A new and dangerous nuclear era is here

Two explosive events should have shocked the world last year, but only one of them hit the headlines - the testing of a nuclear bomb in North Korea.

Two explosive events should have shocked the world last year, but only one of them hit the headlines - the testing of a nuclear bomb in North Korea.

The other was an announcement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that there are "another 20 or 30 states which have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short space of time". That fact was hardly reported.

Then, this January, an article by cold-war hawks Henry Kissinger and George Shultz also pointed out that "the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era". The article went on to suggest there should be a "reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons" and that "practical measures toward achieving that goal" should be taken by the United States and "the countries in possession of nuclear weapons".

According to the IAEA, and strategic analysts generally, the North Korean nuclear test is the tip of the iceberg. What North Korea did - extract plutonium from some old nuclear fuel rods - can be done by anyone with a nuclear reactor. That is unless the used fuel rods are under effective international controls and supervised by the IAEA, which many used fuel facilities are not.

Renewed interest in nuclear power across Asia and Africa - and the weapons potential that comes with it - will make control over these nuclear materials even harder.

A further problem lies with uranium enrichment - the other route to nuclear weapons, but also the path to nuclear fuel production and thus a perfectly legitimate undertaking.

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Japan enriches uranium, as does Brazil, South Africa and Canada. Iran will soon be there and then Argentina and Australia. If these countries wish to divert material to a secret facility, there is little chance this would be detected.

For this reason, the IAEA is screaming for new powers and funding to monitor and inspect all nuclear-related facilities everywhere, otherwise nuclear material control is impossible.

The agency says: "As experience has shown, effective control of nuclear materials is the 'choke point' to preventing nuclear weapons development." Such control can only come from willing submission to an inspection regime and this means all countries must comply. The IAEA has pointed out, though, that the non-nuclear weapon countries "would be unwilling to accept more obligations without further benefits".

Indeed, they have reported that countries without nuclear weapons "have taken on increasingly heavy burdens without corresponding obligations on behalf of the nuclear weapon states" and that "some countries continue to rely on nuclear weapons, or even try to develop new weapons, while at the same time telling others that such weapons are no good for them. The logic is simply not there."

To induce all countries to submit to rigorous inspection, the nuclear-weapon states will have to put a decent deal on the table - if they are serious about non-proliferation, that is.

Fundamentally that means drawing up a timetable for the eventual elimination of all nuclear arsenals everywhere. Two years ago, the prospect of such a deal would have been considered a joke - now, however, with traditional non-proliferation efforts failing badly, the IAEA proposals are starting to be taken more seriously.

Last month brought the first signs of change.

Not only has Mr Kissinger changed his tune on nuclear disarmament, but the Bush administration has also dropped its opposition to the idea of a fissile material cut-off treaty - a treaty that seeks to end the production of nuclear warhead materials everywhere, including in the US and Russia.

This small but significant shift may be the first inkling that nuclear disarmament may not be the dead duck it appeared to be two years ago.

Forty nuclear-weapon states is not a prospect that brings comfort to any government anywhere: Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran or Tel Aviv.

Events, like the North Korean test are starting to force the hand of governments otherwise reluctant to let go of their most powerful weapons. The sooner they act, the less the danger, but radical change is hardly likely to occur tomorrow.

The role that civil society could play in tipping the balance could, therefore, be crucial. If there were ever a time to embrace nuclear disarmament as an idea whose time has come, it is now, for the more the grim reality is understood by people generally, the greater the prospect that governments will finally act.