in Section 8. But without the NPT there would be considerably more nuclear-armed states than the eight clear-cut cases we have today. The well-remembered prophecy of the U.S. government in 1963, that the following two to three decades would see the emergence of 15 to 25 such states, would have been much closer to reality.

3.6     Concluded in 1968, in force since 1970, and now with 189 member states – effectively the whole world except for India, Pakistan and Israel (and North Korea, assuming its purported withdrawal in 2003 is accepted at face value) – the NPT is built on a three dimensional bargain, whereby those states without nuclear weapons agreed not to acquire them, those with weapons committed themselves to negotiate to give them up, and every state had the “inalienable right” to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes with cooperation from others. (See Box 3-1). Its value lay, in the words of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in 2004, in “three critical contributions: it bolstered a normative prohibition against the ownership, use and proliferation of these weapons; it ensured that States could benefit from nuclear technologies, but with oversight; and it reassured States about the capacities of neighbours and potential rivals, allowing them to avoid unnecessary arms races”.

3.7     The NPT’s indefinite extension in 1995 – after 25 years of operation, and with the treaty’s own terms giving no guarantee of continuity beyond that – was the high-water mark for the treaty, a triumphant reaffirmation by the international community of its indispensability. But as it now ends its fourth decade, it is in serious need of reinvigoration and strengthening. The NPT is under strain in a number of directions, for at least the six reasons spelt out in the following paragraphs.


BOX 3-1

Key Elements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

  • The five recognized nuclear-weapon states undertake not to assist any non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear weapons (Article I);
  • Non-nuclear-weapon states undertake not to acquire nuclear weapons or seek assistance to do so (Article II);
  • Non-nuclear-weapon states undertake to accept safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on all their nuclear material to verify the fulfilment of their obligations under the Treaty not to divert nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons (Article III);
  • The “inalienable right” of all parties is recognized to develop, research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I, II and III, and all parties undertake to cooperate in the application of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (Article IV);
  • All parties undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament (Article VI).


3.8     Footdragging on disarmament. Non-nuclear-weapon states and those outside the NPT have long complained about the evident unwillingness of most of the nuclear-weapon states, most of the time, to even think about giving up their arsenals. Movement forward – like the agreement on “thirteen practical steps” toward disarmament at the 2000 NPT Review Conference – has been followed almost as quickly by movement back, as with the failure to reaffirm that statement in the 2005 Review Conference. Unilateral and negotiated disarmament took a huge leap forward in the early post-Cold War years, then ground to a halt for another decade. Modernization of stockpiles continues and talk of new weapons development –“reliable replacement warheads” and the like – does not go away. There is intense global interest in the renewed U.S.–Russian commitment, in 2009, to lead the way in a serious new disarmament enterprise, but that momentum will have to be sustained, and joined by the other nuclear-armed players, if this crucial cornerstone of the NPT’s credibility is not to further crumble away.

3.9     Verification failures. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while the bulwark of the safeguards system, has been insufficiently resourced, both in terms of authority and capabilities, to detect clandestine nuclear activities, and a number of serious violations have slipped through the net in recent years, giving both weapon and non-weapon states cause for concern about the foundations of the NPT bargain they signed up to. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, Iraq was found to have developed an undeclared uranium enrichment program and other activities intended for producing nuclear weapons: some of these activities were on sites visited by IAEA inspectors, but not seen by them. In 2002, a dissident group revealed that Iran was developing a clandestine uranium enrichment program: after an extensive investigation, the IAEA was able to determine that Iran had been conducting undeclared nuclear activities for a period of eighteen years. In 2003, Libya was found to have enrichment equipment, supplied by the A.Q. Khan network but not yet functional: this came to light through intelligence activities, rather than IAEA inspections. And in 2007 Israel destroyed a facility in Syria that appears to have been a nearly complete nuclear reactor: investigations by the IAEA in June 2008 revealed particles of manufactured forms of uranium at the site.

