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North Korea one of many proliferation worries, expert says

April 13, 2012 |  5:00 am

North Korea's failed rocket launch on Friday -- ostensibly an attempt to loft a satellite into orbit -- was seen by wary neighbors and the U.S. as a thinly veiled test of the reclusive nation's long-range missile-firing capabilities. The fear is that, given North Korea's status as a nuclear-armed state, a weaponized long-range missile capability would tip the balance of power in northeast Asia. And with another round of talks about to begin today over Iran's nuclear aspirations, the dangers of nuclear proliferation are back in the global spotlight.

Alarm bells have been sounding around the world in recent years as more states acquire the technology to produce nuclear energy and enrich uranium for arms production, and non-nuclear states and extremist groups seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

James Acton, a physicist heading the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the global patchwork of disturbing developments in nuclear proliferation as “dangers that are low probability but with high consequences.”

Here are some potential nuclear hot spots worrying scientists, diplomats and politicians seeking to avert a nuclear crisis:

 India-Pakistan -- Political instability, religious strife, active seismic zones and the subcontinent’s long-running dispute over the Kashmir region combine to present the most unsettling risk of nuclear disaster. India’s suspected “cold-start strategy,” the rapid deployment of overwhelming offensive force to deter a Pakistani attack, could escalate into an unimaginable -- but possible -- deployment of nuclear weapons. “The most likely use of a nuclear weapon over the next decade is India-Pakistan. I’m not saying it’s likely, but if one were to be used, it would be between these two countries with very volatile relations,” Acton said.

Iran -- The Tehran regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has persisted with what it describes as development of nuclear capabilities for domestic energy production and medical research. But fears that Iranian scientists are also at work to develop nuclear weapons has strained relations with its neighbors as well as with the United Nations, the United States and Europe. Diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and from Germany will meet with an Iranian delegation in Istanbul beginning Friday to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and the mixed signals sent about its ambitions. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denounced nuclear weapons as a sin against Islam, but a member of parliament last week boasted that Tehran already has the technology to build weapons. Acton said that even if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons it would be unlikely to use them against any of its perceived enemies, recognizing that to do so would provoke a “suicidal” counterattack.

China -- With one of the fastest-growing nuclear programs in the world, China’s regulatory procedures have come in for close scrutiny both inside and outside the country. Beijing’s unresolved conflict over Taiwan incites some concern about an eventuality in which China and the United States would engage in armed conflict, Acton said, but the probability is extremely unlikely as Beijing considers the island part of China and would want to recover it intact. Recent reports from Asian media suggest that Beijing has threatened to train its nuclear missiles on the breakaway province if the United States goes ahead with a planned $1.6-billion arms sale to the Taiwan government.

Japan -- Last year’s nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant damaged by an earthquake and tsunami highlighted the  dangers for civilian populations from even peaceful uses of nuclear energy. All but one of Japan’s 54 reactors remain shut down pending safety checks, but energy companies are pushing to reactivate some plants to avert expected electricity shortfalls this summer.  “Japan has reminded us that nuclear energy, like any energy generation, is not risk-free,” said Acton, praising the Japanese as well as the United States and Europe for their review and reform of nuclear policies.

Israel -- Recent criticism by German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass that Israel’s denunciation of Iranian nuclear developments are hypocritical, as Israel maintains its own arsenal, have raised fears of nuclear arms one day being used in the Middle East’s bitter religious and territorial disputes. “For the foreseeable future, any use of nuclear weapons by Israel is very unlikely,” Acton said. “Israel has nuclear weapons because it is worried about losing its conventional superiority, which is not likely any time soon.”

Terrorists -- Reports that Islamic extremists are on the hunt for nuclear weapons to escalate their holy war against the United States and the West have alarmed security policymakers, but nuclear watchdogs see little sign of that happening in the near future. “My line on the terrorist threat is that it’s exceedingly unlikely," Acton noted. "That said, any number of low-cost measures to prevent their acquisition are totally worth doing.”

North Korea -- More disturbing than the satellite launches seen as precursors to missile deployment, nuclear security experts fear Pyongyang could evolve into a producer and distributor of nuclear technology to other countries, Acton said. “We know North Korea sold a plutonium reactor to Syria. It might seek to sell centrifuge technology or enrichment technology," he said. "My biggest fear of North Korea is if it decides to proliferate.”


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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles