Weak-willed non-proliferation

Raw Sugar Cafe, Ottawa

Stephanie Cooke’s book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age make some interesting points about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Among them, that short-term political and commercial calculations have often overridden concerns about providing dangerous technologies to states that might aspire to developing weapons. In many cases, the examples are not hypothetical; for instance, there was Canadian and American assistance in building the CIRUS reactor that fueled India’s first atomic bombs, and America apparently played an important role in encouraging uranium mining in North Korea.

Lest people think that such shenanigans are a matter for history only, Cooke suggests that up until very recently, India faced a squeeze between being able to use uranium for plutonium production and bomb manufacture, and decided to put bombs above energy needs. The recent American decision to provide fuel to India, despite their weapons tests and rejection of safeguards against future weapons production, seems to show that we are still living in a world where civilian nuclear energy can be effectively used as a cover to advance military programs.

[Update: 8 July 2009] One correction to the above, it was apparently the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that helped North Korea develop its uranium mining program, not the United States as I indicated above. Cooke’s book does a good job of explaining how the dual role of the IAEA as both a promoter of nuclear technology and an enforcer of safeguards reduces how effectively it plays the latter role.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Weak-willed non-proliferation”

  1. India is the largest democracy in the world, a relatively stable nation, and a strategic ally of the US. So why wouldn’t the Americans sell them fuels.

  2. India and Pakistan are probably also the two states most likely to fight a nuclear war. India lacks domestic sources of nuclear fuels. Providing them fuel for civilian reactors almost certainly means that they will build more bombs.

    Doing so also shows that states can violate the Nucleat Non-Proliferation Treaty and still gain access to knowledge and fissile materials.

    Both because of the practical consequences and the example set, I think the India-US deal is worrisome.

  3. Along with Pakistan and Israel, India never signed the NPT. Given that the US has signed, the spirit if not necessarily the letter of the treaty requires them to shun Indian requests for fuel, equipment, etc.

  4. I agree that the US-Indian deal is a violation of the intent behind the NPT.

    That being said, there are definite flaws with the NPT regime. For instance, the obligation of the five ‘official’ nuclear powers to disarm has never been taken sufficiently seriously.

  5. I am very pleased that you have read my book and greatly appreciate your intelligent commentary. One point — North Korea’s uranium mining activities were supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s technical assistance program. To my knowledge, there was no specific US government backing for the project. To read my other comments, please visit the inmortalhands.com website. Thanks again.

  6. Half a Ton of Uranium — and a Long Flight

    By David E. Hoffman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 21, 2009

    On a snowy day in December 1993, just months after Andy Weber began his diplomatic job at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, he met with a tall, bullet-headed man he knew only as Col. Korbator.

    “Andy, let’s take a walk,” the colonel said. As they strolled through a dim apartment courtyard, Korbator handed Weber a piece of paper. Weber unfolded it. On the paper was written:


    90 percent

    600 kilos

    Weber did the calculation: 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make about 24 nuclear bombs. He closed the note, put it in his pocket and thanked the colonel. After several months of patient cultivation of his contacts, Weber finally had the answer he had been seeking.

    The piece of paper was a glimpse into what had become the most urgent proliferation crisis to follow the collapse of the Soviet Union: the discovery of tons of nuclear materials left behind by the Cold War arms race, much of it unguarded and unaccounted for.

    This is the story of Project Sapphire, the code name for an early pioneering mission to secure a portion of those nuclear materials before they could fall into the wrong hands. New documents and interviews provide the fullest account yet of this covert operation to remove the dangerous uranium from Kazakhstan and fly it to the United States. When it was over, the U.S. government paid Kazakhstan about $27 million for the cache.

  7. A fascinating tale and just one of many Cold War nuclear legacies that still endanger us. This also demonstrates why the US government is upgrading security at some 165 research reactors fueled with bomb-grade uranium in countries around the world, including Libya, Indonesia, Serbia, Romania and Peru, where terrorism, coup d’etats or civil war are not unknown. Meanwhile, machine-gun wielding guards may soon be a common sight at US nuclear reactor sites — for more on that please visit my website.

  8. Brown move to cut UK nuclear subs

    The prime minister is to tell the United Nations that he is willing to cut the UK’s fleet of Trident missile-carrying submarines from four to three.

    Gordon Brown will make the offer at a meeting of the UN Security Council on halting the spread of nuclear weapons and reducing existing stockpiles.

    The proposed cuts come as the government searches for ways to reduce the massive deficit in public finances.

