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NUCLEAR WEAPONS Editorial Briefing with Robert Nelson

Author: Robert Nelson, MacArthur Science and Technology Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
October 14, 2003
A Century Foundation / Council on Foreign Relations


Robert Nelson, a Princeton University astrophysicist and the Council's MacArthur Science and Technology Fellow, participated in a Council-sponsored conference call on October 14, 2003, to brief editorial-page writers and editors at U.S. newspapers. The topics: Iran, North Korea, and nuclear nonproliferation. Following is an edited transcript of the call.

Please give us a brief summary of the current major issues related to nonproliferation.

Let me start with four themes or points I want to emphasize today. The first is that, despite all the trouble we're seeing now, the nuclear nonproliferation regime, as embodied in the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT], has been remarkably successful. President [John F.] Kennedy worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, speculating that by 1980 there would be more than 15 to 20 nuclear powers. But, in fact, since the NPT came into force in 1970, there have only been three--possibly four, depending on how you count--new nuclear powers: Israel, Pakistan, and India. And Israel and Pakistan became nuclear powers, to a large extent, with the cooperation of the West. South Africa, [the "fourth" nuclear power] actually gave up its nuclear capabilities when the new [post-apartheid] regime came to power.

That said, what is clearly happening is that the technical barriers that formerly prevented less developed countries from acquiring nuclear weapons are coming down. There really are no secrets to producing a nuclear weapon. There are just engineering challenges and having access to sophisticated equipment and materials. The technology to reprocess plutonium and enriched uranium has been known since the 1950s. Essentially, any state with a commitment and financial resources can, over time, acquire nuclear weapons. That's what we've seen in Iran and North Korea. But I think it's still not possible for a terrorist group to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The second point I would make, is that what we are currently seeing in North Korea and Iran highlights the real weaknesses in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After all, North Korea has now explicitly withdrawn from the treaty, after having violated it. Iran developed a nuclear program while maintaining its legal membership as a non-nuclear state. It could easily withdraw from the treaty and quickly become a nuclear power. That's an issue we need to look at. How do we strengthen the nonproliferation regime to prevent countries from getting all the way up to nuclear weapon potential, and then suddenly withdrawing?

My third point is that the U.S. needs to play a leadership role in organizing international responses to these challenges. We need the help of Europe, Russia, and China if we're going to contain North Korea, Iran, and other countries. Now, there are still some people, I suppose, in the administration who think that treaties like the NPT are useless. But it's clear that, for example, unilateral attacks aren't going to work in this case. Iran and North Korea have been very careful to spread their nuclear facilities out, and put them in buried facilities. So you can't simply bomb them like the Israelis did [Iraq's] Osirak reactor in 1981. It's also clear that interdiction won't work. The amount of plutonium necessary to produce a single nuclear weapon is only eight kilograms. There's just no way that we could prevent the export of plutonium from North Korea, for example. What we need is to find ways, as an international community, to enforce sanctions if necessary and to strengthen the role of the IAEA [the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency] to make inspection regimes more transparent.

And, finally, I would say this discussion is bringing out certain inequalities in the nonproliferation treaty. After all, it recognizes two types of states: the five nuclear powers that tested their nuclear weapons prior to 1967 [China, France, Great Britain, the then-Soviet Union, and the United States], and everybody else. The nuclear powers have not all lived up to their commitments under the NPT, either. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, for example, the U.S. committed to ratifying the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], to maintaining the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty. That's all gone away with the new administration. At the same time, we've given a wink-wink to both Israel and Pakistan in developing their own nuclear programs. And in my opinion, it's no longer possible to have a discussion about preventing proliferation in the Middle East without bringing up those two programs--in particular, Israel's nuclear weapons.

Are the Iranians telling the truth when they say they are not acquiring a nuclear weapon, and are the North Koreans telling the truth when they say they are?

I think the Iranians are not telling the truth. I have met with physicists from the Iranian nuclear program who are working on projects--for example, laser isotope separation--which have really only one purpose. Although they deny that's what they're doing, it's pretty obvious. One issue that came up in the last several months is the origin of the highly enriched uranium [HEU] that was detected by the IAEA at two facilities within Iran. The IAEA claims that material could only have been made for a weapons program. Iran claims that it came from contaminated equipment, from the source of the centrifuges [at the facilities]. That is a possibility, but given all the other evidence that they're working for a real nuclear weapons program, I don't believe it. Even if it was true, you have to ask, where did they get that equipment? Probably Pakistan, for example. But the real concern is that the highly enriched uranium was produced at yet another unknown site within Iran that we don't know about.

In the case of North Korea, there's been a lot of misinformation. Prior to last January, all we really knew was that there was the possibility that North Korea could have produced, in its small, five-megawatt reactor, enough plutonium to produce one or two bombs. That does not at all imply that they possess those bombs, that they were actually able to separate that material. It's only that the reactor was on line that long. Since then, we do know that they had enough fuel in the spent fuel [storage] pools to make roughly five or six weapons. Those rods have now been removed [from storage], after the North Koreans kicked out the IAEA [inspectors in December]. It is possible that they have reprocessed that material. We simply don't know. And we don't know if they have the capability to actually use that material in a working nuclear weapon.

Have you got an opinion about whether the North Koreans have done so?

Certainly, with enough time, they can do it. I just don't know if they have accomplished it in the last nine months.

Does the fact that the North Koreans have not tested a nuclear device indicate that this is a lot of bluffing on their part?

I would guess that is true. Now, they have been undergoing some chemical explosive tests that you would need in order to detonate the initial chemical explosion that starts the implosion of the fissile material. That would be needed in order to test an actual device. But, as you say, they haven't actually tested a nuclear weapon. It's not impossible to build a working nuclear weapon without testing. We actually did it for the Hiroshima bomb [the United States dropped on August 6, 1945]. This would be more challenging, and leads one to believe that they haven't actually arrived there. But for all intents and purposes, we don't know if they have a working nuclear weapon.

Could North Korea or another country test a weapon without detection?

It's very unlikely. There are some ways to muffle an explosion underground. But you have to go to extraordinary engineering lengths to do that. So, no, I don't think a developing nation could detonate a nuclear weapon and not be detected.

Congress is considering a repeal of the ban on the development, or research into, low-yield nuclear weapons. Do the signs that the United States is moving toward development of new types of tactical nuclear weapons make the task of preventing proliferation more difficult?

I certainly think that's true. Not so much [because it undermines efforts] to convince North Korea or Iran to change their programs, but [because it undermines efforts] to convince Russia, China, and Europe to be partners with us in helping to control these regimes. What Russia and China decide to do, just out of national pride, can be based on how they perceive the U.S. to be working toward its obligations under the NPT.

These weapons are being developed, potentially, to target the arsenals of North Korea, for example, that may be buried underground. Does the development of tactical weapons in fact encourage countries like North Korea to accelerate development of nuclear weapons?

In North Korea in particular, actions like that have made the North Koreans especially paranoid. They have consistently pointed to the 2002 National Security Strategy and the nuclear posture review, where North Korea is specifically named as a target--a potential target--for U.S. nuclear weapons, as reason for it to acquire nuclear deterrents.

The IAEA deadline for Iran to provide detailed information on its nuclear program is the end of the month. Every day it seems as if the Iranians say something different. What do you think is really going on there?

I don't know. I can speculate that the Iranians probably do have a nuclear weapons program. They would like to be able to maintain it, or at least not dismantle it, while staying members in good standing of the NPT. But with enough pressure, I think we can get them to, essentially, open up their country to surprise inspections by the IAEA. If that doesn't happen, I do think that we're going to have a showdown at the U.N. Security Council, if only because the Bush administration is going to make an example of Iran. The IAEA gave Iran a deadline of October 31 to agree to open up its facilities, to sign the so-called extended protocol [to the NPT mandating more intrusive inspections]. If Iran doesn't comply, the IAEA board of governors at its next meeting, on November 20, is likely to vote to report to the Security Council that Iran is in material breach of the NPT.

But even if the Iranians sign the protocol, that doesn't guarantee they won&'t develop nuclear weapons.

Yes. That's one of the weaknesses of the NPT that has to be strengthened. We need them to actually dismantle the parts of their program that are clearly oriented toward producing weapons-grade plutonium.

A devil's advocate might say that North Korea and Iran show the NPT nonproliferation regime is losing its effectiveness and that it may be a little naïve to think that, with some tweaking of nonproliferation measures, we can deal with rogue regimes determined to develop their own programs.

It is up to the people who would like to ignore the NPT as the primary mechanism for preventing proliferation to propose a solution that will be at least as effective. What I know will not be effective is pre-emptive strikes. What I know will not be effective is interdiction. That said, I agree that developments in North Korea and Iran clearly point to weaknesses in the treaty. We need to be able to maintain more intrusive inspections into both of these countries. Prior to December of 2002 [when North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors], we were at least preventing the North Koreans from processing the 8,000 fuel rods that were under IAEA control at the Pyongyang [nuclear] facility. Now, we still had questions about their earlier work. But after they kicked out the IAEA, they've been completely free to develop their own weapons. It's only been after they were out from under the safeguards that they've been free to do that. And it's only been because of the inspections in Iran that the Iranians are now being called on the carpet, because the IAEA detected this enriched uranium. What we need is more transparency, more inspections, and a willingness on the part of the international community to impose harsh economic sanctions, if necessary.

What's the basis for your belief that terrorist groups will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons by themselves?

What I meant was that they could not, by themselves, produce the fissile material, either the plutonium or the highly enriched uranium. Both materials require a very sophisticated industrial base. In the case of plutonium, it's manufacturing it in a nuclear reactor and reprocessing it. In the case of highly enriched uranium, it's maintaining thousands of centrifuges to separate one isotope of uranium from another. That said, if terrorists ever got hold of highly enriched uranium, it would be quite feasible for them to actually produce a weapon. The safeguard is lack of access to the material itself. With highly enriched uranium, essentially, all you have to do is bring two subcritical pieces of HEU together very quickly, and it will produce a nuclear yield.

If it takes only eight kilograms of plutonium to make a weapon, and if Russian nuclear facilities are as insecurely monitored as the newspaper reports say they are, it seems that it wouldn't be that difficult for a terrorist organization to get access to fissile material.

That's a continuing concern. A lot of people I work with spend their lives trying to improve the security of these materials in Russia. The situation is much better than it was in 1992-93, when, literally, many of these materials were protected only by a padlock and a guard. Since then, partly through the cooperative threat-reduction programs funded by the U.S., the material in Russia is under better security than it has been, although improvements still have far to go. But I would say that the real concern is the possibility that the North Koreans might decide to sell their plutonium to the highest bidder. That is a frightening possibility and, although I don't think they'd do it, they certainly have a track record of being willing to sell just about anything else.

How much HEU would a terror group need to make a weapon, and what kind of technical expertise would it require?

The official Department of Energy number for how much is necessary is about 25 kilograms--about 60 pounds--of highly enriched uranium. That's uranium that's been enriched to 80 percent or 90 percent of uranium-235. And although the actual number, the speed at which the two pieces are brought together, is classified, it's pretty clear that you could almost take two half-hemispheres of uranium and bang them together in your hands and produce a nuclear yield.