WASHINGTON - North Korea announces it has nuclear weapons and could make more, and analysts say South Korea, Japan and Taiwan could follow.
Iran is building a plant to enrich uranium, possibly for a bomb, and experts say Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria and even postwar Iraq, depending on its new government, could be next.
The world is teetering on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. Countries are seeking to get the deadliest of weapons as it becomes clear their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so, CIA Director George Tenet recently told Congress.
The "domino theory of the 21st century may well be nuclear," Tenet said.
A major way such a dangerous arms race has become possible is the ready availability of a source of weapons material - ordinary nuclear power reactors.
Insecure nations are taking the nuclear technology provided for peaceful civilian purposes by the United States and other countries and using it to make military bombs.
The spread of nuclear weapons in unstable regions has become big news.
Only last year, India and Pakistan, both armed with atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them, alarmed the world when they massed armies on their common border.
More recently, Iran and North Korea - spokes in what President Bush called the "axis of evil" - have kept the world wondering about their true intentions. Iran is using civilian nuclear energy technology that can be converted for nuclear weapons, and North Korea on Thursday said it already has weapons.
Now, in a world threatened by terror, the prospect of nuclear material from rogue regimes falling into terrorist hands has given new urgency to the problem.
Jon Wolfsthal, a former proliferation official at the Energy Department, cautions that just knowing how to operate a nuclear reactor doesn't mean you can build a bomb.
But having a base of knowledge and an infrastructure to
create electricity establishes a "dual use" technology.
With knowledge gained from building and operating a civilian
power reactor, you get closer to the technologies you need
for a weapon, says Wolfsthal, now at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace. And some countries, India in
particular, "have used a peaceful power program as a cover
to develop their nuclear weapons program."
Ace in the hole
Many of these developing nations are exploiting the message
sent indirectly from North Korea, Iran and even Iraq:
Build a nuclear weapon, and not even a superpower can tell
you what to do.
"A lot of countries in this climate in the world would want
you at least to wonder whether they had them," says William
Hartung, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at
the New School in New York, where he directs the Arms Trade
Two processing technologies are the key to getting bomb material. One is enriching uranium, a process normally used to concentrate uranium ore sufficiently to make nuclear reactor fuel. If you keep the process going, you can enrich the uranium enough to make a bomb.
That's what authorities fear will happen in Iran, which says it merely wants an enrichment program so it can produce its own low-enriched reactor fuel for electric power plants.
The other route is reprocessing - taking spent fuel rods from conventional reactors and, in an elaborate and expensive process, extracting the 1 percent of plutonium that is a byproduct of the fission process. Collect enough plutonium for a lump the size of a baseball, and you have the core of a Nagasaki-sized weapon.
Based on reprocessing a decade ago of spent fuel rods from a research reactor that also generated electricity, the North Koreans "probably have one or two plutonium-based devices today," the CIA's Tenet said in February. It was not certain these were the same weapons North Korea was referring to in its acknowledgment late last week. But the country also said it had started reprocessing its remaining spent fuel rods to extract their plutonium, and it is believed to be working on uranium enrichment as well - both with the potential to make new bombs.
By extracting plutonium through reprocessing, a nation with only a single, moderate-sized reactor could make 3 or 4 dozen bombs a year, says Richard Garwin, former chairman of the State Department's Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board. Garwin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has concerns about nations stockpiling plutonium.
Experts have few doubts that some non-nuclear nations could quickly arm themselves if they felt threatened. Japan has tons of plutonium from its spent reactor fuel and can already reprocess on a small scale. It is building a much larger reprocessing capability to create more reactor fuel, but politicians there have discussed whether it's time to start a nuclear weapons program. Other countries are assumed to be years away but would be likely to accelerate their programs if their neighbors got the bomb.
Much of the blame for the proliferation of nuclear knowledge can be laid at the feet of the United States and other Western countries.
Starting nearly 50 years ago, the United States encouraged the development of nonmilitary nuclear programs under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace project "for the benefit of all mankind."
But formerly classified documents from the Atomic Energy Commission, obtained by Greenpeace, show the U.S. government and the nuclear industry understood then that, if needed, weapons-grade material could be made available from commercial reactors. In interviews, authorities including several former government officials said the United States was overly enthusiastic in spreading nuclear technology.
U.S. was encouraging
Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, recently noted with irony that in 1974, the United States suggested that Iran build 10,000 megawatts of nuclear energy plants to cope with growing energy needs. That was before fundamentalists toppled the shah, before Iran held Americans hostage and relations turned hostile.
