Q&A: Gareth Evans on Nuclear Arms

World leaders have descended on the United Nations in New York to spend the month reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The agenda is long: Iran, disarmament, and new nuclear plants. NEWSWEEK’s Andrew Bast talked to Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister and current co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, about what is becoming a “watershed year” in global nuclear politics.

North Korea has a weapons program. Iran seems to be developing one. Are negotiations and sanctions proving to be an impotent strategy?

They’re the only strategy we have. More, I don’t think we should abandon the hope of a negotiated solution to both. In the case of North Korea, the genie is partly out of the bottle, but only partly. We have a lot of pressure on them from the regional players in the Six-Party Talks. Ultimately, there’s the possibility of the North Koreans agreeing to denuclearize in return for security guarantees and economic support.

And Iran?

The name of the game is recognizing the reality that Iran is determined to retain their enrichment capability and maybe to have full, virtual breakout capability. But it’s by no means clear that they are determined to acquire weapons themselves. That’s a critical distinction. The international community shouldn’t be spooked by them getting very close to that critical dividing line, provided they don’t cross it. We’ve lived with this situation with many other countries around the world, frankly, and there’s still enough reason, from my own close involvement with this issue over many years, to believe that the Iranians have made a cost-benefit judgment that the costs of crossing that big red line far exceed any conceivable benefit that flow from it.

With Russia and the U.S. reaching a new START agreement to reduce their nuclear-weapons stockpiles, are we on a road to zero?

This is really a watershed year. There are several issues coming to a head: the START treaty, the U.S.’s Nuclear Posture Review, Obama’s nuclear summit, the NPT Review Conference, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty ratification, the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and then, of course, Iran and North Korea. If we have positive results on half or more of them, I think we will be on track. If we go backwards on more than half of them, I think it’s going to be very bad news indeed, and the air will come right out of the balloon that has been inflated with hopes and expectations since Obama’s ascendency.

The recent train bombings in Moscow and the failed car-bomb attempt in New York have worried many that it could have been worse. How significant is the threat of nuclear terrorism?

The probability is actually quite high of a dirty bomb, which is made of radionuclides of the kind that are in wide medical and industrial use being attached to conventional explosives. The damage would be nothing as gigantic as an actual nuclear explosion, but the psychological damage would be absolutely immense. Bedding down the literally thousands of sources of radioactive material around the world is a gigantic task.

What about nuclear terrorism, specifically?

Let’s be frank about it: in a country like Pakistan, there is the possibility of an inside job involving like-minded ideologues in high military positions. It’s a long shot, but you can’t exclude it.

About 50 countries have expressed a new interest in building nuclear-power plants. Can there be a safe nuclear renaissance?

It can, provided that accompanying the spread of civil power reactors we don’t have a spread of new uranium-enrichment facilities, so-called bomb-starter kits. Internationalization is the critical issue.

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