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Nuclear Non-Proliferation: The Security Context

Florence, Italy
University of Florence

I am deeply grateful to receive this Honoris Causa Degree in Physics from such distinguished University as the University of Florence, a University where Enrico Fermi taught. I was relieved however to find out it would not require an examination in physics or astrophysics - neither of which were my strong suit in my university days. But more seriously, I would like to thank the Rector, Professor Marinelli, the Dean of Faculty of Sciences, Professor Marcellini, Professor Baracca and their colleagues for their warm support.

In reviewing the conference programme for the past two days, it became obvious to me that, by the time I spoke, you would have already covered most of the challenges relevant to nuclear proliferation. The historical context. The spread of nuclear technology and "know-how" in recent decades. The unfortunate current role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies and regional alliances. The need for leadership on disarmament. And the "Janus Face" of nuclear technology - the choice we have faced for more than half a century, as to whether nuclear science would be used for humanity´s benefit, or for its self-destruction.

The question for me, naturally, was "what can I add to this discussion?".

I was reminded of what the Russian writer and poet, Boris Pasternak, once said: "In this era of world wars, in this atomic age, values have changed. We have learned that we are guests of existence, travelers between two stations. We must discover security within ourselves."

The search for security remains the overriding concern for many peoples and nations. But the definition of what constitutes security, and the strategies for attaining it, vary greatly amongst people, and also between people and nations. For billions of people, security is the elusive hope of "securing" their basic needs: food, water, shelter and health care. For others, security is again the elusive hope of "securing" their other basic human rights, freedom of expression and of dissent, and first and foremost the freedom from oppression. For still others, security is the elusive hope for emancipation from foreign occupation. Among States as well, security could have different goals: to achieve economic or military parity or superiority; to project power and influence; or often to find solutions to their grievances and disputes.

In our globalized world, each of these security strategies influences the others. Today we are forced to acknowledge the inherent linkages between development, human rights, conflict resolution and enduring peace. While national security is just as relevant as before, the strategies to achieve it must be much more broad than in the past. The welfare of the individual - human security - and his or her right to live in freedom and dignity, must be the starting point, rather than the security of the State. Any approach that is based on a narrow definition of security, and particularly one that does not focus on the security of the individual, is destined to fail.

In the same vein, when confronting the challenges of nuclear proliferation, we must view them in a broad security context. In other words, we must understand and address the "drivers" of proliferation, the insecurities that motivate particular countries or groups to seek nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. We must cease to expect that, by treating the symptoms alone, the patient will be cured.

The Evolving Nuclear Threats

It is clear that nuclear threats have become more dangerous and more complex. We have witnessed the emergence of illicit trade in nuclear technology. Countries have managed to develop clandestine nuclear programmes. Sophisticated extremist groups have shown keen interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

In parallel, nuclear material and nuclear material production have become more difficult to control. Energy security concerns and fears of climate change are prompting many countries to revisit the nuclear power option. And to ensure a supply of reactor fuel, more countries have shown interest in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle - a step that brings them quite close to nuclear weapons capability.

Add to this the 27 000 nuclear warheads that already exist in the arsenals of nine countries, and the hair trigger alert deployment level of some of these weapons. And as if these stockpiles and their deployment were not threat enough, most of these countries continue to repeat two inherently contradictory mantras: first, that it is important for them to continue to rely on nuclear weapons for their security; and second, that no one else should have them. "Do as I say, not as I do."

Strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

Against this backdrop, there are four critical aspects of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that we must strengthen - addressing both symptoms and root causes - if we are to avoid a cascade of nuclear proliferation, and our ultimate self-destruction.

First, we must develop a more effective approach for dealing with proliferation threats. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA Statute make clear the reliance of the international community on the IAEA to verify States´ adherence to their non-proliferation obligations, and on the United Nations Security Council to act in cases of non-compliance. The present system offers an array of measures ranging from dialogue to sanctions to enforcement actions. But judging by our record in recent years, these measures have not been applied effectively to deal with proliferation issues.

Dialogue, which should be the logical point of departure, is often perceived as a reward for good behaviour, rather than as a means to change behaviour and reconcile differences. Public posturing and name calling substitutes for effective diplomacy. The lesson should be obvious by now - especially when working across cultural divides: respect breeds respect; confrontation begets confrontation. As the highly respected US diplomat Thomas Pickering said recently, "Pressure without openings - to try to resolve the impact and effect of the pressures - is just pressure." The effect is like having a pressure cooker without a relief valve.

