In his latest book, strategist and defence analyst Hugh White has gone nuclear, triggering a debate about whether Australia should develop and maintain its own nuclear arsenal.
But developing and sustaining modern nuclear weapons requires a certain combination of technologies and industries that Australia simply does not have. In fact, it may be safely estimated on the basis of approval and construction times for nuclear power reactors in other western countries that it would take some 20 years to establish such capabilities in the present legal and economic environment.
White argues quite rightly that China may eventually overtake the US in terms of its industrial production and military reach. Speculating that this could entail a strategic withdrawal of the US from the western Pacific, he suggests Australia might find itself without the American defence umbrella to deter Chinese influence, or worse.
But Australia would struggle to replace its long and successful alliance with the US with a limited nuclear deterrence capability. Even ignoring the issues generally involved in adopting new defence capabilities – evident in the many problems hindering Australia’s efforts to replace its ageing submarine fleet – the idea is fanciful given our current stance on nuclear energy.
Nuclear power reactors, uranium enrichment plants, missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing would all be essential to support truly independent efforts to develop a compact nuclear weapon that could be delivered by missile from a submarine and kept in a permanent state of readiness.
Neither power reactors nor enrichment facilities exist in Australia today, despite some pioneering research in both areas in the past.
Australia’s missile development and high-tech electronics sectors, meanwhile, are in catch-up mode or in their infancy due to years of economic reliance on mining, tourism and services. Advancing and establishing nuclear industries for the sole purpose of developing a nuclear weapons program would neither be practically nor economically viable.
Political Will For Nuclear Energy?
The only way such industries could be developed realistically would be if Australia added nuclear power to its suite of power generation technologies.
Of course, Australia has large uranium deposits and a well-established uranium mining and export industry. And there appears to be increasing public support for nuclear power. A recent survey found that 44% of Australians support nuclear power plants, up four points since the question was last asked in 2015. Other polls indicate support might even be higher.
A well-developed nuclear power industry would eventually give Australia almost all the necessary technologies, personnel and materials to make and maintain a nuclear weapon. This includes, in particular, the ability to enrich uranium and breed plutonium.
In 2006, the federal government commissioned an inquiry led by Ziggy Switkowski into the future feasibility of nuclear power generation in Australia. The final report found that nuclear energy would be 20-50% more expensive than coal without carbon pricing. It also said a nuclear power industry would take between 10 and 15 years to establish.
Recently, Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the Morrison government was open to reversing the country’s nuclear energy ban, but only if there was a “clear business case” to do so. With the current widespread availability of cheaper, renewable energies in Australia, this makes the economics of nuclear power generation less convincing.
Lastly, in order to ensure true self-reliance, a delivery option for a nuclear weapon would have to be developed without purchasing technologies from other countries, such as the US. This would be incredibly costly and difficult to do.
When it comes to this sort of missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing, Australia is currently not leading in research and development.
Australia’s Long-Time Stance Against Nuclear Weapons
Even though Australia is not in a position to contemplate nuclear weapons due to its technological and industrial limitations, there are moral arguments against pursuing such a goal that should be considered carefully.
Australians should remind themselves that these treaties have greatly contributed to peace and security in the world. Abandoning such longstanding principles of its foreign policy, which are aimed at creating a better, more peaceful world, would be an implosion of Australian character of massive proportions.
Nuclear diplomacy as well as anti-establishment movements across the world beg the same question: which elites’ judgement is still trusted? The likely disappointment following the upcoming Trump-Kim summit will be blamed on insufficient trust or untrustworthiness of one or both of the participants. Similarly, the demise of the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces is the outcome of the United States and Russia accusing each other either of breaching the terms of the Treaty or of scapegoating the other side.
In this context of increasing distrust of elites and institutions as well as renuclearization of international politics, Pope Francis is a most interesting case to study: while facing a crisis regarding sexual abuse within the catholic church, he has remained a relatively popular figure even beyond believers; he also radicalised the Vatican’s stance against nuclear weapons policy. He unconditionally condemned use as well as threats of use of nuclear weapons on political and theological grounds. Is his judgement trusted? Is his leadership influential?
An Unusually Active Pope On Nuclear Matters
The current Pope has been unusually active compared to his predecessors in nuclear diplomacy. For example, in 2017, the Holy See ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and offered to host summits after its entry into force. The Pope also recently claimed he would consider accepting a formal invitation from Kim Jong-un in the context of the nuclear crisis with North Korea.
