Today, many around the world will celebrate the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to enter into force in 50 years.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 and finally reached the milestone of 50 ratifications in October. The countries that have signed and ratified include Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria and Thailand.
The treaty completes the suite of international bans on all major weapons considered unacceptable because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects, including anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, biological and chemical weapons.
The countries that have signed the TPNW were fed up with over half a century of the nuclear-armed states flouting their obligation to rid the world of their weapons. They have asserted the interests of humanity and global democracy in a way the nuclear-armed states were powerless to stop.
It is certainly long overdue for the most cruel and destructive weapons of all — nuclear weapons — to be banned. But this treaty is a sign of hope — a necessary and important step toward a less destructive planet.
The aim of the treaty is a comprehensive and categorical ban of nuclear weapons. It binds signatories not to develop, test, produce, acquire, have control of, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
States also cannot “assist, encourage or induce” anyone to engage in any activity prohibited under the treaty — essentially anything to do with nuclear weapons.
The TPNW strengthens the current nuclear safeguards found in the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by requiring all states that join to have comprehensive provisions in place and not allowing states to weaken their existing safeguards.
The treaty provides the first legally binding multilateral framework for a process by which all nations can work toward eliminating nuclear weapons.
For instance, states with another nation’s nuclear weapons stationed on their territory must remove them.
States with nuclear weapons can “destroy then join” the treaty, or “join then destroy”. They must irreversibly dismantle their weapons, as well as the programs and facilities to produce them, subject to agreed timelines and verification by an international authority.
Further, the TPNW is the first treaty to commit member nations to provide long-neglected assistance for the victims of atomic bombs and weapon testing. It also calls for nations to clean up environments contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing, where feasible.
Currently, 86 nations have signed the TPNW, and 51 have ratified it (meaning they are bound by its provisions). The treaty now becomes part of international law, and the number of signatories and ratifications will continue to grow.
However, none of the nine nuclear powers — the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — have yet signed or ratified the treaty.
Many other countries that rely on other nations’ nuclear weapons for their security, such as the 27 members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea, have also not signed.
So, why does the treaty matter given these states currently oppose it? And what effect can we expect the treaty to have on them?
While any treaty is technically only binding on the states that join it, the TPNW establishes a new international legal standard against which all nuclear policies will now be judged.
The treaty, in short, is a game-changer, and the nuclear-armed and dependent countries have been put on notice. They know the treaty jeopardises their claimed right to continue to threaten the planet with their weapons, as well as their plans to modernise and maintain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely.
The strength of their opposition is a measure of the treaty’s importance. It will have implications for everything from defence policies and military plans to weapons manufacturing to financial investments in the companies that profit from making now illegal nuclear weapons.
For example, a growing number of banks, pension funds and insurance companies around the world are now divesting from companies that build nuclear weapons.
These include the Norwegian Pension Fund (the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund), ABP (Europe’s largest pension fund), Deutsche Bank, Belgium’s largest bank KBC, Resona Holdings, Kyushu Financial Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group in Japan, and the Japanese insurance companies Nippon Life, Dai-ichi Life, Meiji-Yasuda and Fukoku Mutual.
Would joining the treaty mean nations like Australia, Japan, South Korea and NATO members would have to end their military cooperation with nuclear-armed states like the US?
No. There is nothing in the TPNW that prevents military cooperation with a nuclear-armed state, provided nuclear weapons activities are excluded.
Countries like New Zealand and Kazakhstan have already demonstrated that joining the treaty is fully compatible with ongoing military cooperation with, respectively, the US and Russia.
In a recent letter urging their governments to join the treaty, 56 former presidents, prime ministers and defence and foreign ministers from these nations said
By claiming protection from nuclear weapons, we are promoting the dangerous and misguided belief that nuclear weapons enhance security.
As states parties, we could remain in alliances with nuclear-armed states, as nothing in the treaty itself nor in our respective defence pacts precludes that.
