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HOME > TOPICS > The Nonproliferation Regime      
Post 9/11 Nonproliferation

This article on the threat of nuclear terrorism for the Foreign Policy Research Institute is also available on their website.

Jan 25, 2002
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski
Post 9-11 Nonproliferation (PDF) 32.95 KB

Post 9/11 Non-Proliferation

As terrorism became the number-one threat after September 11, policy reviews have become urgent for other threats, notably the spread of strategic weaponry. Here the need to make nonproliferation policy more operational is clear.

Where before September 11 nonproliferation experts focused on what the security implications might be if country X acquired weapon Y and what should be done to delay or deter that weapon’s acquisition or deployment, now the number one topic is what must be done to defend against a state or terrorist actually using such weapons. Certainly, with the near-kiloton equivalent destruction of the New York World Trade Center, followed by the postal delivery of anthrax- laced letters, hypothesizing about what countries might do to proliferate or to curb proliferation has given way to more concrete concerns.

This shift in emphasis has already manifested itself with increased attention to at least four issues:

  • Enforcement of certain nonproliferation obligations;
  • The accounting and monitoring of materials and dangerous diseases that terrorists or states might steal, use or spread;
  • The military costs of defending sensitive facilities and materials against possible theft or attack;
  • The desirability of having proliferating and terrorist-supporting regimes change or be changed.

Each of these issues suggests a new direction for nonproliferation.


Here, the Bush Administration has already publicly laid down several markers. The first set came at the November 2001 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) review conference where U.S. representative John Bolton identified Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Sudan as known or probable violators of the BWC. His comments immediately caused a stir as to what other nations should be added to the list (e.g., China and Russia) and what actions, if any, should be taken to detect and deter such violators.

A week later President Bush laid down a second marker clarifying which nations he would target beyond Afghanistan in his war against terrorism. If countries “develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations,” he said, “they will be held accountable.” He then urged both Iraq and North Korea to open themselves up to international inspections and made it clear that there would be consequences if they refused.

Notably these remarks come from an administration generally opposed to negotiating or signing new arms control agreements. Where previous administrations measured nonproliferation progress in terms of what new understandings or agreements had been reached, this administration is more interested in encouraging adherence to existing agreements that they deem to be important.

Given the statements of Bush officials, the three agreements that seem to be of greatest US interest are the BWC, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the UN Iraq inspection resolutions. Certainly, the anthrax letter scare and the possibility of foreign (conceivably Iraqi) assistance to the attackers helps explain US interest in securing the objectives of the BWC and the UN resolutions. Similarly, events after September 11 put the spot light on the next worst scenario — nuclear terrorism. Conventional and biological assaults, after all, hardly deterred the US and its friends from counter attacking. Moreover, Ossama Bin Laden, aware of our limited defenses against nuclear weapons (as compared to biological and chemical agents) has warned the world that he was working to obtain a nuclear or radiological bomb). Indeed, crude drawings along with details about such devices recently found at al Qaeda camps suggest that his claims are more than mere rhetoric.

Of course, whether other nonproliferation agreements will be deemed critical and how any of these agreements might best be enforced is still unclear. What is apparent, however, is that nonproliferation enforcement must receive far more attention than it has to date.

Accounting and Monitoring

As already noted, terrorist threats to use or steal biological agents and nuclear materials must now be taken far more seriously. Indeed, unlike traditional chemical weapons, just a few kilograms of these agents or materials can inflict enormous harm. This, in turn, increases the importance of monitoring the spread of dangerous infectious diseases (to know if and when one has been attacked and to be able to take timely remedial action) and of accounting for nuclear weapons usable materials.

With regard to health monitoring, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been trying for some time to expand its surveillance coverage. The US representative in Geneva this fall, in fact, urged members of the BWC to back these efforts. The problem is that so far, the WHO has only succeeded in getting its members to agree to monitor three sicknesses — yellow fever, plague, and cholera. The reporting it receives, moreover, is generally limited to information regarding confirmed outbreaks, rather than the type of preliminary data needed to contain such outbreaks in a timely fashion. Clearly, to address terrorist attacks more will need to be done to assure warning of the outbreak of a vast array of infectious diseases well before they spread out of control. This, at minimum, will require nations to advance their own health monitoring systems and exchange whatever data they gain quickly with others.

As for accounting for nuclear weapons usable materials, the prospect of nuclear terrorism after September 11 has prompted several anti-nuclear organizations to underscore how poor current inventory efforts are. In fact, much needs to be done. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established to make sure that significant quantities of nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful to military purposes. Yet, to protect its members' proprietary nuclear interests, the agency interprets its charter as virtually forbidding it to report on the size, physical state, and composition of effectively all the nuclear materials it inspects (since it can only report on material it suspects is missing or unaccounted for). Such studied inattention now seems highly inappropriate.

