[WSF-Discuss] Zia Mian and M V Ramana on the huge nuclear threat that the humanity is faced with

Sukla Sen sukla.sen at gmail.com
Tue Apr 19 06:29:58 CDT 2016


April 19, 2016
Updated: April 19, 2016 09:48 IST

The road not taken


Prime Minister Narendra Modi with other leaders during a photo session
at the Nuclear Security Summit meeting in Washington.

Nuclear Security Summits have yielded little by focussing on securing
small amounts of nuclear material. Any real progress must entail the
U.S. and Russia reducing stockpiles and India and Pakistan reining in
competitive nuclearisation.

On March 31 and April 1, leaders of 52 countries including India came
together in Washington DC for the fourth Nuclear Security Summit. Held
every two years since 2010, these summits started with the recognition
of the risks posed by plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), the
key ingredients for making nuclear weapons, and aimed to “secure all
vulnerable nuclear material in four years”. Despite this high-level
political attention, and fanfare, these summits have achieved little.
To make matters worse, countries that in 2010 were producing plutonium
and highly enriched uranium continue to do so, and the dangers from
nuclear weapons have been neglected.

The main failings were of conception and a political willingness to
settle for easy options. Despite the expansive declarations of the
need “to maintain effective security of all nuclear materials, which
includes nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons”, the summits
narrowed their focus to civilian holdings in non-nuclear weapon
states. This material is already being monitored by International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and, more importantly, is but a
tiny fraction of actual global stockpiles. Some numbers will help put
this in perspective.

Nuclear haves and have-nots

Closing the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama
summed up what has been achieved in the six years since this effort
started: “We’ve now removed or secured all the highly enriched uranium
and plutonium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries — more than
3.8 tons, which is more than enough to create 150 nuclear weapons.”
This may sound like a lot, until one looks at the scale of the actual

Since 2006, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), an
independent group of arms-control and non-proliferation experts from
17 countries, has been keeping track of HEU and plutonium around the
world. In Global Fissile Material Report 2015, IPFM’s most recent
annual assessment of stockpiles, it was estimated that there is about
1,370 tons of HEU in the world, “enough for more than 76,000 simple,
first-generation fission implosion weapons” with about 99 per cent of
this material held by nuclear weapon states, mostly Russia and the
United States. The IPFM estimated the global stockpile of separated
plutonium as about 505 tons, enough for about 1,30,000 nuclear
weapons. About 98 per cent of this material is stored in the nuclear
weapon states. Taken together, this gives a total global stockpile of
almost 1,900 tons of nuclear weapons-usable material.

To be sure, IPFM’s stockpile figures are unofficial estimates — most
of the nuclear weapons states have not declared their fissile
materials stocks — but there is reason to assume the overall figure is
reasonable. In his opening remarks at the 2016 summit, Mr. Obama said
“at hundreds of military and civilian facilities around the world,
there’s still roughly 2,000 tons of nuclear material”.

The subcontinental race

No one at the Nuclear Security Summit talked specifically about HEU or
plutonium in South Asia. This is despite that fact that India and
Pakistan, in many ways, lie at the centre of concerns for those
wanting to reduce the risks from fissile materials. For a start, the
two countries are among the four states in the world that continue to
produce HEU and plutonium for weapons, the other two being Israel and
(possibly) North Korea. There are no official reports of the sizes of
Pakistani and Indian stockpiles of HEU and plutonium. The IPFM
estimates that India and Pakistan each have a stockpile of about three
tons of HEU. In addition, India is estimated as of end-2014 to have a
stockpile of about 0.6 tons (600 kilograms) of weapons-grade
plutonium, while Pakistan has about 0.2 tons (200 kilograms). India is
also believed to have separated about 5 tons of reactor-grade
plutonium — material that can be fashioned into nuclear weapons but
was not made for that purpose. India has another 0.4 tons of
reactor-grade plutonium that it has placed under IAEA safeguards and
thus is not available for use in weapons. Pakistan, so far, has no
stockpile of reactor-grade plutonium.

