Beyond the already existing nuclear powers, at least eight countries could be poised to discard non-proliferation status quo and arm themselves with nuclear arsenals.
KYIV — Vladimir Putin's nuclear threats fundamentally undermine the basic principles of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction developed in the post-War period. Indeed, signs show that several nations have recently been intensifying activities around acquiring a nuclear arsenal for national security.
As a non-nuclear power invaded by nuclear-armed Russia, Ukraine stands as an example to other countries around the world of the vulnerability inherent in not having an atomic arsenal.
But if Russia actually uses nuclear weapons, the risk of new countries seeking these weapons of mass destruction for the first time may quickly accelerate.
Here’s a glance at the question in several key countries, several of which could attempt to become nuclear powers if Putin crosses the line:
Could South Korea develop nuclear weapons?
South Korea has the economic, scientific, and industrial potential to quite rapidly develop nuclear weapons.
In the spring of 2022, the country began discussing withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and developing a nuclear program. Three factors played a decisive role: Russia's invasion of Ukraine, North Korean nuclear policy changes, and U.S. domestic political shifts.
According to Seoul (as well as Pyongyang, by the way), Russia's attack on Ukraine became possible because Ukraine decided to give up nuclear weapons. The South Korean press emphasizes that the presence of atomic weapons in Russia has formed a false idea of impunity for aggression in the Kremlin and has forced the West behave cautiously in this situation.
The second factor is changes in the North Korean nuclear program, which until 2015-2016 was defensive. In recent years, Pyongyang has been actively working on developing tactical nuclear weapons, even though North Korea already has intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in the United States.
Thirdly, the four years of the Donald Trump administration included statements from Washington about the possible withdrawal of the U.S. contingent from the Korean Peninsula, which would suddenly leave Seoul vulnerable.
The current U.S. administration of President Joe Biden is trying to restore confidence in the United States. However, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal virtually eliminates South Korea's advantage in conventional weapons. Only nuclear weapons are guaranteed protection against possible aggression by the DPRK against the South.
The critical impediment on the way to South Korea creating a nuclear arsenal will be the reaction of China and the United States. It is unlikely that Beijing or Washington will support such an initiative: China would consider South Korea's nuclear weapons a threat to its national security, and the United States is not interested in further discrediting the nuclear non-proliferation regime and nuclear militarization of East Asia. Seoul is also afraid of sanctions.
Yet despite these external factors, public support for obtaining nuclear power status within the country is high: polls show that over the past 15 years, the level of support among South Korean citizens has ranged between 60-75%
South Korea test fires a missile last May
Is Japan allowed to build a nuclear bomb?
Japan, like South Korea, is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, according to bilateral agreements. Now the Japanese political elite is thinking again about its nuclear potential. Some politicians openly state that it is time to leave two of the "three non-nuclear principles," officially allowing the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan.
At the same time, the state is ready to create atomic weapons, given its scientific, technical, and industrial means. In 2020, the Japanese government reported that it has about 45 tons of plutonium, more than 30 tons suitable for use in nuclear charges. This solid stock has accumulated due to many years of processing waste from Japanese nuclear power plants.
Before the accident at Fukushima in 2011, more than 50 nuclear power reactors were in operation. Most of these stocks are still stored not on Japanese territory, but abroad, where they were processed - mainly in the UK and France.
Hypothetically, it will take at least two years to create a ready-made nuclear warhead for Tokyo's missiles. In addition, Japan has delivery vehicles - missiles capable of transporting warheads long distances.
Among the deterrents to the revision of the non-nuclear principles are strong anti-nuclear sentiments of the society. There is also China, and the risk of escalating the ongoing territorial conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is actively promoting the concept of "global zero," which confirms that Tokyo has no intention to develop its nuclear potential. At least in the short and medium term. At the same time, in connection with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there is a surge of interest in Japan in the concept of "nuclear sharing," whereby the United States could, for example, put its nuclear weapons on Japanese aircraft carriers.
Is Australia developing nuclear weapons?
In 1972, due to internal political debates, Australia abandoned its plans to acquire nuclear weapons and provide the technological capability to create them. There were two reasons: the risk of losing U.S. support and provoking nuclear militarization in East and Southeast Asia. And there were no guarantees that a limited nuclear arsenal would be a sufficient means to deter aggression.
After that, Australia signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. According to this document, Australia refused to possess nuclear explosive devices and pledged not to allow nuclear tests on its territory.
However, after the AUKUS (Australia, UK, USA) creation last year, China and Russia began to actively criticize Australia, accusing it of violating the NPT. The Australians and their partners have set a goal to create a nuclear submarine fleet with non-nuclear weapons.
