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Nuclear Nonproliferation
(Released December 2002)

  by David Lindsay  


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Review Article

Nuclear technology has provided some of the most challenging political and environmental trade-offs the world has had to deal with. Nuclear medicines, agriculture, and research have provided treatments and products that have benefited millions of people. Nuclear power provides the only existing large-scale electricity generation method that does not produce greenhouse gases or require special geographic conditions. But the industry has the potential for accidental radiation releases and produces radioactive byproducts that require safe storage for decades. The technology produces weapons so destructive that they threaten the survival of civilization, yet are politically difficult to resist. The weapons have arguably maintained peace through deterrence, but their large-scale use would cause not only immediate catastrophic casualties but environmental damage that could threaten all human life, including aggressor, defender, and neutral bystander. Recent political events have lent a new urgency to the task of preventing the acquisition of such weapons by irresponsible countries or groups.

The confrontation with Iraq has highlighted the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is only part of an elaborate worldwide regime that has developed in response to the problem of controlling the spread of nuclear technology. This essay will review some of the history, policies, and current issues of this regime. Its successes and shortcomings may serve as a model for dealing with other worldwide environmental issues, such as pollution, resource use, and global warming, and provide an illustration of international response to a global threat.

The History

No scientific research is required to establish the dangers of nuclear weapons. Even before the first demonstration of their power, critical thinkers worried about the dangers of proliferation [Carter]. Leo Szilard, originator of the famous Einstein letter to Roosevelt urging development of atomic technology [Dannen], came to oppose first use of the bomb because he foresaw a world in which numerous countries would have the technical capability to deploy and use them, once the "nuclear cordon" had been breached [Rhodes].

The challenges of developing the atomic bomb were sufficiently great to suggest there might be technical barriers to proliferation. The physicist Neils Bohr and others believed that atomic weapons might be theoretically feasible, but too technically challenging or expensive for most countries to develop. The Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves hoped they could be restricted by controlling all the stocks of fissionable ores [Rhodes]. After the bombs were demonstrated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it was hoped that other countries would recoil from the prospect of a nuclear-armed world, or at least require decades to catch up to the U.S. technical lead. One by one these hopes were refuted, as Russia, Britain, France, and China acquired the atomic bomb and later the much more destructive thermonuclear bomb, assisted by espionage, the knowledge that the devices were possible, and direct U.S. release of information.

Scholars are divided as to the prospects of the nonproliferation program [Busch, Kraig, Imai]. But today numerous additional countries have the technical ability to manufacture nuclear weapons and have chosen not to do so. There is a worldwide agreement not to test nuclear weapons above ground, and they have never again been used in combat. While the situation does not invite complacency, when compared to what might have occurred this represents a notable success for the nonproliferation policy pursued by the U.S. and other countries since the advent of nuclear technology. It is instructive to review some details of how this was accomplished.

The Nonproliferation Regime

The centerpiece of the policy is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which developed from international conferences and the stimulus of thinkers such as Bertrand Russell in the 1950s [Sharma]. This treaty recognized that some countries had acquired nuclear weapons, others desired them for various political ends, and all felt entitled to the peaceful benefits of the technology. The NPT was therefore designed to accommodate both nuclear and nonnuclear weapons states, offering different inducements to become signatories. The nuclear weapons states -- the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China -- would agree to 1) not assist other states in acquiring the weapons, 2) provide access to peaceful benefits of nuclear technology, and 3) work to reduce and eliminate their own arsenals. The nonnuclear weapons states would agree to 1) not acquire or develop nuclear weapons, 2) rely on security guarantees through alliances with nuclear weapons states, and 3) allow periodic inspections. Compliance was encouraged by a combination of incentives and penalties [Behrens].

Participation in the policy has been generally good, with 187 countries signing the NPT [Behrens 2]. South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil abandoned their nuclear weapons programs and joined the NPT [Bitencourt, Barletta]. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan returned the Russian nuclear weapons left on their territory and joined the NPT. Only India, Pakistan, Israel, and Cuba have not signed. However, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea signed the agreement but are considered to have violated its provisions.

Complete nuclear disarmament was incorporated in the treaty as a desirable goal, but it was recognized this would be a long-term ideal, and could not be allowed to impede more achievable benefits. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [Medalia] subsequently made much progress toward reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and tests [Coyle]. However, with the growth of hostile regimes in recent years, the wisdom and stability of complete disarmament has been questioned [Clark].

