How to slow the spread of the bomb
New pressures from the Third World are straining non-proliferation efforts.
The world may be teetering on the edge of a worrisome new phase in the sixty-year-old age of atomic weapons.Skip to next paragraph
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North Korea now has the bomb, probably. Iran may seek nuclear devices of its own. India's stockpile of weapons-grade fissile material could soon grow larger - thanks to a controversial new treaty with the US.
Meanwhile, efforts to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have stagnated. Last year's NPT review conference fell apart amid international bickering.
Will nukes now become must-haves for more nations? Asked for their worst-case scenario, experts say there could be 10 new members of the nuclear club by 2015.
"There's an urgent need to take more drastic measures" to prevent the spread of atomic weapons and technology, said Nobuaki Tanaka, UN Under-Secretary- General for Disarmament Affairs, at a conference in Washington last week.
First, the good news: Viewed through the long lens of history, the globe's struggle to control the genie of nuclear weapons might be judged remarkably successful, so far.
The number of nations with a nuclear arsenal, officially at seven, is far smaller than US intelligence reports of the 1960s predicted it would be. Most important, no atomic weapon has been detonated in anger since the US dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in 1945.
This non-use wasn't foreordained. Back in the early 1960s, when ads for bomb shelters were a common sight, many experts thought it was only a matter of time until someone dropped a bomb.
Back then, Harvard University asked strategic theorist Thomas Schelling to serve on a committee to identify university buildings that might serve as fallout shelters - and who might be admitted to them in a time of crisis.
"If I had said, 'Oh, come on, nobody is going to use nuclear weapons for the next 40 years,' everybody would have thought I was out of my mind," said Mr. Schelling at a March Council on Foreign Relations meeting in New York.
Schelling, now a professor at the University of Maryland, considers nuclear non-use such a remarkable development that he made it the theme of his acceptance address before the Swedish Academy when he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005.
Now, the bad news: Events in recent years may have begun to undermine the taboo against nuclear use. At the least, the world faces the prospect of a new wave of nuclear proliferation. And that could roil some of the globe's most unstable regions.
"Over the last decade, there has been a serious and dangerous loss of momentum and direction in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts," concluded a Swedish-financed international commission in a lengthy report released last week.
This effort, headed by former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, laid part of the blame for this decay on US unilateralism, shown through such actions as Washington's refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But other experts point to a wide array of causes. According to UN Under-Secretary-General Tanaka, India's surprise nuclear tests in 1998 accelerated the South Asian arms race. Then came North Korea, and the hermit kingdom's determined - and clandestine - efforts to produce atomic arms.
Iran's nuclear activities may have further undermined confidence in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the general world non-proliferation regime. The extent of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's illicit trafficking in weapon plans shocked much of the world.
Then there is the apparent disinclination of big nuclear powers to give up their weapons, or at least make significant moves toward disarmament, Tanaka says.