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HOME > Nuclear Abolition and the Next Arms Race      
Nuclear Abolition and the Next Arms Race

As the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal, what might the next arms race look like?

Assuming current nuclear trends continue, the next two decades will test America’s security and that of its closest allies as they never have been tested before. Before 2020, the United Kingdom could find its nuclear forces eclipsed not only by those of Pakistan, but of Israel and of India. Soon thereafter, France may share the same fate. China, which already has enough separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium to triple its current stockpile of roughly 300 nuclear warheads, will likely expand its nuclear arsenal as well. Meanwhile Japan will have ready access to thousands of bombs worth of separated plutonium. U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons usable material stocks -- still large enough to be converted back to many tens of thousands of weapons -- will decline marginally while similar nuclear stores in Japan and other nuclear weapons states could easily double. Compounding these developments, even more nuclear weapons-ready states are likely: As of 2009, at least 25 states have announced their desire to build large reactors – historically, bomb starter kits – before 2030.

None of this will bolster the aim of abolishing of nuclear weapons. Certainly, the current battery of U.S. backed arms control measures, including the ratification of major arms reductions treaties with Russia, a Comprehensive Test Ban, a cut off treaty banning further military nuclear fissile production, and enhanced inspections of civilian nuclear programs -- are unlikely to be enough to head off the troubling trends described. What’s worse, these arms control measures, if executed too hastily, could easily make matters worse.

Congressional critics of strategic arms reductions with Moscow argue that if the U.S. and Russia cut their strategic nuclear deployments too deeply, too quickly, it might undermine the credibility of our nuclear security alliances with states like Japan and Turkey who, in turn, might be tempted to go nuclear. As for pushing ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, this could also backfire: India, whose last nuclear test series was followed by a Pakistani nuclear test, recently debated whether or not to resume nuclear testing to beat what some in India fear is an approaching nuclear test ban deadline. Meanwhile, American test ban treaty opponents have urged the U.S. Senate to tie the treaty’s test limits to what other states, like Russia, say the treaty clearly prohibits. Pegging the treaty to this, however, could conceivably encourage some forms of low-yield nuclear testing.

As for securing a non-discriminatory, global ban against the “military” production of separated plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, this also could inflict unintended harm. The danger here is that the treaty only bans the production of fissile material for military purposes and could encourage increased production for civilian purposes. Also, the odds of inspectors catching military diversions from such “peaceful” plants are quite low. Finally, with the growing popularity of “peaceful” nuclear energy, nuclear supplier states are claiming that exporting new power reactors will strengthen nonproliferation since it will come with the application of “enhanced” nuclear inspections. Unfortunately, in the majority of the most worrisome cases, even enhanced inspections may not be reliable enough to safeguard against significant military diversions. As it is, the IAEA is failing to maintain continuity of inspections over most of the world’s spent or fresh fuel that can be used in nuclear enrichment and reprocessing making plants to make weapons usable fuels. These nuclear fuel making plants, moreover, can be hidden from inspectors and, even when declared, be used to make weapons usable materials without necessarily being detected in a timely fashion.

Several of these points are beginning to receive attention in the U.S. The debate over these matters, though, needs to be broadened. Why? Because even if Washington’s favorite nuclear control initiatives are well executed and avoid running the risks noted above, the U.S. and its allies will still face a series of additional, major nuclear proliferation dangers.

A Packed Nuclear Armed Crowd? 

Converging nuclear weapons numbers.
Coming nuclear congestion: The number of strategic warheads predicted to be operationally deployed in the next twenty years.

The first of these is that as the U.S. and Russia reduce their nuclear weapons deployments, China, India, Pakistan and Israel are likely to increase theirs. Currently, the U.S. is planning to reduce U.S. and Russian strategic weapons deployments to as low as 1,000 warheads each. As a result, it is conceivable that in 10 years’ time the nuclear numbers separating the U.S. and Russia from the other nuclear weapons states will be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands of weapons (see figure below). In such a world, relatively small changes in any state’s nuclear weapons capabilities will have a much larger impact than it might on the world’s international security today.

The large and growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons usable materials (i.e., of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium) in a number of states will increase the international volatility that this set of trends is likely to induce. These already exceed tens of thousands crude bombs’ worth of material in the U.S. and Russia and are projected to grow in Pakistan, India, China, Israel, and Japan. This will enable all of these states to increase their current nuclear deployments much more quickly and dramatically than ever was possible previously (see figures below for these states’ current holdings):


Nuclear Weapons Fuel Waiting in the Wings

Global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium.
National stocks of highly enriched uranium as of mid-2009 from the Global Fissile Material Report 2009 by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.
Global stockpiles of plutonium
National stocks of separated plutonium as of mid-2009 from the Global Fissile Material Report 2009 by the International Panel on Fissile Materials..

