In October 2006, eight years after India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold, the world witnessed yet another breakout, when North Korea exploded an atomic bomb and demanded that it be recognised as a nuclear weapons-state. Talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, in return for security guarantees and economic assistance, collapsed last week.

In 2006, the ongoing confrontation between the Western powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear programme got dangerously aggravated. The United Nations Security Council imposed harsh sanctions on Iran but these may prove counterproductive.

Tehran dismissed the sanctions as illegal and vowed to step up its “peaceful” uranium enrichment programme. It added one more cascade of 164 uranium enrichment centrifuges during the year and is preparing to install as many as 3,000 of these machines within the next four months. (Several thousands of centrifuges are needed to build a small nuclear arsenal.)

Developments in South Asia added to this negative momentum as India and the United States took further steps in negotiating and legislating the controversial nuclear cooperation deal that they inked one-and-a-half years ago. The deal will bring India into the ambit of normal civilian nuclear commerce although it is a nuclear weapons-state and has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan continued to test nuclear-capable missiles and sustained their long-standing mutual rivalry despite their continuing peace dialogue. Looming large over these developments in different parts of Asia are the Great Powers, led by the U.S., whose geopolitical role as well as refusal to undertake disarmament has contributed to enhancing the global nuclear danger in 2006.

According to a just-released preliminary count by the Federation of American Scientists, eight countries launched more than 26 ballistic missiles of 23 types in 24 different events in 2006. They include the U.S., Russia, France and China, besides India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

“One can list other negative contributing factors too,” says Sukla Sen, a Mumbai-based activist of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, an umbrella of more than 250 Indian organisations. “These include U.S. plans to find new uses for nuclear armaments and develop ballistic missile defence (“Star Wars”) weapons, Britain’s announcement that it will modernise its “Trident” nuclear force, Japan’s moves towards militarisation, and a revival of interest in nuclear technology in many countries.”

“Clearly,” adds Sen, “61 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has learnt little and achieved even less so far as abolishing the nucleus scourge goes. The nuclear sword still hangs over the globe. 2006 has made the world an even more dangerous place. The time has come to advance the hands of the Doomsday Clock.” The Doomsday Clock, created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published from Chicago in the U.S., currently stands at seven minutes to midnight, the Final Hour. Since 1947, its minute hand has been repeatedly moved “forward and back to reflect the global level of nuclear danger and the state of international security”.

The Clock was last reset in 2002, after the U.S. announced it would reject several arms control agreements, and withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits the development of “Star Wars”-style weapons.

Before that, the Doomsday Clock was advanced in 1998, from 14 minutes to midnight, to just nine minutes before the hour. This was primarily in response to the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May that year.

The closest the Clock moved to midnight was in 1953, when the U.S. and the USSR both tested thermonuclear weapons. The Clock’s minute hand was set just two minutes short of 12.

The lowest level of danger it ever showed was in 1991, following the end of the Cold War and the signature of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Clock then stood at 17 minutes to midnight.

“The strongest reason to move the minute hand forward today is the inflamed situation in the Middle East,” argues M.V. Ramana, an independent nuclear affairs analyst currently with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.

“Iran isn’t the real or sole cause of worry. It’s probably still some years away from enriching enough uranium to make a nuclear bomb. But there is this grave crisis in Iraq, which has spun out of Washington’s control. And then there is Israel, which is a de facto nuclear weapons-state and is seen as a belligerent power by its neighbours in the light of the grim crisis in Palestine. All the crises in the Middle East feed into one another and aggravate matters,” adds Ramana.

At the other extreme of Asia, new security equations are emerging, partly driven by the North Korean nuclear programme.

“Today, this is a key factor not only in shaping relations between the two Koreas, but the more complex and important relationship between North Korea, China, Japan and the U.S.”, holds Alka Acharya, of the Centre of East Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University here. Adds Acharya: “The U.S. has failed to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis diplomatically. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme will spur Japan and South Korea to add to their military capacities. There is a strong lobby in Japan which wants to rewrite the country’s constitution and even develop a nuclear weapons capability. Recently, Japan commissioned a study to determine how long it would take to develop a nuclear deterrent.”

Japan has stockpiled hundreds of tonnes of plutonium, ostensibly for use in fast-breeder reactors. But with the fast reactor programme faltering, the possibility of diversion of the plutonium to military uses cannot be ruled out. Similarly, South Korea is likely to come under pressure to develop its own deterrent capability. “Driving these pursuits are not just nuclear calculations, but also geopolitical factors,” says Prof. Achin Vanaik who teaches international relations and global politics at Delhi University. “The U.S. plays a critical role here because of its aggressive stance and its double standards. It cannot convincingly demand that other states practise nuclear abstinence or restraint while it will keep it own nuclear weapons for ‘security’. Eventually, Washington’s nuclear double standards will encourage other countries to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities too.”

In particular, the joint planned development of ballistic missile defence weapons by the U.S. and Japan is likely to be seen by China as a threat to its security and impel Beijing to add to its nuclear arsenal. Adds Vanaik: “The real danger is not confined to East Asia or West Asia alone. The overall worldwide impact of the double standards practised by the nuclear weapons-states, and especially offensive moves like the Proliferation Security Initiative proposed by the U.S. to intercept ‘suspect’ nuclear shipments on the high seas, will be to weaken the existing global nuclear order and encourage proliferation. The U.S.-India nuclear deal sets a horribly negative example of legitimising proliferation.” “A time could soon come when a weak state or non-state actor might consider attacking the U.S. mainland with mass-destruction weapons. The kind of hatreds that the U.S. is sowing in volatile parts of the world, including the Middle East, could well result in such a catastrophe,” Vanaik said.

The year 2006 witnessed a considerable weakening of the norms of nuclear non-proliferation. Until 1974, the world had five declared nuclear weapon-states and one covert nuclear power (Israel). At the end of this year, it has nine nuclear weapons-states — nine too many.

No less significant in the long run is the growing temptation among many states to develop civilian nuclear power. Earlier this month, a number of Arab leaders met in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and decided to start a joint nuclear energy development programme.

“Although this doesn’t spell an immediate crisis, nuclear power development can in the long run provide the technological infrastructure for building nuclear weapons too,” says Ramana. “The way out of the present nuclear predicament does not lie in non- or counter-proliferation through ever-stricter technology controls. The only solution is nuclear disarmament. The nuclear weapons-states must lead by example, by reducing and eventually dismantling these weapons of terror.”


The writer is a Delhi-based researcher, peace and human rights activist, and former newspaper editor.