14 April 2010: Beating the bomb

The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation is the strongest argument against using nuclear power generation as a low carbon bridge technology. North Korea made bombs by first building reactors – as every nuclear weapons state apart from Israel had done previously – and Iran is now trying to do the same. And it is not only governments that could use nuclear material for bombs – terrorist groups could construct a ‘dirty bomb’ – radioactive material wrapped around a conventional bomb.

This week’s meeting in the US has been an important – though long overdue – attempt to reduce this threat. The outcome was not radical. The 47 nations promised to ratify two existing UN conventions:

  • The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
  • The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

Only 21 countries that have ratified the former, not including the US. A four-year deadline for all nuclear materials to be secured was set, which some of the participants described as ambitious. There were promises to give more money to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to give aid to countries, which currently use highly enriched uranium, to convert the reactors to use low-enriched uranium. However, promises about money never mean guaranteed delivery. Nuclear material will not be got rid of – that is sadly not possible – but will be taken to centralised and secure locations for storage.

Nevertheless, President Obama has done well by getting world leaders to focus on the dangers of nuclear terrorism and, during the meeting, some governments made specific, significant commitments:

  • Russia announced that it will close its last reactor using plutonium.
  • Ukraine, the country which has shown that nuclear disarmament is possible, said that it will send its entire stockpile of nuclear material to Russia.
  • Mexico and Chile also agreed to give up their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium.
  • The US and Russia signed a bilateral agreement to eliminate excess nuclear material, which could be used to make 17,000 weapons (though disposal of weapons-grade plutonium will not begin until 2018).

Therefore, the world is now slightly less exposed to the threat of nuclear terrorism. A stronger IAEA could also help restrain governments from weapons proliferation, if it became the overseer of an internationally controlled nuclear fuel cycle, as the Kissinger-Nunn initiative has proposed and Obama has supported. However, preventing proliferation also requires existing nuclear weapons states to give up the bomb. They promised to do so when signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but none has done so. The extended Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed by the US and Russia this month, was a step in the right direction, but only a step. They will still have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire world.

Nuclear weapons do nothing to protect against terrorism. By making it harder to argue for nuclear power as a bridge, they weaken the possibility of controlling climate change, the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. They may or may not have had deterrence value during the Cold War. That is a matter for historians to debate, because the Cold War is over. Kissinger has said that nuclear weapons are “past their sell-by date”. He has been wrong about most things, but he is right about this.


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