The Globalization of Nuclear Weapons

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

What is it like to live in a world in which the materials and technology for making nuclear weapons are freely traded? We are in the midst of finding out. Earlier this year, investigators determined that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan sold some of the technologies he used to build Pakistan's nuclear bomb to several governments that had long sought atomic bombs, including Iran and Libya. Clearly, the threat of the "casual" use of nuclear weapons and of nuclear terrorism has been catapulted from the abstract to the alarmingly concrete.

As Senior News Editor Bill Sweet points out in his disturbing report, "Iran's Nuclear Program Reaches a Critical Juncture," it is apparent from Iran's prevarications in its dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation's nuclear watchdog group, that its theocratic leadership is determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Ironically, it will almost seem like good news if the IAEA concludes in its forthcoming report on Iran--due out this month--that the highly enriched uranium particles collected by international inspectors in Iran last year originated in shady deals with Pakistan.

The "new" bad news will be if the IAEA concludes that Iran enriched the uranium itself--contrary to Iran's own declarations--a finding that would require the IAEA to call for sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. That scenario probably would play out as follows: Iran withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; it takes its weapons-oriented enrichment program underground (literally and figuratively); it manufactures weapons-grade materials; it turns the materials into bombs. If that's not alarming enough, recall the "loose nukes" stories that surfaced after September 11. The gist was that, for the right price, an entire weapon might be obtainable on the black market.

Only intensive, imaginative diplomacy and a massive demonstration of collective will on the part of the worldwide community can avert this nuclear catastrophe in the making. Sadly, both are in short supply today.

NASA: Getting Out of the Space Transportation Business

Is space science in trouble? In the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's new vision for space exploration, NASA is coming under fire for scaling back its commitment to science. A New York Times article on 27 April fretted, "If a mission is not related to human exploration of the Moon or Mars, it's now a low priority."

But this is a good thing. After 30 years of ill-focused activity, NASA needs a new vision, one that recognizes that human exploration of the solar system is valuable in its own right.

In fact, this realignment of priorities should be carried to its logical conclusions. For example, non-exploration-related space science should be moved under the auspices of the U.S. National Science Foundation. Similarly, space-based earth sciences should go to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, basic biological microgravity research should go to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and so on.

Once the shock wears off, space scientists should see that this could be the best thing to happen since Sputnik. Released from pressures like those that delayed the Galileo mission to Jupiter for several years--when NASA insisted that the probe be designed to be launched from the space shuttle--scientists would be free to purchase satellites and launch services on their own schedules and from whomever they see fit, whether that be NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia, or private industry for that matter.

NASA would finally get out of the space transportation business. Sending a research satellite into space no longer requires marshalling the technological resources of a nation. NASA should be left to concentrate on exploration-based R and D. It is from this technological foundation that the great space science discoveries of the 21st century will spring.

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