September 19, 2004
A World of Nuclear Dangers
he cold war generation grew up worrying about the bomb, the Russians and World War III. Today's nuclear nightmares are more varied, but no less scary. The list of nuclear-armed states is lengthening alarmingly, and each new entry increases the chances that some nasty regional war could turn nuclear. Nuclear terrorism has emerged as a terrifying new threat. Russia has huge, poorly guarded stockpiles of nuclear bomb fuel and there is a small but increasing possibility that its decaying early warning system could trigger an accidental launch.
As a senator and a candidate,
Mr. Kerry would also break with Bush policies that unintentionally encourage nuclear proliferation, like the Strangelovian plans for research on unneeded new nuclear weapons.
India and Pakistan tested their first nuclear bombs in 1998. North Korea is close, if not already there. Iran is not very far behind. In the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Korean peninsula, an escalation of conventional conflict into nuclear war has to be treated as a realistic possibility.
The steady spread of these weapons also increases the risks of backdoor sales of nuclear technology, as the worldwide arms bazaar run by A. Q. Khan of Pakistan so chillingly demonstrated. This creeping proliferation has meant the dispersal of nuclear bomb ingredients like highly enriched uranium and plutonium into countries with poor governance, uncertain stability and corrupt officials. That makes it easier for terrorists to acquire such material and try to fashion usable nuclear bombs.
Mr. Bush once lumped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an "axis of evil." But his decision to invade Iraq limited the diplomatic and military tools left available to influence North Korea and Iran - which were undoubtedly taught by the Iraq experience that the best protection against a pre-emptive strike is a nuclear arsenal.
In both cases, precious time has been lost while the administration has followed largely unproductive diplomatic strategies. Mr. Bush now wants to ask the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. But many Council members, including major European allies, are not ready to do so. On North Korea, the administration has insisted on discussions including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States. These have made no discernible progress, in part because Washington waited until this summer to put its first serious negotiating proposal on the table. With the talks stalled, North Korea has all the time it needs to reprocess its plutonium into several nuclear bombs.
Mr. Kerry would try to jump-start the North Korea talks with a comprehensive new American proposal. He would, like Mr. Bush, insist that Iran renounce all domestic processing of nuclear fuel while promising that it could count on access to reliable imported supplies of civilian reactor fuel in return. Any distinction between the two candidates on Iran rests on Mr. Kerry's contention that he could better line up European support.
If there is still time to dissuade these two countries from going nuclear, there isn't much. North Korea may already have assembled test devices. Iran may soon have all the technology and raw materials needed to proceed. Still, the international community should explore every avenue to persuade both countries that it is not in their best interest to build nuclear weapons. In exchange for a verifiable dismantling of their nuclear programs, Washington and other governments ought to be willing to offer substantial economic, diplomatic and security concessions. If that fails to produce results, international pressure will have to be substantially ratcheted up. Further months of stalemate while nuclear fuel processing work continues is not an acceptable option.
There is nothing secret anymore about how to process uranium or plutonium to the purity needed for bomb-making, nor is it all that hard to acquire the raw ingredients. And every nuclear wannabe has now learned how to disguise the early phases of a nuclear weapons effort as part of a civilian nuclear energy program, a trick pioneered decades ago by India and most recently employed by Iran. Unfortunately, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was explicitly intended to encourage such power programs, making it much harder to fend off the emergence of new nuclear weapons states. Obviously, the treaty needs to be toughened.
Mr. Bush has rightly called on other countries to deny nuclear-related exports to any nation that refuses to forgo such fuel processing plants. He should accelerate the process by calling on the four other main nuclear exporting countries to join Washington in an immediate ban.
It is also vital to extend the reach of the nonproliferation treaty with a proposed new fissile materials agreement. Senator Kerry strongly supports this and President Bush says he supports it too, but his administration recently undermined the treaty talks by announcing, perversely, that Washington would insist that the agreement contain no provisions for verification or inspections.
Although the United States and Russia have deactivated thousands of nuclear warheads since the end of the cold war, tens of thousands remain activated or sitting in stockpiles where they can be quickly reassembled. The arms reduction agreement signed by President Bush and President Vladimir Putin in 2002 calls for most of these warheads to be deactivated by 2012, but no reductions are required sooner than that and many of the deactivated warheads will still be retained in stockpiles. America's stored and deactivated weapons are well secured, but many of Russia's are not. In addition, Russia's poorly maintained launch command and early warning systems may be dangerously degrading. At some point, they might conceivably become vulnerable to terrorists. Well over a thousand warheads on each side remain on hair-trigger alert.
Washington is helping Russia upgrade its storage security, but at such a slow rate that hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium will be lying around for many years. Every ton of highly enriched uranium can be used to make more than 100 nuclear bombs. A ton of plutonium can go even further.
The answer is to sharply increase funding for the broad range of American programs intended to secure this material and reduce or eliminate other threats from cold war weapons. This is the most cost-effective defense spending in the federal budget. A bipartisan commission in 2001 recommended tripling spending for these programs, but the Bush administration has failed to follow through. Senator Kerry proposes a significant increase aimed at securing all of Russia's loose bomb fuel in four years.
While Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry seem to agree on many nuclear proliferation issues, the difference lies in their approach to international problems. Voters will have to decide whether Mr. Kerry's emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation is the best way to keep a lid on these nuclear threats, or whether Mr. Bush's more unilateral approach to foreign affairs is better. There is no graver subject for their consideration this election year.
Campaign 2004: The Big Issues: Editorials in this series remain online at nytimes.com/issues.