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Questions and Answers Regarding Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power

Graphic showing relative sizes of various types of nuclear. This graphic is in the public domain.

September 21, 2009
By Henry Sokolski
» Dieser Artikel ist auf Deutsch verfügbar

The Principle of Deterrence in Times of Asymmetric Threats: What Role do Nuclear Weapons play in 21st Century Security Policy? 

Q. Why the current push for zero nuclear weapons now?

Much of the talk about the need to push for zero nuclear weapons has come from a frustration with the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to give much lip service to this goal and its persistent vocal promotion of developing new types of nuclear arms. Nuclear tests in North Korea, activities related to nuclear weapons in Iran, and continued development and deployment of additional nuclear weapons systems and production facilities in Pakistan, India, China, Israel and Russia have also increased international interest in restraining nuclear arms. An additional concern is the announcement Iran’s neighbors have made that they want to develop “peaceful” nuclear energy programs of their own. Meanwhile, positive trends in reducing strategic nuclear deployments in the U.S., Russia, the UK, and France have only whetted the public's appetite for nuclear reductions generally and made “going to zero” a campaign issue for the Obama presidency, the Nonaligned Movement, and much of the OECD.

Q. Is nuclear deterrence still relevant between states?

The short answer is yes. Certainly, several important states, such as Japan, have made it clear that they believe their safety would be best assured if the U.S. stood behind its nuclear security guarantees. Such views are dispositive since nuclear deterrence ultimately is a matter more of perception than of any scientific calculation. Russia, with its diminished conventional force projection capabilities, clearly believes nuclear weapons are essential to deter the conventional arms of NATO and to influence the behavior of its former possessions. It has developed enhanced radiation warheads to neutralize NATO armor and to intimidate its neighbors and electromagnetic pulse tailored warheads to deter U.S. and China forces. It also has voiced concerns about proposed NATO missile defenses, arguing that it threatens diminishing the potency of its nuclear deterrent. The Japanese, as noted above, may be extremely supportive of going to zero but are equally emphatic that the U.S. maintain nuclear superiority until the last weapon has been destroyed. Meanwhile, what China does in deploying and developing nuclear-capable missiles and nuclear warheads matters greatly to security planners in Japan, the U.S. and India. What India might do, in turn, is of keen interest to Pakistan and vice versa. Finally, nuclear deterrence is an unspoken article of faith in Israel - a state that continues to produce fissile material at its reactor in Dimona and now faces an Iran that is becoming nuclear-weapons-ready, a Syria that seems poised to follow suit, and other neighbors, which given Israel's nuclear posture, refuse to renounce making nuclear fuel themselves.

Q. Why are nuclear weapons so attractive to so many non-nuclear weapons states?

It is not clear that the actual acquisition of the weapons is nearly as attractive to non-nuclear weapons states as is developing an option to acquire them. In any case, the appeal for developing such an option for most states is that they can enhance a country’s status as a regional power at relatively low cost. Some states may also calculate that by developing either weapons or an option to get them, they can much more easily garner the attention and concern of wealthier powers. This, in turn, could produce diplomatic and even economic offers to get these would-be bomb makers to restrain their nuclear efforts. The problem with an increasing number of smaller states taking this course of action is that, whatever benefits might come to them in the near term, they are sure to diminish as more states follow suit. Indeed, the more popular this nuclear game of chicken becomes, the less it is likely to work to anyone’s benefit as the wealthier states lose interest in bribing smaller states to behave and every state’s security declines with the onset of ever more extensive nuclear proliferation.

Q. Can non-state actors be deterred by nuclear weapons? Can further nuclear proliferation be prevented if the current atomic states continue using nuclear weapons for deterrence?

Given the still largely hypothetical character of the non-state party threat, one can easily assume the answer is no. We have yet to see such an actual nuclear terrorist action involving the use of atomic weapons and still lack any specific intelligence regarding such threats. Arguing that nuclear deterrence has prevented the realization of this threat, then, seems to require a large leap of faith and it is unclear how relevant nuclear deterrence might be against nuclear terrorism in the future. What we still are uncertain about, however, should not be confused with what may actually turn to pass. Regarding our ability to deter non-state actors, much depends on how dependent they might be on state sponsors. If this dependence is both great and clear, then, nuclear threats focused against states that might toy with handing off their nuclear capabilities to terrorists (e.g., as is so often spoken about regarding North Korea, Iran or a radicalized Pakistan) might help to deter such actions. This is not to say, however, that nuclear threats are the only deterrence tool available.

As for whether or not further nuclear proliferation can be prevented if existing nuclear states continue to use nuclear weapons for deterrence, the popular answer today is no. Whatever the strength of this conclusion might be, we need to be wary of arguments that getting the U.S. and Russia to reduce or eliminate their nuclear weapons will necessarily promote nonproliferation. It’s fair to argue that if more states increase their reliance on nuclear weapons for their security and existing nuclear arsenals grow to service this dependency, it will be difficult to keep non-weapons states from becoming more interested in acquiring atomic weapons themselves. In this case, nuclear weapons states might try to fend off further nuclear proliferation by attempting, as Russia and the U.S. did in the 1950s, to share their nuclear weapons or base more of them in other states. Here, the driver for such actions would be almost entirely symbolic rather than any technical military requirement. With such sharing (and perhaps because of it), though, nuclear weapons proliferation demands are more likely to increase than not.

Conversely, if Russia and the U.S. reduce their nuclear weapons deployments down to 1,000 or even 500 weapons and China, India, Pakistan and Israel increase theirs to several hundred, one could reach a point within a decade where no nuclear weapons state was perceived to be dominant. Under these circumstances, current alliance relations between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear ones would be tested as they have never been before. In such a world where the nuclear weapons states would be neck and neck with only a few hundred weapons each, non-nuclear weapons states’ interest in acquiring nuclear weapons to “tip the balance” their way with another major nuclear weapons state could become quite high. In addition, nuclear weapons states’ interest in ramping up existing weapons production might become irresistible to stay “even” or get ahead of other nuclear weapons holders. In such an uncertain world, what might ignite a major military rivalry, a war or even nuclear use could be far less than has been historically the case. Instead of nuclear tensions being ratcheted up with missile deployments in Cuba or wars in the Middle East, an assassin’s bullet may be all that is necessary to bring the world to or over the brink, as was the case in the First World War. All of this suggests that how one reduces nuclear weapons and their related materials and manufacturing facilities is at least as important as reducing them per se.

Q. Are missile shields alternatives for the future?

Like any defensive military technology, missile defenses can be used to increase the overall military capabilities of any military force. Some have used this observation to condemn them as being "provocative". In some cases, if they are not very effective, are much more expensive than the rockets they are defending against, and can be easily overwhelmed, their deployment could provoke an opponent to build up his offensive missile force. On the other hand, if a missile defense system is relatively effective against the missile forces they are designed to defend against and these forces’ numbers were constrained or reduced through formal arms controls or other restraints, such defenses might be of use to help reduce states’ attraction to relying on fast, offensive nuclear weapons threats to "secure the peace".

Q. How can NPT member states be kept on board?

The short answer is mutual fear of what sort of world might emerge if every state exercised its natural right to self-defense by acquiring nuclear weapons. Whatever the uncertainties are for keeping the peace with nine nuclear weapons states, they are unlikely to be mitigated by increasing the number to 10, 15 or 40. All countries, nuclear-armed or not, understand this at some level. This was the concern that propelled the original Irish Resolution in 1958 that eventually led to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It is the same central argument that was used to persuade reluctant states to vote for an indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. Although there is no clear right recognized in the NPT for member states to acquire or duty for them to share any specific nuclear technologies, the NPT’s language raises a general expectation that the benefits of nuclear power will be shared and that such sharing is critical to the development of all nations. Four decades after the NPT was signed, though, the high expense and disappointing economic performance of nuclear power has undermined this assumption’s credibility. All of this, plus the proliferation risks associated with large nuclear programs spreading to additional states, has created a major dilemma.

A sensible way out would be for the world's advanced nations to cooperate with the less-developed world in perfecting new forms of more economical non-nuclear energy. States already have environmental interests in developing such alternatives. Because large reactors are also bomb starter kits, they also have nuclear nonproliferation incentives for doing so. Precisely because less-developed nations are not so wedded to centralized, national electrical grid distribution systems and lack the capital to build large numbers of massive base load generating stations, they are ideal test beds for experimenting with alternative electrical production and distribution concepts – ideas that may well (like distributed cell phone systems versus copper trunk-line-based communications) prove to be smarter and far more profitable than what advanced economies have come to rely upon. Conversely, attempts to bribe non-weapons states with offers of uneconomical, dangerous civilian nuclear technology that will only bring them closer to acquiring bombs of their own is the surest way to turn the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in on itself. Offering cheap loans for large reactor projects, free or cheap nuclear training for large reactor projects, subsidized nuclear fuel, electrical grid infrastructure assistance to "condition" and "prepare" the electrical grid to take on a large base load reactor, etc. would actually be worse than doing nothing.

Panel 2:
Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons: An Unavoidable Mesalliance?

Q. How can the perceived contradiction between the fear of nuclear anarchy among states and non-state actors, such as terrorist networks, on the one hand and the increased call for more civilian use in nuclear power on the other be resolved?

If we are lucky, counting and comparing new nuclear power programs’ costs against their alternatives should help. Certainly, if it costs more to boil water and meet our carbon emissions goals with the construction of new nuclear power plants as compared to investing in non-nuclear alternatives, the dilemma between running nuclear power’s inherent security risks and securing its supposed benefits all but evaporates. On the other hand, if wealthy states claim that they must create additional subsidies specifically to promote nuclear power plant construction, it is unclear why or how risky nuclear activities in the most worrisome places can be stopped by the very states creating such nuclear-specific subsidies. Some might argue that proper enforcement of the current nuclear rules might yet protect us against the worst. History, however, hardly supports such optimism. In fact, international nonproliferation efforts have done too little to block dangerous developments in Iraq, Algeria, South Africa, North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Israel. It also is unlikely that any new set of nuclear inspection procedures or efforts to persuade nations not to make nuclear fuel will be all that successful in preventing states from developing nuclear weapons options in the future. Indeed, greater candor regarding the limits of what nuclear inspections can provide is something sorely needed from the International Atomic Energy Agency. This suggests that if nuclear power ultimately is the most economical way to provide power or if wealthy states go out of their way to subsidize its revival, nuclear weapons capabilities are quite likely to spread even faster than they might otherwise.

None of this, however, is inevitable. In fact, the amount of nuclear power generated in 2007 actually declined 2 percent from the previous year and the projected costs of building new nuclear plants are so much higher than their alternatives that no private bank is willing to invest in them. For some time, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has been siding with nuclear nonproliferation. It would be useful if we stopped fighting it. Specifically, we should do all we can with energy and country-neutral rules to make sure that only the most economical ways of producing power proceed. This will require all states to quantify the full costs of every energy option and to rely more on market competition mechanisms in choosing energy options. In addition, it would help if states stopped creating new nuclear-specific subsidies and discouraged additional energy-specific financial incentives generally. If states choose nuclear power even when it is more expensive than its alternatives, it ought to be a matter of international concern: 1. to prevent states from spending more time and money than they should to abate fewer carbon emissions than they might otherwise be capable of doing (a concern that ought to be the focus of any follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol), 2. to prevent states from undermining the prospect of fair, open, international bidding on large energy projects (which is already called for by the Energy Charter Treaty and the Global Energy Charter for Sustainable Energy Development) and 3. to block the further spread of nuclear weapons capabilities to non-nuclear states (which is the key objective of the NPT).

Q. Why do countries, such as Brazil and others, now want nuclear energy? Is it really climate change?

I am not an expert on Brazil. My few encounters with current and former senior government officials there, however, strongly suggest that nuclear power and the making of nuclear fuel have long been favorite programs not only of the scientific elite, but of the military.

Q. How do you assess current proposals to secure the nuclear fuel cycle? How can the role and impact of the IAEA be strengthened?

The proposals to offer nuclear fuel at current market prices may not do much to block further nuclear proliferation and are unlikely to aggravate current proliferation trends. Still, the purported nonproliferation benefits of virtually all of current multilateral nuclear fuel cycle proposals seem overblown. First, they only make available low enriched uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6 LEU), a commodity which states that are in full compliance with their NPT and IAEA safeguards obligations have little problem securing now. Second, none of the proposed fuel supply schemes afford these states what they need and can only currently get from nuclear fuel makers – quality-assured fuel assemblies that work with their specific reactors. As a result, it is unclear how much demand there will be to implement any of the nuclear fuel cycle proposals. To get these proposals off the ground, there will be a temptation to try to interest developing states by offering them UF6 LEU at subsidized prices. Such an offer, though, would constitute yet another state nuclear power subsidy that would work against consideration of non-nuclear options. As noted above, this would be a mistake.

In regards to the IAEA, the single most important thing Vienna could do to strengthen the IAEA’s positive nonproliferation impact is to clarify what IAEA nuclear inspections can do to provide reliable, timely detection of possible military diversions. Right now, the IAEA acts as though it can meet its announced technical safeguards goals for nuclear fuel making when it cannot, that it can provide timely detection of diversions of all of the fresh and spent reactor fuels under its mandate when it does not, and that it can effectively safeguard facilities and materials in non-cooperative states and can find covert facilities and materials when it has repeatedly failed to do so. Instead of continuing to operate as if these gaps do not exist, the IAEA and its key member states need to clarify the limits of what the laws of physics permit for detecting nuclear diversions, where additional funding and authority will help improve the IAEA’s ability to meet its safeguards goals, and where no amount of either will make much of a difference. Such candor will make it clear just how risky some forms of "peaceful" nuclear energy are. This alone would be most helpful in spotlighting the dangers of launching major nuclear projects in non-nuclear states, particularly in dangerous regions of the world.

Q. What can we learn from the case of Iran, which is, after all, claiming to only pursue civilian nuclear energy?

States should not be encouraged to believe that they have a perse right to get to the brink of bomb-making with large reactors and plants making nuclear fuel when these activities cannot be inspected in a fashion that would provide reliable and timely detection of military diversions, and in the case of a country like Iran – which is awash in natural gas – will be uneconomical for many decades.

Henry Sokolski is Executive Director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Washington, DC, USA.