Published: October 15, 2006 (some exerpts)
North Korea’s reported test has shaken the nuclear status quo and raised anew the question of whether Asia will be the first to feel a nuclear “domino effect,” in which states clandestinely hedge their bets by assembling the crucial technologies needed to make a bomb, or actually cross the line to become new weapons states. In the Middle East, the confrontation with Iran has focused new attention on countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which fear that an Iranian bomb would make Tehran the greatest power in the region.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., has estimated that up to 49 nations now know how to make nuclear arms, and he has warned that global tensions could push some over the line.
“We are relying,” he said, “primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries — intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security or insecurity, and could therefore be subject to rapid change.”
Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, said this year that “the international community seems almost to be sleepwalking” down a path where states, after long living without nuclear arms, now feel compelled to revisit their logic.
He warned of a new arms race — not one of superpowers, but of regional powers. “Perhaps most damaging of all,” he concluded, “there is also a perception that the possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction offers the best protection against being attacked.”
In London, the World Nuclear Association says 28 new reactors are under construction, 62 planned, and 160 proposed, most in Asia. The required uranium, it estimates, could run to more than 65,000 tons.
In May, Brazil, despite growing pressure to give up indigenous production, inaugurated its first uranium enrichment plant — an assembly of advanced centrifuges in Resende, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. While Iran has aroused global suspicions for erecting a similar plant, Brazil managed to reassure other nations, and the international atomic agency, that its aims are peaceful.
Hans-Holger Rogner, an economist at the international atomic agency, said that many forecasts for the 21st century foresaw huge expansions beyond the 443 power reactors now operating globally.“An increase to 5,000 reactors is well within the range of many of the longer-range studies,” Dr. Rogner said, adding: “People are positioning themselves. There seems to be a race coming and nobody wants to be left out.”
Japan is the ultimate example of a “nuclear option” state, a country that the world knows could become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be. “They could be very far down the road toward a virtual deterrent and not be in violation of any of the existing international treaties,” said Robert L. Gallucci, the former chief American negotiator with North Korea.
South Korea has also vowed not to pursue nuclear weapons. But it has an extensive network of nuclear power reactors and a few years ago, I.A.E.A. inspectors found evidence of undeclared experimentation to make highly enriched uranium. In the early 1990’s, South Korea signed an agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free — but it signed the accord with North Korea.
If Iran — a Shiite state — does indeed build nuclear weapons, there are fears that Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia or Egypt will be tempted to make their own bombs. Recently, the international atomic agency found that Egypt had kept some of its old and new efforts cloaked in secrecy, including a continuing project to acquire uranium ore in the Sinai desert. In September, Cairo announced plans to revive its stalled program to build reactors for generating nuclear power.
At a dinner in New York in September, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran looked supremely confident as he batted away the idea that other countries could be relied upon to provide him with the nuclear fuel he said he needed.
“Before stopping enrichment by others, why don’t you stop building the next generation of nuclear weapons?” he asked his American hosts. Then, smiling, he suggested that the United States just buy its nuclear fuel from Iran’s new facilities. He would sell it to Washington, he said, “with a 50 percent discount.”