The Nuclear Renaissance in a World of Nuclear Apartheid

Castle Bravo Blast. By United States Department of Energy, Public Domain, Link

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This is the fifth post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?”. It is hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Climate History Network, and ActiveHistory.ca.

By Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi is a historian of U.S. foreign relations in the 19th and 20th century at Georgetown University. His research interests rest with science and politics in managing the trans-border and global environment. He is an official historian for the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and also a member of a committee for research promotion in specialized areas, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS).

Nuclear power is back, riding on the growing fears of catastrophic climate change that lurks around the corner. The looming climate crisis has rekindled heated debate over the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power. However, advocates and opponents alike tend to overlook or downplay a unique risk that sets atomic energy apart from all other energy sources: proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Despite the lasting tragedy of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the elusive goal of nuclear safety, and the stalled progress in radioactive waste disposal, nuclear power has once again captivated the world as a low-carbon energy solution. According to the latest IPCC report,released in October 2018, most of the 89 available pathways to limiting warming to 1.5 oC above pre-industrial levels see a larger role for nuclear power in the future. The median values in global nuclear electricity generation across these scenarios increase from 10.84 to 22.64 exajoule by 2050. 

The global nuclear industry, after many setbacks in selling its products, has jumped on the renewed interest of the climate policy community in atomic energy. The World Nuclear Association has recently launched an initiative called the Harmony Programme, which has established an ambitious goal of 25% of global electricity supplied by nuclear in 2050. Even some critics agree that nuclear power should be part of a future clean energy mix. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based science advocacy group and proponent of stronger nuclear regulations, recently published an op-ed urging the United States to “[k]eep safely operating nuclear plants running until they can be replaced by other low-carbon technologies.” 

But the justified focus on energy production vis-à-vis climate change obscures the debate that until recently had defined the nuclear issue: weapons proliferation. It is often said that a global nuclear regulatory regime, grounded on the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s safeguards system, has proven successful as a check against the diversion of fissile materials from peaceful to military uses. There is indeed a good reason for this optimism. Since 1968, only three countries (India, Pakistan, North Korea) have publicly declared possession of nuclear weapons – a far cry from “15 or 20 or 25 nations” that President Kennedy famously  predicted would go nuclear by the 1970s.

Contrary to the impressions created by the biological metaphor, as political scientist Benoit Pelopidas has pointed out, the “proliferation” of nuclear weapons is also neither inevitable nor irreversible. South Africa, a non-NPT country which had secretly developed nuclear weapons by the 1980s, voluntarily dismantled its arsenal following the end of Apartheid. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, which inherited nuclear warheads following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, also agreed to transfer them to Russia. Moreover, despite all the talk about the threat of nuclear terrorism, experts note a multitude of obstacles, both technical and political, for non-state actors to steal or assemble workable atomic devices.[i] Although many countries and terrorists are known to have harbored nuclear ambition at one point or another in the past – and some undoubtedly still do so today – we should not exaggerate the possibility of nuclear weapons acquisition by new countries and violent non-state actors and the potential threat that it might pose to international security.

The real dangers of nuclear proliferation, however, lie elsewhere. The NPT is supposed to be a bargain between the nuclear haves and have-nots. The non-nuclear countries agreed not to acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons in exchange for the pledge made by all parties, including the five nuclear-weapon states designated by the NPT (United States, Soviet Union/Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China), to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The nuclear-armed countries, however, have consistently failed to keep their end of the deal.[ii]

Meanwhile, the United States has repeatedly used or threatened to use military force to disarm hostile countries suspected to have clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Iraq is the most famous example of this, but as discussed below, U.S. officials also seriously considered preemptive attacks against nuclear facilities in China and North Korea. The United States is not alone in its penchant for unilateral military action. Israel, a U.S. ally widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, has also carried out a number of surprise airstrikes that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a suspected Syrian installation in 2007.[iii]

The alleged “success” of the repeated use of force and its threat to stem the tide of nuclear proliferation, however, comes at a high cost. Such action may not only deepen the insecurity of the threatened nation and make it all the more determined to develop its nuclear capabilities as a deterrent, but also entails a serious risk of unintended escalation to a large-scale conflict. Anyone who tries to weigh the value of nuclear power in coping with the climate crisis thus must take stock of the history of militarized counter-proliferation policy that reflects and reinforces what historian Shane J. Maddock has called “nuclear apartheid,” a hierarchy of nations grounded on power inequality between the nuclear haves and have-nots.[iv]

In October 1964, the People’s Republic of China successfully tested an atomic bomb, becoming the fifth country that demonstrated its nuclear weapons capabilities. The United States eventually acquiesced China’s nuclear status by the time it signed the NPT in 1968, which formally defined the nuclear-weapon state as a country that had manufactured and detonated a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967. 

Washington’s decision to tolerate a nuclear China, however, did not come without resistance. In fact, as historian Francis J. Gavin has noted, there is a striking parallelism between the U.S. perception of China during the 1960s and that of a “rogue state” today: China had already clashed with the United States during the Korean War, twice shelled the outlying islands of Taiwan, and invaded India over a disputed border; it strongly disputed the Soviet Union’s leadership in the Communist world and aggressively supported revolutionary forces around the world; and it consolidated a one-party rule and embarked on a series of disastrous political, economic, and social campaigns, most notably the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.[v] Operating from the Cold War mindset, and with little information shedding light on the complexity of China’s foreign and domestic policies, senior U.S. officials feared that China’s nuclear weapons program would post a serious threat to the stability of East Asia and the international effort to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons around the world.[vi]

It is important to note that not all U.S. officials held such a grim view about China’s nuclear ambition and its consequences. Some believed that a nuclear-armed China would act rather cautiously, and President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both tried to induce China by diplomatic means to abandon its nuclear program. As historians William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson have demonstrated, however, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also developed contingency plans to disarm China by force. In a memo written in April 1963, the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed a variety of military options, ranging from covert operations to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, to coerce China into signing a test ban treaty.[vii]

While the military was skeptical about the effectiveness of unilateral action and also cautious about the risk of retaliation and escalation, Kennedy and some of his senior advisers remained keen on military and covert operations. For instance, the President showed his interest in enlisting the Republic of China in Taiwan as a proxy to launch a commando raid against Chinese nuclear installations.[viii] William Foster, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, later recalled that Kennedy had been eager to consider the possibility of an airstrike in coordination with, or with tacit approval of, the Soviet Union.[ix] The idea of an air raid resurfaced in September 1964, on the eve of the Chinese test. Although Johnson and his advisers ultimately decided against the proposal, all agreed that, “in case of military hostilities,” the United States should consider “the possibility of an appropriate military action against Chinese nuclear facilities.”[x]

Despite all the talks about the use of force, the U.S. government ultimately refrained from taking such drastic action. The Soviet Union refused to discuss the possibility of joint military intervention, and the political costs and military risks of an unprovoked attack were too high. The failure to stop China’s nuclear weapons program, Gavin has pointed out, precipitated a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy toward creating a global nonproliferation regime with the NPT as its keystone.[xi] However, these “proliferation lessons from the 1960s,” as Gavin has called, did not change the fundamental fact that the United States was willing to contemplate military action, to be carried out unilaterally if necessary, to prevent hostile countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. If anything, the NPT became a handy justification for such measures. This was abundantly clear when North Korea triggered another nuclear crisis thirty years later. 

In March 1993, North Korea startled the world by announcing its decision to withdraw from the NPT. At issue was the IAEA’s demand for special inspections at nuclear facilities in Yongbyon to account for the amount of plutonium generated in an earlier uninspected refueling operation. The tension briefly subsided when, after bilateral talks with the United States, Pyongyang suspended the process of pulling out of the NPT and agreed to allow inspections at a number of installations. In March 1994, however, North Korea suddenly reversed its attitude, blocking IAEA inspectors from conducting activities necessary to complete their mission. The United States responded by declaring its intention to ask the United Nations Security Council to impose economic sanctions against North Korea.   

As the confrontation between the United States and North Korea escalated, President Bill Clinton decided to take all necessary measures to coerce Pyongyang into full compliance with the IAEA safeguards. In his memoirs, Clinton wrote that “I was determined to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, even at the risk of war.”[xii] To leave no room for misunderstanding about his resolve, Clinton let his senior advisers and military commanders openly discuss contingency plans for military action. On February 6, TheNew York Times broke news on updated U.S. defense plans for South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack, describing a newly added option for a counteroffensive to seize Pyongyang and overthrow the regime of Kim Il Sung.[xiii] Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense William Perry talked tough, telling the press that “we would not rule out a preemptive military strike.”[xiv]

The talk about the use of force against North Korea was not an idle threat. In his memoirs, Perry has described contingency planning for military action. In May 1994, when North Korea began to remove the spent fuel rods containing plutonium from its reactor, the Defense Secretary ordered John Shalikhashvili (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Gary Luck (commander of the U.S. military forces in South Korea) to prepare a course of action for “a ‘surgical’ strike by cruise missiles on the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.”[xv] Three former U.S. officials, Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Richard L. Gallucci, also confirmed that the strike plan was discussed at the highest level of the Clinton administration. On May 19, Perry, Shalikhashvili, and Luck briefed Clinton and his aides on the proposal for an air raid against the Yongbyon facilities, asserting that it would “set the North Korean nuclear program back by years.” Perry, however, reportedly stressed the “downside risk,” namely that “this action would certainly spark a violent reaction, perhaps even a general war.”[xvi] Clinton recalled that a “sobering estimate of the staggering losses both sides would suffer if war broke out” gave him pause.[xvii] As Perry has noted, the military option was still “‘on the table’, but very far back on the table.”[xviii]

The self-restraint of the Clinton administration and its commitment to a diplomatic solution have earned praise from many scholars and pundits – in sharp contrast to George W. Bush’s aggressive unilateralism. But the fact remains that Clinton and his aides considered the threat of preventive military action as permissible, even essential, to pressure North Korea into refraining from any suspicious nuclear activities. And their willingness to go to the brink of actual conflict created the tense policy environment that greatly diminished room for quiet diplomacy for a possible compromise while drastically raising the risk of accidents and miscalculations. 

