Despite a 6-fold reduction in the number of nuclear weapons worldwide, the proliferation of atomic technologies remains a major threat
The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize last week was awarded to The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an organization that played a role in the United Nations’ adoption in July of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the first legally binding international agreement to call for a ban on atomic arms with the ultimate goal of their complete elimination.
To date, the eight states known to have conducted atomic tests and are therefore part of the global “nuclear club” are the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
The first five, which are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, are considered to be “nuclear-weapon states” under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came into force in 1970 with a view towards preventing the spread of atomic technologies.
Since then, three other members have joined the “club,” albeit none of them were parties to the NPT at the time of their designated nuclearization. Additionally, Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons despite its policy of maintaining ambiguity on the matter, while South Africa and Kazakhstan voluntarily relinquished their atomic arsenals.
According to Dr. Tytti Erästö, a researcher on nuclear weapons and proliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “the NPT has worked very well in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries…. The treaty has near-universal membership—something that was not anticipated during the Cold War when it was estimated that many more states would choose to get nuclear weapons.”
Dr. Emily Landau, the head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, agrees that at the normative level, the NPT has had a positive impact by strengthening the idea that nuclear weapons are destabilizing. “On the other hand,” she explained to The Media Line, “the Treaty was created in a specific international atmosphere to prevent states such as Sweden, Canada, Japan and Germany from crossing the nuclear threshold. The expectation was that if these states joined the collective security regime, everything would be ok.”
Geopolitical realities have changed, however, and in Dr. Landau’s estimation “it has become apparent that the NPT is poorly equipped to deal with past violators such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and even more so presently with Iran and North Korea.” She believes that for now, the TPNW remains a “pipe dream,” and thus “energies would be better spent focusing on the real problem nations—the proliferators—rather than going through the motions of forging grandiose treaties.”
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded by professors who developed the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, estimates the number of nuclear arms worldwide at 9,220, down from a peak of more than 64,000 in 1986. Nevertheless, the organization’s internationally-recognized Doomsday Clock remains set at two and a half minutes to midnight, as “The probability of global catastrophe [from nuclear confrontation] is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”
That the potential for nuclear confrontation and proliferation remains a significant threat is a reality that applies equally in the Middle East.
During Saudi King Salman’s visit to Moscow this month, a “program of cooperation” agreement was signed between Rosatom, a state-owned Russian atomic energy company, and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, with the goal of further developing Riyadh’s ostensibly civilian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia plans to build as many as 16 atomic reactors over the next two decades and has also warned that it will seek to match the nuclear capabilities Iran was allowed to maintain as part of the comprehensive accord Tehran reached with world powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to build “a whole new nuclear power industry” in Egypt, with the two countries set to begin work on a plant in El-Dabaa, with Moscow providing staff and scientific research. Cairo hopes to generate more than 50% of its electricity from nuclear sources by 2050.
For their part, both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are ahead of the curve. Ankara has already broken ground on its first atomic site in Akkuyu, with major construction by Rosatom scheduled to start in March. The UAE, meanwhile, has a $20b. contract with a South Korean consortium to finish four nuclear reactors at Barakah by 2020, the first of which is slated to come online later this year.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), which represents the global atomic industry, Qatar, Kuwait, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan are all, to various degrees, pursuing civilian nuclear programs. Notably, the countries are all majority Sunni Muslim and may be launching their own nuclear projects as a counter-measure to Shi’ite Iran’s potential nuclearization.
In a statement provided to The Media Line, the WNA instead contended that the programs are meant “to help meet the growing energy demands of citizens and industries, while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.” The organization emphasized that many of these Middle East nations are signatories to the NPT and “have safeguard agreements in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” which include “verification measures [such as] on-site inspections, visits, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation.”
Nevertheless, both Dr. Erästö and Dr. Landau conveyed to The Media Line that many of the technologies in question are, in fact, dual-use, meaning they can be applied to legitimate and illegitimate activities. Landau stressed that “all of the proliferators have gone the route of using a civilian nuclear program as a cover for an eventual military one.”
The Nobel Peace Prize committee has bestowed its honor eight times on either people or groups promoting a nuclear-free world. It is both a testament to the importance—and potentially calamitous nature—of the issue, as well as to the associated complexities, which, to date, have prevented the actualization of this momentous endeavor.
One can only hope that the ninth time will be a charm; that is, only if bestowed before the clock strikes midnight.