What You Should Think About Nuclear Proliferation

October 23, 2007

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of humanity any more than the discovery of matches.”

Albert Einstein

The 1986 film The Manhattan Project painted a light-hearted picture of what might happen if the power of atomic weaponry fell into the hands of an American teenager. Many aspects of working nuclear weaponry are within the means of any capable and well-equipped tinker. Even a truly tricky technical bit, like a working implosion trigger, becomes much simpler to fabricate with the widespread availability of high grade electronic components.

Weapons grade fissile material, the only bigger hurdle than an implosion trigger, was an issue the film sidestepped. The boy secretly obtained it from a government facility where his father was involved in refinement. However, that component is the real focus of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in our own times. No sovereign nation has ever been completely forbidden by international accord to work with conventional explosives. Mining, land development, and even agriculture create legitimate demand for safe controlled demolitions devices. Building every part of a working atomic bomb except the reaction mass involves activities that are no wild departure from peaceful actions.

On the other hand, proliferation experts have a fairly good grip on the kinds of specialized activities needed to produce weapons grade fissile material. The actual Manhattan Project required vast facilities, not to mention the loan of 15,000 tons of silver from the Department of the Treasury, in order to produce enough weapons grade material for a few primitive atomic bombs. Substances and processes have changed through the years. Yet it remains the case that large amounts of low grade radioactive material are required to synthesize masses with the properties needed to be consumed in an explosive chain reaction.

Tremendous amounts of electrical power, along with a great deal of distinctive industrial infrastructure, are required to produce material suitable for a nuclear bomb or warhead. Most processes require powerful centrifuges in which the radioactive material is combined with other chemicals to produce a fluid substance. Spinning sorts the nuclear material by isotope, making it possible to extract traces of the most volatile matter from the mix. A little more chemistry to return the stuff to its elemental form, and the end result is material that can largely be converted from matter to energy in a single explosive event.

Because of the tremendous economic demands of this activity, it is hard to conduct in secrecy. Yet in one way there is a parallel to the work with conventional explosives also needed to produce an actual nuclear blast. Enrichment of radioactive material has some valid application when it comes to developing fuel for certain types of reactors. This context enabled some regimes to blur the line between peaceful and military development of their own nuclear technology.

In recent years, the airwaves have seen plenty of people asking the question, “why would Iran construct nuclear power facilities when it has large domestic oil reserves?” Personally, I don’t see how that is a more sensible question than, “why would Iran expand its petrochemical energy infrastructure when it has large domestic uranium reserves?” After all, there are many reasons to minimize the extent to which a nation depends on fossil fuels. Nuclear power has its own disadvantages, but each uptick in oil prices makes it a better economic option, and sufficiently stringent controls enable secure handling of nuclear materials, including waste.

In an ideal world, international agencies would be permitted to inspect every nuclear facility in every nation. Outmoded thinking about the importance of preserving American secrecy (as if the idea that we have a pointlessly large nuclear arsenal would somehow surprise any other nation) makes it difficult to organize effective oversight around the world. Nations that really may have nuclear surprises stirring in their bowels can characterize inspections as an affront to their sovereignty, then point to the U.S. for cover. Setting a good example does not insure that all other nations will follow it. On the other hand, setting a bad example makes it much harder to push for positive change abroad.

So we have probable nuclear weapons in North Korea and possible nuclear weapons in Iran. Long-standing military adversaries India and Pakistan have both confirmed testing of functional nuclear weapons. Then there are the many ?s on a properly illustrated proliferation globe. Many herald the voluntary dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear program as a triumph of international efforts at non-proliferation. Yet it really seems much more like a footnote in the triumph of international efforts to end racial apartheid. Given their upbringing and outlook, I do not believe it is a cynical view to suggest the outgoing regime in South Africa was simply acting out of fear regarding what their successors might do with working nuclear weapons.

With America’s laser-like focus on perpetuating the status quo in Iraq, so many other foreign policy issues are not subject to due scrutiny. Again and again, opportunities for progress have emerged from North Korea, but this President’s aversion to summit diplomacy makes it impossible to determine the validity of offers to negotiate. It is as if George W. Bush would be so humiliated by not getting what he wants in a single meeting that our nation must forfeit the moral high ground of having at least tried to reach an accord. There is nothing humiliating about being rebuffed in negotiation. On the other hand, making no plausible effort to address the accumulation of nuclear weapons by a remarkably bizarre and militant regime — it seems like that could at least be described as “shameful.”

Another neglected front is the subsidy of controls on old Soviet stockpiles. If indeed the “terrorist nuke” scenario is what keeps Homeland Security bureaucrats up at night, then why not scoop a little pork out of their budget to accelerate efforts to put old Soviet fissile stockpiles under American control? To suggest that there was no chaos in that part of the world in the early 90s is to overlook major historic events. Since then there has been some effort to render Soviet stockpiles of weapons grade material useless for those applications or to relocate that material to secure American facilities. Yet no new emphasis has been placed on this painfully slow effort in spite of its obvious relevance to any serious global counterterrorism strategy.

Frankly, if I were a patriotic citizen of Iran today, I would be hoping that my government has an aggressive nuclear weapons development program that has already produced significant capabilities. The sitting administration in the White House seems to believe that the best way to discourage nuclear proliferation is to sling threats haphazardly around the world, then invade and occupy purported “menaces” that clearly do not possess any nuclear deterrent. I believe all honorable peoples of the world desire peace, and that no nation is populated by a dishonorable majority. Yet, given the behavior of the U.S. government, it seems as if compliance is the road to misery while real peace can only be achieved through strength.

It is a sorry state of affairs, but it is not without remedy. For those nations already in possession of nuclear weapons, open arms and honest dialog can accomplish much. It is in everybody’s interests to promote stability and democracy in societies that already possess nuclear weapons. As most sensible folks must already understand, this is not best accomplished with threats and attacks. Rather, it is accomplished through support that enables national leaders to feel secure enough that a more open society is not seen as a source of danger. Of course a bunker mentality will develop in a regime that is under constant assault, even if the assault is chiefly rhetorical. Openness to civil liberties, checks and balances, et al. comes more naturally in an environment without some hostile superpower deliberately provoking fear from afar.

Then, for those nations that have not yet developed nuclear weapons, setting a good example is key. The United States would give up very little to allow international inspectors to reveal what is already well-known from pole to pole. Yet in that process it becomes much easier to push other reluctant, secretive regimes to allow international inspectors regular visits to their nuclear facilities. It would then become easier to promote technologies that lack military applications and to spot instances where nuclear weapons development may be underway.

Long ago we let the nuclear genie out of its bottle. If our role from here forward is to be in any way constructive, we must promote peace with peaceful methods. Recent experience abroad should confirm that promoting peace with military aggression is every bit as horrible an idea as it sounds. This becomes all the more true as science and economics converge to make nuclear weapons affordable to ever smaller governments.