issue 261 - November 1994
Nukes on the loose
Russian plutonium smuggled out in suitcases. North Korea reputedly making its own nukes.
Fears of a lethal free-for-all have replaced those of the Cold War superpowers delivering
us all to Armageddon. What can be done? Darius Bazargan reports.
‘The new nuclear danger we face is perhaps a handful of nuclear devices in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups,’ said Les Aspin last year, while he was still US Defense Secretary. His concern – and its possibly racist undertones – is often echoed in the West these days.
The Cold War may be over and some of its nuclear arsenals are being dismantled, but for smaller countries nuclear weapons are seen as a fast-track to great power status: ‘There is still the sense of nuclear technology as the wonder-weapon that will carry all before it, that can be waved around as a big stick to get people to bow to your will,’ said one defense analyst.
After the 1991 Gulf War it emerged that Saddam Hussein had read the works of a certain General André Gallois, the theoretician behind France’s independent nuclear Force de Frappe. His idea was that even a small nuclear capability transforms a country’s territory into a sort of invulnerable ‘sanctuary’ which no-one would dare to attack, making conventional war a less risky proposition.
Predictably, most of the governments actively trying to acquire these weapons are oppressive, ruled by a military élite prepared to beggar their countries in order to develop this ‘nuclear talisman’.
Cut price plutonium
Les Aspin was not very hopeful about controlling the flow of nuclear weapons either: ‘Loose nukes will reach the international market... the policy of prevention through denial won’t be enough to cope with the potential of tomorrow’s proliferators.’
The main cause for concern is the break-up of the old Soviet Union. To date most reports of nuclear materials being smuggled out have been about amateurish efforts. There are horror stories of workers at nuclear plants stealing non-weapons-grade radioactive materials and hiding them in their cars, clothes or in one case the family freezer, in the hope of selling them on to the Russian Mafia, who would smuggle them abroad.
The Russian Government had previously denied that any weapons-grade nuclear material had reached the open market. But in July this year, German police found a six-gramme sample of Russian-made weapons-grade plutonium 239 at the house of a Stuttgart entrepreneur with extensive Russian contacts. Several more seizures followed. A terrorist with the Bomb in his briefcase is not a new idea, but it may be more likely now than ever before.
Russian nuclear experts may also be tempted to take their know-how overseas. Formerly a privileged élite, these scientists have seen both their status and their living standards tumble. An average nuclear specialist can now hope to earn half as much as a bus driver, making massive salaries from foreign governments more than attractive.
Trick or Treaty
So what is to be done? The 25-year-old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty comes up for renewal in April next year, and the question on many lips is: can the Treaty cope with the new realities? Should it be renewed?
As it stands, the Treaty has many flaws. Its main failing is hypocrisy. Of its 160 signatories, five were nuclear powers – US, USSR, UK, France, and China. These agreed to reduce their nuclear arms but instead they have actually increased their capability. These nuclear countries are also the only ones with permanent seats on the powerful UN Security Council.
It’s no surprise then that new nuclear states such as Israel, India and Pakistan have chosen not to sign the Treaty. Even some of the countries that have done so – Iraq and North Korea, for example – have then disregarded it and worked on developing nuclear weapons all the same. Then there is another, more technical, flaw to the Treaty. It was conceived as a regime which would simultaneously promote the international use of civilian nuclear technology whilst preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. This has not worked for many reasons, one of the main ones being that the distinction is often unclear and much of the technology has dual use. Iraq and others have shown that being denied access to the military technology has not stood in the way of making nuclear weapons.
In view of the failure of certain aspects of the Treaty some nations have tried other arrangements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But these have been criticized as élitist clubs composed of the industrialized nations. Officials involved in these organizations concede there is little that they can do to stop a determined, wealthy and patient government from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons. But they argue that they can make that process more difficult and more expensive – the latter obviously being in their interests.
Clinging to clout
So where does all of this leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is it worth extending? Probably, but not indefinitely and not under its current terms.
The big question is whether the five nuclear states on the UN Security Council – US, Russia, UK, France and China – will be able to dispel the suspicion that they want to extend the Treaty simply to maintain their own monopoly on nuclear weapons and the international clout this gives them.
In a sane world governments would accept that nuclear weapons have no political or military value and would adopt a policy of total disarmament. Ironically, the only state ever to unilaterally disarm was South Africa in 1990. The five nuclear states may work towards limited disarmament but they are unlikely to ‘ban the Bomb’. The trouble is that they still believe nuclear weapons have a considerable political, if not military, use.
US officials have talked about a minimum stabilization level of around 3,500 warheads – way above the arsenals of Britain, China and France. These three might be tempted to maintain their nuclear forces arguing that they are not of comparable size to that of the US. Countries like Britain are thus spending billions on updating anachronistic weapons systems in the hope of defending their permanent place on the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile the US is pursuing its own particular agenda when it complains about ‘rogue’ states getting the Bomb. The label ‘rogue’ is attached only to those states seen to be opposed to US global interests: both South Africa and Israel have had relatively easy rides when they became nuclear powers.
US freedom to project force internationally is likely to be curtailed if a potential adversary has nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine that Operation Desert Storm would have been mounted in the way it was if a nuclear-armed Iraq had invaded Kuwait.
It is now time for the non-nuclear states to call the shots if the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to be extended. According to Frank Barnaby from the Oxford Research Group the non-nuclear states should insist on a commitment from the nuclear states to progressively phase out their arsenals. They should also sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Other measures could include a ban on the production of weapons-grade fissile materials, strengthening the powers of the nuclear ‘watchdog’ International Atomic Energy Agency, and a ‘no-first-use’ treaty.
As for the question of nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorist groups, there is little the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself can do as such groups will obviously not be present at the conference.
The spread of nuclear weapons must be stopped, but the Non-Proliferation Treaty should certainly not be renewed to maintain the status quo. It should be remembered that this Treaty was conceived as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Unless the five Security Council states lead by example and take real steps to eliminate their own stocks of these nightmarish weapons, the Treaty will not be worth the paper it is written on.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, everybody’s hands are the wrong hands.
Darius Bazargan is a freelance writer on international affairs.