    However Number 10 said keeping the UK’s nuclear missiles was “non-negotiable”.

    At the UN meeting, Mr Brown will call for all nations to come together to achieve the long-term ambition of a nuclear-free world.

  9. SEPTEMBER 23, 2009, 4:51 P.M. ET
    Resolution Draft Bolsters Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

    NEW YORK — A draft nuclear safeguards resolution, expected to be approved Thursday by the United Nations Security Council, would begin to lay the legal framework for military and diplomatic action against nations that use civilian nuclear technology for military use, as the Obama administration presses to strengthen international controls on nuclear proliferation.

    The resolution, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, says states that supply nuclear material and equipment under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should “have a right to require” their return if the recipients either do not comply with or withdraw from the treaty. It also says if a nation terminates inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “safeguards shall continue with respect to any nuclear materials and equipment” left behind

  10. “Building a nuclear weapon has never been easier. NATO’s Michael Rühle provides step-by-step instructions for going nuclear, from discretely collecting material to minimizing the fallout when caught. These simple steps have worked for the likes of Israel, Pakistan or North Korea, and your country could be next.

    Tired of being bossed around? Want your neighbors to treat you with more respect? Want to play in the majors? If so, you have to have your own nukes.

    Impossible? Not really. Granted, if your country is a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), as most countries are, the constraints on your bomb building are considerable. Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are difficult to circumvent. And the IAEA can no longer be fooled as easily as in the 1980s, when it failed to uncover Saddam Hussein’s military nuclear program in Iraq despite regular inspections.

    The IAEA’s increased awareness means that you have to be imaginative. Here are some steps to consider.

    First, begin developing a civilian nuclear program. Under the NPT, you are not only entitled to a civilian nuclear program, you may even ask for help from the IAEA. The IAEA will provide you with the basic ingredients and much of the know-how for a military program. Moreover, you can legally buy reactor fuel, and thus do not have to acquire it by performing hair-raising stunts like those the Israelis pulled in 1968, when they had to hijack a ship carrying uranium after France stopped its supplies.

    As you start building your civilian nuclear infrastructure, which should include nuclear plants to produce plutonium and/or uranium and appropriate nuclear research facilities, aim for the full fuel cycle: mining, milling, conversion, enrichment. This allows you the greatest possible independence — which you may need later, once you are caught or go public. And let there be no mistake: You will get caught.

    But the notion of getting caught need not concern you at this stage. You will need to build research and nuclear enrichment facilities at several sites. Some will be publicly declared sites, i.e. they can be inspected by the IAEA. Other facilities, however, will remain secret, preferably underground or in mountainous areas (you did not forget to buy advanced drilling equipment, did you?). It is within these military facilities that enrichment of reactor-grade uranium to weapons-grade levels, as well as plutonium reprocessing will take place. If you are not too concerned about raising international suspicions, you can be so bold as to invest in other nuclear activities as well, such as nuclear submarine propulsion. Dubious? Yes. Illegal? No — ask the Brazilians. “

  11. The proliferation business
    The illicit nuclear trade flourishes because governments let it

    Mar 11th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

    Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies. By David Albright. Free press; 304 pages; $27. Buy from Amazon.com

    EVER since the atom was split, governments have struggled to control a force with potential for good that can also wreak awful destruction. Some argue it is impossible to stop technologies that can keep the lights on from being used to make bombs. That is a sobering thought in a world ready to re-embrace relatively carbon-free nuclear power. But David Albright, a respected chronicler of undercover nuclear shenanigans, tells a more alarming story: just how little most governments have done to halt the bomb’s spread.

    But the book’s real value is in pulling two clear threads from the facts and speculation. One is that commerce almost always trumps proliferation concerns, and not just among Mr Khan’s band of merry smugglers. Profits can be huge and catching traffickers hard. In Germany and Switzerland, where sales of precision machine tools, valves and much else of nuclear use were a source of national pride, export licences used to be waved through. But Mr Albright also tells the story of a German company, Leybold AG, previously up to its armpits in dodgy dealings, that chose instead to turn market leader in spotting attempts to smuggle parts for weapons even when cleverly disguised as orders for innocent-seeming widgets. It can be done.

    The other thread is China. Despite a raft of laws and sporadic enforcement, its ports and companies are still key links in the illicit export/import chains of North Korea, Iran and others. What is more, in the early 1980s China gave Pakistan a pre-tested design of a missile-mountable warhead.

