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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

A Growing Nuclear Threat?

When it comes to nuclear security, the good news is that the Cold War is over. The bad news is that the risks for nuclear war have not only remained, but they have grown, according to recent research and expert opinion.

In 2014, there were an estimated 16,372 nuclear warheads among nine nuclear-armed states, according to a recent report, Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015, issued by the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) at Australian National University. That represents a drawdown from the 2012 total of just under 18,000. More than 14,000 of the latest total of 16,372 are controlled by Russia and the United States. 

 While the U.S. and Russian stockpile number may sound high, it is actually lower than during the Cold War, and it continues to decrease every year due to old agreements, such as the START treaty. “The risk of deliberate nuclear weapons use by the United States or Russia may well be negligible,” the authors of the report argue.

Meanwhile, there has also been some progress in France and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is planning to complete reductions in warhead numbers by the mid-2020s. France has so far met limited disarmament targets that it set in 2008. But nuclear arsenals in places like Pakistan, China, and India are growing. 

“The overall risks of nuclear war have grown—as more countries in more unstable regions have acquired these deadly weapons,” the authors continue. “Even a limited nuclear war could have catastrophic global consequences.” 

The report’s message that nuclear developments in Pakistan, China, and India are troubling was echoed at a recent forum, held in Washington, D.C., by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, said at the forum that he had a message for those interested in fostering nuclear security worldwide: “Pay attention to Asia.” 

“The center of gravity of defense, economy, military issues is moving east, and we need to move the focus of arms control and proliferation East,” Sokolski said. 

One of these focal points should be China, he added. China is thought to be expanding and modernizing its nuclear weapons systems. Currently, the consensus among experts is that China’s stockpile now totals about 250 warheads, according to the report. 

Moreover, China is one of the world leaders in number of ground-based missiles, including long-range cruise missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Sokolski. “This will be an issue,” he said. 

Another potentially troubling development in Asia is the acceleration of Pakistan’s nuclear program, the report found. The country is currently estimated to have some 100 to 120 nuclear warheads, and it is believed to have the fastest ex­panding nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium could increase the country’s nuclear warhead production capacity “several-fold,” according to the report.  

Pakistan is also expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads and is advancing toward a sea-based missile capability, among other strategic moves. Developing nuclear missiles that could be fired from a ship could give Pakistan “second-strike” capability if a large-scale nuclear exchange destroyed all land-based weapons.

“We know a lot about Pakistan. Very little of it makes us feel good,” Robert Gallucci, a former ambassador who oversaw the disarmament of Iraq as deputy executive chairman of the UN Special Commission, said at the forum. Gallucci was also chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994.

India’s arsenal is also growing, although the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear program makes it difficult to assess the pace of growth, the report found. The country is currently estimated to have between 90 and 100 warheads, but the number could grow if India pursues its stated plans of expanding its uranium enrichment facilities and building more reactors. 

In addition, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, known as the “123 Agreement,” allows India to buy and sell nuclear fuel and technology from the United States. Gallucci said he thought the agreement was “magnificently ill-considered.” 

North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material to build eight rudimentary nuclear weapons. In February 2013, Pyongyang appeared to have restarted a reactor that was used in the past to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, according to the report. In trying to counter these developments, the United States’ recent negotiations with North Korea regarding nuclear issues have been ineffective, Gallucci said.

Outside of Asia, Gallucci said the most pressing issue to him was the possibility that a rogue militant group would be able to obtain enough material to develop a nuclear weapon. “I care most about the nuclear terrorism issue,” Gallucci said.

For Sokolski, another pressing nuclear security issue, and one that applies to virtually all regions of the world, is for the United States and its allies to act more quickly against proliferation, even if that action is just to issue a public warning. Actions should be taken, he argued, after early indications of possible proliferation, and not after verification that proliferation has already occurred. Failures by the United States to act expediently usually becomes fodder for the news pages, he added.  

But in contrast to those concerns, Sokolski said he was not alarmed about Russia’s move to acquire a nuclear power station from Finland, using the country’s state-controlled pension fund to finance the project. His views were consistent with the report that Russia was not the world’s biggest concern when it comes to nuclear security. 

“I am not at all distressed that Russia might now take over most of the market for nuclear reactors. All I have to say is, ‘good luck,’” Sokolski said. “Right now they are dipping in to their social security funds to finance those. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

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