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Thwarting nuclear terrorism through data

Jun 19, 2023Jun 19, 2023

June 6, 2023

By Sergey Shkolnikov

The current state of international relations is flush with concerns about democratic institutions floundering and "populist, nationalist and xenophobic strands of backlash politics" extending to the issues of arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. Recent nuclear negotiations have stalled, and the venerated Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is perceived as weaker than ever. These developments increase concerns that non-state actors might acquire nuclear weapons. These third-party actors are not threatened by nuclear deterrence as they are not states, and their political ideologies tend to be much more radical, making them more likely to engage in nuclear terrorism than state actors.

One way to decrease the likelihood of non-state nuclear acquisition is an international database for nuclear weapons, which would increase accountability and confidence without decreasing a state's war-waging capabilities, and may be more feasible in the short term than a total nuclear-zero or an actual reduction of arm stocks. Such a database would ideally begin with inventories of nuclear weapons and fissile materials, and expand to include locations, practices, and technology.

One of the biggest risks inherent to nuclear stockpiles is the possibility of unstable non-state actors such as terrorists gaining access to them. Whether in the United States or a more unpredictable nuclear power such as Pakistan or North Korea, the security of arms and atomic weapon stockpiles is unquestionably a matter of shared mutual interest. Securing nuclear weapons and material stockpiles worldwide not only decreases the chance of nuclear terrorism but eliminates a potential shortcut for state nuclear acquisition. Transparent accounting for these nuclear weapons, while not reducing a state's war-waging capabilities, could be an important step toward the reduction of nuclear risk by demonstrating international cooperation while allowing states to bolster and maintain their security.

Work toward the goals of global atomic security and transparency has mainly taken place in the form of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). However, there has been scant progress on a treaty since its original proposition in 1993 with UN Resolution 78/57 L. The FMCT has mainly been negotiated in the context of the Conference for Disarmament, or the CD, which unfortunately faces political challenges. There is strong opposition to the FMCT from China and Pakistan, and fissile material production continues in smaller nuclear states such as Israel and North Korea. Western leaders must press these states on the issue of the FMCT negotiations to ensure work on the treaty can begin.

China has consistently acted as a substantive barrier to multilateral arms negotiations, largely due to ideological differences and geopolitical tensions with the United States in particular. Nevertheless, China and the United States both benefit from a decreased risk of escalation. Bilateral exchange and cooperation is therefore achievable, albeit in small steps. Negotiators will need to address China's contradiction in opposing the FMCT while hailing its own non-proliferation efforts. Separating political and arms-control issues, and then focusing on the technical aspects of arms control, such as verification, could be a powerful way to bypass the current hurdles in the disarmament process.

It is important to consider that disarmament is a long-term process plagued by various diplomatic issues, ones that are not likely to be resolved quickly. At its core, international disarmament relies on trust-building measures between parties. Trust-building measures are both part of the disarmament process and a prerequisite for it. It will take time to properly negotiate and implement an FMCT, and a secure implementation method will need to be developed.

Agreements such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (better known as the Iran nuclear deal) and its framework can serve as a foundation upon which FMCT implementation can be built. The FMCT is only a first step in global nuclear arms control. Much more stringent measures need to be taken to promote global security as the FMCT only regulates the capacity to make more warheads. To decrease the risk of nuclear proliferation and increase the physical security of existing stockpiles, transparency must be increased. The creation of a nuclear weapon and fissile material database increases confidence through transparency and accountability, and encourages future arms control and disarmament efforts. Importantly, a database would promote improvements in the physical security of nuclear warheads, an important step in preventing nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups.

The concept of an international database for nuclear weapons and fissile materials is not new, having been first introduced by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel after the end of the Cold War in 1993. With the Cold War over and the world squarely in a multipolar era of international relations, more parties than ever before have a stake in global disarmament and non-proliferation talks. The idea of a database is still a compelling idea amidst a multitude of new and creative disarmament concepts. By using the FMCT as a stepping stone, increased trust may eventually allow for the establishment of a database. What is clear, however, is that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation cannot be left by the wayside when nuclear threats and a growing sense of danger make them more important than ever.

*Editor's note: Writing for the Center's new Next Up in Arms Control series, Sergey Shkolnikov is a high school junior from California. On the Model UN circuit, Sergey has won at competitions including Harvard, MIT, and the North American Invitationals. Sergey currently lives in Berlin as a US Youth Ambassador to Germany. He can be reached at [email protected].

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