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HOME > TOPICS > The Nonproliferation Regime      
The Nuclear Crowd

In a recent Armed Forces Journal article, NPEC's Executive Director Henry Sokolski discusses "The nuclear crowd: Global proliferation trends that will test America's security."  Mr. Sokolski comments on the recent U.S.-Russian nuclear agreement, and describes implications of U.S. nuclear policy in general.

Apr 19, 2010
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski
The Nuclear Crowd (PDF) 58.58 KB

The nuclear crowd

Global proliferation trends that will test America’s security

Assuming current nuclear trends continue, the next two decades will test America’s security and that of its closest allies as it has never been tested before. Before 2020, the United Kingdom will find its nuclear forces eclipsed not only by those of Pakistan, but of Israel and of India. Soon thereafter, France will share the same fate. China, which has already enough separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium to triple its current stockpile of roughly 300 nuclear warheads, will likely expand its nuclear arsenal, too. Meanwhile Japan will have ready access to thousands of bombs’ worth of separated plutonium. U.S. and Russian nuclear-weapons-usable material stocks — still large enough to be converted back into many tens of thousands of weapons — will decline only marginally while similar nuclear stores in Japan and other nuclear weapons states could easily double. Compounding these developments, even more nuclear weapons-ready states are likely: As of 2009, at least 25 states have announced their desire to build large reactors — historically, bomb starter kits — before 2030.

None of this will bolster the abolition of nuclear weapons. Certainly, the current battery of U.S.-backed arms-control measures, including the ratification of major arms-reductions treaties with Russia, a comprehensive test ban, a cutoff treaty banning further military nuclear fissile production and enhanced inspections of civilian nuclear programs — are unlikely to head off the troubling trends described. What’s worse, these arms-control measures, if executed too hastily, could easily make matters worse.

Thus, congressional critics of strategic arms reductions with Moscow argue that if theU.S. and Russia cut their strategic nuclear deployments too deeply, too quickly, it might undermine the credibility of our nuclear security alliances with states such as Japan and Turkey which, in turn, might be tempted themselves to go nuclear. As for pushing ratification of a comprehensive test ban treaty, this too could backfire: India, whose last nuclear test series was followed by a Pakistani nuclear test, is again debating whether to resume nuclear testing to beat what some in India fear is an approaching nuclear test ban deadline. Meanwhile, American test ban treaty opponents have urged the Senate to tie the treaty’s test limits to what other states, such as Russia, say the treaty might allow. Pegging the treaty to this, however, could conceivably encourage some forms of low-yield nuclear testing.

As for securing a nondiscriminatory, global ban against the “military” production of separated plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, this also could inflict unintended harm. Here, the danger is that the treaty bans only the production of fissile material for military purposes and, as such, could encourage increased production for civilian purposes. The odds of inspectors catching military diversions from such “peaceful” plants are quite low. Finally, with the growing popularity of “peaceful” nuclear energy, nuclear supplier states are claiming that exporting new power reactors will strengthen nonproliferation since it will come with the application of “enhanced”nuclear inspections. Unfortunately, in the majority of the most worrisome cases, even enhanced inspections may not be reliable enough to safeguard against significant military diversions. As it is, international nuclear inspections are failing to maintain continuity of inspections over most of the world’s spent or fresh fuel that can be used in nuclear enrichment and reprocessing plants to make weapons-usable fuels. These nuclear fuel-making plants, moreover, can be hidden from inspectors and, even when declared, be used to make weapons-usable materials without necessarily being detected in a timely fashion.

Several of these points are beginning to receive attention in the U.S. The debate over these matters, though, needs to be broadened. Why? Because even if Washington’s favorite nuclear control initiatives are well-executed and avoid running the risks noted above, the U.S. and its allies will still face a series of additional, major nuclear proliferation dangers.

The first of these is that as the U.S. and Russia reduce their nuclear weapons deployments, China, India, Pakistan and Israel are likely to increase theirs. Currently, theU.S. is planning to reduce U.S. and Russian strategic weapons deployments to as low as 1,000 warheads each. As a result, it is conceivable that, in 10 years’ time, the deployed strategic nuclear weapons separating the U.S. and Russia from the other nuclear weapons states will be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands of weapons. In such a world, relatively small changes in any state’s nuclear weapons capabilities will have a much larger impact than they might on the world’s international security today.

