Happy Nuclear Year?

Can the world reconcile increasing demand for nuclear energy with its desire to prevent non-proliferation?

For those who keenly monitor nuclear developments worldwide, 2010 was a busy year. It started with yet another op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from the pens of the Four Horsemen (in this case, US elder statesmen George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn) exhorting the world towards nuclear disarmament.

In March, US President Barack Obama gathered the heads of governments of almost 50 nations to deliberate the threat from nuclear materials and the possibility of non-state actors gaining access to them. In April, the US Nuclear Posture Review was made public, and while it didn’t go as far as was expected based on earlier pronouncements by Obama, it did make a few token gestures on reducing the importance of nuclear weapons in US military strategy.

In May, the NPT Review Conference managed to come up with a consensual Final Document that included a section with recommendations for future peaceful nuclear energy use, non-proliferation and disarmament. In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on nations to work towards ridding the world of the nuclear threat and to bring about the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Finally, just a few weeks before the end of the year, the US Congress ratified the New START, a move welcomed by all.

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So what should we be watching out for in 2011? There’s plenty to keep nuclear watchers guessing. When will the Russian Duma actually ratify the START? Will the international community be able to register any meaningful moves on ridding the world of nuclear weapons? Will the CTBT be the next treaty to be ratified by the US Senate? Will the Conference on Disarmament be able to unblock negotiations on the long-pending Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty? Will the non-nuclear weapon states demand their pound of flesh on nuclear disarmament before accepting any further restrictions on their right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy? What kind of steps will the international community consensually agree to for countering the threat of nuclear terrorism?

As the answers to some of these questions are found over the next 12 months, we’ll get a better idea about how serious the nuclear weapon states are about at least beginning to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. Or were the steps taken last year only taken with the NPT Review Conference in mind?

With nuclear energy set to become an increasingly important source of power, steps this year take on even greater significance. But reconciling the growing demand for nuclear power with non-proliferation goals without any firm moves towards disarmament is an immense challenge. Asia as much as any continent has a need for some good ideas.