David R. Henderson  

Mueller on Nuclear Proliferation: Thinking on the Margin

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"One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb."

Antiproliferators are playing counterproductively with the status issue in another way by seeking to dumb down the definition of a nuclear weapon state. Commonly, this designation has been conferred upon a state when it first tests a nuclear weapon or device. Although this approach makes a good deal of sense, there are problems with it because it is possible to create an arsenal of (presumably workable) nuclear weapons without actually testing them (or before testing them), as both Israel and South Africa have demonstrated. To deal with this and other perceived problems, there has been a tendency in recent years to consider countries possessing, or capable of producing, plutonium or highly enriched uranium to be nuclear weapons states--or, as Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency puts it, to be "virtual nuclear weapons states"--even though they may have no intention whatever of using the material to make nuclear weapons. Accordingly, as Hymans aptly points out, whereas 20 years ago the idea of launching a military attack on a country with a growing competence to enrich uranium would have been viewed as "completely preposterous," today it has become "common coin in the Washington security debate."

This redefinition process not only massively underestimates the technical difficulties in fabricating a bomb--particularly for the countries antiproliferators are most worried about--but it could have the entirely perverse result of encouraging proliferation. If countries become labeled nuclear weapons states merely because they have, entirely for peaceful purposes, acquired the capacity to produce fissile material, the process effectively lowers the barriers for them to develop nuclear weapons, though perhaps only marginally so.


This is from John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, 2010. It's a beautiful exercise in thinking on the margin, Pillar #3 here.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (7 to date)
Finch writes:

I don't know about the second paragraph... I think the major reason people have moved to thinking of serious enrichment infrastructure as being synonymous with being a nuclear weapons state is because we've seen even "primitive" nations be successful with weaponization programs very quickly. It seems like everybody succeeds on their first try.

I don't think people thought that would be the case twenty years ago. There was a prevailing meme that only "advanced" nations could do it, and places like Pakistan and North Korea would require a long period of trial and error. That turned out to be wrong.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Finch,
Interesting point. You might be on to something. I just don't know enough about it.

ivvenalis writes:

What he's "on to" is that fact that technology from the 1940s isn't getting any harder to copy, not only because of technological advances but also because each new country that builds a bomb is another potential source of knowledge for the next country that does it. It's highly questionable that antiproliferators are going to prevent any more nations from building nukes for all eternity given the incentives involved.

Ken B writes:

Might the ability to enrich uranium substantially enhance a government's ability to supply dangerous materials to terrorist groups, and might this be a concern with regimes motivated by religious fanaticism or ideological fervor?

Jim Rose writes:

the word is nuclear latency. japan could whip together a bomb in a few weeks, if needed.

japan has all the required materials, expertise and manufacturing capability because of its atomic power industry

Ted Levy writes:

Color me confused. Although I agree with Mueller's point, I don't see what this has to do either with thinking at the margin or with pillar #4, which also doesn't seem to be about thinking at the margin...

Mueller's point seems to be about the danger of sloppy definitions and the unintended consequences that may follow.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ted Levy,
Oops. It should have been pillar #3. And this is an example of thinking on the margin.

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