The Abolition of Nuclear Weapons: Possibilities and Practicalities

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Ron Smith suggests that abandonment of nuclear deterrence might not necessarily have favourable consequences.

There have been persistent calls for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction since the first use of such weapons in 1945. As early as January 1946, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to this effect. In recent times the chorus has been very loud, particularly in New Zealand and Australia. Two questions will be raised in relation to this world-wide clamour for the abolition of nuclear weapons, both of which are more complex than they appear. The first is `how possible would it be to eliminate or abolish such weapons and what would it (could it) mean?' Despite an apparent consensus on the matter, the second question is `should we want to do it, anyway?'

The most obvious interpretation of the call for the abolition of nuclear weapons is that it would entail a state of affairs in which all existing nuclear-weapon-stocks were destroyed and no more such weapons would be made. Who would be affected by this? Present nuclear-weapons states include: the United States, Russia, Belarus (until the end of the year), United Kingdom, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, with some continuing suspicions about North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and possibly Libya and Algeria. How likely is it that all these parties can be persuaded to give up their nuclear arsenals anytime soon? I am assuming that an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons would have to be universal. Given the problems the International Atomic Energy Authority has had in Iraq and the recent compliance difficulties with North Korea, there is plenty of room to doubt whether a satisfactory compliance regime could be established. To take just one example, what are the chances that India, Pakistan, and (to complete the triangle) China would agree to give up their nuclear weapons and accept the requisite degree of monitoring and surveillance? It is hard to resist the conclusion that under present conditions they are slight.

The prestigious Pugwash organisation, in a report published in July 1995, is more optimistic. The abolition of nuclear weapons is considered to be both `desirable and feasible', though it is accepted that the process might need twenty to thirty years to complete.(1) As well as for the dismantling of weapons, disposing of nuclear materials, and the establishment of verification procedures, the time would be required for a programme of public education.

Potential danger

But the nuclear disarmament of present (actual) nuclear-weapons states may not be the biggest difficulty in realising a project to abolish nuclear weapons. Parties which have fissile material and technological know-how can make nuclear weapons very easily, whether or not they have had them before, and the lead time for this process is getting shorter as the years go by. These parties are virtual nuclear-weapons states. Early next century, this lead time will be so short that any such states that got involved in a serious war could introduce nuclear weapons. In this potential sense, nuclear weapons cannot be abolished, unless all nuclear power stations worldwide are subject to regular inspection and audit to make sure that nuclear-weapons material is not being made, or only reactors that cannot breed nuclear material are allowed, or nuclear power generation itself is outlawed.

The agreements implied here are unlikely to be accepted and would be extremely difficult (and fiendishly expensive) to verify. Even Pugwash seems to accept this point: `because [nuclear] weapons could be produced anew, even after being abolished, lasting safety can prevail only when war itself has been abolished.' On the other hand, the possibility of virtual nuclear capability may (at some time) enable some present actual nuclear-weapons states to renounce actual nuclear arsenals in favour of virtual ones. It may be a long time, though, before such an arrangement is seen to offer a comparable degree of security. …