Deproliferation: An approach to preventing nuclear terrorism

By Amitai Etzioni | July 23, 2008

Earlier this year, four senior statesmen–former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, all veterans of the Cold War–issued a statement in the Wall Street Journal calling for complete nuclear disarmament. It’s an attractive vision, but an idea with little political reality. Above all, it ignores the need to attend to acute proliferation threats, or “hot-spots,” first; thus, it’s akin to calling for the inspection of all buildings in a neighborhood for combustible materials while a fire is already raging in several homes.

Nuclear terrorism and the states from which terrorists may acquire nuclear weapons or the material to make those weapons–including unstable states (i.e., Pakistan) and noncompliant states (i.e., North Korea)–pose major threats to world peace. Therefore, top priority must be given to preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons and the means from which they can be made. The best way to prevent the theft or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons is through the elimination and removal or downblending of the materials used to make them, rather then relying primarily on providing better security and oversight.

To highlight the difference between the approach favored here and that embodied in systems that focus on inspection, I will use the term “deproliferation” throughout. Deproliferation calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made–first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others. Thus, in contrast to what Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn write, a deproliferation approach suggests that we currently need to worry much more about Pakistan, (most likely) Iran, and even Russia than, say, about the nuclear weapons of France or the plutonium accumulated by Japan.

Such an approach calls for banning the trade in nuclear arms and the materials from which these arms can readily be made, especially highly enriched uranium (HEU). It sees a need to immediately supplement the regime of inspections, which seeks to ensure that assets that can be used for both civilian and military purposes will be used only for civilian means, with a regime that seeks to remove all such assets or replace them with low-enriched uranium (LEU) and light water reactors, neither of which can be directly used to make nuclear arms.

There are strong precedents for such a deproliferation approach–i.e., the removal of nuclear arms from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, the successful negotiations with Libya, the (yet-to-be tested) current progress with North Korea, and several elements of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs and Global Threat Reduction Initiative. In fact, today, there’s an urgent need for the expansion and acceleration of the implementation of these threat-reduction programs by according them much higher political priority and greater budgetary and administrative allocations and applying this approach to dealing with Iran’s sensitive fuel-cycle activities.

Nations leading such deproliferation efforts should be encouraged to proceed by offering nations of greatest concern positive incentives such as security guarantees, other sources of energy, or support to convert or shut down facilities that use HEU. Sanctions may be employed if such positive inducements fail.

I cannot stress enough that priorities must be set and that overreaching and overpromising can damage the cause at hand. It follows that although plutonium and spent fuel must also be deproliferated, these materials seem less attractive for would-be nuclear terrorists since they’re much more difficult to handle than ready-made bombs and HEU. Hence, removing HEU, banning the construction of reactors that use it, and otherwise suppressing it, should proceed as quickly as possible even if the same arrangements cannot be made in the near future for plutonium and spent fuels.

In the same vein, although international supply and ownership of HEU is preferable to national control, it’s not fully compatible with the deproliferation approach because it relies upon inspections to ensure that HEU will be used solely for civilian purposes by those to which it’s allotted and it assumes that the buyback of plutonium and spent fuel could be reliably implemented.

Likewise, the norm that condemns nations that set out to develop nuclear arms should be reinforced–especially given the new nuclear “itch” that’s developing worldwide. The notion that “good” governments such as India and Brazil can be trusted with nuclear arms should also be strongly rejected. Any proliferation anywhere is a threat to international peace. Nations that are considering acquiring or producing nuclear arms or building dual-use facilities should be persuaded and otherwise discouraged from proceeding.

For the same reason, nations that already have nuclear weapons should be encouraged to reduce their current arsenals to the lowest possible levels and to eliminate security policies that rely upon threats to attack others using nuclear weapons.

Those concerned with nuclear security should be particularly concerned with the lack of enforcement available under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty–the cumbersome process by which the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors must approve findings before they can be submitted to the U.N. Security Council for action. Even if calls for action avoid a veto by one power or another, their implementation is still contingent on action by national powers, which is often woefully insufficient, if forthcoming at all.

General and complete nuclear disarmament has an appeal, but it also poses some problems–especially for nations that face adversaries with vastly superior conventional forces. Above all, a desire to achieve complete nuclear disarmament shouldn’t be allowed to delay the meeting of more pressing goals, as meeting these goals will facilitate progress toward the longer-term vision.

Given the top priority to prevent the spread of nuclear arms and curtail the access of terrorists to nuclear arms and material, it’s essential not to trade deproliferation measures for other political goals. For instance, when dealing with Pakistan, the first priority should be ensuring that it won’t export materials and technologies that can facilitate the production of nuclear arms and that it will implement better security on its own nuclear arms. These goals shouldn’t be undermined in the quest for engaging Pakistan in fighting garden-variety terrorists or any other goals, political reforms included.

Similarly, if a nation is willing to exchange its nuclear weapons program for a nonaggression treaty and other assurances that its government won’t be forcefully overthrown, as has been repeatedly reported that both Iran and North Korea have suggested, this is a deal worth exploring.

This article draws upon the daylong discussion of a group of 35 scholars and activists assembled jointly by Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University. However, the author does not speak for the group, as views among its members differed.

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