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Begetting the Bomb

Daniel Collins

Contrary to popular belief, it was not the U.S. that produced the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, but Gabon. In a hardened, underground facility called the Oklo Fossil Reactor, a rich uranium deposit achieved criticality and operated for at least 10,000 years. The technical details of its operation were kept buried, away from regions with nuclear ambitions.

Today, in an age of espionage, KaZaA, and the Patriot Act, information is no longer as secure. The Manhattan Project, which imported many great minds to give the U.S. the bomb in 1945 and whose piece de resistance ended World War II, was the subject of Soviet spying. Four years later, the USSR detonated it first atomic bomb, and the Cold War arms race was truly underway. Britain, which also pursued a wartime nuclear weapons program, caught up in 1952, and France in 1960. With France’s help, Israel joined in the late 1960s, and with Soviet assistance, China in 1964. This unsettled India, which tested its first device in 1974. China responded by helping Pakistan on its way, a journey it completed in 1998.

Dr. A. Q. Khan, Pakistan’s leading nuclear researcher and national hero, recently admitted to having shared nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Iran has been in intense diplomatic negotiations for many months now, but does not yet have the bomb. North Korea is believed to possess nuclear capability, while Libya has recently acquiesced its WMD programs. Iraq had a program, but the U.N. sanctions and IAEA inspections of the 1990s put an end to that. Argentina, Brazil and South Africa also sought the bomb. It should be noted that each country that ceased its nuclear program did so under international pressure.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the most widely accepted international arms control agreement, and is signed by every nation except India, Israel and Pakistan. Despite its successes, there is growing debate on whether the NPT should be overhauled. This stems from the apparent non-compliance of various nations and the suggestion of UN impotence. With the risk of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, the need to secure both know-how and materials is more pressing than ever.

Part of the solution was proposed by an MIT report released last July. With nuclear energy so often being a veil for weapons development programs, ceasing the separation and recycling of plutonium in nuclear energy production, which yields by-products prime for weapons development, would alleviate non-proliferation concerns. In a similar vein, lessening the perceived regional security risk, which is so often the motivation for proliferation, could go a long way. This would require more open dialogue, more give and take, and a re-assessment of the responsibilities of the U.N. Side-stepping international organizations, as is currently en vogue, is a recipe for disaster.

We should think harder about how to achieve security in a post-Cold War environment, and limit the transfer of harmful information. Nuclear technology is being passed around like a sexually transmitted disease -- we need some nuclear family planning.

Daniel Collins is a graduate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.