Problem

Proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology

Other Names:
Diversion of nuclear materials
Nature:

Proliferation, in the sense of spread of independent ownership of nuclear weapons to more nations than those which currently possess them, is detrimental to international peace and security. The risks of using nuclear weapons are likely to increase the more there are independent possessor nations in the world. Nuclear source materials used for peaceful purposes cannot be safeguarded against diversion to military activities. There is danger in the lack of agreement by countries having nuclear reactors, to allow inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency of all such facilities for monitoring of the nuclear fuel cycle in order to detect or prevent diversion to military purposes. IAEA nations without nuclear weapons have agreed that membership is conditional upon such inspections, but the nuclear weapon nations are on a voluntary basis to negotiate terms of inspections and other safeguards. Only the UK and the USA have done so, while the USSR has made a token agreement to allow inspection of a portion of its 40 operating reactors.

Background:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) has always been considered as an inadequate provisional protection to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. It does not bind countries who have refused to sign it and have proceeded to develop nuclear technology. And some who did sign it, notably Iraq, have succeeded in deceiving the inspectorate of the IAEA, whose function is to detect violations. Such has been the case with North Korea, who signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty with a promise not to produce weapons and to facilitate international inspections, yet has been making plutonium on a tremendous scale at least since 1992. The treaty has two weaknesses. It only prohibits the transfer, possession or assembly of nuclear weapons and not of weapons-grade nuclear materials. And it lacks any provision against the transfer of nuclear expertise or experts.

Incidence:

Nuclear technology is spreading rapidly around the globe, because of the need for alternative energy production. In 1986, 26 countries had about 380 operating commercial nuclear power stations. As a by-product of this power production, considerable quantities of plutonium are produced each year: over 100 tons in 1980. About one third of this plutonium is produced in the present non-nuclear-weapon countries. This in theory could correspond to the production of about 100 nuclear weapons of nominal size per week in such countries. In the US, 23 university research reactors using highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium (such as the University of Missouri with 45 kgs and MIT with 29 kgs) have insufficient security to prevent theft, but are unwilling to convert to low-enriched uranium, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A 1993 report estimated nuclear weapons sales in the Middle East, including those suspected between North Korea and Iran, exceeded £30 billion during the previous three years. North Korea was believed to have hidden enough plutonium to construct between 2 and 5 atomic bombs by 1995.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
22.05.2019 – 17:15 CEST