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August 25, 2009 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Robert G. Gard

Topic Zero Nuclear Weapons: a Feasible Goal?

Robert G. Gard: Global Zero is dependent on compliance, which in turn relies on mutual trust between states in the international system that weapons will not be concealed. This appears remote and subsequently so too does the feasibility of such a goal as complete nuclear disarmament.

The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, referred to as the NPT, is the centerpiece of the world's nonproliferation regime.  The impetus for the NPT, signed in 1968, was concern that a potentially rapid expansion of the number of states possessing nuclear weapons would result in what President Kennedy had called "the greatest possible danger." The non-nuclear weapons states agreed to forgo acquisition of nuclear weapons; in return, the five nuclear weapons states committed "to pursue negotiations in good faith" to work toward nuclear disarmament.

There are ominous signs that the NPT is unraveling. Israel, India, and Pakistan, the only states that declined to ratify the NPT, now possess nuclear arsenals. North Korea withdrew from the treaty and detonated a nuclear device in 2006. Iran continues to enrich uranium, ostensibly as fuel for nuclear power reactors; but with minor modifications, the enrichment process can produce highly enriched uranium that can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Now that nuclear power is back in fashion, there is general agreement that the world faces another tipping point, similar to the 1960s, that requires major initiatives to prevent an extensive proliferation of states able to produce nuclear weapons in a short space of time. Mohammed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has estimated that some 50 states have what he terms "breakout" capability.

The NPT specifies that all states have an "inalienable right" to produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The treaty does not prohibit states from enriching uranium or reprocessing spent reactor fuel to produce plutonium, the fissionable materials that can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Moreover, the NPT permits member states to withdraw from the treaty with three months notice that "extraordinary events" have jeopardized their "supreme interests." El Baradei warns that there soon could be more than 25 states with nuclear weapons, many unstable and prone to takeover by extremists.

To combat the "breakout" problem and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, President Obama has proposed a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, with verification provisions, to prohibit states from producing materials that can be made into nuclear weapons, and universal ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, to minimize the likelihood of more states becoming nuclear powers. In addition, he advocated strengthening the NPT by authorizing more intrusive inspections by the IAEA and heavy penalties for countries that break the rules or withdraw irresponsibly from the treaty.

Especially difficult, however, will be inducing non-nuclear weapons states to accept even more restrictions when several already have declared that they will not cooperate unless the nuclear weapons states fulfill their NPT commitment to negotiate in good faith toward nuclear disarmament. So President Obama's commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons is an essential prerequisite to obtaining agreement with measures to head off the dangerous situation posited by El Baradei.   

But is global zero feasible? The possibility appears remote, since states could conceal weapons that cannot be detected with currently available technology. However, President Obama's pledge was not irresponsible. He stated that the goal "will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime," and he pledged that "the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective" nuclear deterrent so long as other nations possess nuclear weapons.

Former Senator Sam Nunn, co-chair and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, has provided an apt analogy: working toward global zero is like facing a mountain covered at the top by a cloud, so we don't know if we can make it all the way up. Yet it's important to start the climb by obtaining prompt agreement on measures to prevent nuclear proliferation. Effective action to do so depends on compliance by the nuclear states with their commitment to negotiate in good faith toward the goal of nuclear disarmament.

US Army Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr., PhD, is Chair at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation. After retiring from the army in 1981, Gard served as director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Center in Bologna, Italy, and as President of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Since 1998, he has been an active consultant in Washington, D.C., on national security issues.

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