NUKE WAR, Part III: Rogue terrorist states, non-treaty nations pose grave threat
North Korea estimated to have enough plutonium for 6-to-8 plutonium based warheads, as of 2016
The Indian Army’s Agni II medium-range ballistic missile on parade in 2004. Photo: Antônio Milena (ABr) via Wikimedia Commons
Non-treaty nation or terrorist state likely culprit in tomorrow’s nuclear weapons conflict
The most likely threat to a geometrical spread of the use of nukes today, is focused on rogue terrorist states like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan, known sponsors of terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbolla.
A likely scenario would be the use of a “dirty bomb,” a low-yield radiological weapon that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives, according to the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence sources.
Nations on the sidelines of “non-proliferation”
The next probable nuclear threat is focused on nations like India, Israel, and Pakistan, nuclear nations that never joined the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). India first tested a nuclear explosive device in 1974, which spurred Pakistan to ramp up work on its secret nuclear weapons program. Both nations publicly demonstrated their nuclear weapon capabilities with a round of tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998.
Israel has not publicly conducted a nuclear test, does not admit or deny having nuclear weapons, but makes it emphatically clear that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Israel is universally believed to possess nukes, although it is unclear exactly how many.
The following nuclear arsenal estimates are based on the amount of fissile material — highly enriched uranium and plutonium — that each of the states is estimated to have produced. Fissile material is the key element for making nuclear weapons. India and Israel are believed to use plutonium in their weapons, while Pakistan is thought to use highly enriched uranium.
- India: Between 100-120 nuclear warheads.
- Pakistan: Between 110-130 nuclear warheads.
- Israel: An estimated 80 nuclear warheads, with fissile material for up to 200.
Immediate proliferation concerns
Iran: Prior to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran pursued a uranium-enrichment program and other projects that provided it with the capability to produce bomb-grade fissile material and develop nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so. Iran’s uranium enrichment program continues, but it is restricted and monitored by the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the institution charged with verifying that states are not illicitly building nuclear weapons, concluded in 2003 that Iran had undertaken covert nuclear activities to establish the capacity to indigenously produce fissile material.
In July 2015, Iran and six world powers negotiated a long-term agreement to verify and significantly reduce Iran’s capacity to produce material for nuclear weapons. As part of this agreement, the IAEA and Iran concluded an investigation into Iran’s past nuclear weapons-related activities. The agency concluded that Iran had an organized program to pursue nuclear weapons prior to 2003. Some of these activities continued through 2009, but there were no indications of weaponization taking place after that date. Iran, as of now, has no known weapons or sufficient fissile material stockpiles to build weapons.
North Korea: In contrast, North Korea has the material to produce a small number of nuclear weapons, announced its withdrawal from the NPT, and tested nuclear devices. Uncertainty persists about how many additional nuclear devices North Korea has assembled beyond those it has tested. North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for 6-8 plutonium based warheads as of 2016.
In August 2013, North Korea restarted the 5-megawatt heavy-water graphite-moderated reactor used to extract plutonium in the past for nuclear warheads, although the operation of the reactor since then has not been constant. The regime unveiled a centrifuge facility in 2010, but it is unclear if Pyongyang is using the facility to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons.
Experts estimate that if North Korea is producing highly-enriched uranium, it could have the material for an additional 4-8 uranium based warheads, bringing the total to 10-16 warheads. By 2020, experts estimate that North Korea could have anywhere between 20-100 nuclear warheads based on the rate of its stockpile growth and technological improvements. Experts estimate that North Korea added 4-8 uranium based warheads as of 2015.
Syria: In September, 2007, Israel conducted an airstrike on what U.S. officials alleged was the construction site of a nuclear research reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. The extent of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation is unclear but is believed to have begun in 1997.
Investigations into U.S. claims uncovered traces of undeclared man-made uranium particles at both the site of the destroyed facility and Syria’s declared research reactor. Syria has not adequately cooperated with the IAEA to clarify the nature of the destroyed facility and procurement efforts that could be related to a nuclear program.
Proliferation concern reduced
South Africa secretly developed but is known to have subsequently dismantled its small number of nuclear warheads (though not 100 percent verifiable) and also joined the NPT in 1991.
Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War but was forced to verifiably dismantle it under the supervision of UN inspectors. The U.S.-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein definitively ended his regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Libya voluntarily renounced its secret nuclear weapons efforts in December 2003. Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan also shelved nuclear weapons programs.
The following sources contributed to this report:
Arms Control Association, Federation of American Scientists, International Panel on Fissile Materials, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of State.
Federation of American Scientists, CIA World Fact book, Nuclear Threat Initiative, U.S. Census Bureau; army-technology.com
U.S. Department of Nonproliferation Policy, U.S. Department of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy.