Thirty years ago, I was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on nuclear proliferation. Like many people asked to testify, I was blindsided by the honor of the thing; and when I came to write my testimony, like others before and since, I was limited to a litany of the woes of proliferation. There were no good answers. Now, there are technological possibilities for intruding into a proliferator’s workplace.
I did emphasize to the Senate the difficult moral argument involved: I told the senators that our posture was to ask the world’s lesser countries to trust us because we did not trust them. A ticklish point that–made all the more so by the inevitable appeal of a nuclear arsenal to non-entity countries.
But when it comes to proliferation, the nuclear club has a larger obligation: to keep itself small.
Every new proliferator is a threat to the world, and most likely a threat to itself. The fact is that a primitive nuclear weapon is a danger to its makers as well as to the world at large.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States handed safety technology to the Soviet Union, including failsafe switching and insensitive TNT. Both sides realized that an accidental detonation could lead to a hostile exchange in the confusion. It would have been world annihilation by mistake.
So dangerous were the earliest U.S. nuclear weapons that Fat Man and Little Boy were assembled on their flights to Japan. One has to wonder, and to worry, about the safety of North Korea’s bombs and even of Pakistan’s.
Thirty years ago, there was no answer to proliferation except hand-wringing and sanctions, which historically have not worked. The Iranian sanctions have been broken by Russia, China and many European countries; and the North Korean sanctions have been broken by China, which provides food and fuel to control the flood of refugees from North Korea into China.
So the stealthy technological option becomes imperative.
That possibility involves a secret, anonymous attack on the proliferator that can be confused with an earthquake or with the failure guidance systems of the proliferator’s rockets. These would appear to be design malfunctions not secret attacks. Particularly with North Korea, rocket failure will undermine its fragile sense of worth, and cause the military to think it is very vulnerable.
It is believed that North Korea set out to build a plutonium weapon from plutonium bred in a Russian-supplied research reactor. But North Korea apparently switched from a planned plutonium weapon to a highly enriched uranium weapon. If so, good. It is easier to disrupt uranium enrichment than the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium.
This is also our advantage with Iran. There are many ways to enrich uranium, but three stand out: gaseous diffusion of the kind used by the United States during World War II, gas centrifuges, and the South African nozzle method. All have the same objective: to separate and concentrate uranium 235 from the more plentiful uranium 238.
Gas centrifuge is the most favored. It is what the Iranians are pursuing, and probably what the North Koreans are using. It is efficient, but it requires incredible engineering.
Think of a centrifuge as a great cream churn, except this one spins at 1,500
revolutions per second. One report says that a centrifuge can fail as a result of the imbalance produced by a single fingerprint. In order to stop a proliferator using enriched uranium, you would need either to create a huge vibration that would cause the centrifuges to fly apart or cut the electricity supply.
The electricity option is tempting. It is difficult to conceal a power plant and easier to disrupt its output if it is computer-controlled, as most are. If North Korea’s plants are so primitive that they are not vulnerable through computers, other vulnerabilities need exploiting.
Some commentators have called for war against North Korea and for the Israelis to bomb the Iranian installations. The former would bring all-out war back to the Korean Peninsula and the latter would unite the Arabs with the Iranians, incite war and starve the world of oil.
A better way is to surreptitiously throw science at the miscreants, disrupt the flow of electricity in Iran and the flight of rockets in North Korea.
Thirty years ago, we were babes in the woods about arresting nuclear proliferation. Today, we can look to the countermeasures of stealthy cyber-invasion. No bombs, please. Send in the electrons.
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The trouble with the diplomatic argument against nuclear proliferation is that it is patronizing. Simplified, it is the nuclear weapons state saying to any nuclear aspirant, “Trust us, because we do not trust you.” This unpleasant message is often amplified by race and religion. After all, the primary force in containing proliferation is the United States, backed up by its western European allies. Sure there are blandishments that can tip the scale, as happened with Libya. But by and large, proliferation is a national goal for many countries.
The surprising thing about proliferation is how slowly it has spread. For awhile, it even looked as though it was in retreat, when Argentina, Brazil and South Africa quit the race.
To understand the pressure to proliferate, we need to look at each potential proliferator and its aspirations separately.
Small countries, with a high respect for their history and a deep commitment to the well-being of their people, tend to eschew proliferation. Britain got into the club very early, but it is not likely that any British government in recent time would have elected for Britain to seek the nuclear deterrent. At times, it was hard enough to keep it. Bertrand Russell´s Committee for Nuclear Disarmament was a powerful force in British politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Proliferators generally need a large land mass for concealment and testing, a defined sense of threat from outsiders, and a desire for regional dominance. Classically, Iran meets these criteria. North Korea´s motivation is more bizarre, but so is its leadership. It already has conventional weapons superiority over South Korea, but it cannot hope to be a dominant player in Asia.
Security alarmists constantly pose the proposition that a non-governmental organization, like al-Qaeda, could build a weapon in secret and introduce it into the Middle East, Europe or the United States. This is the worst of all scenarios, but it is also the least likely. Building a nuclear weapon is a huge industrial undertaking, requiring secrecy, specialized materials, skilled scientists and engineers, and an open money spigot.
True, it has gotten a little easier since it has become clear that plutonium from civilian nuclear reactors can be diverted to weapons. It is also clear that centrifuge now offers the potential for a highly enriched uranium bomb–something that was not really available with the World War II enrichment technology.
The bad news on nuclear proliferation and the intractable problems of proliferation by Iran and North Korea have come at a time when the world clearly needs an enormous increase in the amounts of civilian nuclear power deployed. Countries that have been reluctant to build new nuclear power plants are going ahead. In Europe, this has been stimulated by the growing fear of dependence on fossil fuels from Russia. In many countries, this is heading towards 50 percent of their electric generation; and when the new Baltic pipeline starts deliveries into Germany, it could be as much as 70 percent dependent on Russian gas. Super-green Finland is building a fifth reactor. And the green-leaning Labor government in Britain has sanctioned more nuclear.
In Europe, new reactors raise few hackles on the proliferation front. But what to say about King Abdullah of Jordan’s desire to build a nuclear plant? He is a firm friend of the West and a stabilizing influence in the Middle East. The question is how long will his monarchy survive? It was the United States that urged a nuclear future in Iran, and reactor construction was happily under way when the Shah was deposed by the Islamic Revolution.
Diplomacy works in 10-year cycles or less. Nuclear reactors are designed to last 30 to 50 years. Neither friends nor foes can be identified over that time horizon. Ergo, a new proliferation strategy may be needed.
The United States had the makings of a strategy before Jimmy Carter was elected president. Simply, it was that the United States would dominate all facets of the nuclear fuel cycle and encourage nuclear club members to do the same thing. When Carter suspended the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the United States, the possibility of controlling the fuel cycle for “clients” ended.
Subsequently the policy has been diplomatic persuasion, followed by sanctions, followed by a plea for multinational talks. It may or may not be working with North Korea; and so far it has produced no results with Iran.
In the Cold War, the United States assisted the Soviets with making their weapons safer by sharing aspects of fail-safe technology and giving them the technology for insensitive high explosives. The fear was accidental detonation, and the collaboration on preventing it was impressive.
Primitive nuclear weapons are dangerous; so much so that Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped on Japan, were partially assembled on the aircraft that was delivering them. Their designers were terrified that they would blow up unintentionally.
In a world in which there are more dangerous weapons in the hands of more dangerous people, there is not much hope that ambitious states can be deterred. But by working with them on safety, the old-time nuclear states, led by the United States, might establish new diplomatic channels and get a better idea of what they have got. Candidate One for safety collaboration might be Pakistan.
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