Not Even One More Nuclear Nation : Spread of the ‘Bomb’ Outruns Controls, Posing Global Danger

<i> Warren Christopher, a deputy secretary of state in the Carter Administration, is chairman of the Los Angeles law firm of O'Melveny & Myers. </i>

The huge “pharmaceutical” plant under construction in the desert south of Tripoli has drawn attention to the deficiencies of the 64-year-old Geneva protocol banning the “use” but not the production of chemical arms. The specter of Libya’s Moammar Kadafi armed with chemical weapons energized the recent Geneva conference, and the participating governments should follow up aggressively.

We should not, however, become so fixated on chemical weapons that we ignore the horrific threat of the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. On the contrary, a new Administration in Washington and a new atmosphere in U.S.-Soviet relations make this an ideal time to renew our commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, this urgent yet slighted part of the arms-control agenda.

When a non-nuclear country obtains its first nuclear bomb, it creates far more global danger than an equivalent expansion of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenal. Yet non-proliferation has received only sporadic attention in recent years, often no more than lip service. It appears that the spread of nuclear weapons is outrunning the institutions set up to control it.


Five states acknowledge that they possess nuclear weapons. Four more either have them or are very close, and others are trying.

In South Asia, Pakistan has aggressively pursued uranium enrichment and other nuclear technology, but this did nothing to deter a $5-billion U.S. aid program to encourage Pakistani support of the Afghan resistance.

India has been a particular concern since it exploded a nuclear device in 1974. While the Soviet Union has been generally cooperative on this issue, its desire to offset the political consequences of its Afghan adventure led it to make deals with India for nuclear reactors and nuclear powered submarines.

Israel poses an increasingly explicit challenge to non-proliferation efforts. In September, 1986, an Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, disclosed information about Israeli nuclear weapons that made it untenable for Israel’s friends to deny that promises were broken regarding peaceful uses of nuclear supplies. In the process, the credibility of the non-proliferation effort has been undermined and the nuclear aspirations of some of Israel’s neighbors have probably intensified. South Africa has been a concern for a decade, and may have a covert arsenal.

While Iraq has been preoccupied with its conflict with Iran, there is no reason to believe that its nuclear ambitions have disappeared; perhaps they have only gone underground. There are indications that the Khomeini regime intends to revive the ambitious Iranian nuclear program pursued by his predecessor, the Shah.

In our own hemisphere, both Brazil and Argentina have pursued ambitious nuclear programs, and neither has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Taiwan and Korea have also shown some interest, although they are signatories to the treaty.

The most nightmarish vision, of irrational national leaders or even terrorists armed with nuclear weapons, is becoming increasingly realistic. Libya’s Kadafi has long been in the market for nuclear technology. He received help with a small research reactor and atomic research center from the Soviet Union beginning in 1975. To broaden his access, he has offered to finance nuclear programs in Pakistan and missile developments in Brazil.

Technical developments have made it easier to make a bomb in secret. Experts now widely agree that a basic atomic bomb can be built without tests, using plans obtained from countries whose designs have been proven; sophisticated laboratory equipment may speed the process.

Advancing technology has also broadened access to efficient nuclear delivery systems--specifically missiles. Iraq and Iran repeatedly struck one another’s cities with Soviet Scud missiles. Saudi Arabia has acquired 1,600-mile range missiles from China. Syria has obtained highly accurate 75-mile range Soviet missiles. Israel has produced its own missiles with a potential range of 900 miles. Others making efforts to develop or acquire nuclear-capable missiles include Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, India, Libya and Pakistan.

To contain this dangerous trend, the new Administration should promptly take these actions:

--Non-proliferation should be identified as a primary area of strengthened U.S.-Soviet cooperation. This could take a variety of forms, including consultation on difficult cases, agreement on tightened restrictions on transfers in nuclear technology, pressure for multilateral limits on transfer of missile-related technology, and agreement on appropriate sanctions for violations of supply agreements and the non-proliferation treaty.

--The United States must develop a rational policy for addressing non-proliferation issues with countries with which it has had a close relationship, notably Pakistan, India and Israel.

--We should support additional resources for the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that its worldwide surveillance of nuclear programs is effective.

--We should renew efforts with the European nations and other established suppliers to win consensus on requiring full-scope safeguards as part of nuclear supply agreements for fuel and equipment. We should also cultivate a responsible supply policy on the part of China.

Significant progress is being made to control the accumulation of nuclear arms by the United States and the Soviet Union. However, our celebrations must not divert us for even a moment from the peril of permitting nuclear arms to fall into the hands of people with fewer inhibitions about putting them to use. In the arms- control field, there is no higher priority than preventing even one more nation from getting the bomb.