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The (Nuclear) Race Is On

September 2, 2015

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor

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It’s a pretty common thing in most societies to acknowledge events of communal importance with parades, picnics, somber gatherings, or some combination thereof. The United Nations has even created a list of such days to encourage the recognition of events and concepts that have international relevance. For instance, there is a specific day set aside to remind the world of the evils of racial discrimination and another to remember the horrors of the Holocaust.

There are designated days to promote literacy, the environment, the world’s oceans and mankind’s supply of drinking water as well as languages, jazz, ice cream and chocolate. Others advance the recognition of secretaries, teachers, philosophers, scientists and even poets. Many worldwide remember that May 8 marks the end of WWII in Europe while August 14 acknowledges victory over Japan. November 9 reminds the world of Kristallnacht and December 7 of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Few could readily recite, however, why July 16 should be noteworthy to mankind when, in fact, it may well mark one of the most critical events in human history. It was on that date in 1945 when the United States of America conducted its first-ever nuclear test, marking the beginning of the nuclear age and creating an arms race that has, unfortunately, finally found its way to the Middle East.

A Little History 

When the Western powers learned that German scientists had succeeded in splitting the uranium atom in 1938, there was grave concern that the Nazi government would create a weapon capable of horrendous destruction. Out of that apprehension, the Manhattan Project was born. Established by the US government with the cooperation of the United Kingdom and Canada, the goal of the project was to beat Germany to the punch. The project was top secret, employing over 100,000 people and costing US $2 billion (closer to $30 billion in today’s currency). And it was successful, as the test conducted in July of 1945 demonstrated.

A short three weeks later, the face of warfare would change forever with the detonation of an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing over 100,000 people and consigning countless others to death from radiation-related illness. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki where an estimated 74,000 people died.

Although it brought the Great War to an end, the world was stunned by the terrifying power that now rested in the hands of man, and many called for a swift end to nuclear development. In its first-ever resolution, the fledgling United Nations General Assembly called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and established the UN Atomic Energy Commission “to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.”

A Nuclear Race

Unfortunately, however, Pandora’s box was open and there was no turning back. In August of 1949, the Soviet Union became the second nation to successfully test a nuclear device, followed in 1952 by the United Kingdom. The race was on and today, there are eight official members of the “nuclear club,” as France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea tested their weapons between 1960 and 2006. Unofficially, Israel may be a member as well. Many speculate that the tiny nation has had nuclear capability since 1979, although the government has never declared it to be true and no known weapons tests have ever been conducted. With the signing of the highly controversial agreement with Iran on 14 July, 2015, many believe that country will soon make its way to the list as well.

And Another Nuclear Race

Although the agreement signed by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States plus Germany) is being touted as the only way to curb Iran’s progress as a nuclear state, it has created a firestorm of debate, with many believing the deal will have just the opposite effect. Among its loudest detractors are the Arab states in the region who are alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite Iran with nuclear weapons. Because Iran will retain the right to enrich uranium, Sunni Arab states fear the worst. These Gulf leaders are concerned that, rather than limiting the threat, it will allow Iran to grow into a dangerously destabilizing influence, sparking an arms race that will consume the entire Middle East.

One such Arab leader commented in May, “We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research.” Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal spoke out as well: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Arab Leaders Looking for Partners

Unfortunately, these same leaders who in the past have formed strategic alliances with the US are feeling abandoned, as Washington has seemed to put achieving a deal with Iran ahead of other long-standing relationships in the region. For most of them, this new Iranian threat has forced them to seek foreign assistance to create their own nuclear programs and the US is no longer the address. They are looking elsewhere, and they are finding partners who are more than willing to share.

During the period of Iranian sanctions, Russia was the sole supplier of materials to Iran’s nuclear program. The two nations have now entered an agreement wherein Russia will help Tehran construct two new reactors in the short term as well as two more in the medium term. The agreement also provides for the construction of an entirely new nuclear power plant with four Russian designed pressurized water reactors.

Turkey will break ground in 2016 on a nuclear power plant financed by Russia that will feature four Russian reactors. The project became public less than two weeks after the framework for the Iranian agreement was announced.

The Egyptian government of President el-Sisi signed an agreement with Russia as well, with Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company to build and operate Egypt’s first commercial nuclear power plant. A month later, Russia signed a $10 billion agreement with Jordan to construct the country’s first nuclear power plant with two 1,000 mega-watt reactors. Russia will remain 49% stakeholder in the project.

Not to be outdone, China has entered the fray as well. On July 22, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced an agreement with Beijing for construction of two nuclear power plants on Iran’s southern coast. A Chinese official has further confirmed that Beijing is involved in at least six nuclear power projects in Pakistan.

Although these projects all involve civil nuclear technology, the rationale behind such regional efforts may well go beyond a commitment to clean and consistent energy. Each agreement provides political leverage to nuclear suppliers like Russia and China, while it brings those nations on the receiving end ever closer to weaponization.

A recent article entitled “Converting a Civilian Enrichment Plant into a Nuclear Weapons Material Facility” that appeared in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists explained it this way:

“There are two paths to a bomb: using either uranium or plutonium. For either path, obtaining the material is considered one of the greatest hurdles to overcome….

“Exactly the same machines that produce nuclear fuel can produce weapons material. That is why uranium enrichment technology is inherently dual-use. Any civilian enrichment facility can be used to produce nuclear weapons material…

“A nuclear bomb requires only small amounts of uranium—a ‘significant quantity’ of highly enriched uranium, according to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], is about 25 kilograms, or a little over 55 pounds. (Actual amounts may be smaller and depend on the bomb’s design.) A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor uses 27,000 kilograms [59,525 lb.] of low-enriched uranium in a year. This means that an enrichment plant sized to fuel one reactor has the capacity to produce about 20 bombs per year.”

Beyond Civil Technology 

In 1998, Pakistan became the first Middle East nation to perform nuclear weapons testing. Since then, they have continued to expand their programs, in providing power for the nation’s needs, and in creating nuclear weapons. They have conducted six nuclear tests over the years and are thought to possess 110 nuclear warheads. However, financing for their nuclear programming for the past three decades has come primarily in the form of billions of dollars of subsidies from Saudi Arabia.

Some experts consider the Pakistani program to actually be Saudi Arabia’s own nuclear program via proxy and have long believed that if the Saudis wanted, they would call in a commitment for Pakistan to supply them with warheads. Now, in light of the perceived threat from Shiite Iran, that time has come and Sunni Saudi Arabia is calling in favors. They have taken the strategic decision to acquire “off the shelf” weapons from Pakistan, reports a senior American official, and may have already received delivery.

This development, it is feared, may cause Egypt and Turkey to bypass their own weapons development and seek procurement of nuclear weapons from other sources, whether from rogue nations like North Korea or from terrorist organizations. Add to that Iranian President Rouhani’s recent remarks that, “We [Iran] will buy, sell and develop any weapons we need and we will not ask for permission or abide by any resolution.” The scope and danger of such an arms race is hard to imagine.

In August of this year, the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the incomprehensible price paid in human death and suffering. Sadly, many among us have not learned the lessons of history. Such weapons in the hands of radical Islamist regimes, and their neighbors who have a finger on the button in self defense, create a powder keg that, if ignited, will devastate the entire globe. The race is on…let’s pray that God Himself brings it to the finish line before it is too late.

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