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Guest Writer: On Hiroshima Day – Nuclear Proliferation in the Age Of ISIL

HBBy Hamish De Bretton Gordon.

W&Y version of an article first published at Al

Nearly 25 years ago, as a young tank commander in the British army, I had just been involved in the liberation of Kuwait, and, like many others, had expected and trained for Saddam Hussein to use weapons of mass destruction against us.

The year before I had sat in my tank in our defensive positions in northern Germany, alert to the Cold War which would have undoubtedly, had it come to conflict, led to the use of nuclear weapons.

But almost 25 years on from the Gulf War and 70 years on from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, no nuclear weapons have been used, and, so in essence the United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a great success.

The NPT is based around three pillars, which are non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to use peaceful nuclear technology.

But is this status quo likely to continue with the global struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), tensions in the Middle East, the “new Cold War” between Russia and the West, and the erratic nuclear posturing of the nearly failed North Korean state?

The NPT came into force in 1970 recognising five nuclear states – US, UK, Russia, China, and France – all permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5). It is generally accepted that four other states also possess a nuclear capability – Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel.

Several countries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria have, at some time, been accused of trying to develop nuclear programmes. Individual state actions – such as Israel against Syria – and NPT efforts have prevented these countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, the first nuclear bomb, “Little Boy”, was dropped on Hiroshima killing upwards of 70,000 people instantly.Hiro

The resultant explosion had a yield equivalent to around 15,000 tonnes of TNT (conventional explosives) and destroyed an estimated 12sq km of the city.

The nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the catalyst to end World War II and the beginning of the nuclear arms race, predominantly between the West and Russia.

What the Hiroshima bomb did prove, was that this is a weapon of such terrifying power that whoever possessed it would undoubtedly prevail against an enemy who didn’t.

With the West and Russia building a nuclear capability of “mutually assured destruction”, the NPT controlled the situation and managed some disarmament to a point where today a global nuclear war between the super powers seems highly unlikely, even given current difficult relations between Russia and the West.

However, the focus on nuclear proliferation does still have some worrying and asymmetric angles which must be addressed by the P5 and the NPT to ensure that, in 70 years’ time, we are still saying that Hiroshima was the first use of nuclear weapons and Nagasaki the last.

It is possible that some that of the 15,000 plus nuclear warheads, quoted by Eric Schlosser in his recent book Gods of Metal, may be poorly guarded and could fall into terrorist hands, but it is highly improbable.

Not least of all, because at the end of the Cold War international efforts were made to secure the most vulnerable storage locations, such as the removal of 600kg of weapons grade uranium under Project Sapphire from Kazakhstan to the US.

Having been involved in nuclear security in the UK, I am acutely aware of the challenges and hurdles required for a terror group to successfully smuggle a viable device to a suitable target location and then override the numerous safety features to detonate such a weapon.
kkk 150508215003-north-korea-submarine-missile-test-medium-plus-169The areas of concern for the NPT in future are, firstly, the development of North Korea’s nuclear capability and its “apparent” intercontinental ballistic missile programme, and secondly, highly enriched weaponised isotopes falling into terrorist hands through the black market.

I am relatively confident that the P5, and in particular the US, are keeping a very close eye on North Korea and would take offensive action if it appeared that this country was near to or about to launch some kind of a nuclear tipped missile. It would appear it is still some way from this.

My major concern is the possibility that weapons grade viable material is acquired by non-state actors, most likely by a group such as ISIL, and fashioned into an “improvised nuclear device” (IND).

About 15-20kg of weapons grade uranium with a simple initiation device could yield a blast equivalent to 2,000 tonnes of TNT, which would be enough to flatten several blocks and technically, is probably within the capabilities of ISIL’s scientists.

It is pretty clear that with ISIL’s “no boundaries” approach to terror, that if the armed group could develop such a device, they most certainly would use it – but it is also very clear that the security IAEA 1services of the P5 in particular, are very much on the lookout for any indications of INDs especially around ISIL.

The most difficult element for this type of weapon is acquiring the nuclear material. But as we’ve seen with the inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope polonium 210, this is not entirely implausible.

This polonium, however, was of microscopic proportions, and 20kg, in weaponised nuclear material terms, is extraordinarily massive.

We can take some comfort from the fact that the NPT has, for the most part, achieved the aims of its three pillars so far.

