Monday, April 21, 2003
Backlog of things I've been thinking about #517: controlling nuclear power.
A primary justification for the war in Iraq was the need to prevent that country from developing nuclear weapons. We can all wring our hands about chemical weapons, but they are not terribly useful on the battlefield. They are really terror weapons, useful primarily against unarmed civilians. Devoting a lot of energy to them is prima facie evidence of the terroristic nature of a regime, but otherwise it doesn't tell us much. After all, you can terrorize people with other weapons a lot easier than with chemicals (for example, by flying airplanes into office buildings, or by driving a truck with a fertiziler bomb up to a somewhat smaller office building). But nuclear weapons are the one class of weapons that really do level the playing field. Even a puny military power can cause enormous damage to the enemy with such weapons, and thereby both deter attack and extort money and other concessions by threat - and, in the worst case, with terrorist delivery such weapons could kill millions of people while leaving the attacked country little in the way of a plausible response.
But the reason Iraq came close to developing nuclear weapons twice before (and we feared they would come close again) is because countries like France readily and willingly sold them the necessary technology and materials, even when doing so meant winking at or violating international law.
Now, nuclear energy is not going to go away. Rather, it is inevitably going to expand to become the primary source of energy for the planet. Fossil fuels will not last forever, and besides, much of the world's oil lies under, shall we say, politically unreliable regions of the world. France already gets 60% of its electricity from nuclear power; the U.S. gets 20%. (We get over 50% of our electricity from coal, and most of the rest from natural gas or hydropower; we get a negligible percentage from oil.) New fuel cell technologies are going to make it possible to store that power in a portable form and use it to power transportation, now the world's primary use of oil. The only way we're going to power continued economic growth for ourselves, plus the emergence of powers like China and India to developed status, is by dramatic expansion of nuclear energy. If you worry about the greenhouse effect, that increases the need to go nuclear. If you worry about the political consequences of dependency on Persian Gulf oil, that further increases the need to go nuclear. Bottom line: our future is nuclear.
But the ability to get watts out of uranium brings with it the ability to get bombs out of it. Yeah, there are better and worse technologies, and yes, you can build a bomb without having a nuclear power plant. But North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Lybia and the rest of the crew don't want reactors for electricity. They want them so they can build atomic bombs.
If we really don't want them to get the bomb, it seems to me we have three ways of preventing it:
* The carrot: bribe them not to cross the nuclear threshold. This works better for friends and neutrals than for enemies, and even then only for some friends. Taiwan, South Korea, Germany and Japan all prefer the American promise of protection to reliance on their own nuclear deterrent. Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Kazakhstan all preferred improving relations with the outside world to pursuing their nuclear ambitions. North Korea we know will deposit their bribe and immediately resume work on their bomb-making. But even non-axis members will sometimes be hard to convince to denuclearize, if they have a good reason to want the bomb. Try convincing Israel - or Pakistan, or Russia - to give up their nuclear deterrent. For that matter, try convincing even a friendly and democratic Iran of the future that they don't need one. They live in a rough neighborhood, after all.
* The stick: as everyone has noted, the Iraq war has had a salutary effect on the situation in Korea, convincing both South Korea and North Korea that we mean business. I continue to believe that the former is more important than the latter (we can't trust North Korea ever, but if South Korea is afraid that the U.S. might go it alone in North Korea, then they will be much more inclined to get behind us rather than play spoiler - which, in turn, should make it easier for us to bring any pressure we can think of to bear). But even so, it is not inconceivable that military action against actual and potential proliferators could ultimately make even enemy countries think twice about acquiring nuclear weapons. If they attract attack rather than deterring it, then there really isn't much point in acquisition, after all. But it's probably not credible to threaten to invade *anyone* who looks likely to get the bomb. And if that's the case, then eventually enough borderline states (e.g. Pakistan) will have nuclear capabilities that it will be practically impossbile to keep these weapons out of the hands of the undeterrable loonies. So what does that leave?
* The fence: this is the strategy that conservatives are least likely to prefer, but it seems to me that it has an essential role if we are going to have any hope of controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. No one - I mean no one - should be exporting nuclear technology. Nuclear power should be a monopoly of the nuclear club. The rest of the world can just buy fuel cells from us. Yeah, that means restraining trade, and economic growth, and it means cooperating with annoying powers like France and empowering supra-national organizations and all the things that give the CATO Institute hives. But Ronald Reagan was devoted to the cause of restricting technology transfer to the Soviets, and it seems to me the case against transfer of nuclear technology to any non-nuclear state is even more clear-cut.
We're now engaged in what amounts to a global war to ensure that a terrorist doesn't blow up an American city. If all we accomplish is to help deter would-be nuclear countries from taking the fateful leap, that'll be worth a lot. But we shouldn't neglect the other aspects of the fight because of ideological blinders. After all, democratizing Iraq merits plenty of skepticism, but a whole lot of conservatives have convinced themselves it's worth it to engage in nation-building in this instance. So let's take a look at technology controls again, too.