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Ban the bomb: How the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons helped prevent annihilation

ILLUSTRATION BY GEORGE WYLESOL

Eric Schlosser’s books include Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.

At first, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in August, 1945, was celebrated in the United States. The new weapon had seemingly ended the war with Japan, eliminating the need for a protracted and bloody invasion. But the celebratory feeling was short-lived. That same month, General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the United States Army Air Forces, publicly warned that nuclear weapons might soon be placed atop missiles and aimed at American cities. Once launched, such weapons would be impossible to stop and “destructive beyond the wildest nightmares of the imagination.” Nuclear proliferation – the spread of this lethal technology to other countries – could lead to nuclear wars that threatened the survival of mankind. A few months later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” gave a farewell speech to his fellow Los Alamos scientists that described how easily proliferation might occur. Nuclear weapons “are going to be very cheap if anyone wants to make them,” he said, “they are not too hard to make … they will be universal if people wish to make them universal.” The invention of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer thought, marked no less than “a change in the nature of the world.”

Almost 73 years have passed since Oppenheimer’s speech – and a great many apocalyptic predictions have proven wrong. No other cities have been destroyed by a nuclear weapon. No nuclear wars have been fought. And only nine countries now possess nuclear arsenals, not dozens. The absence of nuclear catastrophes has multiple causes, among them: sober national leadership, wise crisis management, military professionalism, technical expertise and a remarkable amount of good luck. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the guiding spirit behind it also deserve a prominent place on that list. The NPT is essentially a bargain struck between nations that have nuclear weapons and those that don’t. Former president Barack Obama once explained its three pillars: “Countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy.” But as the NPT approaches its 50th anniversary next month, the treaty faces unprecedented assaults and the prospect of nuclear arms races in Asia and the Middle East. Of the 190 countries that have signed the NPT, North Korea is the only one that’s withdrawn from it and developed nuclear weapons. Next week’s summit between President Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump will help determine the fate of a decades-long international effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons – and prevent the sort of nuclear annihilation that the inventors of the atomic bomb greatly feared.

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The NPT began as a 1958 push by Ireland to dissuade the United States from sharing nuclear weapons with its NATO allies, especially West Germany. At the time, four countries had nuclear weapons: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France. After a slow, uneven start, the non-proliferation movement gained momentum in 1964 when China detonated its first nuclear device. U.S. intelligence estimates had warned the previous year that eight other countries – Australia, Egypt, West Germany, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa and Sweden – could produce nuclear weapons within a decade. An additional six – Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia – might have them by the early 1980s. The Cuban Missile Crisis had demonstrated that a confrontation between two nuclear powers could inadvertently start a nuclear war. And numerous nuclear-weapon accidents suggested that disasters could be caused by simple mistakes and miscalculations. It seemed obvious that if more countries possessed nuclear weapons, the danger would increase. Working closely with the Soviet Union, the United States played a large role in drafting the NPT. On July 1, 1968, the first day that the treaty was open for signature, 66 countries signed it, and less than two years later, the NPT went into effect. It seemed a triumph of international co-operation on behalf of world peace.

During the next quarter-century, the NPT was more successful at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons than at achieving disarmament. The five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the treaty (the United States, Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union) had promised to seek “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date … and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” And yet, none of those things happened during the 1970s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, the other NPT signatories had kept their side of the bargain and forsworn nuclear weapons. The four additional countries that eventually did obtain them – Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa – had never signed the treaty.

During the early 1990s, the threat of nuclear war finally seemed to be diminishing. South Africa not only gave up its nuclear weapons but also signed the NPT. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, it surrendered the weapons, as did Belarus and Kazakhstan, two other former Soviet republics with nuclear stockpiles, and all three signed the NPT. The end of the Cold War led the United States and Russia to make enormous cuts in their nuclear arsenals, reducing the number of weapons by about 80 per cent. But grand hopes that the 21st century would see the end of the nuclear threat were illusory.

One of the compromises that made the NPT possible now threatens to make it irrelevant. Article IV of the treaty guarantees its signatories “the inalienable right” to obtain nuclear technology for peaceful uses. Without strict monitoring and enforcement, however, the possession of civilian nuclear-power facilities can enable the development of military nuclear technology. Weapons-grade uranium and plutonium can be made at enrichment and reprocessing plants ostensibly built to make fuel for nuclear reactors. India developed its atomic bomb with civilian nuclear technology obtained from Canada and the United States; Israel got its bomb with civilian technology from France. Despite having signed the NPT, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria secretly launched nuclear-weapon programs under the guise of seeking the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