It was emphasized that Australia would not transfer nuclear weapons and peaceful atomic technologies. However, concerns were expressed that Australia's future nuclear submarines would potentially be equipped with nuclear weapons of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Australia is a key U.S. ally, and Washington is unlikely to approve the resumption of the Australian nuclear program. Besides, Canberra does not have the necessary capacities for uranium enrichment.
A nuclear program could prevent the Australians from maintaining their position as a regional leader in Oceania. Smaller states in the region are concerned about the environment and climate change, and a nuclear program is unlikely to help win the trust of neighboring countries.
Yet the growing threat from China in the region or a change in the world order in the event of a nuclear attack by Russia may make the Australians think again about the practicality of not having a nuclear program.
Brazil and Argentina: a shared history after dictatorships
Under military dictatorships, Argentina and Brazil actively developed nuclear programs and engaged in an undeclared nuclear race in the 1970s and 1980s. But with the coming to power of civilian administrations, the development of the nuclear program was curtailed. In 1991, the Guadalajara Agreement on the Exclusively Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy was signed, which established the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, allowing the IAEA to monitor the nuclear facilities of these states.
Both countries joined the Tlatelolco Treaty on a Nuclear Free Zone in Latin America and the Caribbean, which includes 33 countries. It provides that all Latin American states renounce the testing, use, production, or acquisition of nuclear weapons. Receipt, storage, installation, and deployment are also prohibited.
Under current circumstances, when the non-proliferation Treaty is in force, and offensive arms reduction programs are in place, when the nuclear club and global game rules exist, the threat of one country in the region acquiring nuclear weapons is unlikely. However, suppose a new nuclear reality emerges, and autocratic moods prevail in any of these countries. In that case, discussions about the need for nuclear capabilities for their security would likely arise again.
Erdogan is biding his time
Tomas Tkacik/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Will Turkey develop nuclear weapons?
Ankara is making considerable efforts to increase the country's international prestige, which the nuclear status can theoretically help. But so far, there is no consensus and constructive discussion within the Turkish establishment about the need for nuclear weapons.
The developed research base makes Turkey among the leading countries in nuclear technology in the Middle East. If we do not take into account Israel, then only Iran has developments of comparable level.
The main obstacle is the NPT and other agreements in this area, which Turkey has signed and is implementing. The development of the nuclear program without revision of the Treaty would be impossible. And revision or withdrawal from the agreement will bring considerable problems to Turkey.
In case of non-compliance with the NPT, Ankara would inevitably face a wave of sanctions, massive external pressure, and even isolation. After all, not only Americans but also Europe and many current "partners" — Russia, included - would stand in opposition. None of the current nuclear club members has an interest in new players in this field.
At the same time, at the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey, there is NATO's largest nuclear weapons storage facility, where 50 US B61 nuclear bombs are stored. Because of these weapons, a real scandal broke out between the United States and Turkey in 2019. The question arose: is it possible to keep these shells on Turkish territory?
At the same time, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that he considers it unfair that Ankara does not have the right to possess nuclear weapons. He noted: "There is not a single developed country in the world that does not have nuclear charges." Therefore, the Turkish leadership still thinks about becoming a nuclear power. If Russia crosses the line, and changes the rules of the game, the Turks would almost certainly take advantage of this to try to start their nuclear program.
Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia have nuclear weapons?
Saudi Arabia is a newcomer, even though the kingdom's nuclear program dates back to the 1960s. However, Saudi Arabia has shown significant interest in atomic energy during the last decade.
Currently, the kingdom does not have sufficient infrastructure to develop a nuclear arsenal. However, it is assumed that the kingdom has attempted to acquire nuclear weapons through cooperation with Iraq and Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia is a state party to the NPT and supports the idea of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. However, in the context of confrontation with Iran, whose nuclear program is of great concern, Riyadh may start developing nuclear weapons.
In August 2020, The Wall Street Journal stated that the Saudis, with the help of China, had built a yellowcake production plant near the city of Al-Ula. If this information is confirmed, it will indicate Saudi Arabia's progress in establishing its uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a critical step in processing uranium for peaceful or military purposes.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has stated very bluntly: "If Iran creates a nuclear bomb, we will follow its example."
The lingering Iran question
Iran has been gradually developing a military nuclear program over the course of several decades. If either Russia or North Korea winds up breaking the nuclear taboo, the last chance to reach a nuclear agreement between the West and Iran will be lost. Tehran may be set anyway to withdraw from the NPT, and the non-proliferation regime will be destroyed. Iran's withdrawal from the Treaty will push Saudi Arabia to similar actions. This is how nuclear dominoes could fall.
*Alina Grytsenko is Chief Consultant of the National Institute for Strategic Studies
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