The declaration last Monday by North Korea that it had conducted a successful atomic test brought to nine the number of nations believed to have nuclear arms. But atomic officials estimate that as many as 40 more countries have the technical skill, and in some cases the required material, to build a bomb.
That ability, coupled with new nuclear threats in Asia and the Middle East, risks a second nuclear age, officials and arms control specialists say, in which nations are more likely to abandon the old restraints against atomic weapons.
The spread of nuclear technology is expected to accelerate as nations redouble their reliance on atomic power. That will give more countries the ability to make reactor fuel, or, with the same equipment and a little more effort, bomb fuel — the hardest part of the arms equation.
Signs of activity abound. Hundreds of companies are now prospecting for uranium where dozens did a few years ago. Argentina, Australia and South Africa are drawing up plans to begin enriching uranium, and other countries are considering doing the same. Egypt is reviving its program to develop nuclear power.
Concern about the situation led the International Atomic Energy Agency to summon hundreds of government officials and experts from around the world to Vienna in September to discuss tightening restrictions on who is permitted to produce nuclear fuel.
“These dangers are urgent,” Sam Nunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation and a former Democratic senator, told the group. “We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe and, at this moment, the outcome is unclear.”
But even the atomic agency itself exemplifies some of the underlying tensions inherent in the development of nuclear energy.
For decades, the I.A.E.A., known as the world’s nuclear policeman, has pursued its other mandate — to promote safe nuclear power — by running technical aid programs with roughly a hundred states. Some of that knowledge could be useful in a weapons program, though the aid is meant exclusively for civilian use.
The agency still helps Pakistan, which exploded a nuclear bomb in 1998. It also helped North Korea until a decade ago. Even today, it is assisting Iran, which many experts fear is close to mastering the basics of making a bomb. It has 14 programs under way with Iran, including a study on upgrading a nuclear research laboratory, as well as helping it start up its Bushehr reactor.
North Korea’s reported test has shaken the nuclear status quo and raised anew the question of whether Asia will be the first to feel a nuclear “domino effect,” in which states clandestinely hedge their bets by assembling the crucial technologies needed to make a bomb, or actually cross the line to become new weapons states. In the Middle East, the confrontation with Iran has focused new attention on countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which fear that an Iranian bomb would make Tehran the greatest power in the region.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., has estimated that up to 49 nations now know how to make nuclear arms, and he has warned that global tensions could push some over the line.
“We are relying,” he said, “primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries — intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security or insecurity, and could therefore be subject to rapid change.”
Worry about proliferation is hardly new. In March 1963, President John F. Kennedy said, “I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of 4, and by 1975, 15 or 20.” That timetable proved to be inaccurate. But in recent years there has been a sense around the globe that President Kennedy’s prediction is about to come true, three decades late.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, said this year that “the international community seems almost to be sleepwalking” down a path where states, after long living without nuclear arms, now feel compelled to revisit their logic.
He warned of a new arms race — not one of superpowers, but of regional powers. “Perhaps most damaging of all,” he concluded, “there is also a perception that the possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction offers the best protection against being attacked.”
A New Nuclear Vision
Democrats and Republicans spent the past week arguing over who lost control of North Korea, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. But seeds of the problem were planted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, just months after the armistice ended the fighting on the Korean Peninsula in 1953.
“It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers,” President Eisenhower told the United Nations that year, just as his administration was completing a series of 11 nuclear tests. “It must be put in the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”
His program was called Atoms for Peace, and soon involved dozens of nations, all seeking to unlock the magic of nuclear power. The first generation of nuclear reactors sprang up around the globe, as did a huge supporting industry and an international overseer, the I.A.E.A.
But almost from the start, evidence accumulated that countries were using the civil alliances and reactor technologies to make bombs. By 1960, France had joined the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons state. China conducted its first test in 1964. Israel had the bomb by 1967, India by 1974, South Africa by 1982 (it has since given up its weapons) and Pakistan by 1998.
All but the original three built their weapons by exploiting at least some technologies that were ostensibly civilian, nuclear analysts say. They enriched uranium beyond the low level needed for power reactors. Or they mined the spent fuel of civil reactors for plutonium — the path that North Korea started taking in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, according to American intelligence officials.
The international atomic agency, which still inscribes Atoms for Peace on its business cards, has worked hard to fight this kind of cheating while also helping with the basic technology. In the 1980’s, it aided Iran’s hunt for uranium.
Even today, Iranian technicians fly to Vienna and agency experts go to Iran to lend a hand. In August, two experts went to review progress at the Bushehr reactor, which is scheduled to go critical next year.
“It’s helping establish that the plant is run in a safe and secure manner, which is in everybody’s interest,” said M. Peter Salema, an agency official. “Look at Chernobyl. That’s the whole point.”
Many of the agency’s cooperative projects use nuclear science to humanitarian ends, like fighting disease and treating cancer. But others involve more basic atomic skills.
“We provide expert services,” Dr. Salema said, “so they can learn to do things for themselves.”
The Technology Boom
The Manhattan project scientists who built the first atom bomb predicted that the diffusion of their secret knowledge was inevitable. It was just a question of time. Now, after decades of scholarly digging, government declassification, open research in uranium and plutonium metallurgy and the rise of the Internet, much of that information is freely available.
“The general concepts are widely known,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb.” “Still, it’s another thing to actually do it. That still requires certain skills of engineering and chemistry and physics.”
The hardest part, experts agree, is not acquiring the weapons blueprints but obtaining the fuel. That is becoming easier because of developments both overt and covert.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, a chief architect of Pakistan’s nuclear arms program who went on to establish the world’s largest atomic black market, sold the secrets of how to make centrifuges for enriching uranium to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Tehran insists its intentions are entirely peaceful, though most analysts judge that all three countries bought from the black market because they wanted to make nuclear arms.
Dr. Khan sold plans and parts for Pakistan’s first-generation centrifuge, the P-1, as well as the next generation, the P-2, which can spin faster to enrich uranium more rapidly.
Investigators are still trying to learn where else Dr. Khan may have planted his nuclear seeds. They discovered outposts of his network in Dubai, Malaysia and South Africa and found that before his downfall in 2004 he visited at least 18 countries, including Egypt, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The worrisome enrichment trends involve not just stealthy military advances but also soaring demands for nuclear power, driven by rising populations, dwindling oil supplies and fears that the combustion of fossil fuels is warming the planet.
“The nuclear renaissance is gaining momentum,” said George B. Assie, vice president for business development at Cameco, the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company, based in Canada.
In London, the World Nuclear Association says 28 new reactors are under construction, 62 planned, and 160 proposed, most in Asia. The required uranium, it estimates, could run to more than 65,000 tons.
While it is not clear if the expansion of the world’s civilian atomic infrastructure will ultimately lead to a rise in the number of countries building nuclear arms, it could give more countries the means to do so.
There are two main ways to turn civilian technology to military use. The first is to enrich uranium fuel from its usual level of 5 percent for reactors to the 90 percent needed for a bomb, a modest step that requires longer processing in centrifuges. The second is to take spent reactor fuel and mine it for plutonium, the other main fuel for a bomb.
The Brazilian military, for example, worked hard for decades to develop centrifuges to enrich uranium fuel for a bomb, a secret program it renounced in the 1990’s.
In May, Brazil, despite growing pressure to give up indigenous production, inaugurated its first uranium enrichment plant — an assembly of advanced centrifuges in Resende, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. While Iran has aroused global suspicions for erecting a similar plant, Brazil managed to reassure other nations, and the international atomic agency, that its aims are peaceful.
“We have an urgent need to expand the electric system,” said Leonam dos Santos Guimarães, an official of Electronuclear, which operates nuclear power plants in Brazil.
Forecasting the size of the revitalized global industry is difficult. Even so, the predictions can be staggering. Hans-Holger Rogner, an economist at the international atomic agency, said that many forecasts for the 21st century foresaw huge expansions beyond the 443 power reactors now operating globally.
“An increase to 5,000 reactors is well within the range of many of the longer-range studies,” Dr. Rogner said, adding: “People are positioning themselves. There seems to be a race coming and nobody wants to be left out.”
A Complex Game
A day after North Korea’s nuclear test, Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, vowed not to abandon Japan’s commitment to reject and never possess nuclear weapons, a cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But, even so, Japan already has all the component parts. It has many tons of plutonium left over from the operation of its reactors, according to a 2004 government report to the I.A.E.A. A small nuclear warhead requires only 10 pounds.
Japan is the ultimate example of a “nuclear option” state, a country that the world knows could become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be. “They could be very far down the road toward a virtual deterrent and not be in violation of any of the existing international treaties,” said Robert L. Gallucci, the former chief American negotiator with North Korea, and now dean of Georgetown University’s school of foreign service.
South Korea has also vowed not to pursue nuclear weapons. But it has an extensive network of nuclear power reactors and a few years ago, I.A.E.A. inspectors found evidence of undeclared experimentation to make highly enriched uranium. In the early 1990’s, South Korea signed an agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free — but it signed the accord with North Korea.
Iran’s nuclear rise has prompted concerns that the Middle East could experience similar pressures. In the region, only Israel is believed to possess nuclear arms, although it has never confirmed that. If Iran — a Shiite state — does indeed build nuclear weapons, there are fears that Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia or Egypt will be tempted to make their own bombs.
Egypt, which long ago sought to build nuclear arms, may be starting to rethink its earlier renunciation. The 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan shook Cairo. “Egypt’s leaders had placed their bet clearly in favor of the Middle East and the world moving away from nuclear weapons,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a former senior State Department nonproliferation official. “But here was a disquieting indication that movement might be in the opposite direction.”
Recently, the international atomic agency found that Egypt had kept some of its old and new efforts cloaked in secrecy, including a continuing project to acquire uranium ore in the Sinai desert. In September, Cairo announced plans to revive its stalled program to build reactors for generating nuclear power. It gave no sign of whether it, like Iran, planned to make reactor fuel on its own.
So the question now is whether North Korea’s test, and Iran’s challenge, will change the calculus. “When additional countries get the bomb, it does create new pressures,” said Matthew Bunn of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who tracks the spread of nuclear technology. “But each country is unique and there’s little risk that the dominoes will fall quickly, especially if we take steps to prevent it.”
New Ground Rules
When atomic specialists gathered in Vienna in September to discuss new ground rules for a second nuclear age, their proceedings were fueled by the fear that some of the old restraints — both technological and political — are fraying.
The central proposal debated at the I.A.E.A.’s headquarters sounded simple: No longer should nations be permitted to develop their own means of enriching uranium to make reactor fuel, which Iran and other developing states have claimed as their inalienable right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Nearly 40 years after the treaty was drafted, the dangers simply seem too great.
Instead, the argument went, nations should band together to make multinational fuel banks where they could watch one another, making sure no fuel is diverted for bomb production.
“A threat exists,” said Sergei Kirienko, director of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency. “We understand that only those solutions that are resolved together, that ensure access for all nations today, will be successful.”
Russia took the lead, proposing an international fuel bank that it would set up on its own soil by next year — and from which it could potentially extract billions of dollars in sales. But the big splash came when Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire philanthropist, pledged $50 million for a fuel bank to be run by the I.A.E.A., making the United Nations body a “supplier of last resort” for any country that forsakes making its own fuel. The Bush administration has backed similar plans.
But while there is agreement on the problem, solutions bogged down in bickering — from weapons states that want to maintain their capacity and from developing nations that sniff a conspiracy to deny them the same nuclear rights that large powers have long enjoyed.
“We should guard against the notion that sensitive technologies are safe in the hands of some, but pose a risk when others have access to them,” said Buyelwa Sonjica, the energy minister of South Africa, which wants to restart its enrichment program and build up to six reactors.
Few parties involved in the debate are optimistic about reform, and some say the enterprise is doomed to failure.
“Nuclear power is inextricably linked with nuclear proliferation,” the environmental group Greenpeace said in a recent statement. “None of the schemes being promoted will solve this problem. In fact, they will make it worse.”
So far, though, the countries that the world most wants to stop from enriching say they have seen no reason to do so.
At a dinner in New York in September, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran looked supremely confident as he batted away the idea that other countries could be relied upon to provide him with the nuclear fuel he said he needed.
“Before stopping enrichment by others, why don’t you stop building the next generation of nuclear weapons?” he asked his American hosts. Then, smiling, he suggested that the United States just buy its nuclear fuel from Iran’s new facilities. He would sell it to Washington, he said, “with a 50 percent discount.”