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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

Environmental Security and the Consequences of WMD Production: An Emerging International Issue

By A.H. Joffe


This paper contends that the issue of the environmental consequences of producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) constitutes a significant lacuna in existing non-proliferation regimes and security thinking. Remedying this omission will have important practical and symbolic significance.

In many sectors of the international community there is growing realisation that 'security' can no longer be defined in primarily military or economic terms which focus on the geopolitical entities of nation states, imperial structures, and ideological divisions. Environmental degradation is a global phenomenon that affects the health of human populations, local and regional economies, and the stability of nations. Transborder pollution, resource depletion leading to ethnic or national conflict, and often migration, reductions in health and life expectancy, and economic dependence on polluting, inefficient extractive or manufacturing industries, are among the problems being confronted by societies around the world. Environmental security is simultaneously a security and human rights issue.1

Important subsets of environmental security are the consequences of WMD production, and military industries generally. The local and international impact of these industries is particularly great, aside from the real or potential impact of their finished products. Obvious examples are the radionuclides and chemicals involved in WMD, but beyond these lie a vast range of precursor chemicals, as well as solvents, reactants, and other byproducts, solid millings and tailings, gaseous emissions, and prosaic wastes such as used filters, gloves, and photographic developing solutions. Other military industries involved in production of conventional weapons produce an equally wide variety of wastes, as do 'formerly used defence sites' (FUDS) which may be only marginally less toxic and persistent than WMD production.

Non-proliferation regimes have focussed almost exclusively on restricting or reducing the products, that is, the weapons themselves, without taking into account the consequences of production. Programmatic discussions of the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty have similar emphases.2 This reticence reflects the conventional structure of institutionalised negotiations between state actors which regard the balance of power within the international system as the overriding issue. Introducing environmental issues into non-proliferation thinking has apparently been regarded as a distraction from core concerns. Another explanation is that except for recent disarmament initiatives such as START process, where specific technical guidelines are agreed upon, environmental consequences of WMD production have been addressed by portions of the national security state partitioned from those negotiating arms control treaties.3

The experience of first- and second-generation proliferants, however, has shown that this compartmentalised perspective is shortsighted. States around the world are being confronted with the need to clean up the consequences of WMD production. Regardless of whether weapons were or are ultimately produced, the environmental consequences persist and worsen for a wide spectrum of countries, ranging from the major WMD powers, through threshold, undeclared, self-declared and thwarted WMD states, to states which have voluntarily renounced WMD production, and even to those states which considered but rejected a WMD option.4

The Scale of the Problem: Examples and Responses

Several recent and on-going cases demonstrate the problems faced when major powers address the consequences of WMD production. Between 1940 and 1996, the United States spent some five and a half trillion dollars on nuclear weapons production, deployment, and waste management.5 European states are still confronted with toxic wastes from World War I and II chemical and biological weapons production, testing, use, and disposal, problems compounded in the east by the Soviet military legacy. Japan is still involved in cleaning up waste from its World War II WMD program in China. The Japanese government estimates that 700,000 munitions remain in China and $25 million dollars was budgeted for cleanup in FY 2000. Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) is the unfortunate home to an astonishing range of weapons and wastes, spread across two continents, with virtually no funds to pay for clean-up.6 The scale of environmental problems in Israel, India, Pakistan and China is also alarming and, in the case of the last three, has likely been increased as a consequence of weapons testing.7

It is important to enlist the grim reality of these problems in aid of a broader political point: the prodigious waste of financial and other resources involved. The appalling environmental experiences of all countries with WMD production should be emphasized as major disincentives for regimes considering clandestine or overt WMD programs. The economic, health, and ecological costs are simply too great.8

