OP-ED in the Economist by Director General Mohamed ElBaradei

October 16, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Mohamed ElBaradei

Author's Title: 

Towards a Safer World
The very existence of nuclear weapons gives rise to the pursuit of them. They are seen as a source of global influence, and are valued for their perceived deterrent effect. And as long as some countries possess them (or are protected by them in alliances) and others do not, this asymmetry breeds chronic global insecurity.

The present nuclear-arms-control regime is looking battered. But any reform of that regime must begin by conceiving a framework of collective security that does not rely on nuclear deterrence. The rise of terrorist groups makes this essential. A nuclear deterrent is clearly ineffective against such groups; they have no cities that can be bombed in reply, nor are they focused on self-preservation. Moreover, their constantly shifting targets and modes of attack demand a more co-operative and flexible international response. The "war on terror" should provide an impetus to work towards a global security culture that will serve the interests of all countries equally, and will make reliance on nuclear weapons obsolete.

Revisiting the NPT Regime

In hindsight, a number of the premises of the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) seem less than optimal. In a nod to "the early bird gets the nuke", it temporarily legitimised the arsenals of the five countries that had already developed nuclear weapons. It forbade other signatories to develop such weapons, but included no strategy for persuading countries that refused to sign - a loophole which India, Pakistan and, presumably, Israel have used, raising the number of nuclear-armed states to at least eight. And it relied on the promise of the signatories to use nuclear materials for peaceful purposes only. They could use them for health care, agriculture or energy production, but could not divert them to non-peaceful purposes. In fact, however, they have been able to operate very close to a nuclear-weapons capability.

In the climate of the mid-to-late-1960s in which the NPT negotiations took place, this bargain was the best that could be achieved. But the asymmetry it endorsed was never intended to be permanent. The nuclear-weapon states agreed to move towards full disarmament - a commitment renewed "unequivocally" by all five states as recently as 2000 - although without a timetable. Some progress on disarmament was made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it had nearly ground to a halt by the end of the century, with nearly 30,000 warheads still in existence. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, sought for over four decades as the jewel in the crown of the arms-control regime, was finally concluded in 1996; but seven years after being opened for signature, it still languishes unimplemented. The recent "Moscow Treaty" between the Russian Federation and the United States is encouraging; however, it is not permanent, and it does not address non-operational warheads. And despite volumes of rhetoric on the topic, no progress has been made on persuading India, Israel and Pakistan to abandon their nuclear- weapons programmes.

Similarly, on the non-proliferation front, many countries that have signed the NPT have never brought into force the required safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Fewer than 20% have finalised an additional protocol - endorsed in 1997 after the discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme - which gives the IAEA the authority to inspect countries more broadly, particularly for undeclared nuclear material and activities.

This sluggish performance on all fronts signals the need for a different approach. Reluctance by one party to fulfil its obligations breeds reluctance in others. Each discovery of a clandestine programme makes us question whether more exist. While I in no way wish to undercut the importance of states' adherence to their NPT obligations, I believe it is time to begin designing a framework more suited to the threats and realities of the 21st century.

In Too Many Hands

Countries with nuclear industries have set up elaborate accounting and protection measures to ensure strong national oversight of their nuclear material. The IAEA inspects regularly to verify the accuracy of what countries report. Export controls restrict the transfer of sensitive technologies that could be misused for nuclear-weapons production.

But controlling access to nuclear-weapons technology has grown increasingly difficult. The technical barriers to designing weapons and to mastering the processing steps have eroded with time. Much of the hardware in question is "dual-use"; for example, it is hard to justify restrictions on exporting "hot cell" technology that could be used for plutonium separation when the same equipment is vital for producing radioisotopes used in modern medicine. Changes in political fortunes or economic downturns have at times found nuclear scientists without jobs and reportedly willing to offer their knowledge and services elsewhere. And with the passage of time, the sheer diversity of technology has made it harder to control both procurement and sales. In pre-1992 Iraq, for example, scientists were simultaneously pursuing no fewer than six different technologies to enrich uranium for eventual weapons use, shopping for essential equipment and specialised materials in more than ten countries.

Uranium enrichment is sophisticated and expensive, but it is not proscribed under the NPT. Most designs for civilian nuclear-power reactors require fuel that has been "low-enriched", and many research reactors operate with "high-enriched" uranium. It is not uncommon, therefore, for non-nuclear-weapon states with developed nuclear infrastructures to seek enrichment capabilities and to possess sizeable amounts of uranium that could, if desired, be enriched to weapons-grade.

