2003 October 18 Saturday
Henry Sokolski: Taking Proliferation Seriously

Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, has written an excellent lengthy article in the October issue of Policy Review about current interpretations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), gaps in its coverage, and the inadequacy of current measures for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The essay (which you should go read in full) is entitled Taking Proliferation Seriously

Instead, Ireland’s original call for a nuclear nonproliferation treaty was premised on the fear that the further spread of nuclear weapons to additional states would make nuclear disarmament and reductions less likely and accidental or catalytic wars — ones instigated by smaller powers to draw the superpowers to their defense — more probable. Against this threat, the Irish representative urged adoption of the most basic restraint: States that had weapons should agree not to share or spread them, and states that lacked them should agree not to acquire them. As for the sharing of nuclear technology for civilian purposes, the Irish recognized that the further spread of such civilian capabilities would actually make the spread of nuclear weapons more likely and that, therefore, the proliferation of such technology had to be controlled. Finally, the Irish downplayed the idea that the superpowers had to disarm themselves before any progress could be made to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons to other states.7

Clearly, this original Irish Resolution view of the npt is the one to which we need to return if we are to keep the NPT as an agreement that will reduce rather than fan further nuclear proliferation. In the first instance this will require that the U.S. and other nuclear technology-exporting states recognize that too much of what they are willing to share is too close to bombmaking to be safeguarded against quick diversion to military ends. Certainly, light water reactors in Iran will bring it dangerously close to having a large arsenal of near-weapons-grade plutonium after only 15 months of operation. The same is true of North Korea if either of the two light water reactors the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are helping to build are completed. It is even clearer that Russia’s, Pakistan’s, and China’s sharing of fuel fabrication, plutonium separation, and uranium enrichment technology and hardware with Iran and North Korea is simply too close to bombmaking ever to allow for any monitoring to be able to afford timely warning of a possible military diversion.

Unfortunately, America is still pushing international cooperation on advanced fuel cycles and reactors that includes cooperation on “proliferation resistant” breeder reactors and reprocessing (because of the addition of several steps that could just as easily be subtracted as not). This cooperation is being proposed for Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, and Argentina — states that only recently gave up nuclear weapons programs of their own.

It is naive to act as if a country that wants nuclear weapons that develops a civilian nuclear power program isn't maneuvering itself to be incredibly close to possessing nuclear weapons. The technology and equipment needed for a civilian nuclear power program brings countries too close to the development of nuclear weapons for the current NPT enforcement practices to be adequate for preventing proliferation.

Absent the development of nuclear reactors that do not use or produce materials useful for making nuclear nuclear weapons the spread of nuclear power for electricity generation is inevitably going to facilitate and accelerate the spread of nuclear weapons. For this reason alone I am a much bigger supporter of basic research into non-nuclear substitutes for Middle Eastern oil such as photovoltaic materials and ways to burn coal without generating pollution.

Sokolski argues for changes in international norms so that activities that have the effect of facilitating nuclear proliferation are

To move away from such a future, then, is worth some effort. But what step should be taken first? Cleary, it would be helpful if the U.S. and its allies backed country-neutral rules that would close some of the worst loopholes in the NPT. These gaps principally consist of the NPT’s non-application to weapons states outside the treaty, the NPT’s lack of any serious enforcement measures, its generous inattention to risky “peaceful” nuclear cooperation, and its allowance of nuclear weapons transfers between states so long as the weapon transferred remains under the control of the exporting nation (e.g., U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Germany).

Current Bush Administration policies toward nuclear proliferation are inadequate to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Current international norms and treaties with regard to nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation are similarly inadequate. This ought to be a much bigger issue than is currently the case. Technological advances will only make the development of nuclear weapons increasingly easier throughout the world. Therefore the spread of nuclear weapons and the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups may be inevitable. But I for one would like to delay that day by as many years as possible. Much better policies could delay and slow the spread of nuclear weapons for many years.

See also these previous posts that link to articles by Henry Sokolski: Henry Sokolski: Iran Watching Bush Handling Of North Korea, North Korean Uranium Enrichment Program Fairly Advanced, and Melana Zyla Vickers On Clintonite Dominance Lite.

Update: Also see Gabriel Schoenfeld's article The Terror Ahead: A nuclear attack? Be very afraid.

Yet in the absence of airtight verification procedures, the only countries thereby restrained are the law-abiding ones, which are not themselves a menace. In the meantime, determined cheaters like Iraq, Iran and North Korea make use of loopholes to pursue their objectives. Though the NPT appeared to work well in its early years, when the relevant technology was more difficult to acquire, now it serves mostly as a cover for would-be proliferators, offering assurances to the world that everything is fine and encouraging Washington to slumber when it needs most to be alert.

The NPT also exhibits structural defects specific unto itself. IAEA inspectors, of whom there are only several hundred responsible for policing approximately 1,000 nuclear facilities around the world, can barely do their job as it is. They are spread even thinner by the need to devote the same amount of attention to wholly innocuous programs in countries like Canada as they do to suspicious ones in countries like Iran. At the same time, IAEA officials lack the freedom to conduct unfettered inspections of any site they choose; they can only visit sites declared (by the signatory nation) to be under the IAEA's "safeguard." And even if they were granted more sweeping rights, the idea that they could find undeclared facilities on their own in a country attempting to conceal them is a delusion. Finally, a glaring loophole in the treaty exempts states from declaring a nuclear installation until 180 days before introducing radioactive material into it; this is precisely the escape mechanism that Iran has exploited to build the uranium and plutonium facilities it has only now disclosed.

As long as there are closed societies whose governments have the resources and the will to develop nuclear weapons no treaty is going to stop them.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 18 02:15 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

Bob Badour said at October 19, 2003 5:39 AM:

I agree it was a "must read" essay, but Sokolski blew it on the last sentence.

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