Breaking down the global nuclear policy conundrum
In light of the latest set of nuclear maneuverings of Iran and Brazil and new proposed sanctions, it is worthwhile revisiting the confusion of global nuclear policy. Who can be and can’t be granted self-governance over nuclear development plans seems to be based on whim. It reads like a Marx Brother ‘who’s on first base’ routine. India can get further nuclear materials while Pakistan can’t. Iran certainly can’t, according to the West, but has it already…maybe. There is a whole furor that Syria wants it, may have had it in the past but Israel destroyed it anyway, and now the UN Security Council is split whether they should get it in the future. UAE can get it, even though they are a strategic trading partner of Iran. Israel has it, but won’t admit it and nobody presses them to. Russia and France sell it to people that the US doesn’t want to get it.
The list of who can’t have nuclear technology seems to be based less on logic, and more on who is willing to follow the policy whims of the nuclear club members. However, even the nuclear club itself is fissured. Russia, China and to a lesser degree France, seem to have a more liberal interpretation of who is eligible for nuclear technology. North Korea, a country essentially bankrupt except for sales of nuclear technology, doesn’t seem to mind who goes nuclear as long as they can pay for it in hard currency. The US will only supply nuclear technology to a select few, but of late, and certainly under the Bush Administration, seems to have abandoned the requirement for the receiving regime to sign the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) on nuclear weapons. The US inked a deal with India allowing the sale of nuclear technology and materials that did not include any such restriction.
Nuclear power is becoming a necessity for many countries hungry for energy, but the rules are unclear. Several parts of the world are energy poor. Demand exceeds current supply for fossil based fuels. Energy is also increasingly linked with national security, where if you have power you have wealth and independence. So this all calls into question who should have nuclear power, what are the regime requirements, and why nuclear weapons restrictions should be part of a global policy?
There is confusion at every level of the nuclear policy conundrum. Making it even more complex, theoretical policy implementation differs from real life interpretation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with a difficult mission – to both promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy while policing against nuclear weapon proliferation. While it has its own charter, it also has a split reporting line. It reports to both the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council is the real power broker. The Security Council has five permanent members – the US, China, UK, France and the Russian Federation. Three of the members are liberal in nuclear technology supply while two are more dogmatic.
In addition to the 5 permanent members, there are 10 temporary members to the Council appointed for a term, and seemingly appointed by a process of political favor. All permanent members are friends to some and enemies to others, but the allegiances shift in real time. Only one of the permanent members has ever deployed a nuclear weapon in war, namely, the US. The US is also the prosecutor of two regional wars at present, so some question it’s the impartiality in decision making. The potential for the UN Security Council’s decisions to be viewed as driven by self-interest is large. It is also easy see why some countries, for example Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, would try to circumvent the restrictions when they, from their perspective, see the authorization process as favoring their traditional enemies such as India and Israel.
Many countries do have nuclear power currently either legitimately or otherwise. According to the World Nuclear Association there are now some 435 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries, with 370,000 Megawatt Electrical (MWe) of total capacity. These reactors supply 16% of the world’s electricity, as base-load power, and their efficiency is increasing. Further, 56 countries operate a total of 284 research reactors and a further 220 reactors power ships and submarines. There is also a big rush going on in the world with many other countries intending to develop further nuclear plants. In a previous Daily Clarity report, we highlighted the global nuclear technology race. We identified that Russia is in talks to provide nuclear technology to Libya and Venezuela. Argentina is in negotiations with Algeria to provide them with the ability to create a nuclear power plant. United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey are all planning new nuclear plants in the near future.
There is however a large step from having nuclear power to having nuclear weapons. One of the requirements (in addition to missile delivery capabilities-North Korea’s Achilles heel) is the need for enriched uranium. Enriched uranium has legitimate usages as well as for use in weaponry. Many countries enrich uranium, but not all for weapon use. The following countries are known to operate enrichment facilities: Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Israel and North Korea also have less open enrichment programs.
Corporate crossholdings make the situation even more complex. Belgium, Iran, Italy and Spain hold an investment interest in the French Eurodif enrichment plant, with Iran’s holding entitling it to 10% of the enriched uranium output. Countries that had enrichment program development in the past include Libya and South Africa, although Libya’s facility was never operational. Australia has announced its intention to pursue commercial enrichment. This cast of characters includes friends, reluctant partners and enemies. Given the sheer numbers of players involved and the varying degrees of security involved, the potential for enriched uranium to be available to some of the unsavory players of the world is relatively high.
In terms of possessing such weapons, currently, only 8 countries are known to have nuclear weapons. The odds are that given the proliferation of nuclear technology, many more will be racing to join the nuclear weapon club. The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. There are currently 189 countries party to the treaty, five of which have nuclear weapons, namely, the US, UK, France, Russia and China (the permanent members of the UN Security Council). Only four recognized sovereign states are not parties to the treaty and all have nuclear weapons: India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. India and Pakistan both possess and have openly tested nuclear bombs. Israel has had a policy of opacity (deliberate ambiguity) regarding its own nuclear weapon technology, but it is well-known they have at least 200 nuclear warheads. North Korea acceded to the treaty, violated it, and later withdrew.
Again, however, what is theoretically true is not the reality. What is a cause for concern is the under-reported concept of nuclear weapon sharing. This gives a lot more countries potential access to nuclear weapon technology if war is ever declared. NATO has in place secret sharing agreements whereby the US provides nuclear weapons to be deployed and stored in other NATO states. Some argue this is an act of proliferation violating the articles of the treaty. A counter-argument is that the U.S. controls the weapons in storage, and that no transfer of the weapons or control over them was intended “unless and until a decision were made to go to war, at which the treaty would no longer be controlling”, so there is no technical breach of the treaty.
As of 2005, it is estimated that the US still provides about 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs for use by Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey under these NATO agreements. Many states, and the Non-Aligned Movement, (the burgeoning emerging countries) argue this violates the treaty and are applying diplomatic pressure to terminate the agreements. They point out that the pilots and other staff of the “non-nuclear” NATO states practice handling and delivering the U.S. bombs. Further, non-U.S. warplanes have been adapted to deliver U.S. nuclear bombs which must have involved the transfer of some information so as to breach the treaty. NATO counters that no nuclear weapons have ever been given over to non-U.S. control, so therefore there cannot have been a violation of either Article I or Article II.
So at every turn in the nuclear supply and authorization process there is a lack of clarity. Who does, who can and who will have nuclear power and/or nuclear weaponry is confusing. It is also clear why some countries are crying ‘foul’ when they are denied access and resort to illicit supply channels. This is a global priority that needs focus, detail, openness, and clarity. For some observers in the current nuclear club it seems quite a beneficial scenario. They have it, and decide at their absolute discretion who can get access to it. For the emerging nations and for those whose neighbors already have both nuclear power and weapons it is less equitable. Someone needs to solve the puzzle and it would appear only the IAEA or UN can do so but so far lack the will to do so.