While 14 nations host nuclear weapons, 30 countries generate atomic energy, and another 18 are building future reactors.
World powers have met in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, to expedite a nuclear deal with Iran. The West hopes an agreement will assuage Israel’s concerns by compelling Iran to curb uranium enrichment in a transparent, verifiable way.
After his recent talks in Tehran, Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said on Tuesday that an agreement over nuclear inspections was expected “quite soon”.
Iran says its nuclear programme is for entirely peaceful purposes, but Western powers have levelled sanctions against Tehran, largely out of fear that the Islamic Republic seeks to join the elite club of nations with nuclear weapons.
“Why is the news hook not the states already with nuclear weapons?” asks Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, which advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Why just about the state that might get nuclear weapons? We should focus on countries that have huge arsenals and get rid of them.”
“The main issue is that 189 countries have agreed to pursue a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East,” says Granoff. “Israel doesn’t want it negotiated until it gets security assurances from its neighbours. But the lack of security is in the threat posed by its [own] unsafeguarded nuclear facilities.”
“Iran is a symptom of the failure to have a universal ban on nuclear weapons,” Granoff told Al Jazeera, suggesting that the international community is not approaching the problem correctly by emphasising Iran’s alleged nuclear aspirations.
“Imagine if the Biological Weapons Convention said that no country can have polio or smallpox as weapons, but we’re going to entrust nine countries with the plague! That’s incoherent and unsustainable because we all understand that the plague is not a legitimate weapon due to its indiscriminate and horrific effects.”
Granoff adds that “a mere one per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal could end civilisation”.
While security analysts have long debated the merits of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, there is little doubt that nuclear weapons are enormously powerful.
The disagreement has generally focused on the relative pros and cons of enhanced military deterrence and the possibility of warheads falling into the wrong hands.
“It’s not raining, so close the umbrella,” says Granoff. “The Cold War is over. Let’s get over it.”
While nuclear weapons offer a sense of protection at the cost of potential large-scale vaporisation of human life, nuclear energy promises electricity generation without many of the negative externalities caused by burning fossil fuels.
But, especially in the post-Fukushima era, environmentalists are increasingly opposed to the risk that societies assume in operating nuclear power plants.
According to Kai-Henrik Barth, a Georgetown University expert on nuclear security studies, nuclear energy is “not exactly cost-effective, though one would have to go into the specifics of individual countries to see how the equation pans out”.
Of the 30 countries that currently have nuclear energy, three are in the process of reversing their programmes. Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out their reactors, and Japan, in the aftermath of the triple disaster last year, has shut down all reactors to conduct a maintenance and safety check of its plants.
“The German decision was clearly response to Fukushima,” Barth told Al Jazeera. “Germans have a long history of concerns about nuclear radiation, dating back to the 1970s fights against reactors. In fact, the origin of the Green movement was a fight against nuclear power.”
“I’ve not been convinced this is the ultimate economic solution to energy problems,” Barth says.
He believes that the “million-dollar question” of economic advantage for countries aspiring to develop nuclear energy is only tangible once oil prices climb higher.
“But if oil prices go significantly below $100, then nuclear has a hard time because capital investment at the beginning of the cycle is so significant. A nuclear power plant costs $2-4bn.”
While it is important not to conflate civilian and military uses of nuclear technology, the two are inextricably linked in the scientific realm.
“Generally, the nuclear power option comes with training that is easily transferable to military applications, which may be part of the equation for some countries.”
Germany, like Japan, is covered by America’s Cold War nuclear umbrella. While Japan is said to be able to produce weapons if it needed to, Germany, along with fellow NATO nations Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Turkey, stores US warheads on its soil.
Although American strategic warheads are stationed within their borders and local troops know how to handle them, these countries cannot actually make sovereign decisions about use or deployment.
The British have in the past considered giving up their nuclear deterrent. Sceptics say the UK does not actually need its warheads for any defensive reasons.
“They cost an arm and a leg to maintain, and who believes the UK is a superpower at this point?” asks Barth.
Former Cold War enemies Russia and the US have by far the largest number of weapons and are the primary targets of denuclearisation drives. But the most prominent current debate dwells on nascent Iranian capabilities.
Iran has argued its developments are exclusively for civilian purposes and will allow the country to export a larger share of its petroleum resources.
“But I don’t think economic viability was the main driver behind this,” Barth told Al Jazeera. “You don’t build big enrichment facilities in Natanz and Qom for one single reactor [at Bushehr].”
“Nuclear technology offers options down the line – if they want the energy option paired with the strategic option. It’s quite clear that Iran is seeking to push the NPT envelope as far as possible to get to breakout capability.”
Barth rejects the notion that the push towards nuclear weapons makes Iran more secure, however, and says the strategic miscalculation is “marking Iran for attacks rather than for safety”.
He argues that any country would be all the wiser to invest more in green technology than the United States and Europe have.
“But there are people who believe that, to be a modern country, you need an airline and an Olympic team – and also a nuclear power plant.