While young European citizens show very limited support for nuclear weapons policies conducted in their names and a sense of powerlessness in affecting them, how supportive have European citizens been of the Pope’s radical positions on the matter? How did the Pope’s message resonate among the European public?Pope Francis speaks in front of the United Nations.
A European Affair
Thanks to a cross-national survey conducted in June 2018 by the Nuclear Knowledges program through the VULPAN project on levels of knowledge and attitudes of the European public regarding nuclear weapons (funded by the French National Research Agency), we have a first glance on how adults in nine European countries perceive the Pope’s approach to nuclear affairs.
We interviewed more than seven thousand adults of age 18 to 50 years old – about 1,000 interviews were conducted in France and the United Kingdom, and about 750 in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Turkey. This age range corresponds to approximately 55% of the adult population (18 years old and above) in eight of the surveyed countries, Turkey being the only exception with about 71% of the adult population in this age group. The eight European Union members included in the study cover approximately 69% of the EU’s population.
This survey is all the more relevant as the data was collected before the outbreak of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church which may overdetermine citizens’ attitudes today.
Europeans agree with the Pope upon his position on the issue but are mixed on whether he should be involved in nuclear politics and do not attribute much influence to him on their attitudes.
While most people (75% or more of respondents) surveyed from the nine countries support Pope Francis’ opposition to nuclear weapons, our survey revealed that his opinions have little impact on the public’s perceptions.
A Genuine Opposition To Nuclear Weapons
The European public supports Pope Francis’ relentless opposition to the very existence of nuclear weapons. Respondents who agree with the Pope also tend to believe that nuclear weapons make a country more vulnerable more often than those who disagree (except in Germany, where respondents are more evenly splitted).
Among respondents who agree with the Pope, only 5% or less of respondents also agree that nuclear weapons make them feel personally “absolutely safe”; in all countries but France at least 45% of those who agree with the Pope said that nuclear weapons do not make them feel safe. Finally, among those who agree with the Pope, at least 75% of the respondents believe to never be morally acceptable to use nuclear weapons. (Among those who disagree, responses are somewhat evenly split.) Those results from our survey do suggest that the Pope’s repulsion against the very existence of nuclear weapons finds support among European adults.
However, respondents do not attribute much influence to Pope Francis on the shaping of their views. Three out of four of respondents in those nine countries agreed with the statement that “My opinion on nuclear weapons is independent from what the Pope has to say”.
Similar results appeared when we did solicit our respondents to agree or disagree with “What the Pope says makes me change my mind on the matter”, with just about one-fourth or less of respondents supporting such a statement. The only noticeable exception is the Roman Catholic stronghold in Poland, where 42% of respondent agreed that Pope Francis’ could change their mind on nuclear weapons affairs.
Such figures indicate that the European adult public is mostly immune to the Pope’s persuasion even though they might agree with his overall anti-nuclear policy positions.
Support For The Pope’s Involvement In Nuclear Politics
In rejecting the influence of the Pope, are the European adults also rejecting his involvement in the debate on the future of nuclear weapons?
On this front, findings are mixed. In most countries, a majority of 55-60% of respondents agreed that “the Pope is a religious leader who should not be involved in politics”. In Germany and Italy only, a slight majority (55% and 51%, respectively) disagreed with the statement, indicating support to the Pope’s political engagement with the issue. Interestingly enough, in France and the United Kingdom, the two nuclear powers surveyed in our study, younger respondents (18-21 years old) are more favourable to the Pope’s involvement in politics than older respondents (47-50 years of age) by a margin close to 15%.
Interestingly enough, in France and the United Kingdom – the two European countries that possess nuclear weapons –, younger respondents (18-21 years old) are more favourable to the Pope’s involvement in politics than older respondents (47-50 years of age) by a margin of nearly 15%.
Overall, our study has four main findings. First, a majority of adults in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Turkey agrees with Pope Francis’s opposition to nuclear weapons. Second, most respondents do not perceive the Pope’s opinion as having much (if any) influence on their views on that matter. Third, a slight majority of respondents opposes the Pope’s intervention in political affairs. Finally, in France and the United Kingdom, younger respondents, especially those who are 18-21 years old, are overall more sympathetic to the Pope’s involvement in the politics of nuclear weapons.
As Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing Street, he was required to write the so-called “letters of last resort” – his instructions should the United Kingdom be hit by a nuclear strike. At the same time, the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned an entire category of weapons, is now officially over, and the prospects of a failure of the 2020 NPT Review Conference and the non-extension of the 2010 New START Treaty next year saturate nuclear discussions.
As legitimately preoccupying as these ongoing events are, the exclusive focus on them obscures what happened 74 years ago, perpetuating an asymmetrical memory of the atomic bombings of World War II, privileging Hiroshima. Let’s not forget that on August 9, 1945, a 21-kiloton atomic bomb levelled the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It was the third atomic explosion in the history of humankind, with more than 2,000 others to come.
Nuclear Weapons And Citizens’ Knowledge
In a context in which every nuclear-weapon state is engaged in large and long-term investments to perpetuate its nuclear arsenal for more than half a century, and citizens outside the UK have not explicitly been given choices on those policies which will impact them for generations, it is crucial to know what citizens know about nuclear-weapons policy.
This is all the more important as their consent is assumed in at least three ways:
Given that we still have no protection against a nuclear attack, be it deliberate or accidental, they are assumed to accept to be potential victims of nuclear harm, coming from a nuclear-armed adversary or from an accident in the nuclear arsenal in the country where they live.
If they are residents of nuclear weapon states, and possibly host states, they are also expected to fund nuclear weapons as taxpayers.
If they are citizens of nuclear weapons possessing states, their voice is implicitly mobilised in support of any nuclear strike the leader may decide to initiate.
For citizens’ consent to be meaningful as justification for a policy, it has to be informed. Is it?
We are answering this question based on an unprecedented large-scale survey of citizens’ knowledge and attitudes in nine countries of the EU and NATO: the two nuclear-weapon states (France and the UK), the five states hosting US nuclear weapons on their territory (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey) and two countries that have been vocal on nuclear weapons policy or ballistic missile defence (Sweden and Poland).
The survey took place in June 2018 and is based on a representative panel of 7,000 citizens aged 18 to 50. We asked basic questions about which countries possess nuclear weapons, how many of them there are in the world and in the respondent’s country, the effects of a nuclear-weapon explosion, and how many nuclear weapons tests have been conducted since 1945.
Hiroshima And Nagasaki
The first striking set of findings has to do with citizens’ knowledge regarding nuclear weapons, which is more limited than expected. For instance, less than two thirds of respondents knew that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the two cities hit by atomic weapons in World War II – the numbers vary from 45.7% in Belgium to 74.4% in Italy, with results below 50% in France and the Netherlands. The atomic bombings of World War II are important reference points in debates about the historical legitimacy of today’s nuclear weapons policies and in all the surveyed countries, Nagasaki is systematically less cited than Hiroshima by a significant margin.
The only good news here is that the likelihood of a correct answer increases with age, which creates a hope that respondents may learn about this later in life. However, only 25% of respondents give the adequate order of magnitude of casualties for Hiroshima and Nagasaki (150,000 to 250,000; ranging from 19.6% in France to 30.6% in Sweden) with 28% saying they don’t know, 21% significantly overestimating and 26% significantly underestimating it.
For sure, Hiroshima was the first of the two bombings and immediate casualties and land destroyed are higher. However, remembering Hiroshima as the symbol of atomic bombings and neglecting Nagasaki has fundamental implications on how one sees the meaning of and possibilities within the nuclear age for at least three reasons. First, Hiroshima is still associated with the U.S. official narrative born in 1947: those bombings resulted from planning for a lesser evil in order to save American lives that would have been lost in a ground invasion of Japan, should the war have continued. The fabrication and falsehood of this narrative have been documented by careful historical research.
The need to justify those bombings was felt the day before Nagasaki and it was then that the official rationale for the two bombings started to be crafted. It is only after Nagasaki that President Truman issued his first affirmative command: no more strikes without his explicit consent. Second, while the raid to Hiroshima has been shown to be well planned and executed, the opposite is true for the one to Nagasaki, which was originally just a secondary target and ended up being struck by a bomber heading for Kokura.