Compounding the international volatility that this set of trends is likely to induce are the large and growing stockpiles of nuclear-weapons-usable materials (i.e., of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium) in a number of states. These already exceed tens of thousands of crude bombs’ worth of material in the U.S. and Russia and are projected to grow in Pakistan, India, China, Israel and Japan. This will enable all of these states to increase their current nuclear deployments much more quickly and dramatically than ever was possible previously.

Finally, 20 years out, there could be more nuclear-weapons-ready states — countries that could acquire nuclear weapons in a matter of months, such as Japan and Iran. As already noted, more than 25 states have announced plans to launch large civilian nuclear programs. If they all realize their dreams of bringing their first power reactors on line by 2030, it would constitute a near doubling of the 31 states that currently have such programs, most of which are in Europe.

Such a nuclear expansion could have major military implications. Every current weapons state first brought a large reactor on line prior to acquiring its first bomb. The U.K., France, Russia, India, Pakistan and the U.S. all made many of their initial bombs from reactors that also provided power to their electrical grids. The U.S. still uses a power reactor, a “proliferation resistant” light-water reactor operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, to make all of its weapons-grade tritium for its nuclear arsenal.

Other plants, of course, are needed to chemically separate out weapons-usable plutonium from the spent reactor fuel or to enrich the uranium used to power such machines. Yet, as the recent cases of Iran and North Korea demonstrate, such plants can be built and operated in ways that make it difficult to detect diversions in a timely fashion. Certainly, if all of the announced civilian nuclear programs are completed as planned, the world in 2030 would be far less stable. Instead of there being several confirmed nuclear weapons states — most of which the U.S. can claim are either allies or strategic partners — there could be an unmanageable number of additional nuclear-weapons-capable states — armed or weapons ready — to contend with.


In such a world, the U.S. might know who its friends and potential adversaries might be, but Washington would have difficulty knowing what such states might do in a crisis: close ranks with the U.S.; go their own way developing weapons options; or follow the lead of some other nuclear-capable nation. As for America’s possible adversaries, Washington would have difficulty determining just how lethal these adversaries’ military forces might be.

All of this would only heighten the prospects for nuclear terrorism. Not only would there be more opportunities to seize nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons materials, there would be more military and civilian nuclear facilities to sabotage. Finally, the potential for miscalculation and nuclear war could rise to a point where even non-nuclear acts of terror could ignite larger conflicts that could turn nuclear.

Taken together, then, these trends could easily duplicate or exceed the kind of volatility that preceded the World Wars I and II— periods in which overly ambitious arms-control objectives were pursued while states completed major covert and overt military preparations that heightened tensions and subsequently were employed in total wars.

All of this raises the question of whether we can avoid this. The short answer is yes, but only if we attend more closely to several basic principles.

First, as nuclear weapons deployments decline, more care must be taken to ensure military reductions or additions actually work to decrease the chances for war. If our security guarantees are to continue to neutralize the nuclear weapons yearnings of our allies, it is critical that we avoid doing anything to undermine the favorable correlation of forces the U.S. enjoys against its key nuclear competitors. In addition to making roughly equal nuclear reductions with Russia, then, the U.S. will have to keep other nuclear-armed states, such as China and India, either from trying to catch up to U.S. nuclear weapons deployment levels or — as in the case of India and China, Pakistan and India, and Japan and China — with each other. This means that additional nuclear restraints, either in the form of nuclear weapons reductions or further limits on the production or stockpiling of weapons-usable fuel, will need to be reached not only with Russia, but with China, India and Pakistan. As a practical matter, this also means that other nuclear­weapons-ready or virtual weapons states (e.g., Israel and Japan) will have to be asked to curtail or end their production of nuclear-weapons-usable materials or to dispose of some portion of what they currently have.

To date, the U.S. has not detailed how best to do this. President Obama has called for the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty. But this agreement allows “civilian” nuclear fuel production, which is virtually identical to military fuel production. Also, after decades of fruitless negotiations in Geneva, it is unclear whether any such agreement could ever be brought into force. Some officials, including those advising Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have suggested a complementary approach to these negotiations known as the Fissile Material Control Initiative. Instead of a binding treaty, both Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) weapons states and nonweapons states would simply identify what portion of their separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium stocks were in excess of either their military or civilian requirements and secure or dispose of them.

Yet another practical idea, which would have direct bearing on India’s nuclear weapons activities, would be to ensure implementation of the U.S. civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with New Delhi does nothing to help India make more nuclear-weapons­usable fuels than India was producing when the deal was finalized late in 2008. Under the NPT, the states that had nuclear weapons in 1967 — the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., and China — swore not to help any other state outside of these five ever to acquire them directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, under the Hyde Act, which authorized the civilian U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, the White House is routinely required to report to Congress on just how much uranium fuel India is importing, how much it is using to run its civilian reactors, how much uranium it is producing domestically and the extent to which the operation of its unsafeguarded reactors is expanding its stockpiles of unsafeguarded plutonium with either the direct or indirect help of NPT weapons states.

