Control of Nuclear Weapons
In late 1945, just four months after the explosion of the two nuclear
weapons over Japan,
the U.S., the U.K.
jointly called for international control, under effective safeguards and
through the UN, of both military and peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
However, even at that early stage, they recognized that:
"no system of safeguards will of itself provide an
effective guarantee against the production of atomic* weapons, or of new
methods of warfare".
* In these early days, and for many years subsequently, common usage was
"atomic bombs" and "atomic energy". From a scientific
standpoint, these are misnomers since atomic energy is the energy released from
the interaction of atoms, e.g., conventional combustion, and the new discovery
related to energy released when atomic nuclei are split, i.e., nuclear fission
(Chapter 1). Nowadays the common usage is
"nuclear energy", but "atomic" persists in the names of
some organizations, e.g., Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and the International
Atomic Energy Agency.
Unfortunately, an inability to reach agreement with the U.S.S.R. resulted in
a stalemate in efforts to achieve international control from the outset.
then adopted a policy of strict secrecy and non-cooperation with all other
countries including its former wartime allies, confident in the belief that its
monopoly on nuclear-weapons technology was secure. The fallacy in this policy
was demonstrated dramatically in 1949 when the U.S.S.R. exploded its first
nuclear bomb. The U.K.
followed suit in 1952 and 1959, respectively. It was then still possible to
believe that only major powers with a strong technological infrastructure (or a
brilliant espionage system) could develop a nuclear-weapons capability. This
comforting illusion was shattered by China's
explosions in 1964 and 1974, respectively. Once something has been shown to be
possible it is only a question of time until others possess the capability: an
invention once invented cannot be uninvented. Secrecy can delay but not prevent
the spread of a technology.
With the failure of secrecy, the U.S.
policy pendulum swung in the opposite direction resulting in President Eisenhower's
1953 "Atoms for Peace" program. In a move consistent with other U.S.
foreign-aid programs of that period, the U.S.
made available vast amounts of nuclear science, technology, know-how, training
and materials to those countries that would agree to restrict the application
to peaceful purposes. Other countries with expertise relevant to peaceful
nuclear energy, including Canada,
the U.K., France
and the U.S.S.R., joined the U.S.
in setting up an institutional structure to achieve this objective under UN aegis.
The initial means for releasing the large volume of hitherto secret information
was a major international conference sponsored by the UN, held at Geneva
in 1955. Subsequent UN-sponsored "Geneva Conferences on the Peaceful Uses
of Atomic Energy" were held in 1958, 1964 and 1971.
In 1957 the UN founded the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to
administer all aspects of the international collaboration to promote the
peaceful applications of nuclear energy. The IAEA is an autonomous agency
reporting to the UN General Assembly and, when necessary, to the Security
Council. To deter diversion of the technology and materials to military
applications the IAEA introduced a system of "safeguards"
to be discussed later. However, it recognized from the start that these
safeguards alone could not prevent diversion but could only detect it if it
occurred and hence act as a deterrent.
The founding of the IAEA again acknowledged the essential duality of nuclear
energy with its capacity for both military and peaceful applications. If one
ignores the peaceful applications, the control of nuclear weapons presents a
problem little different from that of controlling any other weapon system,
including chemical and biological weapons. Inclusion of the peaceful
applications opens up the possibility of a bargain whereby a country could
acquire the peaceful benefits if it would forego the military applications. As
part of the bargain the country agrees to accept international inspection of
its nuclear installations, a step without parallel in attempts to control other
weapon systems. Once assistance is accepted, and unless the country achieves a
completely independent nuclear industry, its own domestic energy supply becomes
a hostage to observance of its undertaking to forego military applications. The
possibility of an embargo on nuclear aid, fuel and other supplies, with a
resulting shutdown of nuclear-electric generating plants, or of an even broader
trade embargo, is a powerful deterrrent against breaking the undertaking.
