Thursday, January 05, 2012

Nuclear Issues: Security Benefits of Nuclear Abolition to USA

By Frederick N. Mattis*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

ANNAPOLIS, USA (IDN) - The alarm over the Iranian nuclear program calls for reflection on the ultimate cause of all nuclear weapons-related threats: the absence of a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons.

Focusing on the USA, below are security benefits of nuclear abolition – with axioms being that all states have joined a treaty banning nuclear weapons before it enters into force, and that worldwide inspection (verification) applies, and that before signing the nuclear ban treaty, states must fully join the current chem-bio weapons bans: 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

First, the USA would no longer face the threat of terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon from a state's arsenal. A terrorist nuclear detonation would be catastrophic beyond measure; but under nuclear abolition, terrorists would no longer have possible access, by theft or other means, to nuclear warheads of any state.

The other current avenue for terrorists to attain a nuclear weapon would be to obtain, by theft or other means, about 100 pounds of uranium already enriched to nearly 90 percent isotope uranium-235, and then to fabricate a relatively simple "gun-type" nuclear weapon. (The actual enrichment of uranium by terrorists for such a weapon would in extreme probability be beyond their scope, even if aided by rogue scientists and technicians.)

However, this possible means of terrorist nuclear attainment can also be cut off – if a worldwide nuclear weapons ban requires cessation of highly-enriched uranium [HEU] use (i.e., in some naval and research and isotope production reactors), and requires blending-down of HEU stocks to non-weapons usable low-enriched uranium.

Under a fully enacted nuclear weapons ban, there would likely still exist substantial stocks of plutonium, which is also usable for nuclear weapons. However, that would not open up worrisome danger of terrorists attaining a nuclear weapon even if they somehow acquired plutonium, because the complex engineering of an "implosion" weapon – which is required when using plutonium due to its level of neutron emission – is beyond the realistically conceived personnel and technological resources of even well-financed terrorists. (Plutonium could be used for a radiological or "dirty" bomb, but this would not be a true nuclear, i.e., fission explosion.)

To summarize on nuclear terrorism and the USA: only the worldwide elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons, with stipulation also of blending-down of HEU to low-enriched uranium, will free the USA from the current terrorist dangers of acquisition of a nuclear weapon from a state’s arsenal, or acquisition of HEU to fabricate a relatively simple gun-type weapon. ("Simple" does not imply lack of destructive power; the Hiroshima-weapon was of this design, so-named because masses of HEU are slammed together to form a supercritical mass in a container resembling a gun barrel.)

Second nuclear-abolition security benefit to the USA is that it would be freed from the threat of possible nuclear strike by a fanatic or deranged regime or leader of a state. With no nuclear weapons, none could be launched due to influence of madness or fervor (or vengeance or desperation).

Third, the possibility of "false-alarm" nuclear missile launch against the USA would finally vanish. The current danger to the USA, of course, is primarily related to the hundreds of U.S. and Russian warheads still on high-alert status – although many fewer than Cold War heights. In 1995 the U.S. launch of a research rocket was communicated in advance to Russia, but word never reached necessary channels and President Boris Yeltsin came within minutes of activating a Russian nuclear response. Systems and humans can have failures; but under elimination of nuclear weapons the people of the USA (and Russia) would be freed from the possibility of "false-alarm" nuclear missile launch.

Fourth, particular U.S. foreign policy headaches, and potential concomitant disasters, would be obviated with a worldwide nuclear weapons ban. Pre-eminently, Iran would cease to pose a credible threat to attain nuclear weapons, this because Iran and all states would be under the unprecedented geopolitical, legal, psychological, and moral force of a nuclear abolition treaty that regards states equally and thus fairly, and relieves all states and people of current nuclear threats, and applies worldwide inspection/verification. (Iran, for its part, has long vocalized support for worldwide nuclear elimination while criticizing current arsenals of nuclear weapon states.) Further, the foreseeable certainty of international storms of opposition and obloquy against a pernicious violator of the treaty would be a high-wall deterrent to any inclination to its violation – especially so given that the treaty was joined by all states before its entry into force.

Fifth, any chemical or biological weapon threats from states against the USA would be diminished, likely to near-zero, with the geopolitical and other force of aforementioned (recommended) nuclear ban-required accession by states to the current chem-bio bans prior to signing a nuclear weapons ban. (Most countries, including the USA and Russia, are already parties to the CWC and BWC.)

In addition, the then-fully worldwide reach of the CWC and BWC would reduce the potential terrorist chem-bio threat against the USA, due to CWC/BWC strictures on amount and variety of chem-bio weapons-usable agents, plus no states having "weaponized" chem-bio agents that could possibly be obtained by terrorists.

Today's "weapons of mass destruction" threats, particularly nuclear, to the security of the USA and its people will persist at an unacceptably high level until the weapons are banned worldwide. Understandably, though, the USA and certain other countries most likely will insist that a nuclear abolition treaty only enter into force after it is unanimously joined. The mere introduction of such a treaty for states’ signatures will bring to the forefront the authentic security benefits of nuclear abolition to all states.

*Frederick N. Mattis is author of "Banning Weapons of Mass Destruction", pub. ABC-CLIO/Praeger Security International (ISBN: 978-0-313-36538-6). [IDN-InDepthNews – January 4, 2012]