While high-enriched uranium is easier to use in nuclear weapons, most advanced nuclear arsenals favour plutonium, which can be tailored for use in smaller, lighter weapons more suited for missile warheads. Plutonium is a by-product of nuclear-reactor operation, and separation technology ("reprocessing"), also not proscribed under the NPT, can be applied to extract the plutonium from spent fuel for re-use in electricity production.

Under the current regime, therefore, there is nothing illicit in a non-nuclear-weapon state having enrichment or reprocessing technology, or possessing weapon-grade nuclear material. And certain types of bomb-making expertise, unfortunately, are readily available in the open literature. Should a state with a fully developed fuel-cycle capability decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.

In 1970, it was assumed that relatively few countries knew how to acquire nuclear weapons. Now, with 35-40 countries in the know by some estimates, the margin of security under the current non-proliferation regime is becoming too slim for comfort. We need a new approach.

My proposal has three parts:

First, it is time to limit the processing of weapon-usable material (separated plutonium and high-enriched uranium) in civilian nuclear programmes, as well as the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment, by agreeing to restrict these operations exclusively to facilities under multinational control. These limitations would need to be accompanied by proper rules of transparency and, above all, by an assurance that legitimate would-be users could get their supplies.

Second, nuclear-energy systems should be deployed that, by design, avoid the use of materials that may be applied directly to making nuclear weapons. These systems should have built-in features that would prevent countries diverting material to weapons production; prevent the misuse of the facilities and equipment for clandestine manufacture of such materials; and facilitate efficient oversight to ensure continued peaceful use. This is not a futuristic dream; much of the technology for proliferation-resistant nuclear-energy systems has already been developed or is actively being researched. In addition, existing facilities around the world that use high-enriched uranium applications - for example, to produce medical radioisotopes - should continue, gradually but irreversibly, to be converted to low-enriched processes.

Third, we should consider multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. More than 50 countries have spent fuel stored in temporary sites, awaiting reprocessing or disposal. Not all countries have the right geology to store waste underground and, for many countries with small nuclear programmes for electricity generation or for research, the costs of such a facility are prohibitive.

Considerable advantages - in cost, safety, security and non-proliferation - would be gained from international co-operation in these stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. These initiatives would not simply add more non-proliferation controls, to limit access to weapon-usable nuclear material; they would also provide access to the benefits of nuclear technology for more people in more countries.

The new framework should also "turn off the tap", for all countries, on the production of new material for nuclear weapons. This year marks the tenth anniversary of an historic United Nations resolution calling for a ban on the production of fissile material for weapons use - the so-called Fissile Material (Cut-Off) Treaty - on which little recent progress has been made. This treaty could cap and make public all inventories of fissile material still available, and serve as a starting point for future arms reductions.

I do not have all the answers on what this framework should look like. But it should be inclusive; nuclear-weapon states, non-nuclear-weapon states, and those outside the current non-proliferation regime should all have a seat at the table. The security concerns of all parties should be heard and weighed, and the aim should be to achieve full parity among them under a new security structure that does not depend on nuclear weapons or nuclear deterrence. This naturally should include agreement on a concrete programme for nuclear disarmament, complete with a timetable.

And lastly, once in force, this new framework should be regarded as a "peremptory norm" of international law - not vulnerable to any nation subsequently withdrawing, based on the whim of a new government or a vote of the latest parliament. In short, it should be enduring.

A Call for Leadership

In all of human history, no civilisation has ever voluntarily laid down its most powerful weapons. It remains to be seen whether ours can be the first.

We have not yet reached the mid-1960s' prediction of a world of 15 or more nuclear-weapon states, but we are over halfway there. And the trends indicated by recent events should have us all worried.

I worry that, in our collective memories, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have begun to fade. I worry about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or ruthless dictators. I worry about nuclear weapons already in the arsenals of democracies - because as long as these weapons exist, there is no absolute guarantee against the disastrous consequences of their theft, sabotage or accidental launch, and even democracies are not immune to radical shifts in their security anxieties and nuclear policies.

I worry, but I also hope. I hope that a side-effect of globalisation will be an enduring realisation that there is only one human race, to which we all belong. I hope that dynamic leaders within national governments, international institutions and civil society will step forward with the vision, the integrity and the will to reverse the inertia of fear and insecurity. I hope we can all agree to sit down together, and to start anew.