The causes of that in flight change remain debated but, even years later, the head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, was not able to understand why Nagasaki ever became the target. Even after target change, ground zero ended up being some three-quarters of a mile off target. Third, to paraphrase what Telford Taylor, the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, wrote in 1970: “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable,” and are still debated by serious scholars, “but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki”. Whether or not Nagasaki features in the narrative of the atomic bombings of World War II shifts the historical and military discussion of the bombings from a discussion of strategic rationality, calculated decision-making and military planning and implementation to a discussion of errors, contingency, bad luck for Nagasaki and good luck for Kokura. It also considerably modifies the discussion about whether those bombings were justified.
A similar lack of knowledge is visible about the history of nuclear testing and the current situation regarding nuclear weapons.
When asked how many nuclear weapon tests have been conducted since 1945, 65% of respondents say they don’t know (from 52.5% in Poland to 78.4% in France, which means more than half in every country surveyed) and less than 2% guess the right number. Interestingly, 27.9% significantly underestimate the number of tests conducted so far, offering numbers between 0 and 1,000 – i.e. less than half of the actual number of tests – while only 2.8% massively overstate, giving an answer at least one order of magnitude too high.
Less than 22% of respondents overall (ranging from 19% in Turkey to 27% in Sweden) identify the right order of magnitude when it comes to the number of nuclear weapons in the world today. The same lack of knowledge is visible when the question is about the number of nuclear weapons in the respondents’ country. On average, 65.6% say they do not know and, if one excludes Poland and Sweden in which roughly half of the respondents do say that there are no weapons on their soil, the rate of respondents who claim not to know reaches 70.4%. Even in the UK and France, where the numbers of weapons are publicly available, only 2.9% and 1.7% of respondents approach the official figures.
Only 3.6% of respondents pick all nine nuclear weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) without mistakenly adding any non-nuclear state to the list. If one takes into account that the US and Russia account for 92% of the arsenal on the planet, one has to note that only 69% of respondents overall answer both (this goes up to 75% in the UK) and 44.5% of respondents wrongly list Iran as already possessing nuclear weapons (this ranges from 36.7% in France to more than 50% in Turkey and the Netherlands).
Similarly, knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons explosions are very approximative. For instance, only 57.5% of respondents know that they create mass fires in spite of scholarship establishing that for many years. This is by far best known in the UK where 71.5% of respondents know this as opposed to 53.7% in France and 43.7% in Italy. At the same time, 21% and 33% of respondents tick “hurricanes” and “erosion”, which are not adequate answers.
A Post-Cold War Effect?
The common assumption of universal loss of knowledge on the part of the post–Cold War, post-testing generation is not confirmed. If one compares the cohort of citizens who were teenagers at the end of the Cold War and the generation that comes after – i.e. the 43 to 50 years old and the 18 to 42 years old in 2018 – it is true that the older cohort is more likely to identify the US and Russia as nuclear weapons states (71.5% of respondents against 61.5% in France; 80 against 73% in the UK; 75 against 67% across countries) and has a better sense that nuclear weapons explosions cause radiation (82.5 against 75.5% in France; 91.5 versus 86.5% in the UK; 89 against 83% overall).
However, there is no significant difference in the awareness of the number of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the number of nuclear weapons in the respondent’s country or of the number of nuclear tests since 1945. Unexpectedly limited knowledge is visible across cohorts. 72% of respondents in the 43- to 50-year-old cohort stated that they do not know the number of nuclear tests that occurred in the past compared to 65.6% of the younger group (84% versus 76% in France; no differences between cohorts when the aggregate data (the nine countries combined) are considered). These figures should not be taken, however, as an indicator of the younger cohort as more knowledgeable on the occurrence of nuclear tests: among the respondents who gave a figure, more than 82% in both cohorts underestimated the number of nuclear tests ever carried and offered numbers between zero and one thousand.
It is interesting to note that, when asked about the number of nuclear weapons on the planet, the older generation is more likely to overestimate it and answer “50,000” or “100,000 or more” (5% more overall, 4.5% more in France, 10% more in the UK) which may suggest assumptions of legacy of the Cold War. In the UK, the younger cohort gets the right answer by a margin of almost 6% (23.8% vs 18.1%). Finally, the mistake which consists in mentioning Iran as a nuclear weapon state is less frequent among the post–Cold War generation (in France 34.5 versus 42%, in the UK and overall 43 versus 48%).
Those findings give rise to several reactions.
First, invoking or assuming the informed consent of citizens about nuclear weapons policy seems to be a massive overstatement given our respondents’ level of knowledge.