The system of safeguards introduced and operated by the IAEA during the
1960s had its weaknesses. The next step in the evolutionary process was the
UN's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came
into force in 1970. This treaty requires that the Big Five negotiate in good
faith toward the cessation of the nuclear arms race, toward nuclear disarmament
and the goal of complete disarmament; that they do not furnish nuclear weapons
to countries without them; and that they assist the non-nuclear-weapons
countries in the peaceful development of nuclear energy. In return, a
non-nuclear-weapons country agrees not to acquire nuclear weapons or any other
nuclear explosive device; and to accept IAEA safeguards
with their associated inspections, for all relevant facilities within its
territory, under its jurisdiction or carried out under its control anywhere.
The NPT had overcome some of the deficiencies of the earlier arrangements,
but it was not perfect. Indeed, no technical or institutional procedures can
ever guarantee that nuclear weapons will remain restricted to those countries
that already have them, or that those countries will reduce their stocks if
that is contrary to their national interests. The NPT is supported by most of
the world's countries, with 187 signatories, but there are still several
countries with important nuclear programs that have not signed it. Some of
these countries nevertheless accept IAEA safeguards and inspections: France,
though not a party to it, has stated that it will behave as though it were one.
In the 40 years of its existence the NPT has gone through several
evolutionary revisions in the light of experience, including that in South
Africa and Iraq,
and changing conditions. More recently, a Strengthened Safeguards System was
introduced in 1997, and an Additional Protocol had been signed by 45 countries
in 2000. The objective of these revisions is to improve the effectiveness and
efficiency of the IAEA's operation of the NPT, by giving the IAEA greater
access to national sites and information potentially relevant to its mandate
and by eliminating some duplication of effort.
The fact that South Africa,
and possibly others, have been able to develop nuclear weapons clandestinely is
no criticism of the NPT since none of these countries had signed it, presumably
for reasons of their own national security. Far from being a reason to abandon
the NPT this experience argues in favour of international efforts to extend it
to as many countries as possible. This can be achieved only by political
actions that recognize legitimate needs for assurances of national security in
regions of historic hostility.
The situations in Iran
and North Korea
illustrate how the proliferation of nuclear weapons may be controlled. Iran
is known to be developing uranium-enrichment technology, claiming it to be used
for peaceful nuclear energy, not weapons. North
Korea has operated a nuclear reactor for
years and there is concern that it has separated the resulting plutonium for
nuclear weapons. For both, long-standing regional hostilities provided a
possible motive for acquiring nuclear weapons.
The UN's IAEA is attempting to resolve these issues through a
carrot-and-stick approach. One carrot is an offer of assistance in implementing
a peaceful nuclear program under the current NPT that allows for comprehensive
safeguards and inspections. For Iran,
the U.S. and
some European nuclear suppliers are involved in the discussions: for North
and South Korea
are involved. One stick is the memory of the U.S.'s
actions against Iraq
when it believed that that country still had nuclear weapons. Some argue that
has vast resources of oil it has no need for nuclear energy, and so its purpose
must be the acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, using nuclear energy to
release valuable oil for export, as Canada
does, makes economic sense. These examples show that controlling proliferation
is essentially a political process, but that peaceful nuclear energy can be one
of the means to achieve it. The prolonged failure of the “Big Five”
countries to agree on how to deal with Iran
and North Korea
demonstrates that diplomacy and even realpolitik must be involved in the
control of nuclear weapons.
While refusal to sign the NPT may give rise to suspicion over the country's
intentions it must be realized that there is widespread criticism of the NPT,
even among those that have signed it and particularly among Third
World countries, for unduly favouring the Big Five. At NPT Review
Conferences there have been accusations of an East-West conspiracy to deny
development opportunities to the Third World and that
the Big Five were not living up to their commitments. Some progress has been
achieved: there is now an agreement to cease testing of nuclear weapons and
since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. the U.S.
and Russia have
reached agreement on reducing their stocks of nuclear weapons. However, about
30,000 still remain and, with the highly competitive commercialization of
nuclear energy, the value of technological aid to developing countries,
promised under the NPT, has diminished. Thus the technical aspects of the NPT
have become more means to enforce an international agreement to provide
national security than an incentive to forego the production of nuclear
weapons. The overwhelming international support for the NPT demonstrates that
it is considered the best approach to preventing the use of nuclear weapons.
Imperfect as it may be, one has only to imagine a world without it to
appreciate the need to maintain and improve it.