2007 Threat #08 Proliferation Forecast

PDF:  08 Proliferation

THREAT:  Proliferation

Proliferation once referred to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1970, an agreement of the nuclear haves and most have-nots that things should stay just like that. However, there were two other important aspects to NPT – the Treaty overtly agreed that this was an interim arrangement directed towards eventual total nuclear disarmament, and that technologies for peaceful use of nuclear energy were not only permitted but were to be cooperatively shared. The haves were the five nuclear-weapon states defined in the NPT, China, France, Russia, UK, USA, who happened to be also the Big-Five of the Security Council. But disarmament 30 years later is just as distant; the nuclear-weapon states continue to refurbish and maintain nuclear arsenals and the principle of proliferating nuclear technology without the chapters on weaponizing that technology has proven a noble and naïve ideal. During NPT and contrary to it, South Africa built, tested and later disassembled nuclear weapons and several countries, including Brazil and Libya, toyed with the capability and abandoned it. Today, it is an open secret that Israel has nuclear weapons from an unknown source and in an unknown state of readiness, and India and Pakistan have proven their nuclear capability – all contrary to NPT. Several other countries are regarded as nuclear-capable states – Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Japan — they have everything needed to produce nuclear weapons except the political will. Of headline current interest is the controversy over whether Iran and DPR Korea have weapons capability.

This situation coincides with the view that “clean, green” nuclear energy is an obvious fix for the environmental disaster-in-waiting caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Wider use of nuclear technologies for energy raises the spectre of proliferation in a broader sense – proliferation of spent and part-spent radioactive byproducts from the nuclear fuel cycle. Although the 30-year old Australian synroc technology now seems to be a secure and irreversible means for the safe sequestration of spent fuels, a thousand more nuclear flowers blooming throughout the world offers an obvious challenge for non-proliferation efforts. Highly accurate auditing of materials in and materials out is one measure but in recent years some audits have found a useful quantity of weapons-grade material missing … or a rounding error in the audit; no-one knows for sure. A thousand rounding errors world-wide magnify the chance of usable quantities of weaponisable materials changing hands without trace.

For these several reasons, the NPT principles have obvious practical shortcomings and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 was promulgated in 2004 to address these. The core articles …

Affirming that prevention of proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons should not hamper international cooperation in materials, equipment and technology for peaceful purposes while goals of peaceful utilization should not be used as a cover for proliferation;

Decides that all States shall refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery;
… are in very plain language and clearly more street-wise than NPT. Importantly, this is an instrument under Chapter VII of the UN Charter hence enforceable under the UN’s ultimate powers of coercion and enforcement. Also, the subject suddenly includes chemical and biological materials, and it importantly forbids proliferation into the hands of non-State actors. Although the only peaceful uses for these substances is research into antidotes to their non-peaceful uses, the letter of the resolution would allow any state to share or develop manufacturing technologies for these “peaceful purposes”. Also, any country could build manufacturing capability (for “peaceful purposes”) because the varying shelf-life of CB substances and pathogens requires periodic replenishment. So Resolution 1540 is unfortunately, like the NPT, little more than a pious wish and, in the absence of an outright universal ban on possession of these substances, it does little to curtail de facto proliferation.

As the world approaches a cycle where non-State actors are an equal or greater threat to industrialized nations than conventional enemies, proliferation assumes new nuances. The fear of CBR(N) WMD is a force multiplier in asymmetric tactics and immense costs are brought upon any nation protecting itself against the threat of a CBR incident. For the present, a multi-megaton air-burst bomb is unlikely, but a taxi loaded with 10 kilos of highly radioactive waste blown up in Time Square (or Trafalgar Square) would have a cumulative cost almost as great.


Pious hopes are little protection against bad actors State or non-State of any ethnicity, politics or religion. The technologies and materials that were the subject of proliferation measures are already proliferated widely enough to now get anywhere else with the right theft, bribe, or accident. Although a CB attack by non-State bad actors is possible rather than probable, the consequences are such that it is an acute hazard and should be treated as such. It is unlikely that civil and military authorities in the US have sufficient planning in place to meet this hazard.


Pandora’s box is open. Getting the woes and pestilence back in the box will be very difficult – but that simply translates as very expensive. It is do-able and expensive. Security intelligence agencies throughout the world will believe they have some grasp on where hazardous technology, know-how and materials are and where they are moving, but the slight embarrassment on the Iraq assessment blunts confidence in this somewhat. Nothing short of a world effort, underpinned by instruments in the tradition of NPT and Resolution 1540, is urgently needed to start an exhaustive Inventory of CBRN materials throughout the world to last microgram. Obviously an agency similar to IAEA with expertise and powers across the range of CBRN would be key to that project.


Nuclear-generated power does seem to have long-term possibilities. If current experimental work in fusion by the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project is successful this may prove to be spectacularly so – also, there will be none of the waste products produced in fission technologies and the technology will not lend itself to use by non-State actors. That may bring a time when chemical and biological agents are the only possible agents of WMD threat. But the nature of the world will be much determined by political wisdom displayed in the next five years and how successful any inventory and roundup of CBR material has been. A new concern may come from substantial work in recent years on non-lethal weapons. This may produce a new era of proliferation of simple, easily deployed debilitating economically crippling weaponry — Weapons of Mass Discomfort.