Urgency, Opportunity Exist for Controlling Nuclear Proliferation

By David A. Kay and Jay C. Davis. David A. Kay, a. political scientist, is secretary general of the Uranium Institute in London. Jay C. Davis is a nuclear physicist and directs the Center Laboratory. The views expressed are their own. | The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1993 | Go to article overview

Urgency, Opportunity Exist for Controlling Nuclear Proliferation


David A. Kay and Jay C. Davis. David A. Kay, a. political scientist, is secretary general of the Uranium Institute in London. Jay C. Davis is a nuclear physicist and directs the Center Laboratory. The views expressed are their own., The Christian Science Monitor


THE world today is facing unprecedented challenges to the effort to control nuclear weapons, and the danger that some desperate state, ethnic group, or terrorist may find both the will and the means to launch a nuclear attack has increased alarmingly.

The situation faced today no longer fits the paradigms of the past. Nuclear threats have arisen in unexpected quarters, as we have learned in Iraq. The breakup of the Soviet Union relieved superpower confrontation but has made nuclear materials, information, and possibly weapons from the Soviet arsenal much more difficult to control.

A second major cause of alarm is revelations from Iraq, where a large, sophisticated, yet clandestine effort to build nuclear weapons was found to have made remarkable progress. The discovery has brought the realization of how easy it can be for a determined nation to evade export controls on nuclear technology and conceal its nuclear industrial complex from ordinary intelligence efforts.

At nearly the same time, we are presented with a historic opportunity to keep the nuclear genie bottled. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will undergo a mandatory review in 1995, and those of us who have been directly involved in the safeguards and arms-control process and the inspection of Iraqi facilities see an urgent need to reexamine what we have accepted as nuclear truisms in the past if the danger of increased numbers of nuclear-armed states is to be avoided in the future. The experience in Iraq was especially sobering in this regard.

Our national intelligence services and the International Atomic Energy Association, which maintains a large inspection program, failed to detect an effort on the scale of the United States Manhattan Project.

We do know that at least part of the reason we failed to detect Iraq's program was that we were suffering from tunnel vision - we were looking for the wrong technology. We assumed that others would develop nuclear weapons by the same methods that US and Soviet defense programs employed, leading us to overlook the electromagnetic uranium separation technology that Iraq invested in. This may not be an economical or even rational approach, but we also misjudged the motivation that could drive a nation to attempt a nuclear program despite its costs.

Happily, the US and former Soviet Union have abandoned the nuclear weapons that are most likely to actually be used in war - that is, tactical weapons such as short range missiles and artillery shells - at a rate unprecedented in the history of disarmament.

The Gulf war illustrated clearly that tactical nuclear weapons are not required for effective war fighting. Small nuclear weapons are not needed, for example, to attack hardened bunkers or to take out power grids. Both tasks were accomplished effectively by conventional methods. As the Gulf war amply showed, the key problem yet to be fully solved is identifying the target, not destroying it.

SOON only a strategic deterrent capability to destroy major urban areas or industrial complexes will remain in active arsenals of the declared nuclear-armed states. This change carries with it significant, but largely unnoticed, political and technical consequences. A democratic nation would be extremely reluctant to use such weapons to accomplish limited goals against an ill-defined threat, which makes their use highly improbable. Technically, our most modern weapons are not required to maintain this deterrent. Single stage fission weapons of late 1950-1960 design vintages will suffice, and, incidentally, the safety and reliability of these weapons can be readily verified without continuous nuclear testing. …

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