Current non-proliferation efforts insufficient to stop nuclear weapons from falling to terrorists

Publish date: June 21, 2004

Written by: Charles Digges

WASHINGTON—In a surprisingly frank critique of international non-proliferation efforts, a major and influential US think-tank launched a draft report calling for “universal compliance” to strengthen the world-wide nonproliferation drive and recommended that the US and Russia put more effort in to disarming themselves to act as an example for the rest of the world’s nuclear club.

In the report—published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—the authors urge that the United States develop an ambitious and broad new strategy based on an arms control system of universal compliance that would put all of the world’s nuclear woes into a single pot and handle them together. The 96-page “Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security” draft report is available at

It was authored by Carnegie’s George Perkovich, Joseph Cirincione, Rose Gottenmoeller, Jon Wolfsthal, and Jessica Matthews.

According to the thrust of the report, everyone—nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”—have to be seen to make concessions if all are to gain. This approach would pose a new balance of obligations that would apply both to states that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, and those who have not—including non-state actors.

“If you’re really worried that terrorists are going to get nuclear materials and build a bomb, then we have to be acting a lot more aggressively and thinking more comprehensively to lock down the global nuclear complex,” said Jon Wolfsthal, one of five co-authors of the Carnegie report, Some 600 members of the arms control community are attending the two day kick-off of the report.

According to the NPT, which was conceived in the late 1960s, those signatory nations that had nuclear weapons programmes were allowed to maintain them, while those that did not were not allowed to pursue them—thus the Carnegie report’s distinction between “have” and “have not” nations.

Some might argue that tackling a problem like Iran or North Korea’s nuclear programmes is difficult enough, but this new report argues that the only way to stem the spread of nuclear weapons is to bring all of these individual arms proliferation problems under one broad umbrella,.

The idea is that if everyone is to gain, everyone has to be seen to give something up.

So, for example, if Iran is to guarantee that it will not develop nuclear weapons, then existing nuclear weapon states must halt the production of fissile materials and abandon the development of new generations of nuclear bombs.


The report

While praising the progress made in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons since the establishment of the NPT regime, the report also notes several incidents that have occurred within the past 10 years that have “cast a shadow” over non-proliferation efforts. Examples of such incidents include Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, the September 11th , 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and last year’s disclosure of an international nuclear smuggling network orchestrated by top Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

These incidents, according to“Universal Compliance” showed that despite major non-proliferation successes, the spread and potential use of nuclear weapons remains all too real. These and other events showed that much more needs to be done to reduce the possibility of nuclear war.”

Indeed they have turned out to be a major policy issue all but ignored by the administration of George W. Bush, who within days of the September 11th attach vowed that “We will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

That promise led to rhetorical designations, such as the “axis of evil” for Iraq, Iran and North Korea; to steps, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, which allows the United States to search ships for weapons material; and to war with Iraq, based on the belief that Saddam Hussein’s government was sitting on a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and working toward an atomic bomb.

But according to the Universal Compliance report, it has not helped secure vulnerable nuclear facilities, criminalized the transfer of weapons technology or meted out punishments for countries that renege on their commitment to remain nuclear-free.

To help improve the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the Carnegie report proposes a new strategy of universal compliance intended to address both countries that have joined the NPT and those that have not. Such a strategy would based on five “obligations,” according to the report, including the prevention of new nuclear weapons states, the securing of all fissile materials, the prevention of illicit nuclear technology transfers, the devaluation of nuclear weapons as a military deterrent, and a commitment to micro-managing regional conflicts that prompt some countries to seek weapons of mass destruction.


Arms control no longer a strictly US-Russia issue

One of the authors of the plan, the Carnegie Endowment’s director for non-proliferation, Joseph Cirincione, said at Monday’s introduction of the draft report that the world was at “a nuclear tipping point.” Reflected in his words were the fact that arms control was no longer a polarized issue between the United States and Russia.

Director General of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei agreed. While speaking to the conference, he said that the Cold War had provided a stabilizing influence in nuclear deterrence, with each side struggling to maintain parity with the other and arms deals being brokered with the desire to maintain mutually assured destruction. The fall of the Soviet Union, however, shattered that ironical safety net of dual superpower proliferation, which at their peak, had 12,000 warheads pointed at each other.

“The new world order became the new world instability,” said ElBaradei. He stated that the ostensible cease of hostilities between the United States and Russia had lulled the world community into ignoring other regional conflicts—such as the Chechen struggle for independence from Moscow and the Israeli-Palestine conflicts, amongothers—as possible nuclear threats. Since the ostensible end of the Cold War, the attitudes of the US and Russian governments toward possible nuclear threats has been “inaction.”

