Nuclear weapons: Is full disarmament possible?
As world leaders convene in Washington for a summit on halting the spread of nuclear weapons, a global debate is rising on the merits – and feasibility – of total nuclear disarmament.
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For the White House and the gang of four, the basic steps needed to reduce the threat of possible nuclear catastrophe include:Skip to next paragraph
•Reducing current nuclear stockpiles;
•Locking down known fissile material and attendant technology;
•Convincing other nations not to move outside the nonproliferation regime, the central international treaty of the cold war, now widely described as "fraying" or worse.
Those steps have more than rhetorical urgency. In April and May, the White House takes up all three issues in what US officials describe as an effort to create needed momentum and overcome substantial inertia and doubt.
The new START treaty, which was scheduled to be signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on April 8, reduces strategic nuclear warheads by about 40 percent, from 2,700 to 1,550 on each side, and halves the number of launchers. (In the 1980s, the two sides had roughly 20,000 warheads.) It will then need to be ratified by two-thirds of the US Senate.
Trying to build on the START momentum, the White House hopes to forge an agreement to contain plutonium and uranium at the April 12 fissile materials summit in Washington.
"We need to get lots of countries to adopt very strong physical protection measures," says a senior US official. "This would secure and lock down all materials in four years. It is a big ask for us in [dealing with nuclear] smuggling and screening cargo ships. We get the buy-in if we do our part."
Part of the fissile material safeguards discussion may involve a global nuclear fuel bank. It would loan states that want to generate nuclear power the uranium they need to fuel civilian reactors – eliminating the enrichment process that allows them to create weapons-grade material.
In May comes the review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty – the gemstone of disarmament, dating to the 1960s. It sets international standards making it difficult for states to go nuclear, based on a trade-off with existing nuclear states that they will continue to reduce their stockpiles. Yet with North Korea believed to have enough material for several bombs, and with Western intelligence indicating that Iran is further along with its nuclear program than previously assumed, many consider the NPT weak.
"This NPT can be a defining moment, in a positive or negative way," says Corentin Brustlein at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "It can confirm and renew moves toward disarmament and proliferation. Or it can be a moment where it loses its credibility, because no one believes it and states will seek a nuclear option."
How to enforce compliance on NPT is critical. But if the White House can build on the momentum of START, a successful NPT could create international pressure on states that have or want to "break out" of international controls, most notably Iran.
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The road to zero, however, faces a silo of skepticism, inertia, and practical and psychological complexities. Current nuclear security umbrellas provide protection to states like Japan and Poland, which aren't ready to have their safeguards abandoned.
States like India and others see nuclear status as a matter of prestige. China isn't yet ready for disarmament. Smaller states view nuclear weapons as a hedge against large states with hefty conventional armies. Nor are Pentagon strategists dancing in their bunkered hallways about zero nukes.