When it was reported earlier this year that fuel rods were being removed from a nuclear reactor near Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, alarms rang in Washington. Since the spent fuel could be used as a source of plutonium and thus as fuel for nuclear weapons, strategists were worried that the communist nation was diverting it to a clandestine weapons-development program.
Western observers established in May that none of the rods had been diverted, but revelations by a North Korean defector that Pyongyang secretly removed 26 pounds of spent fuel in 1988 have kept North Korea's nuclear activities in the headlines - and heightened concern about whether other countries are pushing ahead with secret weapons-development efforts.
The problem of nuclear proliferation is serious and urgent, as Les Aspin noted in his last days as defense secretary. "First among the chief threats to the United States is a new danger posed by the increased threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction," Aspin said in January. "The old nuclear danger we faced was thousands of warheads in the Soviet Union. The new nuclear danger is perhaps a handful of nuclear devices in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups."
There are, of course, constraints on the spread of nuclear weapons. Aside from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, there are the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear facilities in more than 50 countries, and other controls on suppliers of nuclear materials. Yet, according to Aspin, more than 20 countries - many of them hostile to the United States and its allies - now have, or are developing, nuclear, biological and/or chemical weapons. More than 12 countries have operational ballistic missiles and others have programs to develop them. Such weapons, Aspin noted, could directly threaten U.S. forces in the field and keep them from being used effectively
Nuclear weapons used to be "the equalizer" for the United States against the Soviets' huge superiority of conventional forces in Europe, said Aspin, but things have changed. Today, it is the United States that has unmatched conventional power - but violent regimes and potential adversaries now exist that, if armed with nuclear weapons, could nullify that power. "We're the ones who could wind up being the equalizee," he said.
While some knowledgeable military observers say that there probably will be 30 more nuclear nations in the next two decades, Jon Wolfsthal, a senior analyst with the Arms Control Association, notes that the numbers are unpredictable. "Some say, as if it were a settled thing, that Iran is seven or eight years from having nuclear weapons. That may or may not happen. A sudden, new alliance and new supply source could make it happen sooner; or, just as Taiwan dropped its plans under pressure from the United States, some internal political fact may cause Iran to back off. But one thing is clear: We have to act as though the worst could happen - or else it surely will."
Another observer, recently retired from the State Department's Office of Nuclear Technology and Safeguards, argues that there is nothing to prevent any number of nations from becoming nuclear powers. "Some people have been rattled into thinking a high school physics class could put a bomb together," says Stanley Ifshin. "It's not as easy as that. Just getting the critical materials is quite an undertaking. But for a country to do it is now simple enough to make it very frightening for the rest of us. The main question for any nation with such an ambition is, |What political price will we have to pay? On top of the actual monetary cost - which is in the billions - what trade, financial and other pressures will the Americans and their allies bring to bear on us?' I'm sure a number of nations have thought about starting a nuclear program, put it on hold and finally …