Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe: Where Do We Go From Here?

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

Vienna, Austria

Earlier this year, four American éminences grises, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn - representing a wealth of experience in defense 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.

The following week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that they were moving the hands of their famous Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. "Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," they reported, "has the world faced such perilous choices."

Introduction: The Evolving Nuclear Threats

In recent years, it is clear that nuclear threats have become more dangerous and more complex. A new phenomenon of illicit trade in nuclear technology has emerged. 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 and climate change are driving many countries to revisit the nuclear power option. But with that, there is also an increasing interest in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle to ensure a supply of the necessary nuclear fuel. The concern is that by mastering the fuel cycle, countries move dangerously close to nuclear weapons capability.

Add to that the threat of the nuclear weapons that already exist. Roughly 27 000 nuclear warheads remain in the arsenals of nine countries. Strategic reliance on these weapons by these countries and their allies undoubtedly motivates others to emulate them. And of course, plans to replenish and modernize these weapons creates a pervasive sense of cynicism among many non-nuclear-weapon States — who perceive a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude.

Today, I would like to share with you some ideas that may help to prevent nuclear catastrophe.

Strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: Four Critical Aspects

First, 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 physical protection of this nuclear material. Good progress has been made in the past few years, but hard work still lies ahead. Efforts in that direction should be redoubled.

Controlling the export of nuclear materials and technology has, in the past, proven a weak link in the non-proliferation chain. Information on exports should be systematically shared with the IAEA, to assist in verifying their end use. In addition, to increase their effectiveness, export control mechanisms should be expanded to include all nuclear suppliers.

We should also work to minimize and eventually eliminate the civilian use of high enriched uranium (HEU) - particularly uranium enriched to 90 percent or greater. 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). Research should continue to address the remaining technical hurdles in order to enable research reactors to perform all required functions using LEU.

It is also crucial that we improve control over nuclear material production: that is, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation activities. More than three years ago, I raised this issue in an article in The Economist.

I am encouraged by the range of ideas and proposals that continue to come forth as a result. Some 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. 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. And Germany has recently proposed the construction of a new, multinational enrichment facility under IAEA control.

At the IAEA, we have been examining these and other ideas and their associated legal, technical, financial and institutional aspects, with a view to presenting a progress report to our Member States in the next few weeks. Controlling nuclear material is quite a complex process; yet if we fail to act, it could be the Achilles´ Heel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And it is clear that an incremental approach, with multiple assurances in place, is the way to move forward. The ultimate goal, in my view, should be to bring all such operations under multinational control, so that no one country has the exclusive capability to produce the material for nuclear weapons.

Technological innovation is also essential. We should support R&D on proliferation resistant fuel cycles - as well as technological innovation to enhance nuclear safety, security and waste management.

Second, 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 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 credibly verify 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. Even now, with every other world leader highlighting nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as the number one global security threat, we continue to struggle to achieve a modest budget supplement of $15–20 million dollars.

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

Third, the nuclear non-proliferation regime must develop a more effective approach for dealing with proliferation threats. The NPT and the IAEA Statute make clear our reliance on the United Nations Security Council to ensure compliance with non-proliferation obligations. 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 - rather than being applied in a systematic manner to deal effectively with proliferation issues - are employed haphazardly, and too often with political overtones.

Dialogue is withheld as a reward for good behavior, rather than as a means to change behavior and reconcile differences. Public rhetoric substitutes for effective diplomacy. The lesson should be obvious by now: we cannot bomb our way to security. Rather, we should focus on addressing the underlying causes of insecurity.

For nuclear non-proliferation to be enforced effectively, we need a more agile and more systematic 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; but the system itself must be drastically reformed. The Security Council will have clear moral authority and full public acceptance if the non-proliferation and arms control regime it is aiming to enforce is universal, with one clear commitment by all parties, including the nuclear-weapon States: the establishment of a nuclear weapon free world. Short of this, the Council’s ability to deal with proliferation issues will continue to be of limited effectiveness - as past experiences have clearly shown.

Equally important, for the Security Council to be effective in dealing with proliferation threats, it must recognize the inextricable linkage between different threats to our security. Poverty in many cases leads to human rights abuses and lack of good governance. This in turn results in a deep sense of disempowerment and humiliation, which creates the ideal breeding ground for extremism and violence. And it is in regions of longstanding conflicts that countries are most frequently driven to pursue nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

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

This brings me to the urgent need to revive disarmament efforts. We must find a way for disarmament to be taken seriously. Article VI of the NPT requires parties to the Treaty to pursue disarmament negotiations in good faith, as well as negotiations "on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date". Thirty-seven years after the Treaty entered into force, we are 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 question their legal obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - despite the agreed interpretation by all NPT Parties, including the nuclear-weapon States, at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, of the "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals".

It should be no surprise that many States have started to question the credibility of the commitment of the weapon States to disarm.

And consider some of the justifications that have been recently put forward by some of the nuclear-weapon States. No major power is getting rid of their nuclear weapons, so why should we?... Despite the current lack of a nuclear threat, we cannot be sure that one will not re-emerge over the next 50 years... Our country (or region) must be protected by a nuclear deterrence capability... We can be trusted to use restraint with our nuclear weapons.

The flaws in these arguments are painfully obvious. The very same logic could be used by every country to justify developing its own nuclear deterrent. Why, some ask, should the nuclear-weapon States be trusted, 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, but not others, who continue to be protected by a "nuclear umbrella"?

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

Conclusion: A New Security Paradigm

It is therefore clear that a security strategy rooted in "Us versus Them" is no longer sustainable. Every country, irrespective of its ideology or orientation, will do what it takes to feel secure, including through seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. This is the stark reality, moral equivalence aside. 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. The solution, therefore, in my view, lies in creating an environment in which nuclear weapons are universally banned, morally abhorred, and their futility unmasked.

The prospects for progress in preventing nuclear catastrophe will remain grim unless we begin working 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 tensions, like those in the Middle East, are given the priority and attention they deserve. A system that is equitable, inclusive and effective.

Last month, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was launched in Melbourne, Australia. The campaign calls for a Nuclear Weapons Convention - a convention to outlaw nuclear weapons worldwide, much like the conventions on biological and chemical weapons.

In July 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law."

As with the convention on anti-personnel landmines, public involvement could provide the momentum to make the Nuclear Weapons Convention a reality. Christopher Weeramantry, a former judge of the International Court of Justice who took part in its landmark 1996 advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, has written that, "if we want more than the kind of snail’s pace action of the past 50 years, we need a public campaign worldwide that is vocal enough to force swift action".

We are at a crucial juncture. The system is faltering. We need serious commitments on nuclear disarmament, with clear milestones and accountability. We need an effective approach for dealing with proliferation threats. We need to develop a multinational approach to the nuclear fuel cycle. We need a universally robust verification system. We need an effective system for the security of nuclear material. And above all, we need to start serious work towards a new collective security paradigm. If we want to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, the deadline for action is now.

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