On March 25th, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles towards Japan, hoping to send a message to the U.S. and its allies in the southeast. Two weeks ago, Iran’s Natanz Uranium Enrichment site was hit with a complete power outage, thought to have been triggered by an Israeli enacted internal explosion. Ten days later, Iran’s ally Syria launched a missile into Israel; Israel promptly retaliated with an air strike near Syria’s capital.
Within the last year, nuclear proliferation around the world has rapidly escalated. Not only are countries continuing to enrich uranium and build nuclear technology, but the world has begun to witness active demonstrations of this power, creating concerns regarding global peace and security. In addition to the obvious fear of civilian destruction by nuclear arms, nuclear proliferation is leading to other dangerous consequences, especially throughout the Middle East. Tensions between Israel, Iran, and Syria are running high as Iran continues its atomic development, and countries have begun taking actions into their own hands; in the last decade, Israel has been accused of assassinating five Iranian nuclear scientists, including for the most recent death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. Furthermore, the United States has imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran in response to its non-compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) arms treaty, triggering Iran to spitefully increase enrichment and nuclear development.
While the JCPOA is a specified agreement, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Weapons (NPT) is the most universal binding limitation on nuclear proliferation. The NPT was developed through the United Nations and has 191 signatories, serving as the primary reliable limitation on nuclear weapons. The NPT is important to regulate not only nuclear buildup but to mandate nuclear restraint. Although current backlash is directed towards Iran and its potential buildup of nuclear weapons, nine countries in the world already possess a combined total of 13,500 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association. Frank Aiken, the Irish Foreign Minister responsible for initiating action on the NPT, explained the nuclear crisis hauntingly: “A world of nuclear-ready states would resemble a town full of armed residents pointing guns at each other’s heads. At some point, mutual suspicion and the advantage of firing first would give way to mayhem.” If the international community does not take rapid action to enforce nuclear development regulations and address its dangerous diplomatic and humanitarian consequences, the world may soon witness an unprecedented war. As negotiations over a new nuclear deal continue in Vienna in the upcoming weeks, we should consider what actions must be taken to prevent nuclear war and in what ways current methods of prevention are failing.
Not all nuclear development is dangerous. Through the element enrichment process, radioisotopes are created which are used in a variety of fields such as medicine, agriculture, and energy. Atomic energy specifically is becoming more important as a method of sustainable electricity generation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) considers nuclear power one of the only viable alternative energy sources, aside from hydropower. The enrichment process “only amounts to 0.1% of the carbon dioxide from equivalent coal-fired electricity generation if modern gas centrifuge plants are used,” according to the World Nuclear Association, making atomic energy a valuable way to reduce greenhouse gases as well.
The problem is, the same process used to enrich elements for benevolent purposes can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency has safeguards in place, even current monitoring methods are not always effective in tracking all radioactive isotopes or atomic energy. There have been records of large amounts of separated plutonium going “missing”—in some cases enough to create up to 40 nuclear bombs. The countries under investigation could not explain what had happened, assuming the elements may have dissolved or further reacted. While this may be a valid explanation, it would be just as easy for countries to stockpile small amounts of enriched elements undetected until they had enough to develop weapons.
The international community has also recently expressed concern regarding the concept of “breakout time.” The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NIT) defines breakout time as “the theoretical amount of time required for a country to reconfigure an existing enrichment plant to produce enough [helium enriched uranium (HEU)] for a nuclear weapon.” This means that even countries undertaking peaceful nuclear efforts could rapidly convert their facilities into war-machines if needed, likely before any actors were able to respond or even knew what had happened. The NIT also explains that, “breakout time is less when starting from an existing stockpile of uranium enriched to 3-5% uranium-235—the level used for nuclear power—than when starting with natural uranium,” allowing countries with existing nuclear programs to develop weapons even quicker. The IAEA allows uranium enrichment up to 3.67%, but Iran has reported enrichment up to 4.5%. The ease with which efficient nuclear centrifuges can be converted for harmful means makes even the IAEA level of enrichment a concern. For this reason, international safeguards must be stricter and more highly enforced to prevent countries from having quick access to atomic weapons should they ever need them.
To prevent the possibility of nuclear ‘breakouts’ while still pursuing sustainable nuclear power, the IAEA is encouraging the development of common centrifuges placed under international jurisdiction. These plants would be monitored by the centrifuge host country and shares would be split among the participating states who would then be allotted necessary amounts of low-enriched uranium. Some of these plants currently operate in Siberia and France where the host countries hold the majority share. While these plants are a step in the right direction, giving one country majority control is certainly not the best idea. In the case of Russia and France which both possess nuclear weapons themselves, if either were ever to feel threatened, they could easily shut off energy supply to the surrounding countries or use it for their own interests. One benefit of this system, however, is that none of the shareholders are given access to the nuclear technology to guard against a potential hijack. A better system would be one in which a neutral, international power, such as an IAEA delegate, controlled the site instead of an individual country—this set-up is currently used for Urenco plants around the world shared between the UK, Netherlands, and Germany. This type of system that keeps power out of individual countries’ hands should be developed further as society turns towards nuclear power as a viable source of sustainable energy.
It is evident that non-peaceful nuclear development must be combatted, especially as countries continue to flaunt their weapons and publicly display their non-compliance with global standards. The trouble, however, is finding a way to do this both non-violently and without provoking the use of nuclear weapons. Clearly, economic sanctions by world powers have not worked. In the case of Iran, U.S. economic sanctions seeking to encourage compliance instead triggered more severe breaches of international nuclear treaties—now Iran refuses to stop buildup unless the sanctions are rescinded. Some powers even believe that all sanctions should be dropped to encourage Iran’s compliance and rejoining of the new JCPOA deal. Similarly, North Korea still holds nuclear proliferation to be its predominant goal, despite nine Security Council sanctions. If the international community continues to let Iran, North Korea, or any other countries developing nuclear capabilities define the terms of negotiations without punishment, it will have no power to contain dangerous efforts and these countries will likely take advantage of the liberties they are given. New specific economic sanctions must be imposed, narrowly focusing on regulating materials or technology used in nuclear proliferation efforts. In this way, the livelihood of a country and its civilians will not be harmed, but its leaders will feel pressured to comply without having access to the technology to actively fight regulations or threaten those who impose them.
The other significant issue in preventing nuclear buildup is the fact that signing on to nuclear treaties is entirely voluntary, making it just as easy to leave them. In 2003, North Korea left the NPT amidst controversial negotiations, a move Iran has threatened to follow within the last year. If these countries willingly abandon global treaties, they are no longer beholden to any regulations. To ensure compliance and international security, the United Nations should instead make adherence to nuclear buildup regulations an essential requirement for maintaining membership status. This would force countries to choose between nuclear buildup and the economic and social benefits (as well as global reputation) that are gained through UN membership. As the most representative and broad-reaching international organization, the United Nations is in the best position to enact peace-enhancing legislation, but it will not be effective if treaties continue to rely on voluntary involvement and weak enforcement. Instituting a military presence—either by international authorities or soldiers from countries with nuclear weapons—in areas which continue to shirk nuclear limitations may also pressure these countries into compliance as a last resort.
Nuclear proliferation threatens the entire world. Not only would countless innocent civilian lives be lost if nuclear weapons were ever to be used, but even those countries with atomic weapons would suffer by being forced into the conflict. Nuclear war ensures mutual destruction and therefore nuclear buildup is one of the most critical modern social threats. The international community must work together to actively and universally enforce IAEA standards through narrowly-tailored sanctions, punishments, and incentives. If we cannot find a way to collaborate and work together to prevent world war, one misstep could ensure the destruction of every person on the planet.