As the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal, what might the next arms race look like?
Assuming current nuclear trends continue, the next two decades will test America’s security and that of its closest allies as they never have been tested before. Before 2020, the United Kingdom could find its nuclear forces eclipsed not only by those of Pakistan, but of Israel and of India. Soon thereafter, France may share the same fate. China, which already has enough separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium to triple its current stockpile of roughly 300 nuclear warheads, will likely expand its nuclear arsenal as well. 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 to many tens of thousands of weapons — will decline 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 aim of abolishing 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 cut off treaty banning further military nuclear fissile production, and enhanced inspections of civilian nuclear programs — are unlikely to be enough to head off the troubling trends described. What’s worse, these arms control measures, if executed too hastily, could easily make matters worse.
Congressional critics of strategic arms reductions with Moscow argue that if the U.S. and Russia cut their strategic nuclear deployments too deeply, too quickly, it might undermine the credibility of our nuclear security alliances with states like Japan and Turkey who, in turn, might be tempted to go nuclear. As for pushing ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, this could also backfire: India, whose last nuclear test series was followed by a Pakistani nuclear test, recently debated whether or not 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 U.S. Senate to tie the treaty’s test limits to what other states, like Russia, say the treaty clearly prohibits. Pegging the treaty to this, however, could conceivably encourage some forms of low-yield nuclear testing.
As for securing a non-discriminatory, global ban against the “military” production of separated plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, this also could inflict unintended harm. The danger here is that the treaty only bans the production of fissile material for military purposes and could encourage increased production for civilian purposes. Also, 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, the IAEA is 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 making 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.