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The Nuclear Policy Agenda: Where to Next?

Opening Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans to CNND/Ukraine Embassy Nuclear Forum, Eliminating Nuclear Threats: Lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima, ANU, Canberra, 19 April 2016

Nuclear policy matters above all, for Australia and the world, because the use or misuse of nuclear weapons (and the nuclear fuel cycle involved in their creation) is ultimately an existential issue: policy failure may lead to the destruction of life on this planet as we know it. The same is true of climate change – the other great existential issue of our time – but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than C02.

The Chernobyl and Fukushima industrial nuclear disasters, as terrible as their impact was, were just a tiny foretaste of the scale of the catastrophe any significant exchange of nuclear weapons exchange would involve. The scale of the casualties that would follow any kind of significant nuclear exchange is almost incalculably horrific – not only from immediate blast and longer term irradiation effects, but also the nuclear-winter effect on global agriculture. 

The nuclear policy agenda needs to address four distinct but related policy issues, each associated with a particular kind of threat or risk, viz. disarmament (which addresses the risks posed by the existing stockpiles of the nuclear-armed states); non-proliferation (which is about the risks associated with the possible emergence of new nuclear-armed states); nuclear security (which is about the risks posed by rogue states or non-state terrorist actors acquiring nuclear weapons or materials);  and managing peaceful uses (which is relevant to non-proliferation and security, but also addresses safety risks of the kind experienced with Chernobyl and Fukushima).

To me the biggest of all these challenges is disarmament, because the biggest risks of all, although constantly downplayed by the nuclear-armed states and their allies, are those posed by their existing arsenals. The bottom-line challenge for policymakers in this respect was stated in three succinct lines in the Australian-initiated 1996 report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and repeated in every major report since, including the Blix Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission in 2006, and the 2009 report of the Australia-Japan initiated International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired:

So long as any state retains nuclear weapons, others will want them.   So long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used – if not by design, then by human error, system error, miscalculation or misjudgement. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

The trouble is that it has become very difficult to translate this kind of analysis into any kind of effective political response. These Commissions have come and gone. The Nuclear Security Summits have come and gone, as no doubt will President Obama's visit to Hiroshima – the first by any US President –expected later this month. The political rise of Donald Trump, short-lived though we hope it will be, is unhappy evidence of how little even the most appalling ignorance of nuclear weapons issues on the part of a putative leader matters to many voters. The issues are complex, the technical detail is often impenetrable to the uninitiated, and by and large both policymakers and publics are – despite an occasional flurry of anxiety about Iran or North Korea, and of course about civil nuclear safety issues in the wake of Chernobyl and Fukushima – complacent and indifferent.

But those civil society organizations and scholars who care, and those states who care – like Ukraine, which has sponsored this forum – must keep grinding away and keeping the issues and concerns alive. The alternative is for the world to wait for some terrible nuclear weapons catastrophe – and that could happen at almost any time – to bring us to our collective senses.

Disarmament: Addressing the Risks Posed by Existing Nuclear-Armed States

Despite big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War (down from the extraordinary peak of 64,500 weapons in 1986) and the continuing retirement or scheduling for dismantlement since by Russia and the US of many more, there are some 15, 850 nuclear warheads still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of over 100,000 Hiroshima or Nagasaki sized bombs – and in our own Asian region the number of weapons is not diminishing but increasing, with China, India and Pakistan all with active programs.

Around 8,000 of them are in the hands of the Russia, 7,300 with the US, and around 1,000 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and – at the margin – North Korea). A large proportion of all these weapons – some 4,000 - remain operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, over 1,800 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each President of four to eight minutes. Moreover there is now informed speculation that China will move to a high alert posture to enhance its retaliatory capability in the event that the US proceeds with its proposed deployment of Conventional Prompt Global Strike missiles.

The key point is that we have been much closer to catastrophe in the past, and are now, than most people know. Over the years, communications satellite launches have been mistaken for nuclear missile launches; demonstration tapes of incoming missiles have been confused for the real thing; military exercises have been mistaken for real mobilizations; technical glitches have triggered real-time alerts; live nuclear weapons have been flown by mistake around the US without anyone noticing until the plane returned to base; and one hydrogen bomb-carrying plane actually crashed in the US, with every defensive mechanism preventing an explosion failing, except one cockpit switch.

Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command and control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command and control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states; and given what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, it is utterly wishful thinking to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity. That we have survived for over 70 years without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability but sheer dumb luck.

With the advent of President Obama in 2009, there were real grounds for optimism among those of us who wanted to see serious movement toward a world free of nuclear weapons. But now that optimism has almost completely disappeared. The Global Zero cause right now is not in good shape. Despite all the hopes so many of us following Obama's 2009 Prague Speech, since the deterioration of the US-Russia relationship we have been going rapidly backwards –  with arms control negotiations on hold at all levels; expensive force modernization programs everywhere proceeding; net weapons numbers increasing across Asia with Pakistan, India and China all increasing their arsenals and North Korea getting ever closer to deliverable weapons; the use of tactical nuclear weapons being openly canvassed by Pakistan; and the Russian President talking up the useability of nuclear weapons in language we haven't heard since the Cold War years.

To me the most unhappy element in all of this is the casual re-embracing by policymakers almost everywhere of all the old Cold War language about the utility of nuclear deterrence – the absolute necessity of nuclear weapons to keep the peace, at least between the major powers – and I'll return to this theme before I close.

It is true that over the last two years we have seen the welcome rebirth of an international movement campaigning against the catastrophic humanitarian impact of any nuclear weapons use, which has strong appeal both intellectually and emotionally, and which has won strong support from many governments (although not Australia's I'm sad to say) and civil society organizations worldwide. But this has had much less traction with publics, and the governments that matter most, than might have been hoped. When it comes to visceral, emotional appeal, in the context of old fears resurfacing about Russia and new ones emerging about China, reliance on nuclear deterrence seems to trump the appeal of nuclear disarmament every time.

Non-Proliferation: Risks Posed by New Nuclear-Armed States

As bad as the risks were during most of the Cold War years when there were just two opposing major nuclear powers, those risks have become dramatically compounded since the proliferation developments that produced India, Pakistan and Israel as new nuclear armed states in the 1970s, and North Korea in the last decade -- in areas of great regional volatility, a history of violent conflict, and less sophisticated command and control systems – and would be compounded even more dramatically were there to be further breakouts, particularly in the Middle East in response to Iran's perceived program, or in North East Asia in response to North Korea (or a dramatic increase in Chinese military capability)

The deal concluded last year with Iran (albeit ten years later than it could have been reached had the Western powers been more flexible) has been the one piece of unequivocally good news about non-proliferation in recent times (assuming, which I for one would regard as contestable, that Iran was indeed hell-bent on proliferating).  What's not to like about an agreement which, in outline, is intended to deliver a complete end to a plutonium path to a bomb; very significant limitations, and inbuilt delays, into any enriched-uranium path to a bomb; an extension of any possible breakout timeline from the presently assessed 2-3 months to at least a year; with highly intrusive international monitoring and verification to ensure that these strictures are observed?

But progress elsewhere has been minimal. Last year's NPT Review Conference failed to reach agreement about anything, notionally because of the foot-dragging by key players on any kind of progress towards a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East, but with the underlying negative dynamic being as always the absolute unwillingness of the existing nuclear armed states to make any substantive moves toward disarmament. It proved impossible to get any buy-in from the wider international community for a stronger non-proliferation regime, in terms of stronger safeguards measures, penalties for walking away from the Treaty, or anything else

There has also been a depressing immobility on the two crucial building blocks for both non-proliferation and disarmament – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which remains to be finally ratified into effect, and a Treaty to ban the future production of any fissile material for nuclear weapons on which, despite years of trying in Geneva, serious negotiations have yet to even commence. On the CTBT, there is no good reason why countries like China, India and Pakistan should make their own ratification dependent on the US moving first, but they have chosen to shelter behind the obduracy of the US Senate.

Nuclear Security: Threats Posed by Nuclear Terrorists

The kind of nuclear weapons risk generating most attention at the moment is that rogue states or non-state terrorist actors will get their hands on ill-secured nuclear weapons or dangerous nuclear material, or (helped by knowing what went wrong in Chernobyl, and particularly the vulnerabilities shown up by Fukushima) sabotage nuclear power reactors. This has generated an enormous amount of worldwide attention in the aftermath of 9/11, fuelled since then by the series of deeply troubling developments in the Middle East, and jihadist-driven terrorist attacks in a number of capitals.

While we shouldn't exaggerate the risks posed by a fission bomb operation – given the scale of the operations involved, the coordination required, and the extent to which intelligence and policing agents are already on the case— nor can we be at all complacent about the threat posed by these extremists. Should they ever get their hands on the necessary nuclear material, we have to assume they would have no moral compunction whatever about using it.