    This single wanton act probably did the most to undermine the global non-proliferation regime. Mr Khan later sold the design (his network also had more sophisticated ones) to Libya, very likely Iran and North Korea, and possibly others. China’s leaders have also held out longest over tougher sanctions on Iran, whose nuclear programme has benefited from their past irresponsibility.

  12. UN nuclear agency chief says for first time that Syria tried to build nuclear reactor

    PARIS _ The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said for the first time that a target destroyed by Israeli warplanes in the Syrian desert in 2007 was the covert site of a future nuclear reactor, countering assertions by Syria that it had no atomic secrets.

    Previous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency have suggested that the structure could have been a nuclear reactor. Thursday’s comments by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano were the first time the agency has said so unequivocally.

    By aligning Amano with the U.S., which first asserted three years ago that the bombed target was a nuclear reactor, the comments could increase pressure on Syria to stop stonewalling agency requests for more information on its nuclear activities.

    Amano spoke during a news conference meant to focus on the Fukushima nuclear disaster after a visit to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to discuss clean-up efforts at Japan’s tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant.

  13. But if Islamabad is worried about falling out with Washington and hopes to get more out of Beijing, it may be in for disappointment. According to Zhu Feng of Peking University, such calculations based on “the traditional mentality of power politics” are misplaced. China’s robust, longstanding ties with Pakistan stand on their own merits, he says, and owe nothing to America’s standing in Pakistan. Both China and America want a stable Pakistan.

    For all that, China’s dealings with Pakistan have always been conducted with one eye on India. Last year Beijing chose to supply Pakistan with two new civilian nuclear reactors, even though the deal appeared to violate Chinese non-proliferation commitments. It was a boon not only for Pakistan’s energy-starved economy. It was, as Mr Zhu points out, also a way for China to counterbalance a controversial nuclear deal reached earlier between America and India.

  14. China has been exasperated with North Korea before, not least in 2006, after its first test of a nuclear weapon. Mutual suspicion and animosity go back much further. In a recent paper, You Ji, a former Chinese foreign-ministry official now at the University of New South Wales, reports that Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s dictator, never forgave China for its disapproval of the hereditary succession in which he took over from his father, Kim Il Sung. Sulking, he did not visit China once from 1983 to 2000.

    Since May last year, however, he has been three times. That is a symptom of his regime’s greater dependence on China, which accounts for four-fifths of its trade and energy needs, and most of the food aid it gets to avert renewed famine.

    The corollary of greater North Korean dependence should be greater Chinese influence. But in the past the North Korean regime has always managed to fend off unwelcome pressure by silently playing on two big Chinese strategic fears. One is that a spurned North Korea might provoke South Korea and America, triggering a cycle of retaliation and even war. The second is that it might collapse in chaos with a mass exodus of refugees into China. Any collapse would presumably be followed by reunification of the Korean peninsula under the prosperous, American-allied South. That could mean American troops stationed in a country bordering China, complicating its strategy should, for example, it ever find itself in a confrontation with America over Taiwan. Until now, the North’s primitive nuclear weapons have not seemed to worry China too much. After all, they do not threaten it, and if they help the regime survive, they serve a Chinese purpose.

  15. Beijing’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, which includes providing Islamabad with blueprints for a bomb and fissile material, has further complicated India’s position. Pakistan’s leaders are looking to abandon minimum deterrence in favor of “full-spectrum deterrence,” where their nuclear forces cover multiple contingencies in the event of war with India. There are three central factors spurring Pakistani officials to adopt this more aggressive posture. First, Islamabad is aware that its conventional forces are weaker than India’s and believes it has no alternative but to employ, if need be, its nuclear forces to offset this asymmetry. Second, given that India is far larger than Pakistan, Islamabad believes it must be able to inflict greater destruction on India in a retaliatory strike than India will inflict on it. This requires Pakistan to maintain a larger nuclear arsenal to target India’s population and economic hubs in the event of war. Third, Pakistan also hopes that its nuclear forces prevent India from undertaking large-scale military action against it in response to Islamabad’s ongoing support for militant groups in the disputed region of Kashmir.


  16. “Tellis hints at a tantalizing solution to India’s problems. The United States could provide India with a reliable thermonuclear weapon design. The trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that is known as AUKUS, which will assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, could be expanded to include India. Might the Americans also share their nuclear reactor designs with New Delhi? But for this to happen, India, which has kept the United States at arm’s length practically since its birth, would have to finally and firmly close ranks with the leading Indo-Pacific democracies and formally forsake the nonaligned strategic autonomy it has long enshrined at the heart of its foreign policy.”

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