Today's date:
Summer 1995

Trading in the Apocalypse

Jacques Attali, founding president of the European bank for reconstruction and development, was the top aide to François Mitterand during the first 10 years of his tenure as France's president. Attali recently prepared a study on trafficking in nuclear materials and expertise for the United Nations renewal conference of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPQ). His most recent book in English is Millennium (Times Books, 1993). The memoirs of Attali's years at the Elysée, Verbatim, were just published in France.

PARIS -The recent conference at the United Nations that was convened to renew the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Conference provided an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the trade that takes place in the nuclear sector- trade that is illegal on a military level and broadly legal on a civilian level. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, trafficking in nuclear materials and expertise has been growing at an alarming rate. This is true of all three factors of production in the armaments industry: the experts, the technology and the materials themselves.

This trafficking cannot be viewed separately from proliferation: It is illegal trade, and proliferation is the illegal production of the elements needed to make nuclear weapons. This form of trade is the instrument of proliferation, and proliferation is the object of this trade. The fight against proliferation means attacking the very roots of this trade. And the reverse is also true, That is why the extension of the NPT was so urgent and important,

Where do things stand now?

In spite of the NPT, about 20 countries already have nuclear weapons capability-or soon will have. Either they are able to make their own weapons and have decided to hold back, or they want this capability and are not far off because they have the necessary technology.

In spite of the NPT, the use of such arms is more likely today than it ever was: Fanatics do not fear death; drug cartels have no territory to defend. And for them, the conventional principles of nuclear deterrence, which presuppose the fear of reprisals, no longer have any meaning.

In spite of the NPT, technology continues to develop, and a rudimentary nuclear weapon is now within easy reach of any group that has a few hundred million dollars to spend. This is all the more true for tomorrow's most dangerous weapon -the "radioactive" weapon-which calls only for a few hundred grams of fissile materials. The shortest way to access fissile products is through trafficking, which is thus more of a temptation than ever.

Where can the products and the necessary know-how for proliferation be found? In the former Soviet Union. Fear has taken the place of the rule of law there, and the control of nuclear installations is further deteriorating each day, especially in the civilian sector, making it easier for those involved in trafficking. Because of lack of funding and inadequate international support, the situation is rapidly getting out of hand.

So far, the number of serious cases of trafficking that have been identified is small -and no foreign country has been caught flagrantly trying to buy. However, this trade is now falling into the hands of the organized Mafia It has been estimated that, to date, about 30 kilograms of fissile material has been stolen -enough in theory to make at least two or three nuclear bombs.

Furthermore, all countries are being encouraged to develop nuclear power plants and so, indirectly, to produce plutonium for reprocessing. Plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear fission, is one of the most toxic substances that man has ever produced - it is the supreme instrument of sovereignty and an object of fascination to scientists and politicians alike. Although today it is still viewed in a different category from radioactive fuel and dismantled weapons, its only current use is to make weapons because it can only be used to produce energy under conditions that make no economic sense and which would spell ecological disaster.

The international community has not yet found any scientific way to use this plutonium, nor to destroy it, nor even to destroy radioactive fuels - nor even to manage them in the long-term. This is clearly a major scandal in which the politicians have been misled by scientists.

In light of these threats, the international instruments created during the Cold War to contain trade and proliferation are now quite inadequate.

The NPT, signed in 1968 by 172 countries, has worked only because the two superpowers were absolutely determined to prevent proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the body whose task it is to inspect nuclear installations, but it can inspect only those states that agree to inspection, and only then during times when they are willing. The IAEA has practically no resources of its own to conduct inquiries and to monitor, not even in the spheres of its own competence. Its budget is highly inadequate. It cannot uncover clandestine activity. It never carries out spot inspections, and it has no powers to sanction. Reprocessing radioactive fuel, movements of experts, non-fissile radioactive material and industrial activities that turn fissile material into a bomb are not controlled - or barely.

Since 1992, the former Soviet Union has needed international support, but such help is still highly inadequate, even though the United States has contributed considerable resources to this end. There is no way for the Security Council to be certain that a clandestine program is not being developed somewhere, or that the international community will have the means to intervene if such a program is uncovered.

The worst-case scenario is right there before us: If nothing is done, in 10 years nuclear weapons and radioactive weapons will have become common currency.

To impede this, the two sacrosanct and mythological principles of international relations must be abandoned: equality of treatment for all countries and nonintervention in the domestic affairs of a country. The fight must rank countries in terms of proliferation and trafficking in nuclear materials and expertise. This fight must also consider that certain radioactive materials, both before and after irradiation, represent a danger to mankind and should not be left for individual countries to manage alone.

To reduce both supply of and demand for these different factors, it is important to go much further than this and attack the root of the evil: Sanctions against the protagonists in this illegal trade should be stepped up, and, in particular, dealers and experts working as mercenaries in countries that are producing weapons should be extradited. It is also important to control the development of what in the civilian nuclear sector accelerates proliferation-enrichment and reprocessing.

In order to accomplish this, the IAEA must have more means of control and verification that would enable it to carry out special inspections on a routine basis and to control the process of military production. Greater agency resources could be generated by a worldwide tax imposed on nuclear energy.

But the last and most important thing is to reduce the quantity of nuclear materials that could be used for military purposes by halting the production of any new plutonium, whether for military or civilian purposes, and by eliminating any surplus plutonium. All surplus nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union must be purchased and the republics paid in the form of partial forgiveness of their public debt. The construction of any new reprocessing plants must be prohibited and the use of existing plants slowed down in any country considered to be unsafe.

Therefore, beyond the extension of the NPT we need the negotiation of a real Civilian Nuclear NPT. Its comprehensive implementation and control would be exercised exclusively by countries whose nuclear scenario is safe-in other words, the democracies. Jointly, they would share the heavy responsibility of managing global stocks of nuclear waste.

back to index