For nuclear non-proliferation to be enforced effectively, we need a more agile and consistent approach for responding to cases of proliferation. Dialogue, incentives and sanctions - and, in extreme cases, enforcement measures - all have their place in such a system, and their use must be carefully calibrated. I should emphasize, however, that the Security Council will have an enhanced moral authority if the security regime it is aiming to enforce is universal and therefore equitable: the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Equally important, for the Security Council to be effective in dealing with proliferation threats, it must recognize the inextricable linkage between different types of security threats. It must be able and willing to address human rights abuses and repressive governance - conditions that result in feelings of disempowerment and humiliation, which in turn create the ideal climate for extremism, civil wars and other forms of violence. It must be able and willing to address longstanding regional conflicts and foreign oppression - understanding that it is in such regions that countries are most frequently driven to pursue nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

In short, the Council must operate in a framework that recognizes the indivisible nature of security, and the symbiotic relation of all its aspects.

In this context, let me commend the initiative taking place here at the University of Florence, with support from the IAEA and other organizations. This initiative would enable multidisciplinary studies, at the Master´s level, focused on nuclear non-proliferation and the control of nuclear materials in peaceful applications. It would seek to produce graduates that would be well grounded not only in nuclear science and technology but also in the socio-political and legal context within which it is applied. This broad perspective would enable these young graduates to understand better the dangers we are facing, and better equip them to address these dangers.

Second, we must secure existing nuclear material stockpiles and tighten controls over the transfer and production of nuclear material. Effective control of nuclear material is the "choke point" for preventing the production of additional nuclear weapons.

There are currently over 1800 tonnes of plutonium and high enriched uranium in civil stocks. Many initiatives are in progress to help countries improve the physical protection of this weapon-useable nuclear material. Good progress has been made in recent years, but hard work still lies ahead. Efforts in that direction should be redoubled. Former US Senator Sam Nunn - whose efforts on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative have been responsible for increasing the security of large amounts of nuclear material - recently stated it this way: "You´re never stronger than the weakest link in the chain, and we´ve still got a lot of weak links in the chain."

We should also work to minimize and eventually eliminate the civilian use of high enriched uranium (HEU). Nearly 100 civilian facilities around the world, mainly research reactors, operate with small amounts of HEU. But most of their functions could be achieved using low enriched uranium (LEU). Nuclear experts - scientists and engineers - should press forward with R&D on the remaining technical hurdles, to ensure that research reactors are capable of performing all required functions using LEU.

Technological innovation will also be essential to support the design of proliferation resistant fuel cycles. A number of countries are working on such designs, as well as on innovation to enhance nuclear safety, security and waste disposal. One important area of R&D, currently being conducted at the laboratory scale, involves new technological approaches for dealing with the plutonium in spent fuel, using innovative approaches to either fuel composition or fuel reprocessing. In each case, the technique would create isotopic barriers in the spent fuel that would allow reprocessing for use in energy generation while preventing the separation of weapon-useable plutonium.

It is also crucial that we improve control over nuclear material production - that is, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation activities - by developing a new, multilateral framework for the nuclear fuel cycle. It is now four years since I raised this issue in an article in The Economist.

A number of proposals and ideas have been put forward since that time. Some parties have proposed the creation of an actual or virtual reserve fuel bank of last resort, under IAEA auspices, for the assurance of supply of nuclear fuel to bona fide users. This bank would operate on the basis of apolitical and non-discriminatory non-proliferation criteria. Russia has proposed converting a national facility into an international enrichment centre. Germany has proposed the construction of a new, multinational enrichment facility under IAEA control. The IAEA has been studying these proposals and others and their associated legal, technical, financial and institutional aspects, and is consulting with our Member States on how to proceed.

In my view, an incremental approach is the way to move forward, beginning with the establishment of an equitable system for assurance of supply. The next step would seek to bring any new operations for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation under multinational control. Over time, these multinational controls would also be extended to facilities that already exist - to ensure that all countries are treated equally in terms of their nuclear capabilities.

Third, we must strengthen the verification authority and capability of the IAEA. Effective verification has four elements: adequate legal authority; state-of-the-art technology; access to all relevant information and locations; and sufficient human and financial resources.

