The Threat of Nuclear Proliferation

    While nuclear energy is considered by many as a solution to climate change, particularly where CO2 emissions are concerned, the spread inherent to this technology can create problems of its own.

    Nuclear proliferation is the concern that nuclear weapons, technology and fissile materials might slip into the hands of undesirable actors. These fears originally emerged during the cold war’s arms race and ultimately led to the establishment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was established alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    The NPT intended to promote the peaceful and non-military use of nuclear technology and global disarmament. The IAEA and the Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network (GNSSN) are in charge of inspecting, regulating, policing the use of nuclear materials and establishing safety procedures around the globe. However, their work often clashes with geopolitical realities.

    Proliferation has remained a serious concern since the 1970s when it was discovered that nuclear weapons and crude bombs can be made from depleted plutonium. Currently, 93 countries have signed the NPT and are subject to regular inspections by the IAEA, including the USA, Russia, and China.

    One example of the dangers of nuclear proliferation is North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities and its consequences for Asia and the world at large. Rafael Mariano Grossi – IAEA Director-General – considers North Korea’s access to their 5 MW NPP “[…] to be a great cause for serious concern,” and “deeply troubling”, especially as DPRK withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and ceased cooperation with the IAEA in 2009.

    Pakistan, another NPT outsider in a very unstable region, is the sole country impeding the progress of the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT), which proposes the prohibition of further production of fissile material (including highly enriched uranium and plutonium) for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. In response to India’s own controversial nuclear weapons program, Pakistan acquired 150 nuclear weapons presumably from China, and stockpiles 3.4 tons of highly enriched uranium and 280 kilos of weapons-grade plutonium.

    Beyond the increased risks of nuclear conflicts generated by nuclear proliferation, the acquisition of this technology and its inherently dangerous materials by countries unsuited to maintain and contain them appropriately represents an often overlooked danger. 

    This article belongs to a five-part series on nuclear considerations relevant for climate change. Click here to read the other contributions to this series.

    Image courtesy of Eu_eugen via Pixabay

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