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Winter 2004
Stemming the Nuclear Tide
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Illustration of nuclear containmentIn the global chess match that is nuclear proliferation, the highest priority must be placed on containing the spread of such horrific weapons

by Albert Carnesale
Illustration by Pep Montserrat

Since September 11, 2001, Americans have focused on securing our homeland against terrorism. But not all forms of terrorist threats are equal. The gravest by far is that posed by the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which comprise nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. And of these, only nuclear weapons threaten the very survival of our nation. Accordingly, highest priority should be given to preventing the further spread of nuclear-weapons capabilities.

The current global distribution of nuclear weapons merits both cautious optimism and warranted concern. On the positive side, the past three decades have brought little change in the number of countries having nuclear weapons. In 1974, there were five “declared” nuclear-weapons states: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France and China. Israel and South Africa probably also had nuclear arsenals at that time, and India tested a nuclear-explosive device that very year.

The ensuing 30 years have seen the addition of Pakistan and probably North Korea to the list, and the subtraction of South Africa, which rolled back its nuclear program. Thus, over the past three decades, the number of countries on the nuclear list has grown by only one, from eight to nine. Iran appears to have forestalled its efforts to become number 10.

Another source of optimism is that production of nuclear weapons is neither easy nor quick. Even though nuclear technology has been around since the 1940s, it remains difficult and time-consuming to produce the essential weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium.


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