Russia has roughly 700 tons of weapons grade uranium and over 100 tons of separated plutonium in excess of its military requirements and the U.S. has roughly 50 tons of separated plutonium and around 160 tons of highly enriched uranium. China also holds significant stockpiles of both types of material which it could quickly convert to nuclear fuel – at least enough to make 2000 or more nuclear weapons. It is also planning two “commercial” reprocessing plants that could generate enough material for around 1000 crude nuclear weapons a year.

South Asia also contains two nuclear weapons states not safeguarded under the NPT, India and Pakistan, which are stockpiling weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium respectively and are both increasing their nuclear fuel making capacity. In the Greater Middle East, Israel continues to possess weapons-grade material without any safeguards as Iran ramps up production of highly enriched uranium while ignoring international calls to stop or fully account for the purpose of its activities. Finally, while Japan is not a nuclear weapons state it holds title to roughly 47 tons of separated plutonium, most stored in France but with the 8.7 tons on its own soil it could create more than 2000 crude nuclear weapons. A new reprocessing plant there will also make more separated plutonium in the coming years which could be used to make another 1,000 crude weapons worth of plutonium annually.

Twenty years out, then, there could be more nuclear weapons ready states – countries that could acquire nuclear weapons in a matter of months, like Japan and Iran. As already noted, more than 25 states have announced plans to launch large civilian nuclear programs. If they all realize their dreams of bringing their first power reactors on line by 2030, it would constitute a near doubling of the 31 states that currently have such programs, most of which are in Europe (see figures below):

Limited Number of States with Reactors Today

Reactors in states today and the number they plan to build by 2030.

Planned Reactor Construction by 2030


Planned Reactor Construction by 2030

Such a nuclear expansion could have major military implications. Every current weapons state first brought a large reactor on line prior to acquiring its first bomb. The U.K., France, Russia, India, Pakistan, and the U.S. all made many of their initial bombs from reactors that also provided power to their electrical grids. The U.S., in fact, still uses a power reactor, a “proliferation resistant” light water reactor operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, to make all of its weapons grade tritium for its nuclear arsenal.

Other plants, of course, are needed to chemically separate out weapons usable plutonium from the spent reactor fuel or to enrich the uranium used to power such machines. Yet, as the recent cases of Iran and North Korea demonstrate, such plants can be built and operated in ways that make it difficult to detect diversions in a timely fashion. Certainly, if all of the announced civilian nuclear programs are completed as planned, the world in 2030 would be far less stable. Instead of there being several confirmed nuclear weapons states -- most of which the U.S. can claim are either allies or strategic partners -- there could be an unmanageable number of additional nuclear weapons capable states -- armed or weapons ready – to contend with, as the figures below depict.).

Currrent [roloferation Potential Nuclear 1914

In such a world, the U.S. might know who its friends and potential adversaries might be but Washington would have difficulty knowing what such states might do in a crisis – close ranks with the U.S., go their own way developing weapons options, or follow the lead of some other nuclear-capable nation. As for America’s possible adversaries, Washington would have difficulty determining just how lethal these adversaries’ military forces might be.

All of this would only heighten the prospects for nuclear terrorism. Not only would there be more opportunities to seize nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons materials, there would be more military and civilian nuclear facilities to sabotage. Finally, the potential for miscalculation and nuclear war could rise to a point where even nonnuclear acts of terror could ignite larger conflicts that could turn nuclear.

Taken together, then, these trends could easily duplicate or exceed the kind of volatility that preceded the First and Second World Wars – periods in which overly ambitious arms control objectives were pursued while states completed major covert and overt military preparations that heightened tensions and subsequently were employed in total wars.

The key objective of this project is to clarify just how these trends might play themselves out and what, if anything, can be done to deflect them.

Learn more:

Avoiding a Nuclear Crowd: How to Resist The Weapon's Spread, by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, June 2009.

Fissile Materials in South Asia and the Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal by Zia Mian, A. H. Nayyar, R. Rajaraman, and M. V. Ramana in Pakistan's Nuclear Future, Worries Beyond War, Strategic Studies Institute, 2008.

Global Fissile Materials Reports from International Panel on Fissile Materials

Nuclear 1914: The Next Big Worry by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski from Taming the Next Set of Strategic Weapons Threats, Strategic Studies Institute, 2006.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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