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World: Nuclear-Power Push Eroding Nonproliferation Efforts, Expert Says

An October 2006 demonstration in Seoul against North Korea's nuclear program (epa) PRAGUE, June 18, 2007 -- North Korea and Iran continue to grab the headlines over their nuclear programs, keeping the world focused on the broader issue of nuclear proliferation. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based think-tank, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten about the issues during a visit to Prague today.

RFE/RL: You've referred to the case of Iran and North Korea as "nuclear spilled milk." Could you elaborate on this? Do you mean it's futile to try to get Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear bomb or to have Tehran stop trying to obtain one?

Henry Sokolski: You're going to probably, in both cases, have to engage in a much longer-term competition to get the current set of rulers to understand it's not in their interest to persist in the nuclear programs that they have. And it may well require that they leave the scene. We may have to wait them out. By the way, in this regard it's not unique. Most of the successes we've had with regard to countries giving up their nuclear-weapons programs -- in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Ukraine -- came with a change of the regime or who was ruling it.

"It would be better if someone emphasized something the United States and others are doing that is regrettable, which is that they're hyping the value of nuclear power for civil purposes."

So I think it's gotten to that point. And in the cases of South Africa and Ukraine, they had nuclear weapons. So I meant that these cases are all of the same type: they've passed a number of nuclear Rubicons such that just talking to them about nuclear matters probably isn't going to bear the kind of fruit that you want.

RFE/RL: So how do you deal with North Korea, assuming it's not about to undergo a change of regime?

Sokolski: Generally, it would make more sense to engage North Korea in a number of -- if you will -- competitions that are not just diplomatic. It is a diplomatic competition [in the sense that] we are vying for what we want and they are vying for what they want. But it seems to me we shouldn't limit the competitions to just the nuclear-diplomatic realm.

RFE/RL: What do you mean exactly?

Sokolski: It's a country that's violated any number of UN resolutions with regard to human rights. They have real, genuine gulags there. People die in there. They're killed in there. There are people who are forced not only to want to leave but are not allowed to come back. All of this is in violation of things signed, sealed, and delivered by North Korea and their neighbor, China. And you have to hold them to account if you care about these treaties.

RFE/RL: How can you hold them to account if China isn't on board?

Sokolski: During the Cold War, we didn't have Russia on board for a lot of things. Thank God we didn't listen to people who said that "without Russia we won't have unanimity on the Security Council, so you shouldn't bother about any of the things you're concerned about." That isn't the way we did it, thank God. And as a result, things are better.

RFE/RL: And how would you approach Iran? Are there any steps the international community isn't taking that could encourage Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions?

Sokolski: I think Iran may rightly believe that all we care about is trying to stall their nuclear program and that we'll do anything to get them to do just a little in that direction and as long as that's the case that they have leverage over us. They also seem to believe that they hold us hostage to control of the Straits of Hormuz -- that they have us over an oil barrel there and we have to be careful, lest they close the strait. And they've threatened to do that several times.

I think you want to disabuse them of all those ideas. That's not a very fulsome picture of how the world really is. [You can] do that by making it clear that you can get most of the oil out of the region without going through the strait, by working some pipelines that are near the point where you could do this, by making it very clear to them that it's an international waterway and that there are lots of countries that are interested in enforcing international conventions that even Iran enforces, and [those countries] are willing to send naval combatants to that region to do so.

RFE/RL: You've noted with concern that 31 countries around the world have large nuclear reactors and that in 2006 alone, 13 more expressed an interest in acquiring one. What countries are you worried about?

Sokolski: Egypt comes to mind. Turkey, Libya, Algeria. I think unless there's a much more compelling economic case to proceed with these programs now, they can wait. These countries have oil and gas or other ways of developing electrical savings that should be exhausted before they go into this. And the reason why isn't just economics; it's because of the security implications.

RFE/RL: Do you see a problem with the work of the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) whose mandate is to promote the use of civilian nuclear technology around the world?

Sokolski: There is a problem now because I think the agency isn't strict enough on what kind technology is being shared. It's gotten a lot better, but I think it could be tougher still.

And I think there is a problem with putting large reactors in the Middle East or other places where the [power] grids are very small and where they have tremendous difficulty absorbing large chunks of electricity of any sort. And the economics of building these plants.... They're very, very, very expensive. I mean, you're talking two to four times what it would cost to use nonnuclear alternatives in some cases.

The case for the benefits is pretty weak and the case for these things being peaceful may not be as great as it needs to be. So the agency needs to do a much better job of distinguishing between just any kind of civil application and ones that are really economically beneficial for people and that can be properly safeguarded.

RFE/RL: Under the terms of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the other original nuclear states agreed to work for nuclear disarmament. In exchange, other signatories agreed not to seek nuclear arms. Well, the original nuclear powers have not given up their nuclear arsenals. Do they bear some responsibility for giving nuclear weapons their prestige? Aren't they sending a message that nuclear weapons still offer the ultimate protection and are the ultimate attribute of being a leading global power?

Sokolski: It would be churlish to say that states which have nuclear weapons don't bear some responsibility for having nuclear weapons. I mean that's tautological. But as for relying on these weapons for their national security, I have a couple of observations, which the press has consistently ignored or gummed over. If you take a look at Great Britain and France, the number of weapons they have has dropped dramatically in the last few years. The number of weapons the United States has deployed has dropped from a high of over 30,000 to somewhere in the next five years where it will be around 2,000. It's certainly worth noting that 2,000 is a big number and that the number should be smaller. But to ignore the jump from 30,000 to 2,000 and say it doesn't count strikes me as insane as well. The Russians have come down in large numbers.

Henry Sokolski in Prague on June 18 (RFE/RL)

The only numbers that are going up are in countries that haven't signed up to restraints under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India and Pakistan are building more. China, we worry is building more and they are a signatory to the NPT. So they're very coy about whether they are or they are not. There's a lot of controversy about what the numbers are. Some people say they only have 200 [weapons], while others say they have more but we just don't know about them.

But the point here is I don't think there's an overall trend of modernizing in a big way. The fact is the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China haven't tested a nuclear device for over a decade and promise not to. They've stopped making fissile material to make bombs. Their arsenals in absolute numbers are going down. So I guess my problem with that argument is that it would be better if someone emphasized something the United States and others are doing that is regrettable, and clear and sustainable, which is that they're hyping the value of nuclear power for civil purposes. I don't hear too much of criticism of that. But that is rebuttable. And it is demonstrable that we're doing this.

RFE/RL: Public-opinion polls in Iran show that across the political spectrum, most people favor their country acquiring nuclear weapons. They believe it will make them more secure and guarantee their independence. What would you say to dissuade them?

Sokolski: Every country that we know that has openly declared that they have nuclear weapons -- Great Britain, France, Pakistan, and India -- have found themselves having to turn to some other country for help to maintain the quality of their forces, to make sure they weren't hijacked by unauthorized people, or targeted by other countries successfully.

So Great Britain turned to the United States; France turned to Great Britain and the United States for help; India is struggling to get assistance -- probably from the United States. The Pakistanis are flummoxed, because it's not clear where they're going to turn. They may have to turn for financial assistance to increase their arsenal to China. So, there's that problem.

I think the other problem with acquiring these weapons is that it seems like a great idea if you have to do it. We thought we had to do it at the end of the Second World War, because we couldn't figure out how to end our war with Japan. And so we not only acquired them, we used them. But there were consequences. As a result of having them and using them, the Russians got them. And we got locked into a major competition with them, which was very expensive. Other countries learn that when they get these things, they have knock-on effects that are not so pleasant.

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