3.10     Compliance and enforcement failures. North Korea acquired plutonium from its nominally civil energy program while a member of the NPT, only to then walk away from the treaty, and test and make nuclear explosive devices: both UN Security Council resolutions and efforts to negotiate a solution have so far proved fruitless. Iran has asserted Article IV rights under the treaty to continue an enrichment program about whose scope and content it has not been transparent with the IAEA and which, as the agency’s Director General stated in June 2009, “gives rise to concerns which need to be clarified to exclude the possibility of military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program”. Reference of the Iran’s non-compliance to the Security Council has produced sanctions resolutions, but no satisfactory substantive resolution of the problem.

3.11     Evidence of uncontrolled transfer of sensitive nuclear technology. Following initial disclosures in 2003 and intense international investigation, including by the IAEA, the former head of Pakistan’s enrichment program, A.Q. Khan, confessed in 2004 to having been at the centre of a clandestine international network transferring technology and information to Iran between 1989 and 1991, to North Korea and Libya between 1991 and 1997, and additional technology to North Korea up until 2000. Centrifuge components were apparently manufactured in Malaysia with the aid of South Asian and German middlemen, using a Dubai computer company as a false front. The Khan investigation also revealed how many European companies were defying export restrictions and aiding the Khan network as well as the production of the Pakistani bomb. Dutch companies exported thousands of centrifuge components to Pakistan as early as 1976, and a German company exported facilities for the production of tritium. As disconcerting as these black market revelations were, even more so has been the absence of accountability and exemplary action since, which has not helped in setting an example to potential violators: domestic political pressures inhibited any harsh punishment of Khan himself in Pakistan, most of his foreign accomplices remain free, and there are still gaps in the international framework of export controls.

3.12     Under-resourcing of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA clearly has insufficient resources, in terms of both money and qualified manpower, for the specifically non-proliferation tasks it must be able to do in addition to its role as a support agency for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Part of the problem has been the zero-growth policy imposed for many years on the Agency’s regular budget by its major contributors. Another factor has been the determination of some state members of its governing board to maintain its focus on the formal objective of its 1956 Statute (long predating the NPT) “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world”, giving insufficient weight both to the rider that follows (requiring it to ensure that its assistance “is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose”) and the reality that the IAEA-administered safeguards system is crucial to holding the line against proliferation breakout. The scale of the agency’s immediate and ongoing resource needs, if it is to perform its role with maximum effectiveness, was well documented in the 2008 report of the independent Zedillo Commission on the Role of the IAEA to 2020 and Beyond.

3.13     The reality of the “three elephants” outside the NPT. The NPT’s status as the international norm-setting regime governing non-proliferation and disarmament continues to be challenged by the three big nuclear-armed states –India, Pakistan and (though undeclared) Israel – which continue to stand outside it. (North Korea, for reasons explained in Section 2, is best considered in a separate category, as neither clearly in or out of the treaty.) Repeated calls for the NPT to become genuinely universal in its membership by these states joining it are wholly understandable but, as much as this Commission would wish otherwise, not realistically achievable for the foreseeable future: the only basis on which they would be admitted by other members is as non-nuclear-weapon states, but this would be manifestly unacceptable to the three (albeit for different stated reasons in the case of Israel). The problem has now been accentuated by the India–U.S. deal, endorsed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008, to give India access, effectively, to the nuclear cooperation benefits of the NPT while making no significant commitments in return (as discussed further in Section 10).

Risks of a Proliferation Surge

3.14     There have been innumerable expressions of concern that the present situation may not be very much longer sustainable. The UN High-level Panel, quoted above, put it starkly in 2004: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation”. The U.S. Congressional Commission on U.S. Strategic Posture warned that the world is fast coming to a nuclear “tipping point”. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has warned of a surge in the number of “virtual nuclear weapons states” who can produce plutonium and high enriched uranium, and have the know-how to make nuclear weapons. Others have pointed in this context to the attractions of a “hedge” strategy – not crossing the line in actual weaponization – but being capable of doing so should the occasion arise.

