The nuclear weapons news of late has been alarming. David Sanger reported in "The New York Times" on January 9 that Iran's top nuclear official had announced his country was near initiating uranium enrichment at a new plant. And the recent leadership change in North Korea means added uncertainty about one of the world's most unpredictable nuclear weapons states. Both developments mean the danger is rising that nuclear weapons or the means to make them will spread in this year.
The ominous news brings to mind a comment that Robert M. Gates made a few years ago while working as President Obama's Secretary of Defense. "If you were to ask most of the leaders of the last administration or the current administration what might keep them awake at night," he told me, "it's the prospect of a [nuclear] weapon or nuclear material falling into the hands of Al Qaeda or some other extremists."
I was interviewing Gates for a book about nuclear threats. The book, "The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb," [Harper, $29.99] examines the acute state of nuclear dangers today, including the spread of nuclear materials and technology to unstable nations like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. If a terror group like Al Qaeda is ever going to get its hands on a nuclear weapon, or more likely the fissile material needed to make one, the source is likely to be one of those three nations. North Korea and Pakistan have a frightening history of exporting nuclear weapons technology. Iran may be next.
Despite the denials of Iranian leaders, Tehran seems well on the way to building its first nuclear weapon. Iran already has enough enriched uranium to make several warheads once the uranium is raised to a higher level of enrichment. The enrichment process can move very quickly from a low level to high, bomb-grade levels. Some upgrading of known Iranian enrichment facilities are required to get there, and these changes would be visible to the outside world. Still, Iran may well have hidden enrichment programs already cranking out highly enriched uranium. If it does move openly to higher enrichment, Israel and the United States will be tempted to attack Iran's nuclear installations.
A simple but powerful nuclear weapon can be fabricated with just a small amount of highly enriched uranium. The hardest part of making a uranium bomb is producing highly enriched uranium, something that requires advanced, industrial-scale technologies beyond the reach of a terror group. But with just 60 pounds of highly enriched uranium, a small, savvy group of engineers with some basic laboratory equipment could construct a fission bomb in a garage. The bomb mechanism is so straightforward that the United States did not bother to test a uranium weapon before dropping one over Hiroshima in 1945. And it is not wildly improbable to imagine Iran giving highly enriched uranium to a terror group.
The continuation of the Kim dynasty in North Korea - now in its third generation with the recent installation of Kim Jong-un as the new supreme leader - does not augur well for more responsible behavior by North Korea. With its active nuclear weapons program, hunger for hard currency and record of selling nuclear weapons goods to Libya and Syria, North Korea is one of the most dangerous nations on earth.
While North Korea is unlikely to sell a nuclear weapon to a terror group, it could provide the materials and knowhow to make a crude but powerful bomb. The United States, for all its intelligence-gathering hardware like spy satellites, does not know a great deal about the North Korean program. Washington was surprised to learn in 2010 that North Korea had constructed a uranium enrichment plant outfitted with the latest centrifuge technology. News about the existence of the plant came from a group of American scholars who were shown the facility during a visit to the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
The plant is not a problem if it is producing low enriched uranium to fuel a small, light water reactor. But the plant could be used to produce highly enriched uranium. The rapid construction of the plant - it was built in just 18 months - suggested that the North Koreans might have honed their techniques at another enrichment facility, as yet undetected by the United States.
I recently asked my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker, one of the scholars who visited the enrichment plant in 2010, to outline what to watch for in the North Korean weapons program in coming weeks to determine if the new leadership is planning any change in nuclear policy and/or operations. Sig served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory 1986-1997. He has been a frequent visitor to North Korea, one of the few Americans to get a first-hand look at the North Korean nuclear program.
I believe that there will be a period of quiet on the diplomatic front, both for mourning and to rethink strategy. Just before Kim Jong-il died, American and North Korean diplomats came close to an agreement of American food aid in return for some concessions on the nuclear program (some reports indicated that Pyongyang would stop enrichment - but I have yet to hear official confirmation from the United States - and we never may). What to look for is to see when North Korean diplomats are ready to re-engage with Americans in quiet bilateral talks, most likely in China.
On the technical front - I would expect "normal operations" at Yongbyon. That means they will continue with the experimental light water reactor construction - although little will be seen from overheads because it is winter time. Much of the interior components will be fabricated in shops. I also expect them to continue with operations of the centrifuge enrichment facility - either to make more low enriched uranium for reactor fuel or to get the facility to operate fully (which it may not have been when we visited). Both of these operations will continue regardless of which way Pyongyang eventually decides to go with the nuclear program. I don't see any reason why they would cut back on these operations now.
As for potential provocative actions - they could prepare for another nuclear test - but that is highly unlikely, if for no other reason than it is winter. Their tests occurred in October 2006 and May 2009. Nevertheless, the third test tunnel appears to have been dug some time ago (South Korean news reports and overhead imagery) and one should watch closely for activity at the test site (particularly come spring). We should also look for potential missile tests - the new launch site on the west coast should be watched for another potential long-range missile launch. (They have had three attempts from the old launch site in the east: 1998 over Japan, 2006 a complete failure, and 2009 two out of three stages worked.) They also have not flight-tested the Musudan road-mobile missile. (For a detailed assessment of North Korean nuclear developments in 2011 by Sig Hecker, Robert Carlin and Niko Milonopoulos, see their article in the latest edition of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
It would not surprise me if North Korea conducted another nuclear test in 2012. If Kim Jong-un is looking for a way to flex North Korean military power and remind his impoverished people that their nation matters to the rest of the world, detonating a nuclear weapon will do the trick.
Iran's nuclear program will also likely generate news and international anxiety this year. Iranian threats to attack US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf may seem self-defeating, but a military confrontation between Iran and the United States is not out of the question.
There is no greater danger to American and global security than the spread of nuclear weapons and the means to make them.