The additional protocol to comprehensive safeguards agreements has proven its value since its adoption in 1997. With better access to relevant information and locations, the IAEA provides better assurance. Without the additional protocol, we cannot provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material or activity. But regrettably, we have this mechanism in force in less than half the countries party to the NPT. In fact, we have more than 30 NPT member countries that have not even concluded a safeguards agreement - and for which we cannot perform any verification activities. For a credible verification system, a safeguards agreement and an additional protocol should be the universal standard.

In 2004, a UN High Level Panel singled out the IAEA´s work as "an extraordinary bargain". For $130 million per year, we verify the nuclear programmes of all non-nuclear weapon States - which amounts to more than 900 declared nuclear facilities in 70 countries. Our presence on the ground, combined with our technical expertise, provides unique information and assurance. We are the eyes and ears of the international community.

Yet the Agency constantly risks lagging behind in the technology race, because we are forced to make do on a shoestring budget. As new facilities and countries come under safeguards, our portfolio is constantly expanding, without corresponding increases in funding or personnel. It is ironic that, even with world leaders frequently highlighting nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as the number one global security threat, the IAEA´s safeguards laboratories are struggling to make do with outdated equipment, and we have little to no budget to commission R&D on the new verification technologies that would help us "stay ahead of the game" in the detection of clandestine nuclear activity.

Given the threats we face, given that IAEA verification, as we have learned, can be crucial for decisions on war and peace, it should be obvious that support for the Agency is key to a viable system of non-proliferation and of international security.

Fourth, we urgently need to find a way for disarmament to be given the prominence and priority it deserves. Article VI of the NPT requires parties to the Treaty to pursue negotiations in good faith "on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament". It is now 37 years since the Treaty entered into force. Should we not be well past the date when States party should be developing new nuclear weapons?

Yet that is precisely what is happening.

Virtually all nuclear-weapon States are extending and modernizing their nuclear weapon arsenals well into the 21st Century, with some making statements about the possible use of nuclear weapons, or the development of more "usable" nuclear weapons. Some have even started to reinterpret their legal obligation to nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - despite the "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals" as recently as at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

It should be no surprise that many States have started to question the equity and fairness of the regime. Why, some ask, should the nuclear-weapon States be trusted to have nuclear weapons, but not others - and who is qualified to make that judgment? Why, others ask, is it okay for some to live under a nuclear threat, while others are protected by a "nuclear umbrella"?

What the weapon States consistently fail to take into account is the impact of their actions as role models. Whether they choose to continue to rely on nuclear weapons, as the centerpiece of their security strategy, or to abandon that reliance, their choice will undoubtedly influence the actions of others.

The good news, if there is good news, is that the current system is more and more widely recognized as unsustainable. Earlier this year, four American éminences grises, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn - representing a wealth of experience in defence and security strategies - declared that reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent is becoming "increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective". They called for urgent international cooperation to move towards a world free from nuclear weapons.

Reaching this ultimate goal will take time. But there are number of concrete steps that could be initiated to send an immediate signal that nuclear weapon States take their treaty obligations seriously. Deep cuts should be made in existing nuclear arsenals, with at least a substantial percentage of those cuts clearly stamped as irreversible. The current "hair-trigger" alert status of thousands of deployed nuclear weapons - which gives decision-makers only 30 minutes after a possible nuclear launch to decide whether to retaliate - should be downgraded. And multilateral disarmament efforts should be revived, by bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and initiating negotiation for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. These steps would signal, once and for all, that the era of reliance on nuclear weapons is on its way out.

Conclusion: A New Security Paradigm

In conclusion, it is clear that a security strategy rooted in "Us versus Them" is no longer viable. Every country, irrespective of its ideology or worldview, will do what it takes to feel secure, including if necessary seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. This is, sadly, the stark reality. What makes this more dangerous is that, in an era of globalization and interdependence, the insecurity of some will inevitably lead to the insecurity of all. And with more countries acquiring such weapons, the odds of use of such a weapon - either intentionally or accidentally - become higher.

The prospects for progress will remain grim unless we have a complete change of mindset and begin to work on a new security paradigm. A security paradigm in which no country relies on nuclear weapons for its security. A system with effective mechanisms for resolving conflicts. A system in which longstanding regional conflicts, like those in the Middle East, are given the priority and attention they deserve. A system that is not perceived as a zero sum game, but rather a system that is equitable, inclusive and effective. And last but not least, a system that is centred on human security and the freedom and dignity of the individual. A world in which every individual lives in freedom and dignity is a world at peace.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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