The Good News About Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear capability isn't spreading. So why are we so afraid it will?
By: /
August 16, 2012
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Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California

Another day, another scary scenario about nuclear proliferation. On Aug. 6, former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker and scientist Frank Pabian published a study warning that North Korea could conduct its third nuclear test, or even two simultaneous nuclear tests, within two weeks. Then, on Aug. 9, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told the media about a new U.S. intelligence report on Iran’s nuclear program that purportedly reveals serious recent progress by Tehran toward a nuclear weapon.

Given the seriousness of the issue of nuclear proliferation, reports like these need to be taken seriously. But they also need to be evaluated critically. The standard discourse on nuclear-weapons proliferation often starts from the premise that the global norm of non-proliferation is fast crumbling into dust. But in fact, as I point out in my new book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions (Cambridge University Press, 2012), the world has experienced a dramatic slowdown in the pace of proliferation over the past 30-40 years. And at least until now, the slow pace of North Korea and Iran’s nuclear efforts has tracked very closely with that global trend.

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Nuclear history is hard to pin down precisely, but scholars generally agree that during the first three decades of the nuclear age, from the 1940s to the 1960s, seven states – the U.S., USSR, U.K., France, China, Israel, and India – launched dedicated nuclear-weapons projects, and all seven succeeded. By contrast, of the 10 countries that have launched dedicated nuclear-weapons projects since 1970, only three have succeeded: South Africa in the 1970s, Pakistan in the 1990s, and – perhaps – North Korea in the 2000s. Meanwhile, six others spent years spinning their wheels before abandoning their quest: Brazil, Iraq, Libya, South Korea, Syria, and Yugoslavia. What will come of Iran’s ongoing nuclear efforts remains to be seen.

The great proliferation slowdown is visible not just in the rising failure rate of dedicated nuclear-weapons projects, but also in the increasing amount of time that successful projects have been needing to achieve that success. The seven successful projects that were launched prior to 1970 laboured, on average, a little more than seven years before achieving the capability to conduct a first nuclear test. By contrast, the three successful projects that were launched after 1970 laboured, on average, more than 17 years before arriving at that milestone. If Iran were to build the bomb tomorrow, that average time to success would become even longer: more than 19 years. But note that Iran is certainly not in position to build the bomb tomorrow, and it could well never get there.

Conventional wisdom has trouble explaining – or even noticing – the great proliferation slowdown. Most people assume that proliferation is accelerating out of control today, as a result of states’ greater access to powerful technologies. For instance, a huge amount of attention has been paid to the Pakistani nuclear impresario A. Q. Khan’s illicit sales of uranium centrifuge equipment to states such as Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Much less attention is paid to the paltry results of those sales: Libya proved simply unable to enrich uranium with Khan’s equipment; Iran’s centrifuge program has been very inefficient, and only recently started to implement the advanced designs that Khan sent them way back in the 1990s; and North Korea’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium remains a matter of conjecture more than a decade after Khan’s centrifuges arrived in that country. (The two – highly unimpressive – nuclear tests that North Korea has conducted to date relied on plutonium extracted from an old reactor that doesn’t work anymore.)

Can this good news story be attributed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime? Yes – but only in part. The regime became a serious obstacle to would-be nuclear-weapon states in the early 1990s, in response to the shocking discovery of Iraq’s secret 1980s nuclear-weapons project. Recently, the U.S. and Israel have also reportedly experimented with cyber-warfare tactics as a means of slowing Iran’s nuclear program. But such measures cannot be the entire story here. After all, the great proliferation slowdown began long before the non-proliferation regime became robust. And even since that time, A. Q. Khan was able to engage in his global nuclear export bonanza – but, as noted above, the countries that got Khan’s precious equipment have yet to produce a single bomb with it.

Instead, the key reason for the great proliferation slowdown lies inside the would-be nuclear states themselves. Before 1970, most nuclear-weapons projects were conducted either by developed countries with stable organizational cultures of professionalism, or by developing countries with sufficient levels of institutionalization for such an organizational culture to blossom in the nuclear field. By contrast, since 1970, most nuclear-weapons projects have been conducted by developing countries where shamelessly politicized, authoritarian management cultures prevail. In such environments, political leaders’ standard approach to motivating their workers is to rely on crude appeals to greed and fear. That management style may be effective for some purposes, but it is a very poor means of advancing massive, multi-year, cross-disciplinary high-tech research and development efforts. As a result of this pattern of mismanagement, recent nuclear-weapons projects have tended to be grossly inefficient and even to end up as total flops, despite often finding ways to get around the non-proliferation regime.

The great proliferation slowdown is something that we should have anticipated. The historians of the early nuclear success stories identified the institutional and managerial requirements for efficient nuclear-weapons projects many years ago, and it is no secret that most of the recent would-be nuclear-weapon states routinely violate those requirements. Yet, forgetting the lessons of history, policymakers, journalists, and scholars alike have tended to assume that the nuclear-weapons projects of states such as Iran and North Korea will march inexorably forward unless they are kneecapped by some drastic external intervention. The recent scary reports about Iran and North Korea’s supposed nuclear progress reflect that dubious narrative.

The incessant calls for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities are often justified by the notion that it’s better to be safe than sorry. But as Spencer Weart has amply documented, nuclear fear warps our perceptions of risk and promotes irrational, counterproductive decision-making. Indeed, the focus on worst-case proliferation scenarios has often led to the adoption of policies that are anything but prudent. The United States and its allies have scared themselves into spending exorbitant sums on technically and strategically dubious initiatives such as national missile defence, and, much worse, into wasting thousands upon thousands of lives in a so-called “pre-emptive” war against Iraq’s mythical WMD. 

The best antidote to fear-based, imprudent counter-proliferation crusades is the facts. If we can better inform leading politicians, foreign-policy establishments, and global public opinion about the fact of the great proliferation slowdown, they will develop a stronger immunity against unjustified fear appeals.

As a non-nuclear-weapon state and significant exporter of nuclear technology and materials, Canada has a particular international responsibility – and a material self-interest – in helping to bring the world back to its senses about the threat of nuclear proliferation. Canada’s abstention from nuclear weapons allows it to be convincing when it explains the value of nuclear restraint to states that might be tempted to seek the bomb. At the same time, Canada’s nuclear expertise allows it to mount a convincing challenge to the U.S. and Israel’s fixation on scary proliferation scenarios. And Canada’s long experience with international nuclear co-operation (some of it happy and some of it unhappy) gives it authority to defend the value of the “atoms for peace” idea against the growing western tendency to see every civilian reactor as a shortcut to the bomb and every foreign nuclear-engineering student as the next A. Q. Khan. With the aid of important voices such as Canada’s, the international community should be able to right-size its perceptions both of the magnitude of the proliferation threat and of the appropriateness of proposals for containing it.

Photo courtesy of Reuters