Monday, June 28, 2004

A nuclear catastrophe could occur if terrorists gained access to nuclear weapons or weapons-grade materials, and if regional conflicts or instability degenerated into wars in which nuclear weapons were used, said a report by researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to a Nonproliferation Conference last week.

Nuclear terrorism on the one hand, and regional proliferation and conflict on the other, are the two most pressing nuclear threats facing the world today, according to “Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security,” the preliminary report by George Perkovich, Joseph Cirincione, Rose Gottemoeller, Jon Wolfsthal and Jessica Mathews. The final version is to be released in January to the next U.S. administration.

Unlike countries, which may fear retaliation, terrorist groups could be undeterred about using nuclear weapons to achieve a political agenda, the Carnegie report said.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. While terrorist groups are not believed to have the ability to produce nuclear weapons, they may be able to seize such weapons or materials from other countries.

The report, issued at the conference in Washington, recommends securing nuclear weapons facilities, particularly those in the former Soviet Union, and ending worldwide the production of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

“If the U.S. and others just keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not in the decade ahead,” said Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Nuclear terrorism is, in fact, preventable,” Mr. Allison said. “It is a challenge to international will, determination and stick-to-itiveness, not to our technical capabilities.”

Russia and the United States, which have the two largest stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium left over from the Cold War, must take the lead, the report said.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently urged a Global Threat Reduction Initiative, to repatriate all Russian and U.S. nuclear fuel from research reactors around the world by 2009.

“This is neither a question of will, nor a question of resources,” Mr. Abraham said June 14 at the National Press Club.

However, trends indicate Russia and the United States are re-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons, said former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who served four terms ending in 1997 and a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Nunn said U.S.-Russian agreements such as the Moscow Treaty don’t seek a complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals, sending “a bad message to the rest of the world.” He called on the American and Russian presidents to remove their nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, which makes possible launching in 15 minutes.

If this were accomplished, Mr. Nunn said, “we could immediately eliminate the threat of rapid assured destruction and dramatically reduce the chances of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized launch.”

Today, eight nations have nuclear weapons, according to the report. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) stipulated that only China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — the five countries that detonated nuclear bombs before Jan. 1, 1967, and the only permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — would constitute the nuclear world order.

The United States is the only country to have used atomic weapons — against Japan in 1945 to hasten its World War II surrender.

Israel, India and Pakistan are the three other nuclear-weapons states. North Korea and Iran also seek nuclear weapons and the deterrence such weapons confer.

Several countries have ended nuclear weapons programs since the 1970s, including Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and Yugoslavia. Recent examples are Iraq and Libya. The Carnegie report said many of them have the economic and technical resources to restart a nuclear program, and should be dissuaded.

The Carnegie report said that after nuclear terrorism, the most dangerous challenges are regional nuclear proliferation and conflict in Northeast Asia, the Middle East and South Asia.

Pakistan poses another concern, particularly after its head scientist A.Q. Khan and his associates were discovered to have operated a black market, selling nuclear designs and components to Libya, Iran, North Korea and possibly other countries.

“A nuclear North Korea is not some distant, potential reality, but something that exists here and now,” said Kurt Campbell, former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Agence France-Presse reported in late April that U.S. analysts believed North Korea had at least eight nuclear weapons, rather than two as previously suspected.

North Korea is “in the nuclear-weapons game,” Mr. Campbell said. Asian nations continue to ignore this reality because they see greater urgency in the tension-ridden Taiwan Strait, he said. They may change their outlook if North Korea conducts missile tests, as it did in 1998, he added.

The Carnegie draft report made a bold recommendation: Any attempt by North Korea to export nuclear materials or weapons should be considered an “act of war against the United States.”

But the United States is unlikely to attack North Korean nuclear facilities because it lacks support from allies Japan and South Korea, said Robert Gallucci, dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

On the other hand, if the United States believed that North Korea had transferred fissile material to another country or a terrorist group, “it should be considered an act in which we would follow rapidly with the force to end the problem and make sure that it would never happen again.” In this case, Washington would not need the concurrence of its allies to protect its security interests, said Mr. Gallucci, a former negotiator of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

In the Agreed Framework, brokered during the Clinton administration, North Korea agreed to stop reprocessing plutonium in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity. In November 2002, North Korean officials admitted they had developed a secret nuclear program in violation of the Agreed Framework, and Pyongyang subsequently withdrew from the NPT. Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found strong evidence last month that North Korea transferred almost two tons of uranium to Libya in 2001.

The Bush administration’s bottom line is “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear program, though Mr. Campbell said the administration is divided on one policy toward Pyongyang. The U.S. should “prepare for the possibility that North Korea is unwilling to abandon its nuclear capabilities,” said the Carnegie draft report.

“From North Korea’s standpoint, it is no longer bound by the NPT because it withdrew from the treaty last year, so we are back to square one,” said Byung-se Yun, a minister at the South Korean Embassy in Washington.

The draft report also recommends strengthening U.S. security alliances with South Korea and Japan to “enhance deterrence and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and reduce incentives for other countries to go nuclear.

The fissure in U.S.-South Korea relations over a common North Korea policy, coupled with China’s rise as a military power, may limit U.S. influence in the region, said Scott Snyder, senior associate for international relations at the Asia Foundation.

“The weakening of the U.S.-Korea alliance enhances the likelihood that North Korea indeed may be able to attain nuclear status,” he said, “because the absence of our ability to depend on that alliance severely constrains U.S. options to dealing with North Korea.”

Iran’s possible ambitions to produce nuclear weapons appeared more real last week as Iran announced it would resume enrichment activities, reneging on an October 2003 agreement with the United Kingdom, France and Germany to suspend fuel-cycle activities. Tehran did so after the IAEA board of governors criticized it for withholding information about its nuclear activities. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity.

In a region where Israel has nuclear weapons and other Middle Eastern states have, or are suspected to have, chemical and biological weapons, a nuclear Iran would add “grave volatility to an already conflicted region,” the Carnegie report said. Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other nations might follow Iran’s lead and initiate or renew nuclear programs, the report said.

European countries decided not to take Iran’s case to the U.N. Security Council after the IAEA rebuke, but John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, told Congress last week that the United States is determined to do so.

So far, Americans have played “the bad cops” and Europeans are “the good cops,” said Robert Einhorn, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What’s needed now is for the United States and Europeans to switch roles,” he said.

Iran is unlikely to give up its nuclear program after investing many years and achieving progress in its enrichment activities, Mr. Einhorn said. Late last year, Iran said it successfully enriched small quantities of uranium using centrifuge and laser techniques, and separated a small quantity of plutonium, according to a 2004 report by the Congressional Research Service.

“I do know that without much stronger European sticks and much more attractive American carrots, the prospects [of Iran giving up its capability to have nuclear weapons] will be very small,” Mr. Einhorn said.

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