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A World Free of Nuclear Risk: Re-Energising Global Policymakers

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Co-Chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to the International House of Japan/ANU Japan Alumni Association program, Rethinking Nuclear Non-Proliferation and the Nuclear Issue, Tokyo, 28 March 2012

No single experience of my youth made a greater impression on me than, during my first ever overseas trip over four decades ago, standing in the Hiroshima Peace Park in front of the slab of granite on which was indelibly etched the shadow of a human being incinerated by the atomic blast which destroyed the city in 1945. Nothing in all my adult years has moved me more than the testimony, to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament I co-chaired with former Foreign Minister Kawaguchi three years ago, of the hibakusha – the nuclear survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – about the unbearable horrors they witnessed and pain they somehow survived.

And now, again, with events in Japan just one year ago, I  – like the whole world  – have been deeply moved by the terrible horror of the Fukushima tsunami disaster, with all that it has taught us again, if we are prepared to listen, about the terrible dangers of exposure to uncontrolled radiation and the vulnerability of civil nuclear reactors to safety breakdowns, and to security attack, if every conceivable contingency is not properly planned for, and every possible safety and security precaution effectively implemented.

The reality we have to confront, to constantly remind ourselves of, and to find ways of ramming into the consciousness of every relevant political leader in the world, is that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and nuclear safety and security, are not just another set of difficult policy issues – but ones in a class all of their own, and with a gravity and urgency all of their own. Fukushima has provided that wake-up call in relation to civil nuclear energy, with the results that we are seeing all over the world in the review of nuclear power programs, and the renewed focus on nuclear security with this week’s Seoul Summit.

But there is still much to be done to make the leaders of nuclear-armed, potentially nuclear-armed states, and those capable of influencing them, recognise and act on the reality that nuclear weapons are, simply, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. There is only one other global policy issue remotely comparable in terms of its impact on planetary survivability, and that is climate change: but nuclear bombs can kill us a lot faster than CO2. 

When the International Commission produced its report in 2009, we did so in a spirit of considerable optimism.  After a decade of sleepwalking, a major effort had been made to shock the world out of its complacency by four of the hardest-nosed realists ever to hold public office -- former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Secretary of Defense William Perry, and Senator Sam Nunn -- in their series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007, arguing that whatever role nuclear weapons may have played in the Cold War, in the present international  environment the risks of any state retaining them far outweighed any possible security reward. And with the election of Barack Obama, we at last had a US president totally committed, intellectually and emotionally, to the ultimate achievement of a nuclear weapon free world, a vision which he articulated superbly in his 2009 Prague speech.

In the consultations my Commission conducted around the world, in every major region and involving every significant nuclear state, we sensed a real hunger for major new movement on disarmament by all the nuclear armed states, for strengthening and extending the reach of the non-proliferation regime in all its aspects, and for strengthening the most crucial building blocks for both – viz.  a comprehensive ban on  weapons testing, a comprehensive ban on the production of fissile material for such weapons, and eliminating once and for all the security risks associated with imperfectly secured nuclear weapons and material.  And we reflected those findings in our recommendations for action across the spectrum of these issues:  in the short term to 2012; the medium term to 2025 (by which time we argued that we could and should achieve a 90 per cent reduction in the world’s stockpile of 22,000 + weapons); and the longer term thereafter, where the ultimate target had to be zero nuclear weapons.

Grounds for Concern. Now, three years later, as we approach the end of our first benchmark period, to 2012, it is harder to maintain that spirit of optimism. In January this year, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved a minute closer to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the respected global organization that for decades has tracked the risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe, whether caused by accident or design, state or terrorist, fission bomb or dirty radiological bomb. The message was that progress since 2007 – when the Clock’s hands were last set at five minutes to midnight – has stalled, and political leadership has gone missing on all of the critical issues.
On disarmament, the balloon has well and truly deflated. The New START treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010, reduced the number of deployed strategic weapons, but left both sides’ actual stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed, weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved – and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere. With no further movement by the US and Russia, which together hold 95% of the world’s total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, no other nuclear-armed state has felt pressure to reduce its own stocks significantly, and some – China, India, and Pakistan – have been increasing them.

On non-proliferation, the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was a modest success, mainly because it did not collapse in disarray, as had the previous one in 2005. But it could not agree on measures to strengthen the regime, and its push for talks on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East has so far gathered no momentum. North Korea seems no closer to being put back in its NPT box, although recent developments have been mildly encouraging (viz. the agreement with the US on a moratorium on nuclear-related activity and return of IAEA inspectors) – or were until the latest announcement of a long-range rocket launch next month. And Iran may be closer than ever to jumping out of its box, with consequences that would ricochet around the region – and the global economy – if it makes that decision.