The example of Iraq is instructive in another regard, as it is a threshold state whose attempts to acquire WMD have, since the 1990-91 Gulf War, been addressed extensively by the international community using a 'forced disarmament' paradigm on a regime widely acknowledged as immune to conventional non-proliferation thinking.9 It is also a state that has shown utter disregard for the environmental consequences of its numerous WMD programs. The outlines of Iraq's nuclear programs have been discussed by a number of authors. At least 10 major sites were involved.10 The fact that Iraq tried to disguise a number of nuclear facilities as non-weapon related, to the point of constructing false concrete walls to cover equipment, suggests that the culture of concealment of nuclear manufacturing and waste is pervasive. The fuel, for example, from the Soviet IRT reactor at the Al Tuwaitha nuclear research centre was recovered from a fuel pond, and from an emergency storage site called 'location B', which "consisted of pits in a farmland area a few miles from the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre. The irradiated fuel at location B was stored under normally unacceptable conditions and presented severe preparation problems for safe transport. Radiation levels were unusual and because of the lack of water treatment and suitable containers, corrosion problems could not be avoided". The over 400 tons of materials, including yellowcake, had been "moved to secret locations or buried in desert areas," before being located, collected, and sealed by the IAEA.11 These various locations are not publicly identified, and whether they were located with a global positioning system (GPS) and clearly marked is unknown.

Iraqi chemical weapons (CW) production is a far more voluminous industry, extending across a wide area. The primary CW site, the Muthanna State Establishment, 120 kilometers NW of Baghdad, covers over 25 square kilometers. Iraq claims to have produced over 200,000 filled and unfilled special munitions, of which some 127,000 remained in 1991. The United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) undertook a far-reaching programme to account for these, and destroyed some 40,000 munitions. Almost 4,000 tons of bulk CW was declared by Iraq, which claimed further that 80% had been consumed during the Iran-Iraq war. UNSCOM destroyed 411 tons of CW at a facility constructed at the Muthanna State Establishment, along with 3,000 tons of precursor chemicals and large quantities of production equipment. Significant quantities of munitions, bulk CW, and precursor chemicals, however, remain unaccounted for. Iraq claims to have unilaterally destroyed or 'discarded' large quantities of materials, including almost 30,000 munitions, 130 tons of non-weaponised CW, and 242 tons of precursors. In addition, 1.5 tons of VX was discarded unilaterally by dumping on the ground. While the destruction activities undertaken by UNSCOM followed international health and safety norms, there is no reason to think the same of Iraqi practices. Similar concerns extend to Iraq's still poorly understood biological weapons program, which it denied the existence of until July 1995. This program was dispersed among dozens of primary and dual-use facilities. Iraq's claims to have unilaterally disposed of these weapons remains highly suspect.12

The population of Iraq may well be suffering already from the environmental consequences of WMD and military industrial production. These, together with the partial destruction and reported intentional releases of chemical and biological weapons during the Gulf War, and Allied use of depleted-uranium (DU) munitions, are among the prime suspects for 'Gulf War Syndrome' among Coalition forces, and parallel illnesses in Iraqi populations. Little epidemiological work on WMD-related problems has been done in Iraq, or is likely to be done while the current regime is in power. Certainly, sectors of the population, primarily Kurds, have already suffered from the weapons themselves. Any successor regime in Iraq will be confronted with an especially toxic legacy, and study of the materials ecology, geography, toxicity, and if possible, epidemiology of WMD production should begin now.13

NATO military actions in the former Yugoslavia have also raised deep concerns, relating both to the fear of contamination from bombed and damaged nuclear facilities, and to the extensive and increasingly controversial use of DU munitions.14


Just as the concept of international security is now being expanded to environmental security, non-proliferation and arms control must be redefined to address the consequences of production. The economic consequences of proliferation are tremendous, both through enormous direct expenditures and sanctions imposed on proliferating regimes, and the environmental consequences multiply these in innumerable ways. The international community is severely jeopardised by the environmental impact of WMD production, as are the self-interests of proliferating states. Supported by continued meaningful reductions in its own WMD levels and clean up of facilities, the international community could reasonably insist on an environmental component to multilateral non-proliferation negotiations. Western economic and technical support for environmental clean-up of WMD facilities and wastes would constitute strong incentives for accession to non-proliferation regimes. The model might be usefully extended to formerly used military sites and conventional military industries as part of arms reduction agreements. Reducing use of secondary WMD products such as depleted uranium in offensive weapons might be something the West could exchange for greater controls over emerging WMD industries.

Environmental consequences might be integrated into non-proliferation and arms reduction negotiations through annexes to international treaties such as the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or into revisions of bilateral agreements, such as the 1992 India-Pakistan Agreement on Chemical Weapons. Future START talks should make environmental concerns central, which would provide additional inspiration for developing states to take environmental consequences issues seriously as a non-proliferation issue. Environmental issues might even be raised in secret bilateral discussions on fissile material control, of the sort which were so successful with several former Soviet republics. As with all arms control and disarmament agreements, strong Western leadership and a commitment to provide resources and expertise will be critical.15 Overall, viewing WMD and other military industries within a larger industrial ecological framework, which encompasses the materials balance and lifecycle from raw materials to production, distribution, and consumption or disposal is a vital next step for the non-proliferation agenda. The likelihood and desirability of the eventual coalescence of international law on non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament, and environmental protection should be recognized and accelerated.

Notes and References

1. See Florini, A. M. and P. J. Simmons (1998), "The New Security Thinking: A Review of the North American Literature." New York: Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Del Rosso, S. J. (1995), "The Insecure State: Reflections on 'the State' and 'Security' in a Changing World," Daedalus 124(2): 175-207; Vandeveer, S. and G. D. Dalbelko (1999), "Redefining Security Around the Baltic: Environmental Issues in Regional Context," Global Governance 5(2): 221-250.

2. Moher, M. (1999), "Viewpoint: The Nuclear Disarmament Agenda and the Future of the NPT," The Nonproliferation Review 6(4): 65-69; Wulf, N. A. (2000), "Observations From the 2000 NPT Review Conference," Arms Control Today 30(9): 3-9. See also the essays in Barletta, M., Ed. (2000), "Proliferation Challenges and Nonproliferation Opportunities for New Administrations," Monterey: Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

3. In the US, the cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities by the Energy Department, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, administered by the Defense Department, are examples of the partitioning of WMD initatives with direct environmental goals. See Guruswamy, L. and J. B. Aamodt (1999), "Nuclear Arms Control: The Environmental Dimension," Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy 10: 267-318.

4. For the case of a state in the latter category, see Walsh, J. (1997), "Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia's Nuclear Ambitions," The Nonproliferation Review 5(1): 1-20.

5. Schwartz, S. I., Ed. (1998), "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940," Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. Table 1. For further analysis of the scale of the problem in the United States, see US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1991), "Complex Cleanup: The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production," OTA-O-484, Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

6. For the situation in Europe, see Stock, T. and K. Lohs, Eds. (1997), "The Challenge of Old Chemical Munitions and Toxic Armament Wastes," New York: Oxford University Press, and Herndon, R. C., et al., Eds. (1995), "Clean-up of Former Soviet Military Installations: Identification and Selection of Environmental Technologies for Use in Central and Eastern Europe," Berlin, Springer. For a recent statement from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Japanese CW in China, see http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/1999/12/1224.html. The literature on the FSU is extremely large. For introductions see Donnay, A., M. Cherniak, et al. (1995), "Russia and the Territories of the Former Soviet Union," In "Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects,".A. Makhijani, H. Hu and K. Yih, Eds., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 285-392; Dalton, R. J., P. Garb, et al., Eds. (1999), "Critical Masses: Citizens, Nuclear Weapon Production, and Environmental Destruction in the United States and Russia," Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; and Hart, J. and C. D. Miller, Eds. (1998), "Chemical Weapons Destruction in Russia: Political, Legal and Technical Aspects," Oxford: OUP.

7. For China, see Brooks, A. and H. Hu (1995), "China," in "Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects," A. Makhijani, H. Hu and K. Yih, Eds., Cambridge. MA: MIT Press, pp. 487-520. For environmental problems associated with Israel's unsafeguarded nuclear facilities, see Datan, M. (2000), "Israel Debates Nuclear Weapons," Disarmament Diplomacy 43: 6-10.

8. Morrow, D. and M. Carriere (1999), "The Economic Impacts of the 1998 Sanctions on India and Pakistan," The Nonproliferation Review 6(4): 1-16; Schwartz, S. I., Ed. (1998), "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940," Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute. See also Joffe, A.H., (forth.), "Want Not, Waste Not: The Environmental Impact of Two Generations of Nuclear Proliferation and the Implications for Asia. A Review Article."

9. See Duelfer, C. (2000), "How Baghdad Divided the Conquerers," Los Angeles Times, Sunday June 11, 2000.

10. UNSCOM (1997), "Major Sites Associated with Iraq's Past WMD Programs". Available at


11. IAEA Inspections and Iraq's Nuclear Capabilities, April 1992. Available at http://www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/iaea/iraqindex.html.

12. See UNSCOM Report to the Security Council, January 25, 1999, Annex B, "Status of the Verification of Iraq's Chemical Weapons Programme," paragraphs 8-16. See also the overview in Manley, R. G. (1997), "UNSCOM's Experience with Chemical Warfare Agents and Munitions in Iraq," in "The Challenge of Old Chemical Munitions and Toxic Armament Wastes," T. Stock and K. Lohs, Eds., New York: OUP, pp.241-254. For Iraq's biological weapons, see UNSCOM Report to the Security Council, October 6, 1998, paragraphs 30-36; and Leitenberg, M. (2000), "Deadly Unknowns about Iraq's Biological Weapons Program," Washington, D.C.: Institute for Science and International Security. See generally Pearson, G.S. (1999), "The UNSCOM Saga, Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation." New York: St. Martin's; and Trevan, T. (1999), "Saddam's Secrets - The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons," London: HarperCollins.

13. The intentional release and destruction of chem-bio weapons is discussed by Tucker, J. B. (1997), "Evidence Iraq Used Chemical Weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War," The Nonproliferation Review 4(3): 114-122; Haselkorn, A. (1999), "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons, and Deterrence," New Haven: Yale University Press; and Hamza, K. and J. Stein (2000), "Saddam's Bombmaker, The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda," New York: Scribner, pp. 262-263. For a discussion of public health in Iraq see Baram, A. (2000), "The Effect of Iraqi Sanctions: Statistical Pitfalls and Responsibility," The Middle East Journal 54(2): 194-223. See also Joffe, A.H. (2000), "The Environmental Legacy of Saddam Husayn: The Archaeology of Totalitarianism in Modern Iraq," Crime, Law and Social Change 33(4):313-328.

14. See Koch, A. (1997), "Yugoslavia's Nuclear Legacy: Should We Worry?" The Nonproliferation Review 4(3): 123-128. For a discussion of depleted uranium see Fetter, S. and F. Von Hippel (1999), "The Hazard Posed by Depleted Uranium Munitions," Science & Global Security 8(2): 125-161.

15. For these and other agreements see Rauf, T. et al. (2000), "Inventory of International Proliferation Organizations and Regimes," Monterey: Center for Nonproliferation Studies. For a complementary discussion of international law and the environment during wartime see Westing, A. H. (1997), "Environmental Protection from Wartime Damage: The Role of International Law," In Conflict and the Environment. N. P. Gleditsch et al., Eds., Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 535-553. The role of the United Nations as a vehicle for incorporating environmental security into disarmament negotiations should also be mentioned. The General Assembly's perennial resolution on "Observance of environmental norms in the drafting and implementation of agreements on disarmament and arms control" calls for environmental concerns to be taken into account in arms control agreements. The latest such resolution, A/RES/55/33K, November 20, 2000, was adopted by 154 votes to 0 with 4 abstentions - France, Israel, UK, US. As summarised by Jenni Rissanen and Rebecca Johnson in Disarmament Diplomacy 52 (November 2000), the United States "said that it remained uncertain of the resolution's purpose because it saw no connection between environmental norms and disarmament agreements."

Alexander H. Joffe, Ph.D., directs the West Asia Environmental Security Project in New Rochelle, New York.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.