But we would be legally bound never under any circumstances to assist or encourage our allies to use, threaten to use or possess nuclear weapons. Given the very broad popular support in our countries for disarmament, this would be an uncontroversial and much-lauded move.
The signatories include two former NATO secretaries-general, Willy Claes and Javier Solana.
Ban treaties have been proven to work with other outlawed weapons — landmines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. They have provided the basis and motivation for progressive efforts to control and eliminate these weapons. They are now significantly less produced, deployed and used, even by states that haven’t joined the treaties.
We can achieve the same result with nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow said at the UN after the treaty was adopted,
This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally come into force after the 50th country (Honduras) ratified it over the weekend. The treaty will make the development, testing, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons illegal for those countries that have signed it.
This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have suffered the most from these weapons — including the hibakusha (survivors) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the islanders who lived through nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Since 1956, the hibakusha in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere have been some of the most strident campaigners against the use of these weapons. Among them is a group of Japanese Catholics from Nagasaki whom I interviewed as part of my research collecting the oral histories of atomic bomb survivors.
A 92-year-old hibakusha of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a brother in a Catholic order, Ozaki Tōmei, explained the significance of the treaty to survivors like him. He was orphaned from the bombing at 17 and never found his mother’s body.
The Germans made tools for war including poisonous gas, which was [eventually] banned […] However, when the USA made an atomic weapon, then they … wanted to try it out. It was a war […] they were human.
And so this is why we say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons […] They said they did it to end the war, but for the people who were struck, it was horrific […] there was no need to use it.
The treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by a vote of 122 nations in favour, one against and one abstention.
Sixty-nine nations, however, have not signed it, including all of the nuclear powers such as the US, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as NATO member states (apart from the Netherlands who voted against), Japan and Australia.
Since the treaty was adopted, it needed ratification by 50 countries to come into force. This will now happen in 90 days.
The campaign for the treaty has relied heavily on civil society and organisations such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
And from the beginning, it has exposed political fault lines. The United States has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to the treaty, warning last week the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, UK and France). It has been signed by 190 countries, including those five nations.
The head of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, says the new treaty banning nuclear weapons merely builds on the nonproliferation treaty.
There’s no way you can undermine the nonproliferation treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the nonproliferation treaty.
States like Japan and Australia have opposed the treaty on the grounds their security is boosted by the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the treaty
was created without taking into account the realities of security.
Making the bomb illegal turns an old US justification for the weapon on its head. Harry Stimson, the former US war secretary, argued in 1947 the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to compel the Japanese to surrender at the end of the second world war.
The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.
At the forefront of the campaign to support the nuclear weapons ban treaty have been the voices of hibakusha who experienced the carnage firsthand.
Another Catholic hibakusha, Nakamura Kazutoshi, told me the stockpiling of nuclear weapons enables states to carry out genocide.
In war, we are at a level below animals. Among monkeys, or chimpanzees, there are no animals who would carry out a genocide.
A third hibakusha, 90-year-old Jōji Fukahori, told me about how he lost his mother and three younger siblings in the Nagasaki bombing.
His younger brother, Kōji, died an excruciating death around a week after the bombing, walking in the hot ash with no shoes and complaining to his brother, “I’m so hot!”
At the site where Fukahori’s brother was exposed, the temperature was about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Fukahori said,
You would have thought everyone would have turned into charcoal.
For Fukahori, the lasting effects of radiation exposure is a major reason why nuclear weapons must be banned. He continued:
the terror of radiation has to be fully communicated … The atomic bomb is unacceptable. I still cannot get over it.
Since 2009, Fukahori has been speaking out at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and on the Peace Boat, a non-governmental organisation that organises cruises where passengers learn about the consequences of using nuclear weapons from hibakusha.
The Japanese government is now under mounting pressure to ratify the treaty. Major Japanese financial institutions and companies have said they will no longer fund the production of nuclear weapons and nearly a third of all local assemblies have adopted proposals calling on the government to act.
The government, however, has been unmoved. In August, Abe gave a speech at a memorial service in Nagasaki, in which he suggested the effects of the bombings had been overcome.
Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.
A Japanese atomic researcher, who knows how Fukahori and other hibakusha have not been able to move on, told me Abe’s words don’t go far enough:
Rather than placing a ‘full-stop’ at the end of damages such as this, we have a necessity to make our claim that the damages are not finished.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a moment of hope for all the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still with us after 75 years. It is certainly their hope the ratification of the treaty now moves us one step closer to a world free of nuclear war.
Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.
While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.
Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:
The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.
The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.
The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.
The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.
It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.
The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.
It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.
The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.
The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.
Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.
If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.
The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.
The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.
The shift from short to longer term thinking can began at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.
We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.
Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
President Donald Trump has reportedly suggested on more than one occasion that the US military explode nuclear bombs inside hurricanes to disrupt them before they reach land.
On the surface, it would seem like a simple solution to the devastation that occurs in the US each year during the hurricane season. However, there are several problems with this idea.
Hurricanes are low-pressure weather systems covering an area of more than 500,000km². They form over warm tropical oceans, which are their primary energy source. The low pressure at the centre of the hurricane – the eye – draws in the surrounding warm, moist air. This air then rises and condenses into deep thunderstorm clouds surrounding the centre – the eyewall – and also in cloud bands spiralling out from the eye called rainbands.
As the air is pulled into the eye, Earth’s rotation causes it to spin cyclonically – anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. The continuous supply of air into the deep thunderstorms surrounding the eye allows the hurricane to intensify until it reaches a steady state of equilibrium with the oceans and the environment.
The average hurricane can be likened to a very inefficient heat engine. As the warm moist air rises, it releases heat energy through the formation of clouds and rain at a rate of about 5.2 x 10¹⁹ joules per day. Less than 10% of this heat is then converted into the mechanical energy of the wind.
To give some perspective of this energy, the heat released in a hurricane is equivalent to a 10-megatonne nuclear bomb exploding every hour. This energy is also on the order of the global energy consumption in 2016, according to the United States Energy Information Agency.
It seems unlikely that exploding a bomb in the hurricane would make much impact on such a powerful weather system, and it is impossible to run controlled experiments to determine whether it would.
Not to mention that there could be shocking effects from the fallout of radioactive material from such an explosion. These materials would be transported widely via the trade winds through the lower levels of the atmosphere, and potentially around the entire planet in the stratosphere – similar to the effects from the volcanic fallout from Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.
There have been previous attempts to modify the impacts of hurricanes. Between 1962 and 1983 the US government funded experimental research on hurricane modification known as Project STORMFURY. The fundamental premise was, because the potential of damage from hurricanes increases rapidly with the hurricane’s wind speed, a reduction in wind speed of as little as 10% could make a large difference in the impacts when hurricanes reach land. By seeding the air outside the eyewall with silver iodide, a chemical used to seed clouds, it was thought a new ring of thunderstorms may develop outside the eyewall – robbing it of energy and weakening the hurricane.
Modification was attempted in four hurricanes on eight different days. On four of those days, a 10-30% reduction in wind speed was measured. The lack of response on the other fours days was initially interpreted to be the result of faulty execution of the experiment, but was later attributed to an imperfect understanding of the microphysics of clouds in hurricanes.
Recent observations show hurricanes have too many naturally occurring ice crystals and too few supercooled water droplets for cloud seeding to be effective. So any change in hurricane wind speed observed during the STORMFURY experiments was almost certainly due to the natural behaviour of hurricanes rather than human intervention.
Although Project STORMFURY was abandoned, the hurricane observation program is still run under the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The original aircraft used in Project STORMFURY were replaced in the 1970s by WP-3D aircraft, which still reside under NOAA and are operated by its officers.
The observations collected by these aircraft continuously over a period of more than 60 years has helped improve hurricane forecasting. Furthermore, these observations have allowed researchers to develop vital insights into the structure, intensity, and physical processes of this most destructive of natural phenomena.
In his latest book, strategist and defence analyst Hugh White has gone nuclear, triggering a debate about whether Australia should develop and maintain its own nuclear arsenal.
But developing and sustaining modern nuclear weapons requires a certain combination of technologies and industries that Australia simply does not have. In fact, it may be safely estimated on the basis of approval and construction times for nuclear power reactors in other western countries that it would take some 20 years to establish such capabilities in the present legal and economic environment.
Opting for nuclear weapons also fails to consider the global implications of Australia abandoning its almost 50-year stance against nuclear proliferation.
White argues quite rightly that China may eventually overtake the US in terms of its industrial production and military reach. Speculating that this could entail a strategic withdrawal of the US from the western Pacific, he suggests Australia might find itself without the American defence umbrella to deter Chinese influence, or worse.
But Australia would struggle to replace its long and successful alliance with the US with a limited nuclear deterrence capability. Even ignoring the issues generally involved in adopting new defence capabilities – evident in the many problems hindering Australia’s efforts to replace its ageing submarine fleet – the idea is fanciful given our current stance on nuclear energy.
Nuclear power reactors, uranium enrichment plants, missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing would all be essential to support truly independent efforts to develop a compact nuclear weapon that could be delivered by missile from a submarine and kept in a permanent state of readiness.
Neither power reactors nor enrichment facilities exist in Australia today, despite some pioneering research in both areas in the past.
Australia’s missile development and high-tech electronics sectors, meanwhile, are in catch-up mode or in their infancy due to years of economic reliance on mining, tourism and services. Advancing and establishing nuclear industries for the sole purpose of developing a nuclear weapons program would neither be practically nor economically viable.
The only way such industries could be developed realistically would be if Australia added nuclear power to its suite of power generation technologies.
Of course, Australia has large uranium deposits and a well-established uranium mining and export industry. And there appears to be increasing public support for nuclear power. A recent survey found that 44% of Australians support nuclear power plants, up four points since the question was last asked in 2015. Other polls indicate support might even be higher.
A well-developed nuclear power industry would eventually give Australia almost all the necessary technologies, personnel and materials to make and maintain a nuclear weapon. This includes, in particular, the ability to enrich uranium and breed plutonium.
But herein lies the problem. Even if the public did eventually support a nuclear energy program, it remains unclear whether the necessary political will would be there.
Legally, the Howard government banned domestic nuclear power plants in the late 1990s – an act that would now need to be overturned by parliament.
In 2006, the federal government commissioned an inquiry led by Ziggy Switkowski into the future feasibility of nuclear power generation in Australia. The final report found that nuclear energy would be 20-50% more expensive than coal without carbon pricing. It also said a nuclear power industry would take between 10 and 15 years to establish.
Recently, Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the Morrison government was open to reversing the country’s nuclear energy ban, but only if there was a “clear business case” to do so. With the current widespread availability of cheaper, renewable energies in Australia, this makes the economics of nuclear power generation less convincing.
Lastly, in order to ensure true self-reliance, a delivery option for a nuclear weapon would have to be developed without purchasing technologies from other countries, such as the US. This would be incredibly costly and difficult to do.
When it comes to this sort of missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing, Australia is currently not leading in research and development.
Even though Australia is not in a position to contemplate nuclear weapons due to its technological and industrial limitations, there are moral arguments against pursuing such a goal that should be considered carefully.
The country has been at the forefront of the international non-proliferation movement, ratifying both the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998.
Australians should remind themselves that these treaties have greatly contributed to peace and security in the world. Abandoning such longstanding principles of its foreign policy, which are aimed at creating a better, more peaceful world, would be an implosion of Australian character of massive proportions.
