Not Iran, Not North Korea, Not Libya, but Pakistan

Norman Dombey on the nuclear threat to international security

In March 2002 I attended one of the regular Foreign and Commonwealth Office meetings on nuclear non-proliferation. We were told by a senior official that Iraq had reassembled its nuclear scientists and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programme, which had been completely disbanded by UN inspectors after the 1991 Gulf War. In September 2002, Downing Street published its dossier claiming that Iraq had ‘sought … uranium from Africa’ and had imported hundreds of aluminium tubes alleged to be for use in uranium enrichment. Both claims, if true, would be signs of renewed Iraqi nuclear activity. Yet Dr Imad Khadduri, who worked in the Iraqi nuclear programme from 1968 until he left for Canada in 1998 and was involved in most major Iraqi nuclear activities in those thirty years, wrote in November 2002 in a Canadian journal that he found the ‘allegations about Iraq’s nuclear capability, as continuously advanced by the Americans and the British, to be ridiculous’.

So it turned out: it was all propaganda put about by Iraqi exile groups with the encouragement of powerful figures in the US and British governments who knew that an Iraqi nuclear threat was their best chance of turning public opinion in favour of war. Vice-President Cheney stated in August 2002 that ‘we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons . . . among other sources, we’ve gotten this from first-hand testimony from defectors, including Saddam’s own son-in-law.’ At Camp David on 7 September, Tony Blair said proof of a genuine nuclear threat had come in ‘the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites’. Saddam had killed his son-in-law Hussein Kamel in February 1996 and there had been no new IAEA report on 7 September. It is clearly no use relying on British and American government sources for a serious assessment of any nuclear threat from Iran, North Korea or Libya.

To discuss nuclear proliferation sensibly requires some basic background knowledge. Natural uranium consists of two isotopes: uranium-235 and uranium-238. U-235, which accounts for less than 1 per cent of natural uranium, is the isotope needed to build a nuclear weapon. To separate the two isotopes is an extremely complex and energy-intensive process requiring a special enrichment plant. The alternative route to nuclear weapons capability is via plutonium, which is produced in nuclear reactors. Separating plutonium out of the spent fuel from a reactor is very difficult as the spent fuel is highly radioactive. Countries with nuclear power programmes generally use low-enriched uranium fuel (2 to 3 per cent U-235) in their reactors. The international safeguards regime, which has existed since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970, requires IAEA inspection and detailed accounting of all nuclear materials in all nuclear facilities on the territories of non-weapon states which have signed up to the treaty. The aim of the safeguards is to ensure that there has been no diversion of nuclear material (plutonium or U-235) from civil use to a weapons programme.

The NPT has been surprisingly successful. When it came into force, it was widely believed that, because more states would be using nuclear power, there would be a concomitant rise in the number of countries with nuclear weapons. President Kennedy had already forecast that more than 20 states would have them by the 1970s. A Times leader of 1983 predicted that 40 countries would be capable of building weapons by 1990. At the present time, there are 56 states with civil nuclear reactors but, other than the five permanent members of the Security Council, only a handful of countries – Israel, India, Pakistan and possibly North Korea – possess nuclear weapons. Yet Israel and India already had advanced nuclear weapon programmes in the early 1970s, as did South Africa, which has since given them up. The number of states with nuclear weapons, in other words, has increased by one at most in thirty years. In the same period, several nuclear weapons reduction treaties have been signed and perhaps the most important step in reducing proliferation – the agreement on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996 – has been taken. Though the CTBT is unfortunately not yet in force, it is now almost impossible for any state to test a weapon without detection.

North Korea has two small research reactors and a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon with the ability to produce plutonium from spent fuel. A larger plutonium-producing reactor is under construction. The Clinton administration did a deal with North Korea (the DPRK) in 1994 known as the Agreed Framework, under which the US and its partners (South Korea, Japan and the Eur0pean Union) undertook to build two light-water reactors (which use ordinary water as a coolant) in the DPRK to provide electricity. They also undertook to provide shipments of fuel oil to fill the energy needs of the DPRK while the reactors were being built. In return, the DPRK agreed to allow the IAEA to carry out inspections at Yongbyon, and to suspend construction of the plutonium-producing reactor and operation of the reprocessing plant. There are about 8000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, which if reprocessed should provide about 20 kilos of plutonium, enough for two or three weapons.

President Clinton received Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok in the White House in October 2000. Jo, a special envoy of President Kim Jong Il, invited Clinton to Pyongyang. The US and the DPRK ‘confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity’ and, as a first step, the two sides stated that ‘neither government would have hostile intent toward the other.’ Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang to lay the foundations for Clinton’s visit, which was scheduled for December 2000, but in the event he was still trying to clinch a deal on Israel and Palestine, and didn’t go. The Bush administration at first refused to confirm that it was bound by the ‘no hostile intent’ statement, then announced that North Korea was part of the ‘axis of evil’, and in November 2002 suspended the shipments of fuel oil. The DPRK responded by withdrawing from the NPT and thereby locking out the IAEA inspectors; then it restarted reprocessing operations at Yongbyon, and in October 2003 announced that it possessed nuclear weapons. A month later, the US officially pulled the plug on the proposed light-water reactors.

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[1] North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment, edited by Gary Samore (Palgrave, 120 pp., £65, January, 1 4039 3324 3).

[2] See www.fas.org/nuke/guide/pakistan/nuke/.

[3] See his talk to the Harvard-Sussex Programme, ‘War, Words and WMD’, available at www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/hsp/sussexdays.html.