Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The New Global Nuclear Order

North Korea has detonated a nuclear bomb. Are we at the beginning of a new age of nuclear weapons states?

From the LA Times :

North Korea's announcement of a test follows ones by India and Pakistan in 1998. The rise of a new generation of nuclear states has led to increasing concerns that others could follow, and fueled fears that the more countries with nuclear capability, the greater the risk that fissile material will fall into terrorist hands.

"We are, at present, at the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime and the global nuclear order that we've taken for granted," said Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton, who directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "This is a huge event whose importance may only become evident in five years….

"In terms of global order, global nuclear order, this is a nuclear blast," he said.

On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea for its declared nuclear test Monday.

But China's reluctance to take part in inspections of North Korean cargo to help stop the flow of weapons materials throws into doubt how effective the sanctions can be.

Policymakers point to three levels of problems with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been in force for 36 years: weaknesses in the treaty itself, at the political level in the Security Council, and at the technical level in the ability of nuclear inspectors to detect undisclosed nuclear programs.

Countries that had nuclear weapons when the treaty went into effect — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — were allowed to keep them, whereas others were asked to forswear them.

The "haves" made the commitment to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals, and the "have-nots" agreed not to seek atomic weapons as long as they could have the advantages of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Nuclear technology is such that once a country masters uranium enrichment, it is relatively easy to go from low-level enrichment, which produces fuel for nuclear power plants, to high-level enrichment, which produces material used for a bomb.

Although 187 countries have signed the treaty, some developing nations are skeptical of the intentions of the five original nuclear states and are reluctant to give up the option of enriching uranium, leaving the door cracked to nuclear weapons capability.

There are now about 27,000 nuclear warheads worldwide — the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia. And most of the five original nuclear states have moved to modernize or, in China's case, expand their arsenals.

Countries that have pursued nuclear capability outside the treaty or by hiding their programs have, after an initial distancing by the international community, gone unpunished over the long term.

Three countries — India, Pakistan and Israel — refused to sign the treaty. Pakistan and India have developed nuclear weapons, and Israel is thought to have them.

All three enjoy the favor and respect of world leaders, setting an example of what countries can get when they acquire nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan, initially sanctioned over their nuclear tests, have seen the bans diminish, and India has been offered a multibillion-dollar deal with the United States that includes nuclear technology. The agreement has not been approved by the U.S. Senate.

Two other countries have refused to abide by the treaty, although they signed it: Iran and North Korea. The latter withdrew from the treaty three years ago. Neither nation has suffered significant consequences for refusing to comply.

From the New York Times :

The declaration last Monday by North Korea that it had conducted a successful atomic test brought to nine the number of nations believed to have nuclear arms. But atomic officials estimate that as many as 40 more countries have the technical skill, and in some cases the required material, to build a bomb.

That ability, coupled with new nuclear threats in Asia and the Middle East, risks a second nuclear age, officials and arms control specialists say, in which nations are more likely to abandon the old restraints against atomic weapons.

The spread of nuclear technology is expected to accelerate as nations redouble their reliance on atomic power. That will give more countries the ability to make reactor fuel, or, with the same equipment and a little more effort, bomb fuel — the hardest part of the arms equation.

Signs of activity abound. Hundreds of companies are now prospecting for uranium where dozens did a few years ago. Argentina, Australia and South Africa are drawing up plans to begin enriching uranium, and other countries are considering doing the same. Egypt is reviving its program to develop nuclear power.

Concern about the situation led the International Atomic Energy Agency to summon hundreds of government officials and experts from around the world to Vienna in September to discuss tightening restrictions on who is permitted to produce nuclear fuel.

“These dangers are urgent,” Sam Nunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation and a former Democratic senator, told the group. “We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe and, at this moment, the outcome is unclear.”