The Global Nuclear Nausea: North Korea Only One Symptom

Sitakanta Mishra
October 16, 2006

North Korea’s defiance has culminated in a seismic wave of around 4.2 in the Richter scale, but its politico-strategic ramifications are beyond calculation. The episode has provided sufficient fodder for the strategic community to interpret vividly the nomenclature of clandestine proliferation, possible actions and reactions of the stakeholders, and the current state of the global nuclear order. However, it should be understood that Pyongyang’s case is not a single phenomenon. The contemporary world is suffering from nuclear nausea caused by nuclear addiction and the North Korean show is only one symptom of this contagious disease. 

The global nuclear marathon was started, though slowly, in the early 1950s and gained momentum with the “Atom for Peace” resolution (1953) by which nuclear expertise was disseminated but very much on the basis of strategic and nationalistic considerations. A decade after, when it was realized that the noble ideas of “Atom for Peace” had been manipulated, a lopsided vaccine – the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) – was introduced. The degree of achievement of its sacrosanct goal has become an open-ended question. 

By this time, the global nuclear mad race has reached such an extent where moving ahead is highly disastrous and reverse gear is exigent. 

The other symptoms of nuclear nausea have become equally threatening. First is the era of a nuclear comeback. There is a renewed interest of different nations in nuclear power thus the global queue to enrich uranium is quite long now. Even, many poorest of the poor countries like Tanzania, Egypt, Portugal, Mexico etc., are exploring the construction of nuclear power plants. Some 40 states now possess enrichment technology to develop their own sources of nuclear power and, by implication, to develop their own nukes. According to the World Nuclear Association’s (WNA) recent report, another 222 nuclear reactors are planned or proposed by more than 20 countries worldwide. In addition, those estimates grow larger with each passing month. Suffice it to say that the spillover effect of this trend would stimulate further slippage of nuclear know-how and resources to weapon programmes. 

Second is the increasing probability of terrorist groups resorting to nuclear paths taking a chance of security lapses. The nuclear discourse has reached such a height that it has almost contaminated the public perception of anything that is radioactive. This negative popular perception of the atom can well be manipulated by terrorist groups. The news of the simple possession of nuclear materials by any terrorist group would create havoc in society. Though fabrication or appropriation of a complete nuclear device by illegitimate non-state actors is difficult, sabotage of a facility or fabricating a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD- otherwise known as a dirty bomb) by the terrorists is possible. 

Third, the piling up of highly radioactive nuclear waste, whose management has become a major headache for many advanced countries, including the US. Generally, radioactive wastes temporarily stored adjacent to the reactor, require permanent disposal. Around 200,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that has accumulated around the globe since the advent of nuclear power urgently requires safe and permanent management. Although nuclear energy solves a couple of serious environmental problems, what to do with all the nuclear waste that is generated? The highly radioactive nature of the wastes that stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years demands effective management, which would be a major international concern in the coming decades. 

The fourth imminent symptom is the supply-side constraint of nuclear fuel given the phenomenal rise of its demand. The global consensus on nuclear energy as abundant, cheap, clean, and cost-effective simply overlooks the security of supply and production capacity of the nuclear industry. The challenges of supply like limited new-build capacity, lack of experienced staff, engineering and procurement, decommissioning, etc., would propel the resultant challenges like stiff competition leading to hike in the price of uranium, and politicisation of nuclear fuel reserve regions just like the fossil fuel-rich regions of the world. 

Fifth is the robust articulation of the nuclear doctrines of the non-nuclear states. The states who have once renounced the nuclear path are now paying second thoughts to the issue. Countries like Japan, South Africa, Egypt, South Korea, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and many more portray their renewed interest in the discourse. States that are virtually away from spiralling nuclear discourse are now taking articulate positions on the global nuclear developments leading to the formulation of their own doctrines, thus are in the process of vigorous atomic socialization.

This global nuclear overdose and consequent nausea are not going to come down in the near future. Real control over this nausea will come only when something bigger than the atom/bomb takes its place. Yesterday they were India and Pakistan, today it is North Korea, tomorrow may be many more, vindicating the anarchical global nuclear order, and are only the trailers of the Frankenstein Monster that the post-proliferation world has to deal with.

Author Note
The author is associated with Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi