The rising anxieties about nuclear weapons are rooted in two major and parallel developments: a renaissance of nuclear power and a resurgence of old-fashioned national security threats that supposedly had ebbed with the end of the Cold War.

After the well publicized accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, opposition to nuclear power was so strong that many reactor plants were shut down, plans for new ones were canceled and virtually no new reactor was built over the past decade. With the spiraling price of oil caused by a spike in demand and disruptions to supply, the economics of nuclear power has changed. With the accelerating threat of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the balance of environmental risk has shifted. Adding technological developments, the politics of constructing and operating nuclear power reactors has also altered.

The net result is plans for building several reactors to add to the 435 reactors in 30 countries that provide 15 percent of the world’s electricity today. Asia will account for 18 of the 31 planned new reactors. The spurt in Chinese and Indian demand is a function of booming economic growth and population. In Japan and South Korea interest in nuclear power arises from lack of indigenous oil and gas resources and the desire for energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This throws up three clusters of concern:

  • How do we ensure that the plants are operated with complete safety?
  • How do we secure the plants against theft, leakage and attacks of weapons-sensitive material, skills and knowledge?
  • How do we build firewalls between civilian and weapons-related use of nuclear power?

These concerns extend also to the international trade in nuclear material, skills and equipment. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, observed in 2004 that “Nuclear components designed in one country could be manufactured in another, shipped through a third, and assembled in a fourth for use in a fifth.”

The challenge on the national security front is fourfold. First, the five Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty-licit nuclear powers–Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States–have ignored their NPT obligation to disarm. Instead they are busy enlarging, modernizing and upgrading their nuclear arsenals and refining nuclear doctrines to indicate retention and expanded use of these weapons for several decades yet. The lesson to others? Nuclear weapons are indispensable in today’s world and becoming more useful for dealing with tomorrow’s threats.

Second, three states outside the NPT–India, Israel and Pakistan–have been accepted, more or less, as de facto nuclear weapons powers.

Third, as an intergovernmental agreement, the NPT doesn’t cover nonstate groups, including terrorists, who might be pursuing nuclear weapons. The turmoil in Pakistan, with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf playing the “loose nukes” card to retain U.S. backing, highlights the related danger of links between rogue elements of security forces and extremists.

Fourth, some countries may be cheating on their NPT obligations and seeking nuclear weapons by stealth. The drumbeats of war being sounded in Washington on Iran bring back memories of 2002-03. This is a story we’ve heard before. We didn’t like the ending the first time and are unlikely to like it any better the next time round.

The disquieting trend of a widening circle of NPT-illicit and extra-NPT nuclear weapons powers in turn has a self-generating effect in drawing other countries into the game of nuclear brinksmanship. The renaissance of nuclear power cannot be explained solely by the interest in nuclear energy for civilian uses.

What might be the solution? Of the 27,000 nuclear weapons in existence today, 12,000 are deployed and ready for use, with 3,500 on hair-trigger alert. To begin with, some practical and concrete measures are long overdue: Bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force; negotiating a verifiable fissile materials treaty; retrenching from launch-on-warning postures, standing down nuclear forces. That is, reviving, implementing and building on agreements for reducing the role, readiness and numbers of nuclear weapons in defense doctrines and preparations.

But these amount to tinkering, not a bold and comprehensive vision of the final destination. What we need are rules-based regimes on the principles of reciprocity of obligations, participatory decision-making and independent verification procedures and compliance mechanisms.

U.S. presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., declared, “America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons.” In January, three former U.S. secretaries of defense and state–George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger–and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, called on Washington to take the lead in the abolition of nuclear weapons. The national security benefits of nuclear weapons, they argued, are outweighed by the threats posed to U.S. security by uncontrolled proliferation.

The symbiotic link between nonproliferation and disarmament is integral to the NPT, the most brilliant half-successful arms control agreement in history. The number of countries to sign it–188–embraces virtually the entire family of nations. But the nuclear arsenals of the five NPT nuclear powers expanded enormously. With almost four decades having elapsed since 1968, the five NPT nuclear powers are in violation of their solemn obligation to disarm, reinforced by the advisory opinion of the World Court in 1996 that the NPT’s Article 6 requires them to engage in and bring to a conclusion negotiations for nuclear abolition.

Despite this history and background, a surprising number of arms control experts focus solely on the nonproliferation side to demand denial of technology and materiel to all who refuse to sign and abide by the NPT, and punishment of any who cross the threshold. The term “nonproliferation ayatollahs” is applied pejoratively to them. The latest episode in this long-running and tired serial is the United States, Britain and France threatening Iran with war to stop it from acquiring–not using, merely acquiring–nuclear weapons. From where do the leaders of nuclear-armed Britain and France derive the moral authority to declare that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable?

Nuclear weapons could not proliferate if they did not exist. Because they do, they will. The policy implication of this logic is that the best guarantee of nuclear nonproliferation is nuclear disarmament through a nuclear weapons convention that bans the possession, acquisition, testing and use of nuclear weapons, by everyone. This would solve the problem of nonproliferation as well as disarmament. The focus on nonproliferation to the neglect of disarmament ensures that we get neither. If we want nonproliferation, therefore, we must prepare for disarmament.

Too many, including the government of Japan, have paid lip service to this slogan, but not pursued a serious program of action to make it a reality. The elegant theorems, cogent logic and fluent reasoning of many authoritative international commissions, including the Tokyo Forum, have made no discernible dent on the old, new and aspiring nuclear powers. A coalition between nuclear-armed and nonnuclear countries, led perhaps by India–which has crossed the threshold from a disarmament leader to a hypocritical nuclear power–and Japan, the only country to have suffered an atomic attack, might break the stalemate and dispel the looming nuclear clouds.

Time is running out for the hypocrisy and accumulated anomalies of global nuclear apartheid. Either we will achieve nuclear abolition or we will have to live with nuclear proliferation followed by nuclear war. Better the soft glow of satisfaction from the noble goal realized of nuclear weapons banned, than the harsh glare of the morning after of these weapons used.

Ramesh Thakur, distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada, is the author of The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge University Press, 2006).