Iran now says it wants to produce 6,000 megawatts. But the Bush administration questions why an oil-rich Middle Eastern country would want to diversify its energy sources, and why it would want to build an expensive enrichment plant rather than buy nuclear fuel from Russia. The Russians are now completing Iran's first big reactor for electric power.
Can commercial nuclear power exist without inevitably spreading nuclear weapons?
The Nuclear Control Institute gathered prominent experts in April 2001 to ask that question. Their answers, both in debate and in papers that the institute later published in a book titled "Nuclear Power and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons," showed wide disagreement.
"The potential connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is real, and very trou bling," Robert Gallucci, a for mer U.S. am bassador for proliferation is sues, told the conference. Gallucci is now dean of George town University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Other speakers noted that countries could have secret nuclear weapons programs without a civilian nuclear power program.
The picture is not all gloomy.
In the last 15 years, more countries have given up nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs than have acquired them, says the Carnegie Endowment's Wolfsthal. "Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan gave up thousands of nuclear weapons. South Africa gave up six. Argentina and Brazil gave up programs. So you've had a positive trend."
Proponents say nuclear technology led to cleaner air in many countries. Nuclear power does not pollute like coal, and nuclear research has led to developments in medicine and food, notes Marvin Fertel, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group. "We use it from everything to making sure the runways at airports are the right thickness, to beer cans are filled to the right level."
But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompting fear of nuclear terrorism, and the recent revelations about North Korea and Iran changed the weapons outlook.
Unfortunately, Wolfsthal says, he now foresees not a reduction but "a spiral of escalation."
Genie is out
The bottom line is that, "There is no way to put this genie back in the bottle," says Charles Yulish, vice president of the United States Enrichment Corp., which supplies low- enriched uranium for commercial reactors.
Rogue nations will get hold of the material "one way or another."
So what to do about it?
All eyes are on three powers: The U.S. government, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council.
The IAEA has the right to inspect member states - those that agree under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to use peaceful nuclear technology to produce weapons. But the IAEA has no enforcement power, and North Korea announced it is leaving the treaty and is no longer covered by the IAEA. Neither, for that matter, are India, Pakistan and Israel, which never signed.
Iran did sign - but as long as it doesn't take the final steps to put highly enriched uranium in weapons, it can be within weeks of having a weapon and still be in compliance, says Henry Sokolski, a nonproliferation adviser in the Defense Department during the first Bush administration.
For the IAEA to get significantly more power, it would require changing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Roald Sagdeev, a Russian physicist who advised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, says that's unlikely.
When he raised the subject last October at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow, other attendees strongly objected, saying it could lead to a "chain reaction of conflict, erosion and mismanagement," says Sagdeev, now a professor at the University of Maryland.
That puts matters, then, in the hands of the United Nations. But just as the Security Council could not reach consensus on military force in Iraq, so far it has not agreed on applying pressure to North Korea.
As for the U.S. government, the Bush administration has laced diplomacy with not-so-subtle hints about its international policing powers.
The Bush administration is not publicly threatening Iran militarily, but the president said Thursday that "we're not going to be threatened" by North Korea.
Despite the tensions and uncertainties, Sokolski, now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, can envision a happy ending.
It starts, he says, with the United States pressuring China to stigmatize North Korea and cut off its cash, giving the money-starved, secluded North incentive to zip up its weapons plans.
It continues with a friendly government in Iraq, and with security guarantees to neighboring Iran - once Iraq's enemy - and others in the region. "And Iran not only goes democratic, it turns into the South Africa of the Middle East," embracing reforms and giving up its weapons ambitions.
Meantime the United States leans on Israel to stop its nuclear weapons production and recognizes Egypt for its restraint in not starting a bomb program in response to Israel's.
"And we get a U.N. resolution passed that says we can go after folks who go offshore with nuclear weapons activity and do a cleanup operation when it comes to people transiting and materials transiting and the like," Sokolski says. "No war. You'll notice, no war."
Is it realistic?
"Why not?" he says. "What's the point of being a world leader if you can't have happy endings?"
But if that doesn't work, says Garwin, the former arms control adviser, there's always the threat of force. He wants to put more teeth into the IAEA and decide what the consequences would be for nations that go back on their word not to make nuclear weapons.
They would include war by the Security Council or a coalition of many states.
"The way you solve the problem is to put your money and your brains where your mouth is. And you solve it in a multilateral way. And you make it unpleasant for people who want to get nuclear weapons."