A manifestly less difficult undertakingand rather more likely to occur, although somewhat surprisingly it hasn't yet – would be for extremists to assemble quantities of non-fissile radioactive material like caesium 137, much more readily available in multiple industrial and medical uses, and detonate it with a conventional explosive like TNT as a "dirty bomb" in the middle of a city. The physical damage would be relatively minimal, certainly by comparison with a fission bomb, but the psychological damage unquestionably great – made so largely by the way this threat continues to be so talked-up by policymakers. It may be that by talking the risk down it will that much less likely to be perpetrated.

Getting the international community serious about measures to improve nuclear security should be the easiest of all nuclear policy issues to advance, because no state is actually against it, either in principle or in practice.  But we still need to do better than all the self-congratulation following the Seoul, Hague and two Washington Summits might make us believe we have done so far. There is now plenty of international regulatory architecture, and there are plenty of announced national implementation measures.But there is still not enough transparency or accountability for anyone to be really confident that enough is actually changing on the ground.

In particular, none of the new or expanded instruments address sensitive nuclear material (HEU and plutonium) under military control, and that represents 83 per cent of the world's total: there are now estimated to be 1,345 tonnes of HEU and 500 tonnes of plutonium in civilian and military hands combined, enough material to build another 150,000 nuclear weapons. Moreover, there is much more that needs to be done in setting overarching international standards; to the extent that the new or expanded measures create obligations or commitments, there is practically no provision anywhere for international accountability; international cooperation is increasingly fragile in some areas where it matters most, with Russia walking away from further participation in the hugely-successful Nunn-Lugar program, and not  participating at all in the 2016 Washington meeting; and the IAEA, here as elsewhere, continues to struggle for the necessary resources.

Managing the Risks Associated with Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

The rewards associated with the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – the medical, industrial and agricultural applications of isotopes, and above all for electric power generation – should speak for themselves, and indeed have long been particularly valued in the global South.One of the most bemusing features of the current debate on climate change, and the carbon reduction strategies that are going to be so critical if this planet is going to survive global warming, is the minimal attention being given in most countries, particularly in the developed world, to the contribution to a fossil fuel-free world that could be made by nuclear power.  

Nuclear power may never be the whole solution to climate change but my view is that it  makes no sense at all to try to exclude it playing a much greater role or, even more dramatically, trying to phase out nuclear power altogether, whatever the political temptation to do so has been in some countries in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Mercifully in Australia, after years of highly emotional controversy about uranium mining, export, waste disposal and nuclear power, the debate is becoming much more rational and better informed, not least with the release in February by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission of its Tentative Findings, making clear that while nuclear electricity generation will remain economically problematic for the foreseeable future, and there are good reasons to be cautious about going down the enrichment and reprocessing path, there are potentially enormous gains for us, at minimal risk, if we can win the necessary social and political consent, in becoming a major international player in the management, storage and disposal of intermediate and high-level waste – something I, for one, have been quietly arguing for years.

All that said, there are still three big categories of risk issues associated with the management of civil nuclear energy – the "three S's" of safeguards, security and safety – which must always be addressed in this context.

Of course there are regulatory issues with operating safety and security, and waste disposal, but they are not remotely insoluble.  Nothing that went wrong in Fukushima, or Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, was anything we did not know how to avoid at the time, or now don't know how to fix or can't afford to fix.  The waste disposal issue is one where reason has gone almost completely out the window as NIMBY – "not in my backyard"– arguments are employed by activists everywhere, summoning up fears of precious bodily-fluid contamination reminiscent of Dr Strangelove's General Jack Ripper.

But as Robert Socolow points out in a very level-headed evaluation in a recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is of particular salience in the context of the South Australian waste disposal debate, just because we can't now be completely confident that some kind of contamination won't occur over the course of the next 24,100 years, which is the half-life of Pu 239, this should not stop us being completely comfortable for at least the next 50-100 years, while technology further evolves, with reversible deep underground storage solutions.

The international state of play on the management of civil uses is not as good as it could be, but a little less desolate than in other areas. General international cooperation is quite strong in the development of peaceful use applications, as is the supportive role of IAEA.

Less substantial formal progress has been made in nuclear safety, and the safety/security interface, where international standards, transparency and accountability are all lacking – notwithstanding all the post Fukushima soul searching.

