China, Command and Control, Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, CPPNM, Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee, ENDC, Eric Schlosser, India, Iran, Israel, JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, NSG, nuclear, Nuclear Security Summit, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan, reprocessing, thorium, United States
With an important nuclear conference – the last Nuclear Security Summit – about to start in a week, this is usually the time when articles criticising aspects of non-Western nuclear programmes coincidentally begin to appear. India has been a favoured subject recently, inspiring thoughtful prose before the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, biennial meetings of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation, and annual Nuclear Suppliers Group plenaries. It is a lot of ink that only serves to reiterate what VC Trivedi, India’s ambassador to the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee in the mid-1960s, called nuclear apartheid.
The NSS has addressed issues that have not received sufficient attention in existing fora. Juicier topics such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and sensitive related technology have their own fora in the NPT and NSG communities as well as the United Nations and other regional and bilateral frameworks. By contrast, the safety of nuclear materials seems like plain police work and has largely been left to individual states and industry to handle. Agreements such as the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material are rare and safety regime so far inadequate. Nonetheless, participants at the NSS have taken a creative approach to nuclear safety and security, raising the possibility of even stepping away entirely from the use of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. It is in this expanded and comprehensive view of safety and security that we should also consider policy and not just the technicalities of nuclear weapons, energy, and commerce.
First, it is clear that the United States needs reminding that it presently possesses a stockpile of around 7,000 nuclear weapons. This, if you can believe it, is actually the result of years of disarmament from an all-time high level of almost 30,000 nuclear weapons. Since the nuclear ayatollahs have always told us that more weapons mean more danger, it seems obvious that significantly reducing that stockpile is the place to start.
Russia and the United States each have about the same number of nuclear weapons, estimated to be some 25 times (!) that of the next nuclear power, France. By contrast, India is estimated to have 120 nuclear weapons. Even granting Russia and the United States a temporary 10:1 advantage, they would still need to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile by half before they enter the realm of reason.
Second, the nuclear modernisation drive that all the treaty nuclear powers are on does not augur well for the reputation of the non-proliferation regime. Were a cynical attitude to develop among member states, international cooperation would be made even more difficult; the difficulty in having a common sensical amendment to the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material is clear indication that faith in the global nuclear framework is eroding. During the long negotiations with Iran that recently culminated in a favourable agreement, a fear that repeatedly arose was the lack of faith in international institutions as neutral arbiters of law. India’s objection to intrusive inspections that allow fuel tracking through its nuclear complex is also along similar lines of security and questionable impartiality.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed upon with Iran was a truly commendable diplomatic effort. The Islamic republic had taken creative license with its Article IV right under the NPT to enrich uranium and the international community persuaded Tehran of its obligations to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities for verification. It would be even more commendable were a similar effort put behind reminding the N5 – the five nuclear powers recognised by the NPT – of their long-pending Article VI obligation towards nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control. Until now, there seems to be no sign that the N5 have even recognised this promise. Such double standards weaken the nuclear regime that will find a challenger in every Iran and North Korea when their geopolitical situation demands it.
Such hypocrisy is not new – even before NPT opened for signing, the United States kept it quiet that its interpretation of Articles I and II of the treaty allowed for nuclear sharing between NATO countries; US nuclear weapons could thus be deployed to non-nuclear states such as Italy, Turkey, and West Germany. The US role in the Israeli and Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons, of omission or commission, certainly marks it as one of the most irresponsible nuclear powers in the world. China’s overt assistance to the Pakistani nuclear programme puts it in the same company. If the world community is to accept that nuclear weapons present an unbearable risk and their proliferation must be prevented, Washington’s reckless behaviour from the 1960s to the 1980s does little to convince the sceptics.
A different kind of recklessness is revealed in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, a terrifying book about the several close calls the United States had in handling nuclear weapons. To be sure, it is praiseworthy that the United States is an open society where such research was possible – other nuclear weapons states are far more hesitant to allow such information to be made public. Nonetheless, when Washington finds research in Trombay or Kalpakkam risky, it has little ground to stand on. The recent scandals involving the United States’ missile men shows that this plague of poor maintenance and readiness is not yet over.
Even if the attendees at the NSS were willing to let history remain in the past, there remain some serious questions regarding present US nuclear policy. Washington believes, for example, that reprocessing, even under safeguards, is an unacceptable proliferation risk and the nuclear fuel cycle must remain open. In effect, the United States believes that it is safer to bury radioactive nuclear waste for some 29,000 years than to recycle it until the most dangerous radioactive elements are burned up and store a fraction of the waste for 300 years or less. Such faith in our engineering capabilities will require some proselytism, especially when the other option promises energy security and expands fuel availability by several thousand years.
Perhaps a genuine drive for nuclear safety would include the mainstreaming of thorium reactors for energy. There is plenty of intelligent speculation among nuclear energy enthusiasts that the Molten Salt Reactor programme was abandoned in the 1960s because it was not fissile material-friendly. MSRs do not remove all risk – nothing does – but they substantially reduce the security and safety implications present in light water reactors. Admittedly, nuclear research in the United States is more and more in private hands but a CCC-like (Conference on Climate Change) effort to mobilise international will and resources would address multiple concerns simultaneously. The NSS would not be the appropriate forum for such a venture but issues as grave as nuclear safety and security can know no boundaries.
There is plenty to be said about the United States and N5 behaviour regarding nuclear weapons and energy, a lot of it not laudatory. This would be nice to remember the next time a column raises alarm about some allegedly new development in India. It would put the alarm in context, and chances are, the world will still be here tomorrow.
This post appeared on FirstPost on March 26, 2016.