It's estimated more than 40 nations now have weapons capability, raising fears of a new arms race.
The declaration on Monday by North Korea that it had conducted a successful atomic test brought to nine the number of nations believed to have nuclear arms. But atomic officials estimate that as many as 40 more countries have the technical skill, and in some cases the required material, to build a bomb.
That ability, coupled with new nuclear threats in Asia and the Middle East, risks a second nuclear age, officials and arms-control specialists say, in which nations are more likely to abandon the old restraints against atomic weapons.
The spread of nuclear technology is expected to accelerate as nations redouble their reliance on atomic power. That will give more countries the ability to make reactor fuel, or, with the same equipment and a little more effort, bomb fuel — the hardest part of the arms equation.
Signs of activity abound. Hundreds of companies are prospecting for uranium where dozens did a few years ago. Argentina, Australia and South Africa are drawing up plans to begin enriching uranium, and other countries are considering doing the same. Egypt is reviving its program to develop nuclear power.
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Concern about the situation led the International Atomic Energy Agency to summon hundreds of government officials and experts from around the world to Vienna, Austria, in September to discuss tightening restrictions on who can produce nuclear fuel.
But even the IAEA itself exemplifies some of the underlying tensions inherent in the development of nuclear energy.
For decades, the International Atomic Energy Agency, known as the world’s nuclear policeman, has pursued its other mandate — to promote safe nuclear power — by running technical aid programs with roughly a hundred states. Some of that knowledge could be useful in a weapons program, though the aid is meant exclusively for civilian use.
The agency still helps Pakistan, which exploded a nuclear bomb in 1998. It also helped North Korea until a decade ago. Even today, it has 14 programs under way with Iran, including a study on upgrading a nuclear research laboratory, as well as helping it start up its Bushehr reactor.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, has estimated that as many as 49 nations now know how to make nuclear arms, and he has warned that global tensions could push some over the line.
“We are relying,” he said, “primarily on the continued good intentions of these countries — intentions which are in turn based on their sense of security or insecurity, and could therefore be subject to rapid change.”
Democrats and Republicans spent the past week arguing over who lost control of North Korea, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. But seeds of the problem were planted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, just months after the armistice ended the fighting on the Korean Peninsula in 1953.
“It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers,” he told the United Nations that year, just as his administration was completing a series of 11 nuclear tests. “It must be put in the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”
His program was called Atoms for Peace, and soon involved dozens of nations, all seeking to unlock the magic of nuclear power. The first generation of nuclear reactors sprang up around the globe, as did a huge supporting industry and an international overseer, the IAEA.
But almost from the start, evidence accumulated that countries were using the civil alliances and reactor technologies to make bombs. By 1960, France had joined the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union as a nuclear-weapons state. China conducted its first test in 1964. Israel had the bomb by 1967, India by 1974, South Africa by 1982 (it has since given up its weapons) and Pakistan by 1998.
Six of those countries built their weapons by exploiting at least some technologies that were ostensibly civilian, analysts say. They enriched uranium beyond the low level needed for power reactors. Or they mined the spent fuel of civil reactors for plutonium — the path that North Korea started taking in the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The Manhattan Project scientists who built the first atom bomb predicted that the diffusion of their secret knowledge was inevitable. Now, after decades of scholarly digging, government declassification, open research in uranium and plutonium metallurgy and the rise of the Internet, much of that information is freely available.
“The general concepts are widely known,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb.” “Still, it’s another thing to actually do it. That still requires certain skills of engineering and chemistry and physics.”
The hardest part, experts agree, is not acquiring the weapons blueprints but obtaining the fuel. And that is becoming easier because of developments both overt and covert.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear-arms program who went on to establish the world’s largest atomic black market, sold the secrets of how to make centrifuges for enriching uranium to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Tehran insists its intentions are entirely peaceful, though most analysts judge that all three states bought from the black market because they wanted to make nuclear arms.
Investigators are still trying to learn where else Khan may have planted his nuclear seeds. They discovered outposts of his network in Dubai, Malaysia and South Africa and found that before his fall in 2004 he had visited at least 18 countries, including Egypt, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The worrisome enrichment trends involve not just stealthy military advances but also soaring demands for nuclear power, driven by rising populations, dwindling oil supplies and fears that the combustion of fossil fuels is warming the planet.
In London, the World Nuclear Association says 28 new reactors are under construction, 62 planned, and 160 proposed, most in Asia. The required uranium, it estimates, could run to more than 65,000 tons.
There are two main ways to turn civilian technology to military use. The first is to enrich uranium fuel from its usual level of 5 percent for reactors to the 90 percent needed for a bomb, a modest step that requires longer processing in centrifuges. The second is to take spent reactor fuel and mine it for plutonium, the other main fuel for a bomb.
The Brazilian military, for example, worked hard for decades to develop centrifuges to enrich uranium fuel for a bomb, a secret program it renounced in the 1990s.
Forecasting the size of the revitalized global industry is difficult. Even so, the predictions can be staggering. Hans-Holger Rogner, an economist at the international atomic agency, said that many forecasts for the 21st century foresaw huge expansions beyond the 443 power reactors now operating globally.
“An increase to 5,000 reactors is well within the range of many of the longer-range studies,” Rogner said, adding: “People are positioning themselves. There seems to be a race coming and nobody wants to be left out.”
A day after North Korea’s nuclear test, Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, vowed not to abandon Japan’s commitment to reject and never possess nuclear weapons, a cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But, even so, Japan already has all the component parts. It has many tons of plutonium left over from the operation of its reactors, according to a 2004 government report to the IAEA.
Japan is the ultimate example of a “nuclear option” state, a country that the world knows could become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be. “They could be very far down the road toward a virtual deterrent and not be in violation of any of the existing international treaties,” said Robert L. Gallucci, the former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, and now dean of Georgetown University’s school of foreign service.
South Korea has also vowed not to pursue nuclear weapons. But it has an extensive network of nuclear power reactors and a few years ago, IAEA inspectors found evidence of undeclared experimentation to make highly enriched uranium. In the early 1990s, South Korea signed an agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free — but it signed the accord with North Korea.
Iran’s rise has prompted concerns the Middle East could cause similar pressures. In the region, only Israel is believed to possess nuclear arms, although it has never confirmed that. If Iran — a Shiite state — does indeed build nuclear weapons, there are fears that Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia or Egypt will be tempted.
When atomic specialists gathered in Vienna in September to discuss new ground rules for a second nuclear age, their proceedings were fueled by the fear that all the old restraints — both technological and political — are fraying.
The central proposal debated at the IAEA’s headquarters sounded simple: No longer should nations be permitted to develop their own means of enriching uranium to make reactor fuel, which Iran and other developing states have claimed as their right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Instead, the argument went, nations should band together to make multinational fuel banks where they could watch one another, making sure no fuel is diverted for arms.
Russia took the lead, proposing an international fuel bank that it would set up on its own soil by next year — and from which it could potentially extract billions of dollars in sales. But the big splash came when Warren Buffett, the billionaire philanthropist, pledged $50 million for a fuel bank to be run by the IAEA, making the U.N. body a “supplier of last resort” for any country that forsakes making its own fuel. The Bush administration has backed similar plans.
But while there is agreement on the problem, solutions bogged down in bickering — from weapons states that want to maintain their capacity and from developing nations that sniff a conspiracy to deny them the same nuclear rights large powers have long enjoyed.
So far, the countries that the world most wants to stop from enriching say they have seen no reason to do so.