The most ambitious effort to peacefully constrain the nuclear aspirations of a nation hangs by a thread. Eight years of patient and difficult negotiations to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme were cast aside when president Donald Trump withdrew US support for the deal in May 2018.
Since then, tensions between Iran and the US, a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – alongside the UK, Germany, France, Russia and China – have escalated. Last November, the US inflamed things further by re-imposing economic sanctions targeting both Iran and the states that trade with it.
The US decision in early May to deploy an aircraft carrier strike force and B-52 bombers, in response to what Washington said was an imminent Iranian plan to attack US assets, has kept tensions at a boil.
Washington stated that the latest show of force was in response to a “campaign” of recent attacks, including a rocket launched into the Green Zone in Baghdad, explosive devices that damaged four tankers near the entrance to the Gulf, and drone attacks by Yemeni rebels on a key Saudi oil pipeline. Iran has denied any association with the incidents.
More recently, the US withdrew waivers which were part of the JCPOA deal with Iran. By revoking the waivers that enabled Iran to ship abroad excess supplies of enriched uranium and heavy water, the US has left the Islamic Republic pondering whether it should continue to comply with certain key parts of the deal.
Is a war coming between the US and Iran?
Iran’s foreign affairs minister, Javed Zarif, and Iraq’s foreign minister, Ali Alhakim, held a joint news conference in May, during which Zarif called on European states to do more to preserve the nuclear deal. Zarif also called the deployment of extra US troops to the Gulf region “extremely dangerous and a threat to international peace and security”.
A supportive Alhakim stated: “The sanctions against sisterly Iran are ineffective and we stand by its side.”
Certainly, sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy. The Iranian currency has hit a record low against the US dollar amid continued economic difficulties following the reimposition of sanctions, and the purchasing power of Iranians has dropped significantly. Indeed, Iran’s economy in 2019 is expected to fall deeper into recession, with estimated negative growth of 5.5% or higher.
Tehran has requested that the European signatories to the nuclear accord – France, Germany and the UK – keep the pact alive. The JCPOA sets a 3.67% limit on uranium enhancement (enough to fuel a commercial nuclear plant) and bars Iran from accumulating supplies of more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium and 130 tons of heavy water, a coolant used in nuclear reactors.
Tehran has rightly said the deal agreed to end Iran’s financial isolation in return for the strict limitations on its nuclear activities. But by bolstering sanctions, the US has scared organisations and banks into diminishing, ceasing or avoiding altogether business with Iranian partners, with serious repercussions for Iran’s economy.
Europe, by and large, has supported diplomacy with Iran. It has argued that Trump’s rejection of the deal compromises the pragmatic wing of Iran’s administration and plays into the hands of hardliners. The EU has long had questions about Tehran’s missile program, and its involvement in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but it has viewed these as separate from the nuclear agreement.
The economic sanctions have certainly put the moderate Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani under pressure, both internationally and domestically. Iranian hardliners argue that Iran surrendered too much in the agreement.
Rouhani has perhaps come up with a clever way of deflecting domestic criticism of him – at least for now – by suggesting that the Islamic Republic hold a referendum over its nuclear program. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) stated that Rouhani, who recently was openly chastised by the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made the suggestion at a gathering of senior Iranian editors on May 25.
Khamenei, who has the last say on all issues of state in Iran, has not yet responded to Rouhani’s recent proposition. The Islamic Republic has seen just three referendums since 1979: one on its change from a monarchy to an Islamic republic, and two on its constitution.
In the meantime, Iran has also threatened to quadruple its uranium-enrichment production limit, but stressed that even this uranium would not be enhanced beyond the 3.67% limit set by the JCPOA, making it unsuitable for developing a nuclear weapon. Rouhani has also said that Tehran will keep its excess enriched uranium and heavy water rather than exporting it.
