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Nuclear Clock Again Ticks Near Midnight : The bomb: Treaties and inspections prove toothless against rogue states.

April 05, 1993|PETER D. ZIMMERMAN | Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist and non-proliferation specialist, has just completed a study of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program for Congress.

The nuclear non-proliferation game is over, a pessimist (or possibly a realist) would say, and the nuclear clock is very close to midnight. Three nations--North Korea, South Africa and Iraq--have reached or crossed the nuclear threshold either without detection or because no serious attempt was made to forestall their achievements. How they did so gives stark evidence of the need to overhaul the network of treaties, export controls, security guarantees and international pressure that the world has relied on for decades to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons.

* North Korea --The Kim Il Sung government clearly violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea accepted in 1985: It has reprocessed more plutonium than it declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and did so on more occasions than it admitted. Last month, North Korea abrogated the treaty after refusing an IAEA special inspection of the reprocessing plant's waste dump. The inspection is of the utmost importance, for only by examining the 5,000-cubic-yard landfill of toxic and radioactive byproducts can the true status of North Korea's nuclear weapons program be determined.

On Thursday, the IAEA referred the balked inspection to the U.N. Security Council for action.

* South Africa --A late entrant to the non-proliferation treaty, South Africa recently announced that it had secretly assembled six nuclear weapons. While most observers believed that the South Africans were nuclear-capable, few believed that they had actually built a stockpile. The South Africans gave few details of their arsenal, but hinted broadly that their weapons were modeled on the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Replication of "Little Boy" would be an unusual route to nuclear prowess. The Hiroshima bomb consisted of an artillery gun that fired a uranium-235 slug at a target of the same material, assembling a super-critical mass that then exploded. While it is the simplest of all nuclear weapons to design and fabricate, a gun-type atomic bomb is also one of the most profligate ways to use fissile materials. The South Africans apparently considered enriched U-235 so cheap that building a simple bomb that required no testing was more important than using special material efficiently.

South African President F.W. de Klerk has stated that his predecessor's government planned an arsenal of seven weapons, but only six were constructed. The IAEA should verify that the seventh bomb does not exist, and that the critical components for the other six have been destroyed, not merely disassembled. Finding all of the South African uranium could, however, be impossible if any of it has been hidden, for the material for a Hiroshima-like weapon fits in a space equal to a half-gallon milk carton, perhaps with a cupful on the side.

* Iraq --Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who heads the U.N. special commission to disarm Iraq, spoke frankly in Washington recently: Despite the destruction of the laboratory at Al Atheer, Iraq's "Los Alamos," the scientific and engineering teams assembled for the nuclear project, as well as all its records and blueprints, were intact. In addition, Ekeus said, Iraq's supplier list remains secret, along with the details of its money-laundering system to pay for nuclear hardware. If sanctions are lifted and Iraq's coffers are refilled from oil sales, Ekeus fears that Iraqi nuclear weapons could "spring up like mushrooms."

If the accomplishments of Iraq, North Korea, and South Africa teach a lesson for the non-proliferation regime, it is the essential bankruptcy of attempts to hinder the spread of nuclear weapons by supply-side controls and IAEA inspections. Proliferation occurs when nations decide that their security concerns or regional ambitions are best served by weapons of mass destruction. Those nations make vast amounts of money available to gratify their desires and can avoid most technological controls and inspections. The United States must help eliminate this demand-side pull by extending security guarantees and demonstrating our conviction that nuclear weapons have no tactical or strategic use.

Iraq, North Korea and South Africa are warning shots: New approaches to inhibiting the spread of nuclear weapons must be found before more of the world's many beleaguered states seek security through an arsenal that spells insecurity for everyone on Earth.

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