Michael KreponAre We Winning or Losing?

Are we winning or losing the battle against proliferation? This simple question does not have a simple answer because bad headlines mask quiet progress.

Since the 1960s, reports on the status of proliferation have almost always been pessimistic. It doesn’t pay to wear rose-colored glasses in this business, since optimistic projections can lead to broken careers. Besides, there is usually ample reason for pessimism because the hardest cases overshadow modest gains. One example: more countries are signing up to the Additional Protocol, but Iran still restricts access at suspect sites.

And yet, deeply pessimistic proliferation forecasts do not have a good track record. The long view usually turns out to be more positive than snapshots of problem cases. A recently declassified State Department cable, courtesy of the National Security Archive and the Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation History Project, is illustrative. This cable, dated June 6, 1979, focuses on Pakistan’s determined, clandestine quest for the Bomb, and its likely repercussions for India and beyond. It warns that US nonproliferation policy “could collapse under the weight of two additional nuclear weapon states” – a common projection back then. The NPT regime has managed to survive negative developments on the subcontinent, thanks to the determined efforts of its protectors and positive trends on other fronts.

True to form, most assessments of the contemporary state of nuclear danger are pessimistic, with worries that the NPT regime could collapse under the weight of unchecked Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. President Obama and Governor Romney have both said that an Iranian bomb will lead to a nuclear cascade. William Walker’s new book, A Perpetual Menace (2012) concludes with a warning that the NPT regime may be “heading for the rocks.” Francois Heisbourg, in a paper written for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (“Nuclear Proliferation – Looking Back, Thinking Ahead: How Bad Would the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons Be?” dated April 4, 2012), concludes that, “There are strong and mutually reinforcing empirical and logical reasons” that explain why the future of proliferation will be more bleak than the past. He points to “a nuclear arc-of-crisis from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan” that would, at best, backpedal the NPT regime to the 1970s and at worst, foreshadow its breakdown. To support his analysis, Heisbourg points to illicit supply networks, technical trends simplifying enrichment, and “black swan” events.

In contrast, Jacques E.C. Hymans offers an optimistic view in “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own – and Why Iran’s Might, Too” in the May/June 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs. Hymans argues that, “[T]the fact is that since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate.” By Hymans’ calculations, the average timeline for programs to seek the Bomb prior to 1970 was around seven years. The average timeline for successful projects after 1970 was about seventeen years. In his view,

The great proliferation slowdown can be attributed in part to U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts. But it is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians… [long break] The more a state has conformed to the authoritarian management culture typically found in developing states, the more time it has needed to get its first bomb and the higher its chances of failure.

The NPT regime has been important and resilient enough to withstand the demise of the Soviet Union and the nuclear weapon programs of India, Pakistan and Israel. A new, positive element in proliferation equations is state-of-the-diplomatic-art sanctions, which do not substantially figure in the assessments by Walker, Heisbourg, and Hymans. While it’s true that dysfunctional management tendencies retard proliferation, they don’t prevent it. Hymans is, however, right in emphasizing that proliferation has now become a slow-motion affair. The terminology of “cascade effects” is neither helpful nor likely, given this trend. Proliferation doesn’t cascade; hedging strategies do – and hedging strategies at present will depend primarily on what kind of nuclear program Tehran seeks.

So, who’s right – proliferation optimists or pessimists? Are the challenges ahead more severe than before? I don’t think so, but they sure do seem familiar. I’m not nearly as optimistic as Hymans, nor as pessimistic as Walker and Heisbourg. That makes me a cautious, heretical optimist.

(Update, May 13 | See the second part of this post.)

(See also Michael’s Nov. 2009 post on predicting proliferation. -Ed.)


  1. Sharif (History)

    To put the NPT regime in perspective — and a reading of the real dangers to it — have a glance at Prof. Joyner’s new book “Interpreting the NPT”:


  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    It warns that US nonproliferation policy “could collapse under the weight of two additional nuclear weapon states” – a common projection back then. The NPT regime has managed to survive negative developments on the subcontinent, thanks to the determined efforts of its protectors and positive trends on other fronts.

    —For some reason, this makes me think of code breaking during WW II. When ever one groups code could no longer be broken, the German code breakers could stay in business by breaking another groups code. But the increase in codes to be broken was because there were more and more anti-Axis code users, in sheer number, involved in the war as it went on.

    —What if there are more “positive trends” on other fronts simply because there are more fronts to watch now, than in 1979?

    • krepon (History)

      Great question: are there more positive trends simply because there are more data points?
      My short answer is that, yes, there are more data points, e.g., the Additional Protocol, new Conventions to sign and respect, new ways to monitor and tabulate steps regarding the lock-down of materials, etc. For the purpose of argument, let’s call them micro data points.
      The “macro” datra points — regarding nuclear testing, absence of battlefield use, stockpile size — have been quite positive since the mid- to late 1980s.
      The hard part about making a confident assessment of the state of proliferation is that positive micro and macro trends can be blown away by a very nasty headline.
      Best wishes,

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Another unhappy thought: nuclear warhead-making was a “dead science” by 1970. Everything you needed to know about making plutoniumm go “boom” had been found out and classified, by the U.S. and Soviets.

    —So, they simply changed the arms race from the warheads to the delivery systems: rail-delivery, truck delivery, cruise missiles, Sea Launched Cruise Missiles, etc.

    —What if the more important proliferation problem is ICBMs, not “going nuclear?”

  4. SPR (History)

    To preface this I’m a nobody that has no background to comment on this. My opinion doesn’t come from someone w/ any great knowledge on this, but as the common person who’s to the best that I’ve could kept up on the subjects at hand & read this blog for the better part of a decade. From my position as much as I hate to say it, I feel we are losing ths battle. North Korea obviously as the bomb, though what they could actually do w/ it is debatable. From what is known Iran if it wants to be isn’t far off realistically. I honestly wish it wasn’t that way but w/ that along w/ some other situations like Pakistans instability from my perspective it’s not looking good.

    • krepon (History)

      Please do not despair. These are, indeed, very hard cases, but we have been through much tougher times.

  5. Steve Huntsman (History)

    I find Hymans’ detailed points interesting, but his overall reasoning simply incoherent. Getting to 20% HEU is by far the biggest bottleneck in making a functioning nuclear weapon (I do not say missile warhead). Yet Hymans would have us believe that this is just a small first step.

    • Anon (History)

      That is so. However, the IAEA and the ASTM considers 20% enriched U to be LEU.

      If one doesn’t like that designation one should appeal to the IAEA.

      Until such time as the definitions are altered, 20% enriched U is Low EU.

    • Murray Anderson (History)

      Getting to 3% enrichment is the biggest step, since that’s half the separative work, and if you can make a gas centrifuge factory to produce LEU you can make another one to make HEU.
      I agree with you about the quality of the Hymans article. The relative lack of success observed for the later programs can be put down to the lack of intellectual and industrial resources of the countries trying to build the bomb since 1970. Compare Iraq and Iran with Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea, not the Security Council P5.

  6. ASM (History)

    “This cable, dated June 6, 1979, focuses on Pakistan’s determined, clandestine quest for the Bomb, and its likely repercussions for India and beyond.”

    Does this imply that India, that had already tested its first nuclear device in 1974, developed nuclear weapons because of Pakistan? – Cable’s timeline suggests otherwise.
    The Post focuses on the implications of Iranian nuclear program on the nonproliferation regime, but will the NPT be able to survive the broken promises of disarmament and establishment of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East. Ongoing discussions at the NPT PrepCom could be a prelude to the 2015 NPT RevCon, and indicate a pessimistic outcome for the future of the NPT.

  7. AggieNuke (History)


    If you’re going to argue semantics, you might try to get them right.

    From the IAEA safeguards glossary: http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/nvs-3-cd/PDF/NVS3_prn.pdf

    “4.12. Low enriched uranium (LEU) — enriched uranium containing less than 20% of the isotope 235U. LEU is considered a special fissionable material (see No. 4.5) and an indirect use material (see No. 4.26).

    4.13. High enriched uranium (HEU) — uranium containing 20% or more of the isotope 235U. HEU is considered a special fissionable material (see No. 4.5) and a direct use material (see No. 4.25).”

    Please note the difference between the phrases “less than” when LEU is described and “20% or more” when HEU is described. If you still disagree about the IAEA definition of HEU vs. LEU, then it is really not worth further discussion.

    Getting back to Steve’s point. I also agree that going from natural U to 20% U-235 is harder than going from 20% to weapons grade (say 80%). However, I’m not totally convinced that the weaponization bottleneck is insignificant when compared to the initial U enrichment/materials bottleneck.

    Steve differentiates a functioning nuclear weapon from a missile warhead. So I have to ask the question, what is your definition of a “functioning nuclear weapon”? In my mind to be ‘functioning’ a weapon must be capable of reaching a target, as such a controlled nuclear explosion several hundred feet underground (even if successful) is not necessarily indicative of a “functioning nuclear weapon”. (someone will undoubtedly bring up unconventional/terrorist means of delivery, but I think the utility of such delivery to a state seeking deterrence or actual, reliable defense is dubious).