Many, including Mr. Obama, have recognised that plutonium is a
problem. Speaking in Seoul, South Korea, in 2012, he stated, “We know
that just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an
apple — could kill hundreds of thousands and spark a global crisis.”
This is why “we simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the
very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep
away from terrorists”.

This insight, shared by almost all countries with nuclear energy, has
been lost on India’s Department of Atomic Energy, which is committed
to the separation of plutonium from the spent fuel from nuclear
reactors (dubbed “reprocessing”). It has also pursued the construction
of a special kind of nuclear power plant called a fast breeder reactor
that makes more plutonium than it consumes as fuel. Most countries
with nuclear energy have never gone down this route; of the few
countries that have tried, most have abandoned it. Nonetheless, India
continues to pursue this goal despite the fact that the two
technologies underlying this way of generating nuclear energy,
reprocessing and fast breeder reactors, have proven hugely expensive
and highly problematic.

But nuclear developments in India and Pakistan did come up at the 2016
summit. In his wrap-up statement to the media, Mr. Obama pointed out
two major obstacles to nuclear disarmament. The first was that “it is
very difficult to see huge reductions in our nuclear arsenal unless
the United States and Russia, as the two largest possessors of nuclear
weapons, are prepared to lead the way”. The second was “we’d need to
see progress in Pakistan and India... making sure that as they develop
military doctrines, they are not continually moving in the wrong
direction”. He is correct on both counts.

No sign of scaling down

Any real progress towards ending the grave danger posed by nuclear
weapons to humankind must address the brute fact that the United
States and Russia had about 14,700 nuclear weapons (as of 2015), and
the other seven nuclear weapon states held a combined total of about
1,100 weapons. Worse yet, both the United States and Russia have
launched massive long-term nuclear weapons “modernisation” programmes,
which in the case of the United States is estimated to cost as much as
$1 trillion over the next 30 years. For a President who started off
promising in Prague in 2009 that the “United States will take concrete
steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”, the modernisation
programme represents Mr. Obama’s greatest failure.

Similarly, the nuclear situation in South Asia is bad and getting
worse, just on a smaller scale. And this has been the failure of South
Asian leaders. Both countries are developing nuclear arsenals that are
basically scaled-down versions of those created by the superpowers
during the Cold War. India has developed a variety of land-based
missile types and is operationalising the Arihant nuclear-powered
submarine, to be armed with the 700-km range K-15 or 3,500-km range
K-4 nuclear missiles. Pakistan, for its part, has been developing
air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and an
array of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, some with ranges of over
2,000 km. It also has a naval strategic forces command and may arm
some of its conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise
missiles, and, in the long term, seek to build its own nuclear-powered

Pakistan also is seeking nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield.
These pose special challenges; as the White House Press Secretary
explained, “Tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use on the
battlefield… are a source of concern because they’re susceptible to
theft due to their size and mode of employment… the threshold for
their use is lowered” and these weapons create “the risk that a
conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to
include the use of nuclear weapons”.

Just as India clings to its plutonium ambitions, Pakistan refuses to
budge on its tactical nuclear weapons. General Khalid Kidwai, who for
15 years was responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons programme,
insists that “Pakistan would not cap or curb its nuclear weapons
programme or accept any restrictions”.

***The future looks bleak. Years have been wasted securing small
amounts of nuclear material while real nuclear dangers have grown. To
address the nuclear threats that actually imperil the world, the focus
should be on getting states to make a clear commitment to eliminate
nuclear weapons and agree to concrete and urgent plans to eliminate
nuclear arsenals and the nuclear material stockpiles that make them
possible.*** [Emphasis added.]

(Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana are with the Program on Science and Global
Security, Princeton University, U.S., and members of the International
Panel on Fissile Materials.)

Peace Is Doable

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