If Europe fails to find a way for business and investors to work with Iran without being penalised by US sanctions, however, Rouhani has said that Iran will begin enriching uranium even further. In principle, this more highly-enriched uranium could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon. This would send Iran back on its way towards making a bomb, and mark the end of the JCPOA.
According to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) most recent quarterly report, Iran’s enriched uranium and heavy water stocks have grown but have not exceeded the ceilings set in the nuclear agreement. This suggests that Iran continues to comply with the JCPOA – for now, at least.
So far, Iran has also abstained from getting entangled in military brinkmanship with the US. But Trump may soon face a tough choice: either engage in a military clash with Iran or return to the JCPOA. The latter may be a u-turn too far for the bellicose president.
Either way, it is difficult to convince nations to surrender nuclear weapons once they have them. In this case, everything peaceful should be done to ensure that Iran is prevented from acquiring one in the first place.
According to a congressional report, a group that includes former senior U.S. government officials is lobbying to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. As an expert focusing on the Middle East and the spread of nuclear weapons, I believe these efforts raise important legal, economic and strategic concerns.
It is understandable that the Trump administration might want to support the U.S. nuclear industry, which is shrinking at home. However, the congressional report raised concerns that the group seeking to make the sale may have have sought to carry it out without going through the process required under U.S. law. Doing so could give Saudi Arabia U.S. nuclear technology without appropriate guarantees that it would not be used for nuclear weapons in the future.
Exporting nuclear technology is lucrative, and many U.S. policymakers have long believed that it promotes U.S. foreign policy interests. However, the international market is shrinking, and competition between suppliers is stiff.
Private U.S. nuclear companies have trouble competing against state-supported international suppliers in Russia and China. These companies offer complete construction and operation packages with attractive financing options. Russia, for example, is willing to accept spent fuel from the reactor it supplies, relieving host countries of the need to manage nuclear waste. And China can offer lower construction costs.
Saudi Arabia declared in 2011 that it planned to spend over US$80 billion to construct 16 reactors, and U.S. companies want to provide them. Many U.S. officials see the decadeslong relationships involved in a nuclear sale as an opportunity to influence Riyadh’s nuclear future and preserve U.S. influence in the Saudi kingdom.
With the world’s second-largest known petroleum reserves, abundant untapped supplies of natural gas and high potential for solar energy, why is Saudi Arabia shopping for nuclear power? Some of its motives are benign, but others are worrisome.
First, nuclear energy would allow the Saudis to increase their fossil fuel exports. About one-third of the kingdom’s daily oil production is consumed domestically at subsidized prices; substituting nuclear energy domestically would free up this petroleum for export at market prices.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. Ninety percent of its drinking water is desalinated, a process that burns approximately 15 percent of the 9.8 million barrels of oil it produces daily. Nuclear power could meet some of this demand.
Saudi leaders have also expressed clear interest in establishing parity with Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 2018 interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
As a member in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and is entitled to engage in peaceful nuclear trade. Such commerce could include acquiring technology to enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. These systems can be used both to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors and to make key materials for nuclear weapons.
Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, before American companies can compete to export nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh must conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the U.S. government must submit it to Congress. Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution within 90 days disapproving the agreement, it is approved. The United States currently has 23 nuclear cooperation agreements in force, including Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt (approved in 1981), Turkey (2008) and the United Arab Emirates (2009).
The Atomic Energy Act requires countries seeking to purchase U.S. nuclear technology to make legally binding commitments that they will not use those materials and equipment for nuclear weapons, and to place them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It also mandates that the United States must approve any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation activities involving U.S. technologies and materials, in order to prevent countries from diverting them to weapons use.
American nuclear suppliers claim that these strict conditions and time-consuming legal requirements put them at a competitive disadvantage. But those conditions exist to prevent countries from misusing U.S. technology for nuclear weapons. I find it alarming that according to the House report, White House officials may have attempted to bypass or sidestep these conditions – potentially enriching themselves in the process.
According to the congressional report, within days of President Trump’s inauguration, senior U.S. officials were promoting an initiative to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without either concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement and submitting it to Congress or involving key government agencies, such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One key advocate for this so-called “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East was then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who reportedly served as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3, the firm that devised this plan, while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign.
The promoters of the plan also reportedly proposed to sidestep U.S. sanctions against Russia by partnering with Russian companies – which impose less stringent restrictions on nuclear exports – to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Flynn resigned soon afterward and now is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But IP3 access to the White House persists: According to press reports, President Trump met with representatives of U.S. industry, a meeting organized by IP3 to discuss nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia as recently as mid-February 2019.
Saudi leaders have scaled back their planned purchases and now only expect to build two reactors. If the Trump administration continues to pursue nuclear exports to Riyadh, I believe it should negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom as required by U.S. law, and also take extra steps to reduce nuclear proliferation risks.
This should include requiring the Saudis to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that give the agency additional tools to verify that all nuclear materials in the kingdom are being used peacefully. The agreement should also require Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers, and export the reactor spent fuel for storage abroad. These conditions would diminish justification for uranium enrichment or opportunities for plutonium reprocessing for weapons.
The United States has played a leadership role in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile regions. There is much more at stake here than profit, and legal tools exist to ensure that nuclear exports do not add fuel to the Middle East fire.
Meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
I spent many years working on nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Defense, the State Department and nongovernmental organizations. Between 2009 and 2010, I worked with the special representative for nonproliferation at the State Department.
As the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, this seems like a good time to ask: Is the U.S. doing anything to limit the size of its own nuclear arsenal?
The United States is one of five recognized nuclear weapons states – including Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – under the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty permits these states to possess nuclear weapons. Other countries signed on as non-nuclear weapons states, pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful civilian nuclear technology like power reactors.
This was not meant to be permanent a state of affairs. An article of the treaty calls on all nuclear weapons states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
To this end, President Barack Obama pledged to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, committing to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama was the first president to talk about steps to disarmament this way.
By contrast, in December 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted that the U.S. need to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
In 2018, the Department of Defense released a review of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review. It recommends the U.S. add to its arsenal a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
The recommendation struck many observers as a pivot from the Obama administration’s policies toward an increased role for nuclear weapons. They view it as the beginning of a new arms race. Others see it as necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent and consistent with past administrations’ nuclear policies.
The Obama administration had also come to the conclusion that even if disarmament was an ultimate if distant goal, many of the components U.S. nuclear arsenal still needed to be maintained and updated. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that modernizing current U.S. nuclear forces would cost US$1.2 trillion over the next 20 years.
The New START Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia in 2010, was another bilateral agreement to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons and cap the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550. That may sound like a lot, but at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. arsenal contained more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.
The New START Treaty only places a cap on deployed nuclear warheads, meaning weapons that are on delivery vehicles like ICBMs and ready to use, versus, say, warheads in storage. The stockpile, which is the total number of nuclear weapons both deployed and non-deployed, is much larger. The Obama administration first declassified the number in 2010. The number then was 5,113.
In 2017, the total number of weapons in the U.S. stockpile was reported as 3,822.
The New START Treaty also places limits on the number of vehicles used to deliver nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy. The United States maintains a so-called nuclear triad: nuclear weapons deployed on ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers like the B-2 aircraft. Since it would be difficult for an adversary to knock out all three methods of delivery, this strategy allows at least one leg of the triad to respond in the event of a devastating nuclear attack.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal today is the smallest it has been since the early days of the Cold War. Whether this makes the world safer is still a subject of intense debate.
Optimists see any reduction in the size of arsenals as a positive. Pessimists see the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence, whatever the size of states’ arsenals, as inherently dangerous. While most nuclear armed states agree that nuclear weapons are only for deterrence and thus likely never to be used in war, their devastating power will always provoke fierce debate on their utility.
Jeffrey Fields, Associate Professor of the Practice of International Relations, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences