Who's Next to Go Nuclear?

By Andrew Grotto
Sunday, October 15, 2006

North Korea announced its first test of a nuclear device last week, setting off hand-wringing around the world that a newly armed Pyongyang might sell nuclear weapons to rogue states or terrorists.

But another threat, more likely and more dangerous, may emerge. Pyongyang's test could encourage "near-nuclear" proliferation -- a world in which states master key technologies that are ostensibly for harmless energy-related purposes but can be quickly adapted for deadly, offensive ends.

Indeed, governments aspiring to join the small but growing club of nuclear states don't need to consider testing nukes or withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, their first step could involve learning how to enrich uranium or separate plutonium; that technology can produce fuel for nuclear energy reactors -- or bombs.

Under common interpretations of the NPT, governments are allowed to acquire such technology for peaceful purposes. Once states perfect these techniques, though, they will have overcome the greatest obstacle to getting the bomb -- access to nuclear fuel.

These aren't hypotheticals: Iran has claimed that its fledgling uranium enrichment program is intended to diversify its energy supply by producing fuel for reactors. This year, Egypt and Turkey announced interest in nuclear energy as well.

A world in which countries have the capability to go nuclear on short notice is fraught with peril. Over the next decade, keep your eye on five nations in particular that may pursue that path:

JAPAN . Japan's stockpile of more than 40 tons of plutonium -- which it keeps for use in energy reactors -- is enough fuel for 3,000 to 5,000 nuclear weapons. It also has the technical capacity to produce a sophisticated nuclear arsenal on short notice that could rival the Chinese arsenal.

The Japanese public is traditionally anti-nukes, but politicians such as former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone have openly suggested that Japan may need to reconsider its nuclear options.

SOUTH KOREA. Since 1998, South Korea has followed a "sunshine policy" toward North Korea, emphasizing engagement over isolation. Nuclear weapons play no role in this approach. However, North Korea's test has prompted some anger in the south. Seoul's attitude toward Pyongyang may be shifting.

Seoul had a nuclear weapons program in the early 1970s, but joined the NPT in 1975. In 2004, however, South Korea admitted that it had conducted secret experiments with uranium enrichment and plutonium separation beginning in the late 1970s. Like Japan, South Korea could acquire a credible nuclear arsenal on relatively short notice.

IRAN . Flush with oil revenue, Iran has emerged as a newly assertive and ambitious player in the Middle East. If isolated and impoverished North Korea can get away with developing and testing nuclear weapons, better-positioned countries such as Iran may be emboldened to think they can, too.

EGYPT. Egypt once had a nuclear weapons program, but gave it up in the 1970s and joined the NPT. Since Iran's 1979 revolution, relations between the two countries have been strained. Iran bridles at Egypt's recognition of Israel, and is still sore about Egypt's siding with Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Until 2004, a street in Tehran was named after the assassin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Relations have improved in recent years, but suspicions still run deep.

Last month, Gamal Mubarak, son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and widely viewed as next in line for the presidency, suggested in a speech that Egypt pursue nuclear energy. In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, he noted that Egypt "is not the only country that is thinking about this alternative to save on energy sources."

SAUDI ARABIA. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia regards Iran's nuclear program and growing clout with suspicion, and is also nervous about the precipitous decline in U.S. influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia helped finance Pakistan's nuclear program, and its leaders are rumored to have met with A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb and the mastermind of a global black market in nuclear technology. The Saudis couldn't develop a nuclear arsenal now, but a shortcut is possible. They could obtain a weapon from Pakistan, or invite Pakistan to station some of its weapons at Saudi bases. This could be legal under the NPT, just as the United States stations nuclear weapons at European bases.


Andrew Grotto is a senior national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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