On March 31 and April 1, leaders of 52 countries including India came together in Washington DC for the fourth > Nuclear Security Summit. Held every two years since 2010, these summits started with the recognition of the risks posed by plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), the key ingredients for making nuclear weapons, and aimed to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years”. Despite this high-level political attention, and fanfare, these summits have achieved little. To make matters worse, countries that in 2010 were producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium continue to do so, and the dangers from nuclear weapons have been neglected.
The main failings were of conception and a political willingness to settle for easy options. Despite the expansive declarations of the need “to maintain effective security of all nuclear materials, which includes nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons”, the summits narrowed their focus to civilian holdings in non-nuclear weapon states. This material is already being monitored by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and, more importantly, is but a tiny fraction of actual global stockpiles. Some numbers will help put this in perspective.
Nuclear haves and have-nots Closing the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, U.S. President > Barack Obama summed up what has been achieved in the six years since this effort started: “We’ve now removed or secured all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries — more than 3.8 tons, which is more than enough to create 150 nuclear weapons.” This may sound like a lot, until one looks at the scale of the actual problem.
Since 2006, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), an independent group of arms-control and non-proliferation experts from 17 countries, has been keeping track of HEU and plutonium around the world. In Global Fissile Material Report 2015, IPFM’s most recent annual assessment of stockpiles, it was estimated that there is about 1,370 tons of HEU in the world, “enough for more than 76,000 simple, first-generation fission implosion weapons” with about 99 per cent of this material held by nuclear weapon states, mostly Russia and the United States. The IPFM estimated the global stockpile of separated plutonium as about 505 tons, enough for about 1,30,000 nuclear weapons. About 98 per cent of this material is stored in the nuclear weapon states. Taken together, this gives a total global stockpile of almost 1,900 tons of nuclear weapons-usable material.
To be sure, IPFM’s stockpile figures are unofficial estimates — most of the nuclear weapons states have not declared their fissile materials stocks — but there is reason to assume the overall figure is reasonable. In his opening remarks at the 2016 summit, Mr. Obama said “at hundreds of military and civilian facilities around the world, there’s still roughly 2,000 tons of nuclear material”.
The subcontinental race No one at the Nuclear Security Summit talked specifically about HEU or plutonium in South Asia. This is despite that fact that India and Pakistan, in many ways, lie at the centre of concerns for those wanting to reduce the risks from fissile materials. For a start, the two countries are among the four states in the world that continue to produce HEU and plutonium for weapons, the other two being Israel and (possibly) North Korea. There are no official reports of the sizes of Pakistani and Indian stockpiles of HEU and plutonium. The IPFM estimates that India and Pakistan each have a stockpile of about three tons of HEU. In addition, India is estimated as of end-2014 to have a stockpile of about 0.6 tons (600 kilograms) of weapons-grade plutonium, while Pakistan has about 0.2 tons (200 kilograms). India is also believed to have separated about 5 tons of reactor-grade plutonium — material that can be fashioned into nuclear weapons but was not made for that purpose. India has another 0.4 tons of reactor-grade plutonium that it has placed under IAEA safeguards and thus is not available for use in weapons. Pakistan, so far, has no stockpile of reactor-grade plutonium.
Many, including Mr. Obama, have recognised that plutonium is a problem. Speaking in Seoul, South Korea, in 2012, he stated, “We know that just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — could kill hundreds of thousands and spark a global crisis.” This is why “we simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists”.
This insight, shared by almost all countries with nuclear energy, has been lost on India’s Department of Atomic Energy, which is committed to the separation of plutonium from the spent fuel from nuclear reactors (dubbed “reprocessing”). It has also pursued the construction of a special kind of nuclear power plant called a fast breeder reactor that makes more plutonium than it consumes as fuel. Most countries with nuclear energy have never gone down this route; of the few countries that have tried, most have abandoned it. Nonetheless, India continues to pursue this goal despite the fact that the two technologies underlying this way of generating nuclear energy, reprocessing and fast breeder reactors, have proven hugely expensive and highly problematic.
But nuclear developments in India and Pakistan did come up at the 2016 summit. In his wrap-up statement to the media, Mr. Obama pointed out two major obstacles to nuclear disarmament. The first was that “it is very difficult to see huge reductions in our nuclear arsenal unless the United States and Russia, as the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons, are prepared to lead the way”. The second was “we’d need to see progress in Pakistan and India... making sure that as they develop military doctrines, they are not continually moving in the wrong direction”. He is correct on both counts.
No sign of scaling down Any real progress towards ending the grave danger posed by nuclear weapons to humankind must address the brute fact that the United States and Russia had about 14,700 nuclear weapons (as of 2015), and the other seven nuclear weapon states held a combined total of about 1,100 weapons. Worse yet, both the United States and Russia have launched massive long-term nuclear weapons “modernisation” programmes, which in the case of the United States is estimated to cost as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years. For a President who started off promising in Prague in 2009 that the “United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”, the modernisation programme represents Mr. Obama’s greatest failure.
Similarly, the nuclear situation in South Asia is bad and getting worse, just on a smaller scale. And this has been the failure of South Asian leaders. Both countries are developing nuclear arsenals that are basically scaled-down versions of those created by the superpowers during the Cold War. India has developed a variety of land-based missile types and is operationalising the Arihant nuclear-powered submarine, to be armed with the 700-km range K-15 or 3,500-km range K-4 nuclear missiles. Pakistan, for its part, has been developing air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and an array of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, some with ranges of over 2,000 km. It also has a naval strategic forces command and may arm some of its conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and, in the long term, seek to build its own nuclear-powered submarine.
Pakistan also is seeking nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield. These pose special challenges; as the White House Press Secretary explained, “Tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use on the battlefield… are a source of concern because they’re susceptible to theft due to their size and mode of employment… the threshold for their use is lowered” and these weapons create “the risk that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to include the use of nuclear weapons”.
Just as India clings to its plutonium ambitions, Pakistan refuses to budge on its tactical nuclear weapons. General Khalid Kidwai, who for 15 years was responsible for the country’s nuclear weapons programme, insists that “Pakistan would not cap or curb its nuclear weapons programme or accept any restrictions”.
The future looks bleak. Years have been wasted securing small amounts of nuclear material while real nuclear dangers have grown. To address the nuclear threats that actually imperil the world, the focus should be on getting states to make a clear commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons and agree to concrete and urgent plans to eliminate nuclear arsenals and the nuclear material stockpiles that make them possible.
(Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana are with the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, U.S., and members of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.)