Second, as a prelude to better nuclear education and clearer choices for our citizens and elected officials, more research is needed on the causes and sources of citizens’ nuclear knowledge. The findings of this survey suggest avenues for further inquiry. Respondents from the UK and Sweden stand out as overall better informed than their counterparts in other countries even though an astonishingly high number of 65.7% of Swedish respondents say that no country has ever given up a nuclear weapon program even though their own country actually has. To what extent did the structures of nuclear knowledge production, legitimation and dissemination in the UK and Sweden contribute to this improvement of public knowledge? What was the impact of the Trident debate? How can we assess the possibility of a post-Cold War or post-testing generational change in knowledge and attitudes beyond the simple division in cohorts we proposed here?
Finally, we should resist the temptation to oppose citizens’ uninformed opinions and experts’ knowledge and feel relieved that the former are not deciding anything on the matter, precisely because of their ignorance.
On the other hand, one cannot expect well-informed understanding about nuclear affairs from citizens and blame them for their lack of it. A priori, it seems that citizens’ factual knowledge about nuclear weapons politics and history often reflects shared biases among experts and media pundits at the present time. They are particularly visible in the striking lack of knowledge about past nuclear testing, which is absent from the public conversation, the erroneous and frequent mention of Iran as a possessor of nuclear weapons given the tendency to cover it as “imminent proliferation” since 2006, and the relative ignorance of Nagasaki as opposed to Hiroshima, which became a symbol for the nuclear bombings of World War II.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Feb. 1 that the United States would withdraw from its nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.
Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has accused Russia of being in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits the U.S. and Russia from developing a certain types of ballistic and cruise missiles. A day after Pompeo’s announcement, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would also suspend its participation in the treaty.
The treaty is not dead yet. The announcements serve as the six month’s notice required by the treaty before parties can withdraw. There is still time to reconcile differences.
But I don’t think that will happen.
I worked on issues related to arms control and nuclear nonproliferation at both the State Department and Department of Defense.
Here’s why a resolution is unlikely.
Cold War Context
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union began placing missiles in strategic locations within its territory that could each carry three nuclear warheads a distance of about 2,500 miles.
These SS-20 missles were in a category of weapons called “intermediate-range ballistic missiles.” The missiles could strike almost all 29 member states of the North Atlantaic Treaty Orgnization with the exception of the U.S. and Canada.
At the time, NATO did not have a way to address the new threat through diplomacy with the Soviets. Nor did they have equivalent missiles capable of striking strategic locations in the Soviet Union from Western Europe.
The U.S. sought to reassure NATO allies and deter a nuclear Soviet attack on Western Europe. In the early 1980s, it placed the Pershing II ballistic missile, as well as other missiles in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and West Germany.
The move was designed in part to counter the Soviet missile threat, and also persuade the Soviets to negotiate to limit the number of intermediate and short-range missiles on both sides in Europe and the Soviet Union.
Terms Of The Treaty
Negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union began in 1979 in the late stages of the Carter administration. The aim was to limit the number of intermediate-range missiles each could deploy. The negotiations carried over into the Reagan administration with various proposals on how many missiles each side could have and where they were be allowed to be placed.
In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed eliminating all short- and intermediate-range missiles. This led to the landmark INF Treaty that banned the entire class of missiles. The treaty was signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev on Dec. 8, 1987.
Both sides agreed to eliminate all existing cruise and ballistic missiles that could be launched from the ground (as opposed to from the sea or sky) and had a range between roughly 300 and 3,400 miles. They also pledged to “not have such systems thereafter.”
Before the treaty’s implementation deadline in 1991, the U.S. and Russia destroyed more than 2,500 missiles covered by the treaty.
Nuclear Powers Beyond Russia
The United States first became concerned with Russian compliance with the treaty in 2014, when it alleged that Russia had tested a missile that violated the range restrictions of the treaty. Russia denied the accusation.
Some analysts have argued the U.S. should abandon the INF Treaty for this same reason – not because of Russian noncompliance, but because it limits U.S. military options vis-à-vis China. The treaty prohibits the U.S. from putting ground-launched, short-range missiles in places like Japan. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton is a firm proponent of this approach.
Russia has long denied being in violation of the treaty. The Trump administration is skeptical of arms control in general and has plans to continue modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Unbound by the treaty, the U.S. could develop new nuclear weapons systems in East Asia to counter Chinese military advances. The treaty’s demise seems likely. What follows depends on several variables, especially the outcome of the U.S. 2020 presidential election.