And a lot more remains to be done on the safeguards issue, i.e.  in mitigating proliferation risks  - through  minimization of HEU use in research reactors (on which good progress has been made), through the establishment multilateral fuel banks to discourage fissile material production by new entrants (where progress has been slow, although the recent announcement of such a bank in Kazakhstan with strong IAEA and international support is a big step forward ), and further development and take-up of proliferation resistant technology (where progress has been disappointingly modest).

The Particular Challenge of Disarmament. Of course we need to continue to wrestle with non-proliferation, nuclear security and nuclear safety – in the various ways I have been suggesting, and with strategies that will be further discussed in later sessions today.  But to me the main game must always be generating serious momentum towards, and ultimately achieving, complete nuclear disarmament. There are five broad strategies which need to be pursued in this respect.

First, not just the emotional but the intellectual and strategic case for abolition has to be made, to challenge head-on the Cold War mindset which is still so extraordinarily evident among so many policymakers. In particular, the case must be made that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious utility, and at worst of zero utility, in maintaining stable peace: that because of the obvious risks associated with their deliberate use anywhere at any time, and the almost universally accepted taboo on such use, nuclear weapons are simply not the deterrent or strategic stabiliser they may seem, whether the context is deterring war between the major powers, deterring large-scale conventional attack, deterring chemical or biological weapons attacks or deterring nuclear terrorism. 

This all means, among other things, not letting go unchallenged the line, often heard from pro-nuclear weapons advocates since Russia's annexation of Crimea, that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is now if it had not given up its nuclear weapons in 1994 on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons do not act as a deterrent to the kind of adventurism we have seen in Ukraine, because both sides understand that the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high. Putin knows that even if he drives his tanks half way to Kiev, there would be no more prospect of a nuclear-armed Ukraine government nuking Moscow than of Washington doing so. The one thing that Ukrainian nuclear weapons would have added to today's mix is another huge layer of potential hazard: from all the risks of system error and human error – miscalculation, misjudgement, mistake – that are associated with the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone.

Second, the argument for nuclear disarmament, and for a timeline in getting there, has to be made in a way that is seen as credible, not hopelessly incredible,by policymakers.  It's going to have to be, as the ICNND argued, a two-stage process, first "minimization" (for which one can set a target date), then "elimination" (for which one can't set any kind of plausible end date until the problems of verification and enforcement have been credibly resolved:  getting to zero will be impossible without every state being confident that every other is complying, that any violation of the prohibition is readily detected, and that any breakout is controllable.

Third, there has to be a hard focus on getting some movement, somewhere, on numbers.  With bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia obviously for the time being at a dead-end, the smart place to start, though it is getting harder to believe it will ever happen, would be for the U.S. unilaterally to wave goodbye to the hugely land-based component of its triad, which as even the nuclear hawks acknowledge, is far more vulnerable to attack than the sea or air-based components. 

.Fourth, there must be a serious move to reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. At least when it comes to non-nuclear threat contingencies, whether they involve chemical or biological or conventional or cyber weapons, surely it is time for every US ally to step back. We know that, with the U.S. help on which we can all reasonably rely, we have the capacity for the indefinitely foreseeable future to deal with any such contingency, however severe, through the application of conventional military force. So long as we continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for these contingencies, we are contributing absolutely nothing but rhetoric to the achievement of a nuclear-free world. Extended deterrence does not have to mean extended nuclear deterrence.

Fifth and finally, the nuclear-armed states and their allies have to be persuaded to rethink their resistance to the humanitarian consequences movement, now generating significant worldwide momentum, because it is so obviously ethically compelling. The initiative that has been taken by the Swiss, Norwegian, Mexican, Austrian, New Zealand and other governments, and a legion of NGOs, to bring back to centre stage our understanding  of what these weapons actually do to real human beings, is profoundly worthwhile. If one of the results of this process is to create some momentum towards an ultimate legally binding treaty banning nuclear weapons – although any credible such treaty is, realistically, decades away – that's a consummation devoutly to be wished.  

It's time for all the nuclear armed states, and all those states, including Australia, who think of themselves as sheltering under the nuclear protection of other states, to get serious once and for all about disarmament in all the ways here described. For these states to continue to insist, as they do, that everyone else do as they say and not as they do, does not begin to be a recipe for reducing the terrible nuclear weapons risks the world continues to face. And it certainly doesn't help the non-proliferation agenda. All the world hates a hypocrite, and it's time, once and for all, for the hypocrisy to stop.