Experts suggest steps to limit spread of nukes

The nine nations that possess nuclear weapons have enough plutonium and high-enriched uranium collectively to build more than 100,000 additional nuclear weapons, according to a new report aimed at controlling the spread of such weapons and the materials to make them.

This considerable surplus of nuclear-explosive, or fissile, materials threatens global security, as other nations or terrorists seek the means to build nuclear weapons. “Despite a compelling security requirement to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists and additional countries,” the report warns, “not nearly enough is being done today to achieve this objective.”

A group of 23 nuclear experts, convened by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security (PS&GS), issued the report, “Preventing Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism: Essential Steps to Reduce the Availability of Nuclear-Explosive Materials.”

The report details which nations currently have the means to produce nuclear weapons and how much fissile material they possess. “This distribution of fissile material defines the critical tasks facing the international community,” the report states. It calls for nations to cooperate on seven steps.

At the top of the report’s “to-do list for the international community” is closing what some see as a gaping loophole in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the ability of a nation to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities and then withdraw from the treaty without penalty. So the report first proposes that the United Nations Security Council establish sanctions to impose against any country that withdraws from the treaty and attempts to build weapons using fissile materials and facilities obtained under the treaty for ostensibly peaceful purposes.

The treaty, which has been in effect since 1970, will undergo its seventh five-year review by more than 180 member states from May 2 to 27 in New York. The report, issued in time for this review, recommends six more steps for consideration by the conference delegates and other nuclear nonproliferation specialists:

* “strengthen international physical security standards;

* “stop the uncontrolled spread of uranium enrichment plants,” and “subject all enrichment plants to an * extra layer of multinational monitoring;”

* declare a moratorium on building new plants to reprocess spent nuclear fuel that could be diverted to weapons production;

* “conclude a verified global treaty ending all further production of fissile materials for weapons;

* “dispose of much more of the excess fissile materials recovered from dismantled Cold War weapons; and

* “phase out the use of high-enriched uranium (HEU) as a reactor fuel,” in favor of low-enriched uranium, which cannot be made into nuclear weapons without further enrichment.

Some of the study group’s recommendations “have been on the international agenda for decades,” the report points out, but “most are barely moving forward, if not completely stalled. These measures urgently need high-level attention.”

“All of the report’s proposals focus on weapons-usable fissile materials—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—because they are the essential materials for nuclear weapons,” said CISAC Co-Director Christopher Chyba, who led the study with PS&GS Co-Directors Harold Feiveson and Frank von Hippel. “They and the technologies to produce them must be much more strictly controlled if further nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are to be prevented. The report lays out a series of steps to do so,” Chyba added.

The researchers intended to strengthen similar proposals under discussion. The report “gives technical details and support to policy ideas on the control of nuclear explosive materials and their means of production that Mohamed ElBaradei (director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency) and others have been forwarding,” explained Feiveson.

While the report emphasizes physical security measures geared toward reducing the supply of nuclear weapons materials, its authors acknowledge that “demand-side measures” are “equally important.” A comprehensive strategy to halt nuclear proliferation must also “address the reasons that certain states choose to pursue nuclear weapons,” the report states.

The research group of scientists, political scientists and international legal experts from leading research and regulatory institutions met at Stanford in August 2003 to begin their assessment of the global stock of nuclear weapons and the nuclear-explosive materials needed to make them and to outline a plan for limiting the spread of these materials. They continued to refine their recommendations, to produce their report in time for this year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty review.

The full text of the report is available at http://cisac.stanford.edu/publications/20855/ and also is scheduled to be posted at http://www.princeton.edu/~globsec.