VIENNA, Austria – The head of the U.N. nuclear agency warned Monday that as many as 30 countries could soon have technology that would let them produce atomic weapons “in a very short time,” joining the nine states known or suspected to have such arms.
Speaking at a conference on tightening controls against nuclear proliferation, Mohamed ElBaradei said more nations are “hedging their bets” by developing technology that is at the core of peaceful nuclear energy programs but could quickly be switched to making weapons.
ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called them “virtual new weapons states.”
The warning came amid heightened fears that North Korea’s nuclear test explosion and Iran’s defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment could spark a new arms race, particularly among Asian and Middle Eastern states that feel threatened.
ElBaradei did not single out any country in his warning, but was clearly alluding to Iran and other nations that are working to develop uranium enrichment capability, such as Brazil.
Other nations, including Australia, Argentina and South Africa, have recently announced that they are considering developing enrichment programs to be able to sell fuel to states that want to generate electricity with nuclear reactors.
Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania are among nations that either have the means to produce weapons-grade uranium if they chose, could quickly build such technology, or could use plutonium waste for weaponization. All are committed non-nuclear-weapons states, and no one has suggested they want to use their programs for arms.
Japan also says it has no plans to develop atomic weapons, but it could make them at short notice by processing tons of plutonium left over from running its nuclear reactors. South Korea also has spent reactor fuel and was found a few years ago to have conducted small-scale secret experiments on making highly enriched uranium that would be usable in warheads.
Other countries considering developing nuclear programs in the near future are Egypt, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Namibia, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen, U.N. officials say.
There are five formally declared nuclear weapons states – the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain – and four others are known or thought to have such arms – India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea.
Much of ElBaradei’s comments were directed at the potential for misuse of uranium enrichment, which can generate both low-enriched, reactor-grade uranium and highly enriched material for nuclear bombs.