The U.N. resolution prompted the U.S. and the Soviet Union to prepare drafts that became the basis for negotiations.
The treaty was opened for signing in 1968 and came into force in 1970 when 46 states had ratified it, including the U.S., U.K. and USSR. Today, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has 190 parties – more than any other arms limitation treaty.
The treaty prohibits states that don’t have nuclear weapons from acquiring them. It also prohibits the five nuclear state parties from helping others to acquire them, while pledging to work toward nuclear disarmament themselves. Compliance with the treaty is verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency and enforced by the U.N. Security Council.
Five states that possess nuclear weapons have signed the treaty: the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China.
Four additional nuclear states are not parties to the treaty: India, Pakistan, Israel and – most recently – North Korea.
What’s worse: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty isn’t the only nuclear treaty on shaky ground.
President Trump announced in February 2019 that the U.S. would withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty unless Russia eliminates one category of nuclear missiles that the U.S. claims exceed the treaty limit.
And the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is due to expire in 2020. National Security Adviser John Bolton has called its extension “unlikely.”
While worry about future proliferation is certainly warranted, I’d still argue that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is alive and well.
Arguments to the contrary are based on two misconceptions.
The first is that the viability of the treaty depends primarily on fulfillment of the “grand bargain” embodied in it: that nonnuclear states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear states agreeing to eventually disarm and to assist other parties to develop peaceful nuclear energy. But the policies of nuclear states are not what motivates the nuclear decisions of other Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty parties. Most are motivated by regional security threats or by a conventional weapons attack by a perceived enemy.
The second misconception is that the treaty is suffering from a “crisis of noncompliance.” The argument here is that the treaty didn’t stop Iraq, Libya or North Korea from starting programs or prevent Iran from building substantial nuclear capacity, so it must be useless.
Yet perfect compliance is too demanding a measure of success of any law. Our society still values laws against thievery and tax evasion even though people break them every day.
How much of this is due to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is open to debate, but pointing to a few cases of noncompliance does not prove its irrelevance.
As I argue in my book about the power of deliberation, a better way of gauging the value of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is to ask whether it tips the scales against proliferation. Parties to the treaty will pay a price if caught cheating. They may decide the price is worth paying, but it is not cost-free. Compliance becomes the default position.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty may have been bent by recent hits, but it is not broken.
It is understandable that the Trump administration might want to support the U.S. nuclear industry, which is shrinking at home. However, the congressional report raised concerns that the group seeking to make the sale may have have sought to carry it out without going through the process required under U.S. law. Doing so could give Saudi Arabia U.S. nuclear technology without appropriate guarantees that it would not be used for nuclear weapons in the future.
A Competitive Global Market
Exporting nuclear technology is lucrative, and many U.S. policymakers have long believed that it promotes U.S. foreign policy interests. However, the international market is shrinking, and competition between suppliers is stiff.
Private U.S. nuclear companies have trouble competing against state-supported international suppliers in Russia and China. These companies offer complete construction and operation packages with attractive financing options. Russia, for example, is willing to accept spent fuel from the reactor it supplies, relieving host countries of the need to manage nuclear waste. And China can offer lower construction costs.
Saudi Arabia declared in 2011 that it planned to spend over US$80 billion to construct 16 reactors, and U.S. companies want to provide them. Many U.S. officials see the decadeslong relationships involved in a nuclear sale as an opportunity to influence Riyadh’s nuclear future and preserve U.S. influence in the Saudi kingdom.
Why Does Saudi Arabia Want Nuclear Power?
With the world’s second-largest known petroleum reserves, abundant untapped supplies of natural gas and high potential for solar energy, why is Saudi Arabia shopping for nuclear power? Some of its motives are benign, but others are worrisome.
First, nuclear energy would allow the Saudis to increase their fossil fuel exports. About one-third of the kingdom’s daily oil production is consumed domestically at subsidized prices; substituting nuclear energy domestically would free up this petroleum for export at market prices.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. Ninety percent of its drinking water is desalinated, a process that burns approximately 15 percent of the 9.8 million barrels of oil it produces daily. Nuclear power could meet some of this demand.
