It’s summertime, and the nuclear fish are jumping. In just the first half of the season, there have been dramatic reminders of all four major nuclear threats and a harbinger of a fifth.
The Danger from Existing Arsenals
The first jolt came June 3, when Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will point its nuclear missiles toward Europe if the United States constructs anti-missile bases on his borders. Putin warned that placing new American weapon systems in Poland and the Czech Republic “increases the possibility of a nuclear conflict.” Beyond the fact that Putin actually used his nuclear arsenal as a lever to alter U.S policy, the conflict underscored the threat from the 25,000 nuclear weapons the two countries still deploy, with thousands on hair-trigger alert ready to fire in 15 minutes.
With Russian early-warning capabilities eroding, we increasingly rely on good relations between the White House and the Kremlin to ensure that no Russian president will misinterpret a false alarm and make a catastrophic decision. This summer, behind the smiles at the “Lobster Summit” in Maine, that good will was in short supply, weakening an important safety net crucial to preventing an accidental nuclear exchange. Later in July, the mutual diplomatic expulsions between Russia and the United Kingdom, which fields 185 nuclear weapons, ratcheted tensions up another notch and should shake current complacent policies that take good relations for granted and scorn any further negotiated nuclear reductions.
On July 6, gunmen shot at Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s plane as it was taking off near Islamabad. They missed. But what if they had not? Who will control the nuclear arsenal if Musharraf’s fragile regime collapses? Will the relative calm with its nuclear neighbor India continue? Will this get Al Qaeda, which made Pakistan its safe haven, one step closer to the destructive weapons they continue to seek?
According to the National Intelligence Estimate released last week, Al Qaeda “will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them.” The estimate confirmed what Al Qaeda wants to do; the car bomb attacks in the United Kingdom and Scotland demonstrated what terrorists can do.
It may be hard to believe that a terror cell that could not get an explosive device to work can handle a nuclear one. Yet we should not be encouraged by these terrorists’ poor technical performance, but rather wary of their ability to place two cars in the middle of London and to drive a third one into the Glasgow airport terminal. A more capable cell with uranium stolen or bought from the hundreds of tons still poorly secured in Russia and other states, could make a crude nuclear device that would fit neatly into the trunk of a Mercedes.
New Nuclear States
Not all of the summer news is bad. July brought encouraging progress with the North Korean shut down of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, as it committed to do in the February agreement reached at the six-party talks. Iran also agreed to let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency monitor its heavy-water reactor in Arak that could be used to develop weapons-grade plutonium and agreed to apply safeguards on its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
In both cases, this is merely the beginning. North Korea, which may have produced enough plutonium for 10 nuclear bombs over the past four years, is still required to declare and disable all its nuclear weapons programs. But the signs are positive, largely as the result of a shift in U.S. policy that now focuses on changing the North Korean regime’s behavior rather than trying to change the regime itself. As the Center for American Progress noted in January, “Our diplomats have proven they know how to get the job done. They just need the president to strongly support their efforts.”
The far tougher case is Iran, which still refuses to comply with the United Nations Security Council’s principal demand to halt its uranium enrichment activities. In fact, Iranian officials declared openly that the recent gestures are meant to ease the pressure on Tehran and to avoid a third, and more severe, round of U.N. sanctions.
While International Atomic Energy Agency representatives were busy in Asia and the Middle East, an important development went largely unnoticed in Vienna. An effort to improve IAEA’s ability to inspect and verify national nuclear programs reached a dead end. The Advisory Committee on Safeguards and Verification was created through an admirable initiative President Bush launched in a Feb. 11, 2004 speech. Last month, the committee quietly died. The cause of death: resistance from states without nuclear weapons to take on more responsibility and more restrictions because of their perception that states with nuclear weapons are failing to do much to reduce their existing arsenals.
This lack of balance threatens not just nuclear safeguards, but the entire network of diplomatic and legal nuclear restraints. The Carnegie Endowment concluded in March 2005 that “nuclear weapon states must show that tougher nonproliferation rules not only benefit the powerful but constrain them as well. Nonproliferation is a set of bargains whose fairness must be self-evident if the majority of countries is to support their enforcement.” A new report card from Carnegie shows that, more than two years later, the U.S. administration and the other nuclear weapon states get an “F” for failing to correct the balance by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, a worrying sign as the run-up begins to the crucial 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference.
If this were not enough, an earthquake in Japan on July 16 literally cracked repeated assurances that we have resolved safety issues with nuclear power. The biggest nuclear plant in the world, near the city of Kashiwazaki, is now a nuclear hazard after being damaged in a magnitude 6.8 quake. The owners of the plant at first claimed only minor damage, but the four reactors at the facility have now been shut down indefinitely after inspections showed substantial radioactive leakage into the ocean. If nuclear power is to play a role in reducing the danger of global warming, clearly much more must be done to reduce the serious risks of this energy source.
So far, there is nothing easy about the living in this nuclear summertime.
Joseph Cirincione is Senior Fellow and Director for Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.
Uri Leventer is a graduate student at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and an intern at the Center for American Progress.