In this sense, the “peaceful” conclusion of the first North Korean nuclear crisis was a Pyrrhic one, reinforcing the belief widely held by the U.S. policy community that the United States must be prepared to use its military force unilaterally to uphold the global non-proliferation regime. It is thus no coincidence that, even after the disastrous outcomes of the Iraqi War fought in the name of nuclear nonproliferation, the U.S. government still continues to wage the dangerous game of brinkmanship with hostile powers suspected of pursuing the clandestine development of nuclear weapons. 

What does the history of U.S. counter-proliferation policy mean for the future use of nuclear power to combat climate change? An answer, I believe, lies in an accelerating shift in the nuclear geography. The New Policies Scenario of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2018, a global energy trend forecast based on policies and targets announced by governments, shows that the demand for nuclear power in 2017-40 will decrease in advanced economies by 60 Mtoe (millions of tons of oil equivalent), whereas it will increase in developing economies by 344 Mtoe. Of approximately 30 countries which are currently considering, planning, or starting nuclear power programs, many are post-colonial and post-socialist countries located in areas, including Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, where the United States is competing with other major and regional powers for greater influence. Added to this geopolitical layer is the nuclear supply game. While many Western conglomerates have recently decided to exit from nuclear exports due to swelling construction costs, Russian and Chinese state-owned companies have aggressively sold nuclear power plants to emerging countries, a move backed by their governments as part of their global strategies. Although Russia and China have generally cooperated with the United States in controlling nuclear exports, the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has pitted Washington against Moscow and Beijing over the latter’s continued negotiations with Iran for nuclear cooperation. Given the growing tension between the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, the expansion of civilian nuclear programs in key strategic regions is likely to be fraught with serious risks of an international crisis and even an armed conflict.  

The fundamental solution to the nuclear dilemma in the changing climate is simple: carry out the pledge made by all parties to the NPT, that is, to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control” (Article VI). A breakthrough toward this goal came in July 2017 when the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the first legally binding international agreement that prohibited nuclear weapons. All of the nuclear weapon states and most of their allies, however, refused to participate in the treaty negotiations. 

Recently, Christopher Ashley Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, has called the treaty as a “well-intended mistake,” insisting that a “better way” was to work within the NPT framework while taking steps to improve “the actual geopolitical conditions that countries face in the world.” If the IPCC is correct in its claim that we have only a little more than a decade to stop potentially catastrophic climate change, it is unlikely that the “pragmatic, conditions-focused program” described by Ford will significantly reduce risks of nuclear proliferation and militarized counter-proliferation in time. If so, then we must realize that the promotion of civilian nuclear power in a world of nuclear apartheid – a world in which the United States and its allies are not hesitant to use force to disarm and topple a hostile regime with nuclear ambition – may have no less catastrophic consequences for human society than climate change. 


[i]John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda(Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 161-179.

[ii]Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 1-2.  

[iii]Dan Reiter, “Preventive Attacks against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq,” Nonproliferation Review12, no. 2 (2005): 355-371; Leonard S. Spector and Avner Cohen, “Israel’s Airstrike on Syria’s Reactor: Implications for the Nonproliferation Regime,” Arms Control Today38, no. 6 (2008): 15-21. 

[iv]Shane J. Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 1-2.  

[v]Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 75-76. 

[vi]William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, “Whether to ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle’: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64,” International Security25, no. 3 (2000/01): 55, 61-62. Also see Noam Kochavi, A Conflict Perpetuated: China Policy during the Kennedy Years(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002). 

[vii]Ibid., 68-69. 

[viii]Ibid., 73. 

[ix]Ibid., 54. 

[x]Document 49, Memorandum for the Record, September 15, 1964, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. 30 (Washington: U.S.G.P.O., 1998). 

[xi]Gavin, 75-103. 

[xii]Bill Clinton, My Life(New York: Vintage, 2005), 591. 

[xiii]Michael R. Gordon, “North Korea’s Huge Military Spurs New Strategy in South,” New York Times, February 6, 1994, 1. 

[xiv]Clinton, My Life, 591. 

[xv]William J. Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 106.  

[xvi]Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis(Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 180. 

[xvii]Clinton, My Life, 603. 

[xviii]Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, 106. 

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