Nonetheless, with the warheads of the P5 safe, the NPT should be actively and openly focusing on ensuring the Iranian nuclear deal is completely adhered to, and should ensure the non-proliferation of weapons grade nuclear material, particularly to terrorist groups and most especially to ISIL.

With this new focus and the continuation of past endeavors, the success of the NPT should endure for years to come.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment


6 Comments on "Guest Writer: On Hiroshima Day – Nuclear Proliferation in the Age Of ISIL"

  1. Mahatmacoatmabag | 6th August 2015 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    Hamish de Bretton-Gordon it seems to have escaped your notice that Iraq did not possess nuclear weapons 25 years ago thanks to Israel bombing the Osirak reactor in June 1981 ending Saddams nuclear bomb making capacity on the spot, an action for which Israel was condemned by the Int’l community . So 9 years later on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Iraqi army you faced was a purely conventional one not a nuclear thanks to the foresight of Israels then PM Menachem Begin & the skill & bravery of the pilots of the IAF.

    Had Israel not taken this action, Kuwait would still be occupied by Iraq, 200,000 – 300,000 Allied & Arab troops would be permanently based in the Saudi desert facing off a nuclear armed Iraqi army & oil would be around $600 a barrel.

    In addition I would like to point out that the NPT has been proved to be a meaningless & unenforceable treaty since the rogue nation of Iran, a signatory to the NPT, is hard at work building a large stockpile of nuclear weapons & the long range missiles to deliver them with, a programme which has now been given the legitimacy & blessing of Irans new patron & protector Barak Hussein Obama

  2. To be fair to Hamish he does point out the Israeli strike on Syria, and he can hardly be expected mention every Israeli action in one article. Also, you may betray a prejudice in bothering to give the American President’s three names. If that is unfair, I apologize in advance.

  3. Mahatmacoatmabag | 6th August 2015 at 9:28 pm | Reply

    Tim, when Hamish wrote his piece he should have done his homework, the Osirak reactor strike is recognized by military historians as a significant precedent & turning point in the use of the right of self defense of nations using a first strike under the UN charter. Regarding Obama, I was being somewhat prejudice, in that I missed out his title of President of the USA

    • Hamish doesn’t need to do much homework – he wrote the book. The point stands, he doesn’t have to put everything Israel has done in an article about the NPT.

  4. Only two or three days later did he discover that the entire city was obliterated. Hirata explained that the residents of Hiroshima were unaware of the dangers of radiation, which is not detectable by sight or smell, and that even today there are unusual levels of cancer and other diseases.

  5. I have never really been sure of the success of the NPT, in that I am not certain that it is the treaty itself that has been the reason behind the non-use of weapons since Japan. Rather, it could also be a level of pragmatism.

    Hiroshima may have been the first aggressive use of a nuclear weapon, and let us not forget that a third was also planned, but the circumstances were unique.

    We have not been in those circumstances again – a near global war – and therefore, comparisons and lessons are hard to draw. The NPL has not stopped WW3, globalisation of business and society has probably done that.

    Nuclear weaponry in the guise of a bomb is a problem for both the victim and the perpetrator. The traditional reason for war is to gain territory and therefore control over something – normally trade and resources. However, if the chosen weapon destroys not just the enemy, but the territory itself, then what is the point?

    ISIL, or whoever, seem to wish to see the world become one huge, uber-conservative, Islamic state, of their own devising. It would not help them to use nuclear weapons locally as that would destroy their own territory and make it unusable, potentially for hundreds of years with some modern weapons.

    They may use it on their enemies further afield, like the US or UK, but that becomes far more problematic – they have to move the weapon here in the first place.

    Additionally, nuclear weapons are not cheap. Even if they have access to redundant weapons, are those usable? Or will they need investment in money expertise to make them live?

    With those restrictions, should a terrorist organisation use nuclear weapons, I am not sure it would be a nuclear bomb. More logically, it would be the release of radioactive material – the so-called Dirty Bomb. This does not have a large coverage unless it is big, and that means shifting a lot of your chosen nasty isotope. Again, a problem.

    We have to be wary of the potential for such an action, but before we stoop to being as paranoid as our governments often are, possible George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s real sin, we should also ask the question.

    If it is possible to do, why has it not been done before?

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