In fact, experts estimate that well over 32,000 crude nuclear weapons worth of weapons usable plutonium (i.e., over 192 tones) has been separated from spent power reactor fuel and could be stolen or diverted. This, however, is only an estimate. Meanwhile, the exact amount of weapons material possessed by smaller nuclear powers, such as, Israel, India, Pakistan and China is largely unknown. As for the quantity of Russia’s military holdings, the only figure more impressive than the possible total is the uncertainty surrounding it. Thus, in l999 senior U.S. Department of Energy officials conceded that US estimates of Russia’s military nuclear holdings were only accurate within (plus or minus) 30 percent. This uncertainty— equivalent to over 23,000 advanced thermonuclear weapons worth of material— is, again, unbearably high.

Indeed, last year Mr. Bush cited the 30 percent Russian uncertainty figure and emphasized that “the next president must press for an accurate inventory of all this material.” Certainly, after September 11, the need to do so not just for Russia, but for all nations possessing nuclear weapons usable materials is much clearer.


Defense Cost Analysis

Prior to September 11, nonproliferation debates over the future of nuclear power and the sharing of strategic weapons command and control information were dominated by legal and commercial calculations. Would sharing permissive action link technology with India violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s stricture against assisting or transferring “control over nuclear weapons” to “any recipient whatsoever”? Would the costs of transporting, fabricating and using nuclear weapons usable and near- weapons usable fuels (e.g., highly enriched uranium, separated plutonium and mixed oxide fuel) in power reactors be significantly greater than those associated with using safer low enriched uranium fuels? Would it be cheaper to dispose of spent reactor fuel directly or to dispose of it after chemically separating out and reusing the nuclear weapons usable plutonium it contained? Is it more economical for power utilities to keep spent reactor fuel for 20 or more years at the reactor site or to have it removed to interim or final off-site storage facilities? Could nuclear power see a revival if new, cheaper reactor designs were built?

Following the terrorist attacks of September, these calculations have taken a back seat to assessments of how great the defense consequences or costs might be of each alternative. Thus, the debate over sharing command and control information with new nuclear powers has shifted away from legal concerns to whether or not such assistance might actually undermine international security by making the recipient more inclined to build and field larger numbers of strategic weapons (a point privately raised by senior Indian military officials).

Similarly, a series of post September 11 developments has altered the debate over nuclear power. It was discovered, for example, that the US-based al Qeada agents who inquired about the availability of crop dusters also wanted specifics on the location of two U.S. reactors and that al Qeada had mapped the location of all of Europe’s nuclear power stations. Also, shortly after the New York World Trade Center attack, The French government became concerned about the vulnerability of its reprocessing facility at La Hague and circled it with anti-aircraft batteries. Then, the very week of the September attacks, American environmentalists opposed to fashioning surplus U.S. military plutonium into mixed oxide fuel and burning it in civilian reactors appealed a now questionable U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission finding (released September 12th) that terrorist threats against this material’s transport and fabrication were insignificant. Shortly thereafter, Congressional nuclear power critics began highlighting just how vulnerable nuclear power plants are to air attacks against their spent fuel storage ponds and power supply and cooling systems.

Each of these developments has prompted questions as to whether one or another dimension of nuclear power can be adequately secured by deploying either air defenses or military guards at nuclear facilities or by hardening them further against attack. Clearly, more analysis will be needed to answer these questions and to determine whether it makes sense to try to secure these nuclear activities and materials or instead to curtail them or their production.

Changing Regimes

Finally, efforts to topple the Taliban regime and President Bush’s recent expansion of his anti-terrorism war to nations acquiring weapons of mass destruction that might use them to terrorize other nations raise the thorny question of regime change. Certainly, before September 11, nonproliferation diplomacy strained publicly to treat all nations, including the worst proliferators, as though they were or could (with manageable effort) become accepted members of the international community.

Now, such diplomacy seems less plausible. In fact, there currently is open government debate regarding the need to threaten Saddam’s regime to eliminate the threat posed by his strategic weapons programs. This discussion comes, moreover, on the heels of concerns expressed during the first weeks of the war that Pakistan’s government might be overthrown and its nuclear arsenal seized by Taliban sympathizers. As such, the stability and nature of regimes and the need to shore up or possibly change them are matters that proponents of nonproliferation will now have to address much more explicitly.

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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