On building block issues, despite President Barack Obama’s good intentions, the US Senate is no closer to ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, while China, India, and Pakistan, among others, take shelter behind that inaction, with a fragile voluntary moratorium the only obstacle to resumed testing. And negotiations in Geneva on another crucial building block for both disarmament and non-proliferation – a treaty to ban further production of weapons-grade fissile material – remain at a total impasse.  The only half-way good news is that, with this week’s Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, progress continues on the third building block: ensuring that weapons-usable materials, and weapons themselves, currently stored in multiple locations in 32 countries, do not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. But progress even here is painfully slow, and there is not much reason for optimism that the original target will be met, of achieving complete security by 2014.

Getting Serious. The message that must go out to policymakers, and be pursued by passion and persistence by those of us – not least here in Japan – who care deeply and worry deeply about these issues, is that they simply have to get serious about eliminating the whole range of risks associated with nuclear weapons and civil nuclear energy. Neither piecemeal change nor sloganeering will do the job: sound bites and tweets are not the route to nuclear salvation. Nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and civil nuclear-energy risk reduction are inextricably connected, and they call for sustained commitment around a comprehensive agenda, and detailed argument.

Disarmament.  Although disarmament is by far the hardest of all nuclear objectives to achieve, the nuclear threat will continue to hang over us until the last nuclear-armed state destroys its last weapon. Getting serious about disarmament means the five original nuclear weapons state members of the NPT getting serious, in a way that they have never been in the past, about their explicit commitment under Article VI of that Treaty to go down that path. And it also means the three nuclear-armed elephants outside the NPT – India, Pakistan and Israel – also being prepared to ultimately eliminate their own respective arsenals.

There are three crucial messages that just have to get out here. The first is that the threat of a nuclear weapons catastrophe remains alarmingly real. Existing global stockpiles have a destructive capacity equal to 150,000 Hiroshima bombs, and in handling them there is an omnipresent potential for human error, system error, or misjudgment under stress. Just last week, there was yet another revelation of how close the world came to nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War years (when the so-called failsafe command and control systems operated by the US and Soviet Union are likely to have been rather more sophisticated than those between India and Pakistan today). The National Security Archive at George Washington University has just revealed that in June 1980 the NORAD system generated an alert of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US, with World War III on the point of being triggered by what was subsequently found to be the failure of a single integrated circuit worth 46 cents.

The second message is that Cold War nuclear-deterrence doctrine is irrelevant to today’s world. So long as nuclear weapons remain, states are going to want to maintain a minimum nuclear-deterrent capability. But that can be done without weapons on high alert; and it can be done with drastically reduced arsenals in the case of the US and Russia, and, at worst, at current levels for the other nuclear-armed states. It can also be done in a way that reduces the military salience of nuclear weapons. States like Japan, ROK and (to a lesser extent, because of our geographical position, Australia) which rely on extended nuclear deterrence from the US can make a major contribution of their own to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in defence thinking by making clear that they do not rely on nuclear weapons for anything other than protection from nuclear threat contingencies,

The third message, related to that, is that if the existing nuclear powers are serious about non-proliferation, and sincerely want to prevent others from joining their club, they cannot keep justifying the possession of nuclear weapons as a means of protection for themselves or their allies against other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, or conventional weapons. Indeed, the single most difficult issue inhibiting serious movement toward disarmament – certainly in the case of Pakistan versus India, and Russia and China versus the US – are conventional arms imbalances (including ballistic missile defence capabilities), and ways of addressing them must rise to the top of the policy agenda.

These messages must be matched by willingness to map a credible path to zero -- showing how it is possible to get to where we need to go, within a reasonable time. Advocates of specific early target dates for total elimination – 2025 or 2030 -- have to wrestle with the reality that setting specific dates which are seen by policymakers as impossibly ambitious will stop them listening altogether. The ICNND argued that it was more credible and productive to focus on a 2025 ‘minimization’ target – reducing the world’s stockpile from 22-23,000 to 2,000 – and not put a specific date on getting to zero thereafter, recognizing that before this can happen we will have to overcome three really big hurdles: remove geo-political uncertainty in key regions like South Asia, overcome the psychological reluctance of states to give up weapons, and have in place verification and enforcement systems which every state is totally confident will stop any subsequent breakout.

Non-Proliferation. Getting serious about non-proliferation means in the first instance strengthening the IAEA as the relevant watchdog organization, and strengthening the weaknesses in the Non-Proliferation Treaty that have long been identified – in particular achieving universal embrace of the more stringent safeguard procedures in the Additional Protocol, and some effective penalties for those like North Korea purporting to walk away from the NPT. Agreed language on these issues at the 2010 NPT Review Conference was limp or non-existent, and it is a matter now of starting all over again in the long run-up to 2015.

Getting serious about non-proliferation also means addressing the proliferation risks potentially associated with whatever expansion of civil nuclear energy occurs in the years ahead, although post-Fukushima this is likely to be much less dramatic than previously anticipated.  Proliferation resistant technology – involving mainly new reactor designs which don’t require or produce sensitive material – may be part of the answer in the longer run, but the most immediate need is to ensure that no new ‘bomb starter kits’ (i.e. fissile material production facilities) are built by new countries. That means in turn being able to offer them assurances of supply of the fuel they need, the creation of an internationally managed fuel bank, or some other multilateral arrangement that would pose less risk. The IAEA is slowly moving down this path, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort.