3.15     Most attention in all of this has been concentrated, understandably, on North East Asia and the Middle East, but some has also focused on the possibility of important states in Latin America, Africa, Central and South East Asia and even Europe – some with a record of substantial nuclear programs in the past, and all with at least a “latent” capability to gear them up quickly in the future – being tempted to join in, for reasons of national pride if nothing else, if the dam really started to break.

3.16     In North East Asia, with North Korea purporting to walk away from the NPT, declaring its possession of nuclear weapons, continuing to test long-range missile delivery systems, regularly engaging in erratic and bellicose rhetoric, and only sporadically, if at all, willing to negotiate about anything, it is hardly surprising that some regional nerves have been jangled and that speculation has resurfaced that Japan and South Korea, in particular, might not be willing to resist for much longer the temptation to acquire nuclear deterrents of their own. There is further speculation that South Korea, while being cautious about overreacting to Pyongyang, would be certain to act if Japan did, for fear of its eastern neighbour as much at its northern one. China’s huge and growing power, and evident nuclear modernization program, is also inevitably concentrating its neighbours’ minds.

3.17     Much more immediate concerns have been expressed about the Middle East, in the context specifically of a break-out by Iran, should that occur, from what appears to be its current “hedge” posture to actual weaponization. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are most often mentioned as states who – while being able to live, more or less uncomfortably, with Israel’s presumed nuclear status – would find Iran a bridge too far. But with a number of other countries in the region on the road to acquiring major civil nuclear energy capacity, these are not the only ones seen as potential proliferators.

3.18     It is important to keep all these concerns in perspective, and not unduly exaggerate them. Major surges have been predicted before but have not eventuated – in the 1960s (when almost every country of any capacity, including Australia, was exploring the option) and the 1970s (when there may have been less confidence in U.S. security guarantees following its failure in Vietnam). There is nothing automatic or inevitable about a country’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons, and multiple factors – five in particular – have in the past, and will in the future, impose a strong sense of caution and restraint.

3.19     First among them is the normative force of the NPT itself, which is why it is so important to maintain and strengthen its effectiveness, a recurring theme of this report. A second, related, consideration is that status and prestige cuts both ways: while this has always been thought to be a factor motivating states to acquire nuclear weapons – to be up there with the Permanent Five globally, and to be a very big dog on the regional block – it may well be that, these days, more respect attaches to a show of restraint, and commitment to international norms or, putting it another way, of good international citizenship. A third, and again related, factor is that domestic public opinion is often a powerful restraining force, as it very much has been – and is likely to continue to be – in Japan: leaders who run against that tide run major political risks.

3.20     A fourth, and very powerful factor, is the existence of strong security guarantees from a credible alliance partner: there can be no doubt that the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella has been a major reason over the decades why states in Europe and North East Asia, in particular, have been willing to forego a nuclear weapons option even when perceiving themselves to be very vulnerable to nuclear attack. (Whether there is any justification for a nuclear – as distinct from conventional-weapon umbrella – sheltering allies from non-nuclear threats is a question taken up later in this report.)

3.21     The remaining major consideration is simply technological capability, which is too often glossed over. There is a real gap between possession of a first class nuclear research and civil power generation capability and the development of the technologies to support a full weapons program which should not be underestimated. That is why, for example, one should not make too many easy assumptions about the capacity of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to respond quickly to a move by Iran to acquire nuclear-armed status. But that said, crash programs can achieve extraordinary results: Israel was characterized in a recent U.S. Defense Science Board study as having had, in 1960 “Nil Weapons Potential”, but within five years had moved up the chart to “Modest”, then “High” to “Potential for Serial Production”, i.e. full nuclear-armed status.

3.22     On balance this Commission, while not wishing to be unduly alarmist or to exaggerate the extent to which a trickle of break-outs is likely to turn into a flood, is deeply concerned about the present vulnerability of the non-proliferation regime, and believes that it is of paramount importance that it be systemically strengthened, and that this be supplemented by an intelligent and constructive case by case approach to particular problem areas as they now appear, and arise in the future. These will be recurring themes in later sections of this report as policy options are more specifically addressed.


Next: 4. The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism