The Nuclear Disarmament Chimera: Ron Smith Discusses the Prospects of Achieving Progress in Nuclear Disarmament at the Start of the New Millennium

By Smith, Ron | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Nuclear Disarmament Chimera: Ron Smith Discusses the Prospects of Achieving Progress in Nuclear Disarmament at the Start of the New Millennium


Smith, Ron, New Zealand International Review


Nuclear disarmament is at the top of the New Zealand security agenda. We are active through the government and through numerous peace and disarmament groups in virtually every international forum that debates this issue, whether official or unofficial. The New Zealand government makes a significant contribution to the deliberations of the UN Conference on Disarmament and in discussions surrounding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We are particularly active in an informal grouping of countries that is pressing through the United Nations for an immediate commitment to the total abolition of all nuclear weapons -- the so-called New Agenda Coalition. This is the subject of an annual resolution in the General Assembly that commands substantial support.

Notwithstanding the apparently wide consensus on this matter, it is plausible to argue that the existence of nuclear arsenals in various states around the world actually presents little threat to us in New Zealand. Indeed, they may even bring us security benefits (through nuclear deterrence (1)). Whether or not this is so, the evidence is overwhelming that nuclear weapons will not be eliminated in the near or even medium term and we ought to recognise this. This is partly because the nuclear weapon states themselves see their arsenals as essential to their security. They are thus unlikely to give them up until that perception changes. It is also a consequence of the brute fact that the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons is available and cannot be abolished. For a technologically sophisticated state that has a civilian nuclear industry it only requires the appearance of need and the formation of an intention. For these reasons, prospects for general nuclear disarmament any time soon are not good. This ought not to be a reason for exaggerated regret.

Impossible goal

Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. We know that nuclear weapons can be fabricated and we know (in principle) how it can be done. That knowledge cannot be made to disappear. Even supposing that agreement had been reached to dispose of all existing weapon stocks, destroy fabrication facilities and ban the production of fissile material for nuclear-weapon-making purposes, the weapons would still be (so to speak) waiting in the wings. Their reappearance would only require the perception of need. The other requirements -- a sophisticated level of technology (including appropriate piano and nuclear material -- are likely to be widely available, and certainly in states that have a civilian nuclear industry.

Broadly speaking, any state that has a uranium enrichment facility has the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium to make an atomic bomb of the Hiroshima kind. Of course, under present circumstances almost all such plants would be under the full safeguard surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Authority, which would make such a thing virtually impossible to do without detection. An enrichment plant supplying the needs of the very common light-water reactor will be typically enriching to 3-4 per cent (natural uranium contains 0.7 per cent of the necessary uranium 235). To make weapons grade fissile material the plant would need to produce 90 per cent or better.

In principle there would be two ways to get around this problem. Given a perceived serious deterioration in its security situation, a state could simply end the IAEA surveillance regime and go ahead. It would then be a question of how long it would take to become nuclear capable. There are other variables here, including the time required for actual weapon fabrication and the availability of appropriate delivery systems. Both of these would depend on what provisions had been made in anticipation of the need and on the state of technology at the time.

Grove suspicion

Of course, such an attempt would be virtually impossible to keep secret.

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