Debating our nuclear future
Matthew Martin
Iowa City Press-Citizen
In recent weeks, the countries of the world have come together in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the state of nuclear weapons, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy in our world today. As one of the diplomats gathered might say, there is room for improvement.

We have reached a crossroads on nuclear issues, and it's clear from the discussions I attended last week in Vienna—as well as our debates here at home—that we have not yet decided where we want to go. Our task would be much easier if each issue could be taken in turn, one at a time. But as all three issues are intertwined, we do not have this luxury.

Securing dangerous nuclear material is considered a global priority in Vienna as it is in the United States, where President Bush and Senator Kerry in 2004 agreed that nuclear terrorism is the greatest international security threat facing the country. The global community has given a lot of lip service to this goal—and some progress is being made.

But terrorists cannot make nuclear weapons—at least not without significant help from countries—whether intentionally (as in the scenario of North Korea selling nuclear weapons to terrorists for hard currency) or unintentionally (such as the possibility of a guard in Russia being bribed to turn a blind eye as nuclear material goes out the back door of a warehouse).

As retired Senator Sam Nunn likes to say, "Acquiring weapons and materials is the hardest step for the terrorists to take and the easiest step for us to stop. By contrast, every subsequent step in the process is easier for the terrorists to take and harder for us to stop." So while we must be comprehensive in our efforts, the majority of our focus should be on dealing with countries before the material reaches terrorists.

The real challenge lies in the fact that any country independently developing nuclear energy within their own borders also can, given sufficient time and material, develop nuclear weapons. Potential solutions to this problem have been circulating for the past several years, most suggesting that international sources of nuclear fuel should be created to supply countries requiring it so they don't need to develop it internally.

Many countries are skeptical of this plan, fearing a loss of independence. And they have a point: consider our own dependence on foreign oil and the problems that has caused. Furthermore, for the countries that don't have nuclear weapons—all but nine—a move to restrict their activities is viewed as unfair when the rich and powerful nuclear "have" countries make no concessions themselves.

Which brings us to the second problem. Most countries have agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons for themselves on the condition that the countries that do have them eventually get rid of theirs. But 37 years after making this bargain, most see little progress on this end.

In fact, they point to a number of recent indications—most coming from the United States—that the nuclear-armed states have no intention of giving up their weapons. Right now there are plans to build new US nuclear weapons for the first time in a generation. The same policies of preemption that led to the war in Iraq also raise the possibility of a US nuclear strike, even on countries without nuclear weapons. And we continue to keep thousands of our current nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire at a moment's notice 15 years past our nuclear face-off with the Soviet Union. Under these developments, most of the nonnuclear weapon countries wonder why they should improve their efforts.

Our loss of international credibility and leverage in these matters is evident in Vienna, where discussions are making little progress, as have similar conferences over the last several years. The situation here in the United States in recent years is not so different with the White House and Congress at odds over the future direction of US nuclear weapons policy.

With the United States preoccupied with a host of other matters—Iraq, Afghanistan, domestic politics, and an ongoing series of political scandals—it seems unlikely that a new grand initiative on nuclear security will be forthcoming anytime soon.

Yet experts and officials warn us of the present dangers of a "nuclear 9/11" all too often, and we cannot afford to delay indefinitely. Strong leadership that presents a comprehensive roadmap to a more secure nuclear future urgently is needed—and soon.

Matthew Martin is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Muscatine-based Stanley Foundation.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.