Saudi leaders have also expressed clear interest in establishing parity with Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 2018 interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
As a member in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and is entitled to engage in peaceful nuclear trade. Such commerce could include acquiring technology to enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. These systems can be used both to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors and to make key materials for nuclear weapons.Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., discusses his government’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.
US Nuclear Trade Regulations
Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, before American companies can compete to export nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh must conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the U.S. government must submit it to Congress. Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution within 90 days disapproving the agreement, it is approved. The United States currently has 23 nuclear cooperation agreements in force, including Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt (approved in 1981), Turkey (2008) and the United Arab Emirates (2009).
The Atomic Energy Act requires countries seeking to purchase U.S. nuclear technology to make legally binding commitments that they will not use those materials and equipment for nuclear weapons, and to place them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It also mandates that the United States must approve any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation activities involving U.S. technologies and materials, in order to prevent countries from diverting them to weapons use.
American nuclear suppliers claim that these strict conditions and time-consuming legal requirements put them at a competitive disadvantage. But those conditions exist to prevent countries from misusing U.S. technology for nuclear weapons. I find it alarming that according to the House report, White House officials may have attempted to bypass or sidestep these conditions – potentially enriching themselves in the process.
According to the congressional report, within days of President Trump’s inauguration, senior U.S. officials were promoting an initiative to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without either concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement and submitting it to Congress or involving key government agencies, such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One key advocate for this so-called “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East was then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who reportedly served as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3, the firm that devised this plan, while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign.
The promoters of the plan also reportedly proposed to sidestep U.S. sanctions against Russia by partnering with Russian companies – which impose less stringent restrictions on nuclear exports – to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Flynn resigned soon afterward and now is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But IP3 access to the White House persists: According to press reports, President Trump met with representatives of U.S. industry, a meeting organized by IP3 to discuss nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia as recently as mid-February 2019.
Rules For A Saudi Nuclear Deal
Saudi leaders have scaled back their planned purchases and now only expect to build two reactors. If the Trump administration continues to pursue nuclear exports to Riyadh, I believe it should negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom as required by U.S. law, and also take extra steps to reduce nuclear proliferation risks.
This should include requiring the Saudis to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that give the agency additional tools to verify that all nuclear materials in the kingdom are being used peacefully. The agreement should also require Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers, and export the reactor spent fuel for storage abroad. These conditions would diminish justification for uranium enrichment or opportunities for plutonium reprocessing for weapons.
The United States has played a leadership role in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile regions. There is much more at stake here than profit, and legal tools exist to ensure that nuclear exports do not add fuel to the Middle East fire.
A congressional directive to the Pentagon to quickly assess alternative homes for U.S. “personnel and assets” currently stationed at Incirlik Air Base is part of a broader bipartisan bill, still being debated, that proposes sanctions against Turkey. President Donald Trump has been forced to issue public reassurances that the weapons are secure.
During the Cold War, the U.S. stationed B-61 nuclear bombs in Turkey, among other NATO countries. Formally, the U.S. controlled the weapons during peacetime, but the host countries’ forces trained and equipped planes so they could drop the bombs with U.S. support in the case of war. The idea was to deter Soviet ground forces and reassure U.S. allies by making clear that the U.S. would be willing to risk nuclear war to block a Soviet invasion of a country hosting the bombs.
In addition, in the years before the U.S. developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, they presented a way for NATO to demonstrate it could act quickly to respond to a Soviet attack.
The bombs themselves also require 12-digit codes to activate them, However, those protections are only strong enough to delay unauthorized use, rather than actually prevent it. If those barriers were overcome, U.S forces could disable the weapons by destroying electrical components or detonating their chemical high explosive without causing a nuclear release. In the worst case, they could blow up the weapons or the facilities at Incirlik.
Still the U.S. procedures are not designed to prevent skilled attacks or sabotage, especially from an ally. With enough time, Turkey could make use of the nuclear material – if not to detonate in an actual nuclear explosion, then to “release disastrous and deadly radiation.”
Unintentionally, Trump’s efforts to provide reassurance may have made this challenge more difficult. The presence of B-61s in the five countries is an open secret, confirmed by independent observers. But it has nonetheless been NATO policy not to acknowledge the deployments, giving local politicians and the U.S. a shield from parliamentary and public oversight.
By publicly confirming that the weapons were in Turkey, Trump has raised the political stakes should he try to remove them, and made it more difficult for the United States and Turkey to strike a quiet deal to that effect.