Nuclear proliferation out of the headlines

A quick round up of February developments you may have missed in the realm of nuclear nonproliferation.

Ian J Byrne

February 2011 will forever belong to the protesters of the Middle East. However, the past month has also been a happening time on the nuclear nonproliferation front. Statements from officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria may not have the same level of drama that, say, a square filled with tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Dégage!” or “Game over!” produces. However, these developments that sometimes fly under the radar can have serious international security implications.

WeâÄôll begin by highlighting the best news of the month in the nonproliferation realm. New START âÄî the U.S.-Russia arms control treaty that reduces the number of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each and resumes a monitoring program that allows both to inspect the otherâÄôs nuclear arsenal âÄî went into effect Feb. 5. As the two largest nuclear powers, the U.S. and Russia should be leading the way in decreasing the number of nuclear weapons on the planet. The ratification and implementation of New START demonstrates that the U.S. and Russia are dedicated to reducing their nuclear stockpiles.

Global nuclear nonproliferation efforts can be best described as a march of “one step forward, two steps back.” New START was a good step forward. Recent U.S. intelligence assessments report Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. This is one development that contributes to the two steps back. With more than 100 deployed weapons, Pakistan now has a larger arsenal than India, whom it sees as its chief rival.

Pakistan is in the midst of building a plutonium reactor for the sole purpose of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Pakistan has been gearing up for a major push to accelerate its nuclear program in an effort to further increase its nuclear supremacy over India. Soon its arsenal will surpass BritainâÄôs as the fifth largest in the world. Pakistan is home to many terror networks, the most notorious being al-Qaida. The real danger is Pakistan might produce more materials than it can safeguard.

While not February news, Pakistan has single-handedly derailed negotiations for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. A FMCT would put an end to the creation of weapons-grade materials, highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The 65-member nation body that includes all nuclear states works on a consensus basis. In January the U.S. and China released a joint statement calling for the resumption of talks in the CD regarding a FMCT by yearâÄôs end.

Moving back to the Middle East, Syria recently denied requests for greater IAEA access to the Dair Alzour facility, the suspected North Korean designed nuclear reactor that Israeli warplanes destroyed in 2007.

On Friday, the IAEA released a report that concluded “Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008.” Syria is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The flouting of IAEA requests to implement NPT safeguards goes against the NPT itself. It is the job of the IAEA to ensure that NPT signatories adhere to the treaty they signed. SyriaâÄôs refusal to cooperate with the IAEA should raise suspicions about SyriaâÄôs nuclear ambitions.

The IAEA also released a report on Iran which details IranâÄôs implementation of NPT safeguards but concludes, “While the Agency continues to conduct verification activities under IranâÄôs Safeguards Agreement, Iran is not implementing a number of its obligations.”

The report also noted that Iran would unload nuclear fuel from the core of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. The New York Times labeled the development as “a major upset,” as the plant was IranâÄôs first nuclear power plant and heralded as a symbol of the progress of IranâÄôs nuclear program. The Bushehr plant could be the latest victim of Stuxnet, the suspected American-Israeli computer virus designed to cripple IranâÄôs nuclear program.

In the wake of New START, the U.S. should continue to strengthen global nonproliferation efforts by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The CTBT seeks to ban all nuclear explosions for civilian or military use. The U.S. is already a signatory of the CTBT and has imposed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. International implications and policy talk aside, those who believe the U.S. shouldnâÄôt be beholden to global treaties regarding our nuclear arsenal, ponder this: How would you feel if the U.S. tested a nuclear weapon tomorrow?

Also on the homefront, the recently passed Republican House budget proposal strips $1.1 billion from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, which monitors and maintains our nuclear arsenal. We cannot let U.S. nuclear agencies fall victim to shortsighted cuts.

New START did face opposition in its ratification as 26 senators voted “nay.” That is unacceptable as it equates to a “nay” for a safer world. The Senate should bring CTBT ratification up for a vote and challenge those who oppose the CTBT to explain why they do not support the treaty. We need to use all available avenues to secure nuclear materials, press countries to adhere to the NPT and work to decrease the number of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, while perhaps not perceived as the most pressing issue at times, is of dire importance and should be recognized as vital to our national security and the safety of mankind.


Ian J Byrne welcomes comments at [email protected].