The most immediately pressing of all non-proliferation needs is, of course, to deal effectively with the specific problems of North Korea and Iran. Although the North Korean problem on the face of it is more immediately serious, given that it has already tested nuclear explosive devices and possesses half dozen or so of them, it is in a sense more manageable: neither of the countries most threatened by this development, Japan or South Korea, have shown any signs of wanting to join the race; there is no reason to fear – unless one accepts a ‘madman’ theory, never usually a good idea in international relations despite its popularity in the world’s tabloids – that North Korea would ever commit national suicide by actually using its devices aggressively;  and with the succession issue now apparently resolved, there are some signs that Pyongyang is again getting serious about restarting denuclearisation negotiations. None of us should hold our breath for a result – nothing in this country is ever beyond doubt (as the threatened missile launch next month reminds us again – but the old contain-and-deter-but-keep-the-door-open-for-negotiations formula seems to be working.

In the case of Iran, although in many ways even more troubling than DPRK, both because of the existential threat any weapons might pose to Israel and because of the very real proliferation breakout threat posed by some of its neighbours, I continue to believe (as does almost everyone except, apparently, Binyamin Netanyahu and those around him) that this is capable of resolution by the same combination of deterrence, containment and pressure-backed negotiations, and that any preemptive strike by Israel, with or without US backing, certainly before Tehran actually crossed the threshold and possessed useable nuclear weapons, would be crazily wrongheaded. It should not be assumed that Iran’s nuclear program has ever been designed to give it any more than a weapon-making capability, and while any such program gives real ground for concern and is in manifest breach of the NPT, it is not a defensible basis, legally, morally or rationally, for going to war.

Testing, Fissile Material and Nuclear Security. Getting serious about the building blocks for non-proliferation and disarmament means, in relation to nuclear testing, the hold-out ratification countries, including especially China and India, not continuing to shelter behind the inability of  successive US presidents to persuade the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); in relation to introducing a ban on the production of weapons grade fissile material, this means countries like India and China not sheltering comfortably behind the intransigence of Pakistan in refusing consensus on any kind of negotiation proceeding at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; and on the subject putting of “loose nukes”, i.e. nuclear weapons and materials insufficiently guarded against theft or diversion,  once and for all out of the reach of rogue states and non-state terrorist actors, this means every key state putting not just rhetorical but total practical effort into the full implementation of the multiple treaties, resolutions, arrangements, agreements and cooperative threat reduction programs, and individual national commitments, already in place, and reinforced in Seoul this week.

Re-Energising the Agenda. So how can policymakers and those who seek to influence them regenerate that momentum that seemed so promising just a couple of years ago?  What can we do to reinflate the balloon – and ensure that it’s not just full of hot air? Others will have ideas about how best to do this both in the short and long term – including no doubt through the education system, where nuclear issues seem to have been long more or less completely neglected in every country of which I’m aware -- but let me mention finally three particular initiatives which have been recommended by the ICNND.

One is to develop and promote a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention, building on a proposal which already has strong civil society and some useful government support, as a framework for advocacy action, and as a detailed and credible foundation for multilateral disarmament negotiations whenever these could be started. While, given the enormous complexity and difficulty of the issues involved, there is little prospect of such a draft Convention exercise here acquiring the same early momentum as did the Ottawa treaty on land mines and the Oslo treaty on cluster bombs, this could be a useful focusing and energising mechanism over the longer term.

A second initiative would be to regularly publish a detailed report card that pulls no punches in assessing which states are meeting their disarmament and non-proliferation commitments, and which are not (the Nuclear Materials Security Index, just published by Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, is one example). I have been involved in establishing recently a new Centre  at the Australian National University, directed by Professor Ramesh Thakur and supported by the Australian Government – which will work with SIPRI in Stockholm and have some outreach activities in Geneva with the assistance of the Swiss Government – to do just that that, with the first “State of Play” report targeted for early 2013.

The third initiative is to gather together in regional networks experienced and high-profile current and former figures from politics, diplomacy and the services to inform and energise public opinion, and especially high-level policymakers, to take seriously the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons, and do everything possible to achieve a world in which they are contained, diminished and  ultimately eliminated. Such networks now exist with the European Leadership Network (ELN) and Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and more are in the early planning process.

No quick fix will turn all this around. Getting the kind of messages that I have talked about here today embedded in public and political consciousness is going to involve very slow boring through very hard boards. But the messages demand attention, and we simply have to keep drilling. The stakes are enormous, and those of us who care about these issues  – and I am sure that includes  everyone in this distinguished audience – persist simply because we must, in the interests of ourselves, our children and our children’s children.