James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

The Bankruptcy of Nonproliferation

by James G. Beldock on May 19, 2008

I gen­er­al­ly try to stay away from books that will give me night­mares. With the ex­cep­tion of The Hot Zone (Richard Preston‘s book about the hor­ri­fy­ing emer­gent Ebola virus) and The Andromeda Strain (Michael Chrichton at his ear­ly best, and the sub­ject of a cool-look­ing A&E minis­eries com­ing lat­er this mon­th, it­self a re­make of the mere­ly medioc­re 1971 movie), few books have re­al­ly caught my at­ten­tion in the pro­found, vis­cer­al way William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar did. But un­like those oth­er works, Langewiesche doesn’t try to be fright­en­ing, and per­haps it is there­fore his mat­ter-of-fact calm­ness which makes the in­for­ma­tion he presents all the more ter­ri­fy­ing.

One needn’t spend much time brows­ing in The Bazaar be­fore you re­al­ize: the prover­bial cat is out of the bag. He is not the first to re­port that the knowl­edge of how to con­struct a nu­clear weapon is no longer par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to come by. (You may not quite be able to down­load the plans off the Internet, but the ba­sic “gun” mod­el used in the Little Boy (Hiroshima) bomb is fair­ly easy to con­struct from the right amount of Uranium 235.) Thus for a long time, the world has re­lied for its non­pro­lif­er­a­tive in­ten­tions on the dif­fi­cul­ty of ob­tain­ing suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties of weapons-grade U235 (loose­ly de­fined as ura­ni­um whose 235 iso­tope is present at >90% by mass). Building cen­trifuges re­quires far more en­gi­neer­ing and ma­chin­ing ex­per­tise than does build­ing the ac­tu­al bomb, and Western non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts (and the IAEA‘s ef­forts) have thus fo­cused on nip­ping the process in the ma­te­ri­als pro­duc­tion bud.

Blame it on the leaky Russians (Langewiesche con­vinces us that they had lit­tle, if any­thing to do with nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion) or the in­cred­i­bly trust­ing Dutch, who ini­tial­ly hired A. Q. Kahn and lat­er let him waltz out of the coun­try with the plans for what are still con­sid­ered state-of-the-art ura­ni­um cen­trifuges (state-of-the-non-clas­si­fied-art, I should say), or the Pakistan gov­ern­ment, which first propped up Kahn and which lat­er bowed to US pres­sure to ar­rest him—and then prompt­ly locked him away un­der house ar­rest so that no Western in­tel­li­gence ser­vices could ask any fur­ther awk­ward ques­tions re­lat­ing to the in­volve­ment of the Pakistani gov­ern­ment itself—but no mat­ter how you slice it, not on­ly has nu­clear knowl­edge pro­lif­er­at­ed, but there­fore so has nu­clear tech­nol­o­gy. The North Koreans, the Iranians and the Libyans now al­so have the know-how (if not the ma­chi­nes, in the case of new­ly-re­formed Libya) to pro­duce sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of weapons-grade ura­ni­um, and of course so do the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Israelis (not of­fi­cial­ly :-), the Germans, the French, the British, the Chinese, the Russians and the US. That’s rough­ly half the world’s pop­u­la­tion (50.6%, to be pre­cise) whose gov­ern­ments are known have ac­cess to nu­clear weapons tech­nol­o­gy. A ma­jor­i­ty.

Thus I con­clude that the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agen­da is bank­rupt. So far as we know, we have kept the­se weapons out of the hands of non-state ac­tors. But such was not the aim of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty! In or­der to cre­ate ef­fec­tive con­trols which might curb the trans­fer of nu­clear tech­nolo­gies to non-state ac­tors, we’ll have to start by iden­ti­fy­ing what didn’t work in the NPT—for starters, the overt in­equity be­tween the na­tions per­mit­ted to main­tain such weapons (name­ly the per­ma­nent mem­bers of the UN Security Council) and those not per­mit­ted to do so. The NPT cre­at­ed sec­ond-class cit­i­zens of half the world. Any sur­prise the world didn’t abide by the treaty? It’s Versaille all over again: a Phyrric vic­to­ry of an asym­met­ric treaty over geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ty.

So much for sleep­ing tonight.

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