If India’s unsafeguarded plutonium stockpiles grow faster per year than was the case prior to the nuclear cooperative agreement’s finalization in 2008 because Indian uranium imports from one or more of the NPT weapons states allows India to use more of its domestically produced uranium in its unsafeguarded reactors to make bomb-usable plutonium, the exporting nuclear weapons states would be implicated in violating the NPT. To prevent such a violation — or, at least, limit the harm it might do — the U.S. should alert all other nuclear supplying states and ask that they suspend civilian nuclear assistance until India’s unsafeguarded nuclear-weapons-usable material production declines. Here, the logical place to make this request would be the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Such vigilance should also be matched with efforts to keep Pakistan from expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities.

As for trying to maintain the relative parity of competing nuclear armed states through non-nuclear military assistance or buildups, the trick will be to substitute conventional arms for nuclear ones in a manner that avoids increasing one or both sides’ interest in acquiring more nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, deploying more advanced non-nuclear systems to compensate for forgone nuclear systems will not necessarily assure this. Consider long-range precision strike and advanced command, control and intelligence systems in the case of India and Pakistan. Pakistan believes it must threaten to use its nuclear weapons first to deter India’s superior conventional forces. Advanced target acquisition and precision strike systems, however, could conceivably target Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. As a result, one could imagine that arming India with such weapons would only put Pakistan on higher nuclear alert and encourage Islamabad to acquire even more nuclear weapons. Building up the wrong kinds of advanced non-nuclear weapons systems in India or helping it to build them in disproportionate numbers could adversely influence Pakistan’s nuclear weapons plans.

Sharing ballistic missile defenses could also be tricky. Under the right circumstances, having such defenses could afford a non-nuclear form of deterrence that might facilitate reducing the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons. Instead of “neutralizing” a possible opponent’s missiles by targeting them with nuclear or non-nuclear offensive weapons, active missile defenses might be used to counter them after launch. They also could be useful as a form of insurance against cheating on any future nuclear-capable ballistic missile reduction agreements. To secure these benefits, though, it is important to deploy missile defenses correctly.

Again, consider the Indian and Pakistani case. While Pakistan insists it must use its nuclear weapons first in any major war against India, New Delhi is hoping to use its conventional forces to capture enough of Pakistan from a “cold start” to get Islamabad to quickly sue for peace. Under these circumstances, sharing equal amounts of missile defenses with India and Pakistan would give India yet another non-nuclear military edge against Islamabad. This, in turn, risks encouraging Pakistan to beef up its offensive nuclear missile forces even more. The only way to counter this and help secure the benefits of missile defense for both countries would be to address the underlying conventional asymmetry between them. One idea regional security experts have long favored is creating low, medium and high conventional deployment zones on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border to equalize each side’s ability to launch “quick” conventional attacks against each another. Included in these proposals is the elimination of Indian and Pakistani short range ballistic missiles. Such schemes might also attenuate the perceived stability risks of deploying more advanced, discriminate non-nuclear military systems.

Elsewhere, other measures might be required. As China increases its nuclear and non­nuclear missile superiority over Taiwan and its capability to target U.S. carrier battle groups with conventional ballistic missiles, the U.S. and its Pacific allies must worry that Beijing may be able to overwhelm the missile defenses they are now working on. China, meanwhile, is considering developing ballistic missile defenses of its own to counter possible missile attacks. As such, reaching an agreement limiting ballistic missile might make sense for both sides.

Several precedents exist. START, which limits U.S. and Russian strategic ballistic missile delivery systems, is one. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, which covers Russian and NATO missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, is another, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, which limits commerce in missiles that can lift a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more, is another still. The trick in reaching new additional ballistic missile limits is to make sure they are aggressive enough to capture the ballistic missiles that matter without creating new categories of permissible missiles. It certainly would make little sense to eliminate ballistic missiles above 500 kilometers range only to end up legitimizing slightly lower range missile systems that are above the limits restricted by the MTCR.

Second, reducing existing nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable delivery systems should be related more closely to preventing their further spread. Currently, the connection between reducing nuclear arms and preventing their spread is mostly symbolic. As the U.S. and Russia reduce their nuclear deployments, other nuclear-armed states, it is argued, ought to follow and thus, in turn, to persuade nonweapons states to submit to much more intrusive inspections of their civilian nuclear activities. Putting aside the hard cases of Iran and North Korea, this line of reasoning ignores several key technical developments and turns on several questionable political assumptions.