In order to address this instability, ElBaradei repeated the reports injunctions to focus on nuclear security, to impose against violating nations limited sanctions that will not harm their civilian populations and to politically address the causes of strife in those nations wishing to obtain or develop nuclear weapons programmes. He also, in echo of the report, emphasized that counties expressing a desire to leave the NPT, such as North Korea, should prompt immediate UN Security Council investigations. Also in agreement with the report, ElBaradei encouraged expanded public involvement in the non-proliferation effort.

“We must work to further political discourse because our lives depend on it,” he said. “We can wait for the unthinkable to happen, or we can look at the writing on the wall and take action.”


Visible nuclear reduction from Russia and the US

Former Senator Sam Nunn—who co-authored the Nunn-Lugar, or formally, Cooperative Threat Reductiion, act with Richard Lugar, who currently heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—urged those states possessing nuclear weapons capabilities and who have signed on to the NPT to begin reducing their reliance on nuclear deterrence.

“Today we must seek a new triumph of humanity,” he said. “The NPT pushed for the nuclear disarmament of the haves and the have nations must visibly reduce.”

Nunn noted that both the US and Russia must remove their nuclear arsenals from so-called “hair trigger” or immediate alert status—a status that both counties maintain against each other even now, some 13 years after the end of the cold war. Instead he proposed, in congruence with the report, that a fraction of missles remain on hair trigger status, while the majority are deferred to a second status of readiness that would imply that several days of authorization be required before they are actually fired.

But even when that should have been taken care of long ago, said Nunn, both the US and Russia are headed in the opposite direction as both governments have recently announced plans to fortify their nuclear arsenals. Russia’s nuclear abilities, however, have deteriorated to a frightening degeee. A recent naval exercise in the Russian Northern Fleet was a comedy of misfired simulation missile attacks. Furthermore, Russia’s early warning missile defence infrastructure is old and error-prone, said Nunn, which, as the result of a technical snafu. could trigger a volley of high alert Russian nuclear missiles at the United States, beginning World War Three.

ElBaradei concluded by saying that the arms race is still a reality and posed the question: “Are our weapons driving our policy? Have the machines taken over?”


Make the machines worthless

One of the most important ways of reversing this trend set forward by the report is the devaluation of nuclear weapons as a military deterrent. This, according to the report, would be accomplished by forbidding the research, development and testing of new types of nuclear weapons.

Further, all states that have nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons stockpiles would be required to produce a system whereby they detail verifiably how they would eliminate nuclear arsenals and secure fissile materials—as they are obligated to do under the provisions of the NPT. Lastly, the report suggest that Israel, India and Pakistan be obligated to join the NPT and face the same responsibilities as Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and China.

To help prevent terrorists and rogue states seeking nuclear weapons from obtaining the necessary fissile materials, the report proposes the creation of a “contact group,” consisting of countries that possess nuclear weapons or fissile material stockpiles that would establish security standards for nuclear materials and aid countries in meeting such standards.

The United States should also conduct what the Carnegie experts labelled a “Global Cleanout” to secure and remove nuclear materials from vulnerable sites around the world, according to the report.

Late last month, the U.S. Energy Department announced the launch of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which calls for working with Russia to repatriate all Russian-origin fresh highly enriched uranium fuel by the end of 2005 and accelerate and complete the return of all Russian-origin spent fuel by 2010. In addition, the United States also plans to accelerate efforts to recover U.S.-origin research reactor spent fuel within a decade.

Citing the need to prevent illicit transfers of nuclear technologies, the report proposes creating an “obligatory” system to declare all transfers of controlled nuclear technology, based on the information exchanges between the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the IAEA. Under such a system, the report says, undeclared exports would be “illegal on their face,” while declared transfers would be subject to national export control systems.

The report also calls for the expansion of the US.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral effort to interdict WMD-related cargo shipments, to cover international waterways as well as those subject to national jurisdiction.

“By defining the level of transparency and accounting accuracy necessary to verify elimination of all nuclear weapons, this process would begin to illuminate whether total disarmament is actually feasible,” the report says.


For the next White House occupant

The report has some tough advice for whoever wins the US presidential election in November.

It says that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons requires more international teamwork than the Bush administration recognises, and more international resolve than previous administrations could muster.

Over the next two days here in Washington, virtually every major figure in the arms control debate will be discussing the new plan, which, as one of the report’s authors notes, is intended to answer one very basic question that would be asked in the wake of a nuclear exchange or a terrorist attack involving nuclear weapons: What should have been done to prevent this?