Strategic Space

Forecast 2016: Nuclear Issues That Will Dominate the Year

18 Jan, 2016    ·   4962

Dr Manpreet Sethi takes stock of key nuclear issues in 2016

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS
Ever since the power and potential of nuclear energy first entered human consciousness and inter-state relations, nuclear issues have always remained at the centre stage. Expansion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and risks of nuclear weapons and their proliferation are twin dimensions that engage national and international strategists year after year. None of this is likely to change in 2016. In fact, one can safely predict some of the issues that will certainly hit headlines in the coming  12 months.

North Korea and its periodic demonstration of nuclear machismo was the first to grab eyeballs in 2016 when Pyongyang rather cockily claimed the detonation of a ‘miniaturised hydrogen bomb’ on 06 January, 2016. Conducting its fourth nuclear test over the last decade, the DPRK has been steadily ‘improving’ its nuclear deterrent capability, including via regular testing of its delivery systems.

Every nuclear act of North Korea brings immediate attention to China, its protector. Many strategic analysts have urged Beijing to rein in its 'dear friend', and despite all Chinese voices of condemnation and exasperation, the reality is that North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship serves to keep China's rivals such as Japan, South Korea and the US unnerved even as its own stature as an important, influential international actor rises. The danger, however, is that a proxy that it has long built and sustained might already be beyond its control, much like what has happened in Pakistan and its relationship with terrorist organisations.  Sale of nuclear technology, material or even a ready made weapon to terrorist organisations by a cash-strapped DPRK is not unthinkable , and is indeed a matter of international concern.

The most recent North Korean action sought to draw attention to itself, perhaps in the hope that if 2015 was the year of the nuclear deal with Iran, 2016 will bring some bargaining benefits for Pyongyang. Washington will be working overtime to crack this issue. But the US election process will not allow any serious action on the matter. Kim Jong-un may have to continue to make nuclear noises this year for it to be heard by the new US president soon after he/she takes office.

While lack of transparency hampers a clear assessment of North Korea's exact nuclear weapons capability, the fact that South Korea and Japan, and the US by extension, are concerned is evident. Their focus immediately shifts to protecting themselves through deployment of ballistic missile defences. Tokyo has also debated a reconsideration of its ‘no nuclear’ policy even as Seoul has hinted that the US should bring back tactical nuclear weapons to buttress deterrence. Whether or not such measures enhance national defence, they do add new value to nuclear weapons and take away from the possibility of their elimination. In fact, if anything, the current trends in all nuclear armed states indicate an increase in reliance on these weapons in their security strategies.

The latest development in this context is the news that the US has tested small, smart nuclear weapons to address a new class of threats. Previously, micro-nukes were considered during former US President George Bush's tenure, but the idea was abandoned for the adverse impact it could have on international security. Indeed, no nuclear weapon, however micro in yield, could avert a disaster with huge repercussions in space and time.

However, on 11 January 2016, the New York Times reported the test of the "nation's first precision guided atom bomb" by the US Energy Department and Pentagon. Russia and China are bound to move in the same direction. 2016 may then well prove to be the year to herald a cascade towards the so called low yield nuclear weapons with 'low' collateral damage. But this could also increase temptation for their use, thereby blurring the lines between conventional and nuclear, and adversely impacting the taboo against nuclear use.

The implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran will be another issue that will dominate 2016. The conclusion of the agreement has initiated a long journey that will be closely monitored in many capitals. Iran-Saudi tensions that broke out early in the year will pose a challenge to the smooth implementation process, since there will be a tendency to politicise everything in Tehran and in Washington. As it is, critics of the agreement abound, and it will be a struggle to stay the course. Nuclear concerns around Iran, and by extension, around the West Asian region, are unlikely to fade in 2016 despite a ground breaking deal in 2015.

Nuclear security will be the flavor of the Spring season this year given the scheduled Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Over the last six years, these meetings of over 50 heads of governments and over 100 organisations have travelled across two nations before returning to the US capital for the last of such Summits. The initiative was kick-started by incumbent US President Barack Obama, whose 2010 Nuclear Posture Review had identified nuclear terrorism as the most potent threat to the US. He also realised that this was not a problem that he could tackle just by securing national borders. Weak links had to be removed worldwide, by getting every nation possessing nuclear and radiological material to do the needful on its own territory.

Since the first Summit, there has been a tremendous increase in the awareness of nuclear security concerns. Enactment of national legislations that criminalise unauthorised possession of such materials and memberships of international conventions that provide best practices on nuclear security has evidently grown. At every Summit, country heads have presented national or regional gift baskets comprising actions taken to secure nuclear materials. The April 2016 Summit, one hopes, will not mark the end of focus and attention to a matter that must remain a topmost national and international priority in order to minimise chances of nuclear terrorism.

It is likely that participants will put their weight behind the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry this process forward. However it remains to be seen as to how much human and material resources will be additionally proffered to the IAEA to be able to fulfill a new task.

Nuclear energy programmes that had suffered from a public perception issue in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima in 2011 are likely to gain lost ground in 2016.

Over the past five years, nuclear establishments across the globe have proactively engaged with the public to address concerns, reinforce safety and security at nuclear reactors, and invest in research and development to devise new designs and technologies to make risk free nuclear energy a viable option. Meanwhile, growing concerns about the adverse environmental impact of fossil fuels on climate change has also drawn attention to nuclear energy as a sustainable source of base-load electricity. While huge energy deficient countries such as India and China never gave up the nuclear option despite Fukushima, and are today witnessing the largest amount of nuclear construction, others that had suspended their programmes for a while seem to be returning to the option. Vietnam, the UAE, and Bangladesh are likely to be some of the new nuclear kids on the block whose programmes will see greater activity in this year.

From the Indian perspective,  2016 will be an important year for at least two reasons – the first relates to the implementation of the many peaceful nuclear energy agreements that the country has signed with a number of countries after its exceptionalisation in 2008. Australia, Japan and Canada are three of the newer nations that have agreed to support India’s nuclear energy ambitions and some of the pending wrinkles might get sorted out during this year. On the indigenous front, it is expected that the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor would go critical later this year. Long delayed, the operationalisation of this reactor at Kalpakkam will mark a step into the second phase of India’s three stage nuclear programme.

Secondly, India’s full accommodation into the nuclear non-proliferation regime with its membership into the four export control groups is also likely to dominate the work and discourse of Indian nuclear diplomacy. High level inter-state politics prevented the Missile Technology Control Regime from granting India membership to the body that controls transfer of missiles and related technologies in 2015.

Since all the groupings work on the principle of consensus, the process will not be easy. And despite India fulfilling basic criteria for membership of the groups, it will be the political lay of the land that will determine whether the task is completed this year. However, India will have to maintain a high octane nuclear diplomacy to continue to make its case and undercut any attempts to hyphenate it with a similar deal for Pakistan.

Alongside its efforts towards building a credible nuclear deterrent, while regular testing of missiles shall continue to achieve operational readiness for Agni V and the conduct of user trials for other missiles, the major development that can be expected in 2016 is the formal induction of INS Arihant into the Indian Navy after a series of successful sea trials through 2015. Though this first nuclear submarine does not provide an operational sea-based deterrent for India yet, it nevertheless marks a huge step in technology demonstration that the country should well be proud of.

In a nutshell, 2016 promises to be another busy year for nuclear watchers. Happy new year!!