ILLUSTRATION BY GEORGE WYLESOL

Today, all three pillars of the NPT are in grave jeopardy. Instead of disarming, the five nuclear states recognized by the treaty are modernizing their arsenals. The renewed arms race between the United States and Russia is especially dangerous. Thanks to the “inalienable right” to civilian nuclear power, perhaps 20 to 30 NPT signatories have the latent ability to develop nuclear weapons. Japan has stockpiled about 10 tonnes of plutonium, enough to produce thousands of nuclear warheads, and could probably manufacture some within a year. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea may encourage South Korea, as well as Japan, to become a nuclear weapon state. Last year, an opinion poll found that about 60 per cent of South Koreans would like their country to have its own nuclear weapons. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, thinks that the Middle East now stands on the brink of a volatile and chaotic nuclear arms race. “If Iran resumes its nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Sokolski recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “the Saudis will certainly pursue their own – and Algeria, Egypt and Turkey might well follow.” Given the large petroleum and natural-gas supplies in Saudi Arabia, as well as the ample sunlight available there for solar power, the current Saudi proposal to spend more than $80-billion on nuclear technology suggests that future energy needs aren’t the sole reason for the investment.

To ensure that a treaty written to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons isn’t transformed into one that facilitates their spread, a number of important steps can still be taken. The United States and Russia possess about 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and those two countries must be pressured to reduce the size of their arsenals and minimize the risk of nuclear war. Frustrated with the slow pace of disarmament by the NPT’s five nuclear states, a few years ago the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) began to seek a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by the United Nations last year, and ICAN was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ray Acheson, a Canadian who serves on ICAN’s steering committee, supports the goal of non-proliferation but strongly defends the group’s strategy of focusing their criticism on the NPT’s five nuclear states. “The nuclear weapons that already exist are more dangerous,” she says, “than the ones that don’t.”

As for the other NPT signatories, Scott Sagan, a nuclear-weapon expert who’s a professor of political science at Stanford University, thinks that an “unalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear energy doesn’t mean the right to hedge your bets and develop a latent nuclear-weapon capability. The NPT allows a country to leave the treaty simply by giving 90 days notice. Prof. Sagan argues that violating the treaty should lead to much stronger punishments by the United Nations and that leaving the treaty should be made more difficult. Contracts for the sale of civilian nuclear facilities and technology should have a “return to sender” clause – a requirement that any country that leaves the NPT must return all the nuclear equipment it bought.

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The issue of nuclear proliferation is hardly inconsequential for Canada. Although Canada has never formally been a nuclear weapon state, its deployment of American weapons during the Cold War was precisely the sort of arrangement that inspired Ireland to seek a non-proliferation treaty. Between 1963 and 1984, hundreds of American nuclear weapons were assigned to Canadian forces. Two squadrons of BOMARC anti-aircraft missiles, carrying a total of 56 warheads, were based at North Bay, Ont., and La Macaza, Que. About 100 Genie anti-aircraft rockets with nuclear warheads were stationed at Royal Canadian Air Force bases, and Canadian fighter planes assigned to NATO carried low-yield Mark 28 hydrogen bombs. The weapons were technically in the custody of the United States, but Canadian officers were granted the authority to turn one of the two keys that launched the BOMARC missiles – and sole control over firing the Genies and dropping the Mark 28s. A Soviet bomber attack on the United States would have prompted nuclear warfare in the skies over Canada, as BOMARCS and Genies sought their targets. And the three nuclear-weapon systems operated by Canadian forces had serious safety defects that could have caused accidental nuclear detonations. Canada, like the United States, was fortunate to survive the Cold War without nuclear devastation. The effects of nuclear blasts, the electromagnetic pulses and deadly fallout, show little regard for national borders. Even if you don’t have nuclear weapons, having a neighbour who does can pose a considerable threat.

Some academics have argued that nuclear proliferation might make the world safer, suggesting that countries with nuclear weapons are less likely to fight one another. That argument makes about as much sense as the contention that having more guns will reduce the number of people killed by gunfire. A single switch prevented the accidental detonation of an American hydrogen bomb in North Carolina during January, 1961. The following year the vote of a single officer on a Soviet submarine prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo that would have turned the Cuban Missile Crisis into a thermonuclear war. The number of close calls during the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union is terrifying. Multiply that number by multiple arms races and, short of divine intervention, you have a recipe for disaster.

Mr. Trump has an extraordinary opportunity in Singapore to reassert the principles guiding the NPT. If North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons, it will be a tremendous victory for the cause of non-proliferation. But lasting success will never be attained by the kind of unilateral American action that has lately started a trade war with longstanding allies, pulled out of the Iran deal and withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change. “I alone can fix it,” Mr. Trump declared two summers ago at the Republican National Convention. Applied to nuclear weapons, that belief is delusional and potentially catastrophic. International co-operation, through mechanisms like the NPT, offers the only real hope of survival. Robert Oppenheimer recognized that fact in his farewell speech to the Los Alamos scientists, at the dawn of the nuclear age. He told them: “I think it is true to say that atomic weapons are a peril which affect everyone in the world, and in that sense a completely common problem.”

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