Certainly, after missing the covert nuclear programs in Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea, it is an open question if even “enhanced” international nuclear inspections will be able to reliably detect future illicit nuclear activities. This is especially so if, as some believe, large civilian nuclear programs spread in regions like the Middle East.

Not only the U.S. but Israel, Japan, NATO, Russia and China are planning to deploy ballistic missile defense systems. Yet, the U.S. and allied approaches to controlling nuclear strategic threats is practically silent as to whether these defense programs should be promoted or restricted and, if so, how. Nor, outside of strategic reduction talks with Russia, is there much discussion as to whether or how other states’ development of ballistic missiles (both nuclear and non-nuclear) should be approached.

Then there are the political questions. How likely is it that Russia will agree to further nuclear cuts beyond the current START negotiations? Will there be yet another START agreement to lower numbers to 1,000 strategic deployed warheads? Will Russia agree to limit its nonstrategic nuclear weapons? What demands will Moscow make for such reductions? Will Russia demand the U.S. and NATO cripple their conventional and missile defense plans? Finally, when, if ever, might such agreements be reached? The success of the White House’s arms-control and nonproliferation policies depends on the answers to these questions being favorable to the U.S.

Also, if there are no new penalties or risks for developing nuclear weapons-related capabilities, how likely is it that states without nuclear-capable missiles or atomic weapons will keep clear of trying to acquire them? Certainly, the greater Middle East is watching what, if anything, the U.S. and its allies might do to penalize Iran’s nuclear misbehavior. Most states in the region are already hedging their nuclear bets by acquiring “peaceful” nuclear programs of their own. Similar dynamics are in play in the Far East in relation to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Beyond these two cases, there is the general worry that the enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation limits lacks any teeth.

These questions suggest the need for an additional set of arms-control and nonproliferation measures to complement the current set that are not so dependent upon the legally binding agreement of any one state.


Rather than expect international treaties on nuclear weapons material production and testing to come into force and hope that progress on this front will somehow persuade nonweapons states to keep clear of nuclear related activities, why not simply promote limits that would begin to constrain both nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons states at the same time? Instead of waiting for Iran, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Egypt to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban, why not use the implicit ban on nuclear testing contained in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to secure an immediate agreement among civilian nuclear supplier states to block nuclear trade with any NPT nonweapons state that tests? Once agreement on this has been reached, an additional agreement might be sought, if there was sufficient political support, to expand such trade restrictions to any state that tests. Why not proceed with the Fissile Material Control Initiative, which would have an immediate (albeit initially modest) impact on both nuclear weapons states and nonweapons states, while pushing the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, which would only affect nuclear weapons countries?

In addition, it would be useful to tie existing nuclear controls with controls over nuclear-capable missiles. Currently, violators of the NPT and states that withdraw from the treaty, while still in violation, are not prohibited from receiving nuclear-capable missile technology and assistance from missile technology supplying states. It would be useful to eliminate this loophole with the adoption of an automatic cutoff of access to goods controlled by the MTCR to these nuclear violators.

Such nuclear violators are also free to test nuclear-capable missiles, as North Korea recently did, flying them outside of their borders. Under current international law, all of this is legal. Yet such missiles are ideal for carrying nuclear warheads and their development is meant to intimidate. Shouldn’t there be an international norm, as there is with piracy and slave trading, giving states with the technical power to shoot such objects out of international airspace (e.g., the U.S., Russia and Israel, and soon Japan, NATO and China) as “outlaw” objects? Finally, if progress is made on creating additional limits on ballistic missile deployments (e.g., global INF, etc.) shouldn’t violators of these understandings also be banned from receiving controlled missile and controlled nuclear goods?

Third, it is essential that international nuclear inspectors distinguish between nuclear activities and materials that they can reliably safeguard against being diverted to make bombs and those that they cannot. The NPT is clear that all peaceful nuclear activities and materials must be safeguarded — that is, inspected in a manner that can reliably prevent them from being diverted to make nuclear weapons. Most NPT states have fallen into the habit of thinking that if they merely declare their nuclear holdings and allow international inspections, they have met this requirement.

This is dangerously mistaken. After the nuclear inspections gaffes in Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea, we now know that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot reliably detect covert nuclear activities early enough to allow others to intervene to prevent possible bomb making. We also now know that inspectors annually lose track of many bombs’ worth of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium and uranium at declared nuclear fuel making plants. Privately, IAEA officials admit that the agency cannot assure continuity of inspections for spent and fresh fuel rods at more than half of the sites that it inspects. Finally, we know that declared plutonium and enriched uranium can be made into bombs and their related production plants diverted so quickly (in some cases, within hours or days) that no inspection system can offer timely warning of a bomb-making effort. Yet, any true safeguard against military nuclear diversions must reliably detect them early enough to allow outside powers to intervene to block a bomb from being built. Anything less is only monitoring that might, at best, detect military diversions after they occur.

In light of these points, it would be useful for the IAEA to concede that it cannot safeguard all that it inspects. This would finally raise first-order questions about the advisability of producing or stockpiling plutonium, highly enriched uranium, plutonium-based reactor fuels and believing that these materials and activities can be safeguarded. At the very least, it would suggest that nonweapons states ought not to acquire these materials or facilities beyond what they already have. These points are important enough to raise before, during and after the May NPT Review conference.

In this regard, the U.S. and other like-minded nations might independently assess whether the IAEA can meet its own inspection goals; under what circumstances (if any) these goals can be met; and, finally, whether these goals are high enough. The House last year approved legislation to require the executive to make such assessments routinely and to report their findings. Similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate.

Fourth, to assure safe, economically competitive forms of clean energy, greater attention must be paid to comparing costs and discouraging the use of government financial incentives for commercialization projects, especially nuclear power. Supporters of nuclear power insist that its expansion is critical to prevent global warming. Yet, they almost always downplay or ignore the nuclear weapons proliferation risks associated with this technology’s further spread. It may be impossible to prevent the spread of nuclear power if it turns out to be the cheapest, quickest way to provide low or no carbon energy, but given the security premium associated with nuclear energy, no government should pay extra to promote it.

Creating new, additional government financial incentives specifically geared to build more commercial nuclear plants and their associated fuel-making facilities, though, will only increase the difficulty of accurately comparing it with non-nuclear alternatives. Not only do such subsidies mask the true costs, they tilt the market against less-subsidized alternatives. This is troubling since nuclear power continues to enjoy massive government support and the most dangerous forms of civilian nuclear energy — nuclear fuel-making in most nonweapons states and large power reactor projects in war-tornregions like the Middle East — turn out to be poor investments as compared with much safer alternatives.

There are several ways to mitigate such market interference. The first would be to get as many governments as possible to open all large civilian energy projects in their countries up to international competitive bidding. This is already done in a number of countries. The problem is that when states want to build large civilian nuclear reactors, they limit the competition to nuclear bids rather than open the competition to any energy option that could meet a given set of environmental and economic criteria. Limiting the competition in this way ought to be discouraged internationally.

Most advanced nations, including the U.S., claim to back the principles of the Energy Charter Treaty and the Global Charter on Sustainable Energy Development. These international agreements are designed to encourage all states to open their energy sectors to international bidding to assure that all energy options are considered and that as many subsidies and externalities associated with each are internalized and reflected in the price of what is being proposed. Promoting adherence to these rules is essential if the U.S. and other states are serious about reducing carbon emissions in the quickest, least costly manner.

One way to encourage this would be to reference and enforce the principles of the Energy Charter Treaty and the Global Charter on Sustainable Energy as a part of the follow-on to the understandings reached at Copenhagen. In addition, states that pick building a nuclear plant when less costly non-nuclear alternatives would clearly make more sense ought to be flagged by an economic competitiveness monitoring body (e.g., the World Trade Organization) that might assume responsibility for overseeing large international energy project transactions. Such uneconomic nuclear picks (e.g., several proposed Middle Eastern nuclear projects) might also be referred to the IAEA for further investigation.

As a complementary effort, the world’s advanced states could work with developing countries to create non-nuclear alternatives to address their energy and environmental needs. In the case of the U.S., this would entail implementing existing law. Title V of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 requires the executive branch to do analyses of key countries’ energy needs and identify how these needs might be addressed with nonfossil, non-nuclear energy sources. Title V also calls on the executive branch to create an alternative energy cadre to help developing nations explore these alternative options. To date, no president has chosen to implement this law. Congress has indicated that it would like to change this by requiring Title V country energy analyses (and outside, nongovernmental assessments of these analyses) to be done as a precondition for any new, additional U.S. nuclear cooperative agreements. As with most of the other suggestions already made, the U.S. can act on this idea without waiting for the full development of any international consensus. AFJ

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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