Nuclear Defense

Nuclear weapons confer a political prestige that is difficult to resist [Smith, Cha]. It is not coincidental that the five nuclear states constitute the permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Some countries believe that they can be used as effective battlefield weapons.

There is no practical defense against nuclear missile attack, so for many countries the underlying practical motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons is to obtain security through deterrence, by threatening nuclear retaliation if they are attacked [Foran]. This strategy depends somewhat dubiously on the perception and rationality of the aggressor, his concern for his homeland, and the credible presentation by the defender of a willingness to retaliate when it will not bring him any subsequent benefit. Moreover the deployment of weapons can also be seen as an offensive action, motivating additional countries to seek them and threaten the defender [McDonald]. The U.S. has attempted to address valid security concerns by providing security guarantees in the form of political alliances, to break such a chain reaction of nuclear armament [Utgoff].

A nuclear defense can reduce a country's security, by making it a target for other nuclear powers [Sethi]. The situation is especially unstable when a country is becoming a nuclear threat, but has not yet made the transition to a nuclear superpower capable of retaliating after a first strike [Goldstein]. The recently announced Bush doctrine of military preeminence is aimed at discouraging any other country from attempting this transition after the fall of the Soviet Union [RS21133].

Both the benefits and limitations of a nuclear defense were demonstrated by the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the fourth and largest Arab-Israeli war. Although Israel has not publicly admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, it was generally accepted that they had some 25 deliverable nuclear warheads available at the time, developed jointly with France. This did not deter invasion by Egypt and Syria, but it did appear to have restrained their military objectives. Israel's implicit threat to use nuclear weapons as a final response if they were in danger of being overrun prompted the U.S. to provide a massive airlift of military supplies that eventually enabled Israel to turn back the invasion by conventional means [Boyne, Rubenstein].

Inspection and Commerce

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an organization of the UN based in Vienna. Its responsibility is to inspect nonnuclear weapons states to verify peaceful use of their nuclear materials. However, its inspections are performed with the cooperation of the country, and it has no direct enforcement power. Its effectiveness rests on its power to report violations to the UN and expose the country to potential disapproval, sanctions, and military action.

Satellite and seismic sensors are capable of detecting most nuclear tests, whether above or below ground, but nuclear weapon development and manufacturing facilities can be well concealed from ground inspectors by a country intent on evading the process. The effectiveness of inspections was challenged in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when it was discovered Iraq had made considerable progress toward nuclear capability despite signing the NPT and receiving inspections [Bragin]. The Strengthened Safeguards System was adopted as a 1995 extension to the NPT, allowing the IAEA to take environmental samples, perform no-notice inspections, have access to all records, and use remote and unattended monitoring.

The technology and materials that could be applied to nuclear weapons are monitored by industrial groups, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger Committee. The technology for nuclear-capable missiles is monitored by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Standards for the secure storage, transportation, and use of nuclear materials are set by the Convention on Physical Security for Nuclear Materials.

There are political constraints on nuclear reactor design. So-called light water reactors cannot easily be used to provide the enriched uranium or plutonium used in nuclear weapons. However, breeder reactors can produce such material, and although they provide the attractive feature of being able to generate more fissionable fuel than they consume, they are considered too dangerous to export.

U.S. companies must obtain export licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to engage in trade in nuclear technology or materials, and there must be a bilateral agreement with the government of the importing nation, under the terms of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act strengthened the provisions to require full IAEA inspections of all nuclear facilities before importation is approved. The Department of Energy (DOE) licenses the transfer of information and knowledge, and the Department of Commerce is also involved in monitoring nuclear trade [Behrens, Yuan].

Incentives and Sanctions

Under the 1954 Atoms for Peace program, the U.S. has offered nuclear technology benefits, primarily nuclear power reactors, to countries that abide by the NPT provisions [Lasensky].

But this policy can be abused. North Korea joined the NPT in 1985, but denied IAEA inspections until 1992. They then blocked access and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. The UN Security Council did not enforce the NPT, but negotiated a new 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea would shut down its plutonium-producing reactors, receive compensating energy in the form of oil, and be provided with two light water reactors. However, North Korea was not required to dismantle the reactors and has recently announced that it continued its nuclear weapons development regardless [Niksch, Martin].

The economic benefits of nuclear technology have become less clear. Proposed projects to use nuclear explosives for excavation and mining proved impractical, the construction, licensing, and waste disposal of nuclear power plants have become more costly, and public approval of the industry declined. In addition, there are technical difficulties in ensuring that power plants or their materials could not be applied to weapons manufacture.

The U.S. has long expressed concern about China's nuclear expansion and export of nuclear weapons technology, principally to Pakistan and Iran. It has tried to offer improved political and trade relations to China as an inducement to restrict nuclear export.

When incentives have been ineffective, the U.S. has tried to apply sanctions, through denial of financial aid, economic assistance, military cooperation, and technology access [Amini]. However, these sanctions endanger political relations and are frequently controversial. Sanctions against India and Pakistan did not prevent those countries from deploying nuclear weapons, and the sanctions were lifted in the aftermath of the September 11 attack to support anti-terrorism action in Afghanistan [Shaikh, Hoyt]. The nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan has been compared to the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and represents one of the most serious challenges to the NPT regime [Karl, Sagan, Nizamani].

The NPT has no prescribed procedure for dealing with a country that defies its provisions and sanctions. If the threat is perceived by a sufficient number of member countries, the UN may approve military action. In the last resort, the U.S. Department of Defense is prepared to use military force to destroy the nuclear capability of another country.

Security and Disposal

During the Cold War the U.S. spent substantial effort developing a nuclear force to deter the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it now finds its security interests best served by helping Russia safeguard that arsenal and dismantle it safely, rather than let it fall into irresponsible hands [Woolf, Wolfsthal].

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is spending over $1 billion annually on such efforts through its Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN) program. The Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State (DOS) also have major nonproliferation programs. The National Security Council, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Commerce, and the Central Intelligence Agency provide supervision, intelligence, and trade regulation. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has spent over $3 billion helping the former Soviet Union (FSU) countries improve security of nuclear assets, and the annual budgets for various programs is slated to increase in FY 2003.

Agency and program FY 2002 FY 2003
DOE Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation
DOD FSU Cooperative Threat Reduction
$400 $417
DOS Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining,
and Related (NADR)
$314 $372


Both U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons that are to be dismantled are mined for their enriched uranium and plutonium. The uranium is diluted and sold for use in commercial reactors by the U.S. Enrichment Corporation. The disposal of plutonium is more problematic because it is not a normal reactor fuel. It can be diluted with uranium to form a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, but this is not suitable for all reactors. The other disposal method is dissolving in glass, or vitrification, and storage or burial in a secure site. Approximately 36 tons of Russian plutonium is scheduled for disposal in FY2003.

In all these programs, the prospect for nuclear terrorism has become an overriding concern [Zarimpas]. The same rationales that were once hoped would make it too difficult for countries to acquire nuclear weapons -- that they would be too challenging to build, too expensive, or too difficult to acquire materials for -- were optimistically applied to terrorist groups. But there is the prospect that an already-built nuclear weapon could be stolen or bought from an insecure site. Terrorists are not subject to deterrence since they do not operate from a valued base, and the hope that they might have humanitarian inhibitions vanished with the September 11 attacks. The seriousness of this threat has moved the U.S. to focus aggressively on activities below the national level [Badey], adjust its policy of sanctions, withdraw its offer to allow inspection of its own facilities, approve the deployment of a Missile Defense system, and threaten preemptive force against terrorist countries and groups worldwide [Tkacik].


Nuclear proliferation is a complex issue that incorporates many characteristics of other environmental problems in dramatic form. Nuclear technology offers both benefits and threats to human life, requires world wide cooperation to control it, and presents idealistic long term goals that must be tempered by pragmatic considerations. Addressing these challenges requires recognition of the political and psychological motivation behind proliferation, an understanding of the technological issues, and policies based on these realities that can make gradual progress, not mere condemnation or the setting of unrealistic goals.

The mechanisms that have been developed for dealing with this challenge include: international treaties and diplomacy; negotiated guarantees, incentives, and alternatives; organizations for inspection, monitoring, and trade control; programs for safeguarding or dismantling other countries' weapons; and responses to noncompliance ranging from political condemnation and sanctions up to military force. New developments will require vigilance and a capability for flexible response to meet the continuing challenge.

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