Too Slow on Nukes
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A24
THE GROUP OF EIGHT industrialized nations took a couple of steps at their summit meeting in Georgia this week to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Urged on by the Bush administration, the leaders of Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia agreed to a one-year moratorium on supplying equipment for producing fissile material to countries that do not already have it. Mr. Bush seeks a permanent ban, which will be discussed in the coming months. The G-8 also announced seven new participants in its program for funding the securing of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and agreed to press more non-nuclear countries to accept expanded inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The various initiatives followed several recent steps by the Bush administration -- including a new $450 million program to collect enriched uranium and plutonium from 40 countries around the world -- that have added momentum to its efforts to prevent the spread of nukes to nations or terrorist groups.
This progress nevertheless looks paltry in comparison with recent developments in the opposite direction. Both North Korea and Iran appear to be continuing with nuclear weapons development, overcoming ineffective containment efforts by the Bush administration and oft-divided groups of its allies. Next week the IAEA board will meet to consider a report that a formal Iranian commitment to freeze work on enriching uranium was never honored. It's not clear that all the nuclear equipment secretly produced and traded by the Pakistan-based network of Abdul Qadeer Khan has been tracked down: Some seems to have disappeared. Evidence has emerged, meanwhile, that North Korea already has exported nuclear technology, to Libya. Though Libya is dismantling its program, there is an obvious danger that North Korea will sell bombs or the technology for them to others. It's easy to fault the ineffective strategies for these threats pursued by the Bush administration or, in the case of Iran, by European governments. But it's also unclear whether any approach, from negotiation to military action, would succeed -- though the effort at containment must go on.
What's odd in such circumstances is the relative sluggishness with which the world has attacked the part of the nuclear menace that is relatively easier to deal with, if equally frightening: that of "loose nukes" and the materials needed to make them. All the elements needed to manufacture a nuclear weapon are readily available in global markets, save the fissile core of highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- and hundreds of tons of these materials are stored under insecure conditions in the nations of the former Soviet Union and other countries. A decade-old U.S. program has safeguarded only 20 percent of the material in Russia and less than that elsewhere. According to a recent report by a team of Harvard University researchers, less fissile material was secured in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001, than in the two years before the attacks.
Though it is working harder at securing the loose nukes, the Bush administration is still giving this effort a fraction of the resources it is spending to deploy a missile defense system against a threat -- a rogue state with an intercontinental missile -- that does not currently exist. At the current rate of work, it will take 13 years to secure the remaining bomb-grade material in the former Soviet Union and more than a decade to collect it from other countries. Mr. Bush's challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), has laid out a plan to complete the same job within four years. The president could help his own political cause as well as U.S. security by matching that commitment.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company