global issues

Nuclear and Other Weapons Issues

Security of Nuclear Material

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." (Albert Einstein)


Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Russia has been unable to account for or physically protect its nuclear material, creating an enormous risk. Russia holds the world's largest stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In February 2002, the National Intelligence Council's Annual Report to Congress on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and Military Forces found that "Russian facilities housing weapons-usable nuclear material...typically receive low funding, lack trained security personnel, and do not have sufficient equipment for securely storing such material."

Russia's nuclear reductions to date have been supported by U.S.-funded cooperative threat reduction programs designed to secure warheads and fissile materials. The Nunn-Lugar Program, adopted in 1991 as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, has led to the deactivation of more than six thousand Russian nuclear warheads, which include the destruction of missile silos, bombers, long-range air-launched cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers. Beyond nuclear elimination, the Nunn-Lugar program has secured and destroyed chemical and biological weapons, and employed former weapons of mass destruction scientists in peaceful research initiatives.

Despite this U.S. assistance, nuclear materials are stored in hundreds of buildings across Russia, and Russian institutes have lost weapons-grade nuclear materials to theft. In February 2002, the National Intelligence Council reported to Congress that there were at least four occasions between 1992 and 1999 when "weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials [were] stolen from some Russian institutes." While the United States has instituted security upgrades at all of its facilities with nuclear material, the Energy Department estimates that even the most basic security upgrades will not be in place in Russia until 2007 or later.

India and Pakistan

The lack of control of nuclear materials by third-world countries is even more alarming than that of nuclear superpowers. India and Pakistan, which face problems maintaining basic infrastructure and feeding their citizens, are unlikely to possess the financial resources needed to provide the level of security nuclear materials deserve. This fear is exacerbated by both governments' commitment to secrecy.

In early 2006, the Bush Administration asked Congress to make exceptions to existing U.S. nonproliferation laws so that the U.S. and other countries may sell nuclear technology to India, a country that refuses to join 188 other nations in signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is an international agreement that bans the export of nuclear technology to states that don’t allow international inspections of their nuclear programs. So while the U.S. is correctly pressuring Iran (an NPT member) to halt its nuclear program, it is negotiating a deal to supply India with nuclear technology. Members of Congress are not blind to this double-standard and have introduced a bipartisan resolution expressing caution against providing a non-NPT country with nuclear technology and fuel.

It is believed that Pakistan provided key uranium enrichment designs, technology and machinery to North Korea as a quid pro quo for ballistic missiles received in 1997, making the country a worrisome source of nuclear proliferation. Pakistan may have also provided North Korea with information on how to design and build a nuclear bomb.

Iran and Iraq

Many entities in the Middle East, including terrorist groups as well as nations, repeatedly attempt to gain access to nuclear materials. Secrecy within these nations and organizations has limited knowledge and intelligence gathering regarding Middle East nuclear security. Still, reports indicate high levels of activity and intense effort to obtain nuclear materials in this region.

While U.N. weapons inspectors recently returned to Iraq, after having left in 1998, the world still remains unaware of the country's specific nuclear capabilities. Authorities suggest that Iraq may hold most, if not all, of the components necessary for the construction of a nuclear device. To read more about the ongoing war in Iraq, the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece (CEIP) has extensive news, analysis and resources devoted to that issue.

As disconcerting as it is for Iran and Iraq to potentially have nuclear weapons, an equally growing concern is the Bush Administration’s threats of using nuclear weapons against Iran. Thirteen of the nation's most prominent physicists wrote a letter to President Bush in April 2006, calling U.S. plans to reportedly use nuclear weapons against Iran "gravely irresponsible" and warning that such action would have "disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world."

North Korea

More than a decade ago, North Korea violated treaty commitments and pursued nuclear weapons, with the Agreed Framework of 1994 resolving that crisis. In December 2002, it became clear to the world that the country was breaking those commitments, once again, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Agreed Framework. In April 2003, North Korea officially withdrew from the NPT. And in May 2003, North Korea nullified the joint agreement it had with South Korea to keep the Korean Peninsula free from nuclear weapons. The agreement was nullified based on the belief that the U.S. has a "sinister and hostile policy against North Korea." The two Koreas signed the agreement in January 1992, pledging to renounce hostilities and ban the development and deployment of nuclear weapons on the divided peninsula.

North Korea operates one nuclear reactor, at Yongbyon, and has two reactors under construction – "these reactors are ideal for producing weapons-grade plutonium and none are believed to be capable of producing electricity or power as designed." In resuming operations at Yongbyon, it is believed that North Korea could manufacture enough plutonium to create one nuclear weapon per year. Further, the country could potentially produce another five to six nuclear weapons in six months using reprocessed plutonium from 8,000 spent fuel rods currently stored at Yongbyon. In October 2006, North Korea broke a nuclear test moratorium by exploding a nuclear device, which was swiftly condemned by the international community. The impact of the test remains unknown, although nonproliferation experts say that it could result in a new arms race as other nations are provoked into building or testing their own nuclear weapons.

Given the growing emergency in North Korea, a peaceful resolution to the country's nuclear program is needed. Support from the U.S. and other nations is critical in order to require North Korea to recommit itself to the Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. North Korea continues to request bilateral talks with the U.S. and considers the absence of these talks an example of the "hostile policy" of the Bush Administration intended to further isolate North Korea politically and diplomatically. The U.S. must work with the international community to develop peaceful, diplomatic alternatives to the current, failing approach in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis.

People's Republic of China

In the 1990s, China demonstrated its support for arms control and nuclear nonproliferation activities, beginning with agreeing to the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1992 and signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. At the same time, China is slowly increasing the size, accuracy and survivability of its strategic nuclear arsenal. The country currently has 20 long-range nuclear missiles, capable of reaching the United States. China is, therefore, concerned about U.S. deployment of a missile defense system given the system could destroy or defeat China's deterrent force, if successful.

In January 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites with a kinetic kill vehicle launched on board a ballistic missile. The success of this so-called anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon illustrates China’s potential military capabilities, and left considerable space debris in orbits used by many different satellites, including the U.S.’s. It also resulted in a firestorm of concern and criticism about China’s intentions and the U.S. spurring a “military space race.”

United Kingdom

The Britain-based Acronym Institute published a report in December 2006 called “Worse than Irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century,” which addresses the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons system and outlines potential replacement options for the existing stockpile. The report calls for a comprehensive review of Britain’s security and defense strategies, taking into account the country’s commitment to nonproliferation and the efficacy of nuclear deterrence in the changing security environment of the 21st century.

The analysis contrasts the nuclear threats of the Cold War with the predominant security challenges in today’s post-Cold War environment such as climate change and environmental degradation, terrorism, poverty, transnational illicit trade, and failing states. The authors conclude that nuclear weapons have no useful role in protecting against today’s security challenges, adding that nuclear weapons are “not merely irrelevant,” but that they “have the potential to add greatly to other threats, notably terrorism, organized crime and trafficking.”

United States of America

Concerns over the safety of nuclear materials are not limited to other nations. Governmental watchdog organizations repeatedly warn of gaps in the U.S. system. In early 2002, several reports detailed the vulnerability of domestic nuclear materials. In fact, many U.S. nuclear facilities routinely fail security drills aimed at testing susceptibility to armed incursion. On a regular basis, military strike teams successfully enter and simulate terrorist activities, such as stealing or detonating nuclear material. After repeated refusals to acknowledge glaring security lapses, the U.S. Department of Energy is re-examining domestic safety measures.

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