    So in support of Hymans’ point, there is a lot more for management to screw up than just the materials production and those other parts of a “functioning nuclear weapon” are still very important (as is of course the special nuclear material).

    My question for Hymans though would be, even if we are underestimating the development time and it is possible giving would be proliferators more space would help them confound themselves, is it responsible to rely on them fail on their own? (not saying I have the answer either).

    Apologies for the lengthy post.

    • Anon (History)

      Aggie — you are quite right. I was using shorthand and not raising the discussion to the level of mathematical equations.

      19.9999999999999% enriched U is LEU

      20.000000000000001% enriched U is not LEU

      As the conversation on this topic refers often to Iran, which has enriched to 19.75% enriched U, Iran has been careful to only enrich to LEU levels.

      Sorry, was trying not to split hairs too fine. The point was if you don’t like 19.999999999% enriched U in NNWSs then talk to IAEA to redo their definitions.

  8. Mark Gubrud (History)

    20% enrichment does not in any way represent a magic number. Roughly speaking, which is the best one can do without getting messy, in terms of SWU or equivalently the number of passes through the centrifuges, 3.5% enrichment, which is what Iran produces as fuel for power reactors, is already about halfway to 90% (bomb-grade) uranium. 20% is about half of the remaining distance.

    In another discussion, Jeffrey posted a link to this document which provides a graph showing the SWU required for a given level of enrichment with high and low tails (waste) production.

    • Amy (History)

      In fact, the IAEA says up to or less than 20% is a good barrier to weapons usability — see:


      “Enrichment reduction preferably to less than 20%, which is internationally recognized to be a fully adequate isotopic barrier to weapons usability of 235U; ”

      Probably Iran is being guided by that IAEA document by only going to 19.75% which is LEU.

    • rwendland (History)

      AggieNuke, Amy,

      While the IAEA may nowadays be precise in definitions that exact 20% is HEU, and LEU is “less than 20%”, I’m doubtful that has been the case in the past.

      For example INFCIRC/97/Add.2, the three way agreement of 9 December 1988 between the IAEA, Iran and Argentine for the conversion of the TRR away from 93% HEU, used the phrase “up to 20%” in the description of the new TRR fuel. (“115.80 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 20% in the isotope uranium-235”)

      That is probably the reason Iran continues to use “up to 20%” in describing putative TRR fuel, repeating the phrase used in the 1988 IAEA agreement.

      That 20% slides down a fraction in the later supply contracts.

      Note that the IAEA agreements of that era and earlier with Iran use neither the terms LEU nor HEU. They just use percentages.

  9. Zahir Kazmi (History)

    Quoting from fourth paragraph of the article and comment about Heisbourg’s piece, “…why the future of proliferation will be more bleak than the past…” Shouldn’t the comment read: why the future of “nonproliferation” will be more bleak than the past?
    If residents of NPT-holdout States (India, Israel and Pakistan) were asked to comment on the NPT-based nonproliferation regime in 2004, they would unequivocally call it a “nuclear apartheid” (borrowing from Indian Amassador Trivedi). In 2012, the regime has taken a new shape that I call “neo-nuclear apartheid.”
    India initiated the second phase on nonproliferation regime’s quest for maintaing the status quo [N-5 (five nuclear weapon states as Haves) vs. rest of the world as NNWS] by a “peaceful” nuclear explosion in 1974. It has benefitted from the NSG (that was created due to India’s proliferation activity) for its ‘good proliferation record!
    Since 2006 Indo-US civil nuclear deal and NSG waiver, the apartheid against India has ended. Likewise, Israel enjoys a special status in the nonproliferation regime. It is now Pakistan only that is a victim of neo-nuclear apartheid, which prevents it from seeking peaceful uses of nuclear technology on the same grounds on which India does.
    The point I am making is that: the nonproliferation nonproliferation regime not equitable. The regime advances classical realist interests of the Nuclear Haves using liberal ideas like nonproliferation and disarmament. The norms do not come in the way of geopolitical interests. The sooner the apartheid in the regime is addressed, more stabilizing the nonproliferation regime would become.

  10. hass (History)

    Funny that you judge success at merely by non-proliferation rather than disarmament. Or, by the number of countries that have started nuclear programs, as the NPT encourages. Why is that?

    • shaheen (History)

      Uh, maybe because it’s a post and a discussion thread about the successes and failures of non-proliferation?

      And the casual confusion about military and non-military programs is unhelpful. Nothing in the NPT “encourages” military-oriented programs.