Professor Researches Regional Nuclear Ambitions
08 March 2011
Born and raised in West Germany during an era marked by the perpetual risk of nuclear war, Professor Kai-Henrik Barth still spends his days researching the nuclear technology that defined his youth. When this Georgetown University School of Foreign Service professor was offered the opportunity to teach classes at the Qatar campus, Barth decided to take a closer look into the region’s nuclear ambitions.
Through a Georgetown Faculty Research Grant, Barth is looking at nuclear energy developments in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to determine the likelihood of which countries could develop nuclear weapons capabilities by 2030.
“We see that since 2006, there are least 13 countries in the MENA region that have suddenly declared that they have an interest in nuclear power,” observed Barth. His focus lies in identifying the drivers behind countries developing this interest and their potential to follow through on such nuclear ambitions.
In his research, Barth is examining five models that are prevalent in the literature on nuclear forecasting and the different parameters they use to predict nuclear proliferation. He then compares the results produced by each model, and focuses on models that have yielded more accurate results.
In addition, Barth’s research project aims to find out to what extent countries’ nuclear ambitions are driven by security concerns versus economic concerns.
“If you look at Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, there is very little nuclear infrastructure. But there are plans to build up a significant nuclear infrastructure, and this could very well be driven by Iranian nuclear developments.”
While Barth, who is also a high-energy physicist by training, says he recognizes the uncertainties involved with nuclear forecasting, he believes his experience with nuclear weapons histories will give him a window into what scenarios are possible with regards to nuclear power and weapons developments in the GCC and MENA regions by 2030.
“I have a good understanding about how nuclear weapons move from ideas to implementation to deployment, and I know what it takes to build up the facilities that make nuclear weapons components.”
The goal of his research is to evaluate the strengths and limitations of arguments for and against nuclear power in the Middle East and to ensure that if countries do decide to go nuclear, that they have safeguards in place, and that they are not driven by military purposes.
While Barth acknowledges that nuclear technology could be used for peaceful purposes, he reserves the right to remain a skeptic because of the “massive security consequences” involved.
Having grown up in Suhlendorf, a village close to the border of former East Germany during the Cold War, Barth is all too familiar with the hazards of nuclear technology.
“I grew up in a time where the Soviets had stationed nuclear missiles in East Germany and the Americans had stationed nuclear missiles in West Germany,” recalled Barth. “For us it was not a theoretical discussion whether this Cold War would get hot.”
Despite the existence of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose job it is to monitor nuclear technology developments, Barth believes they are insufficient in guaranteeing proliferation-resistant power plants. “The closeness between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is very difficult to control.”
In addition, he explains that there’s a fundamental tension embedded within the IAEA. “The IAEA is a schizophrenic organization. It’s a regulatory agency and an advocacy group. They have officials working to ensure nuclear power thrives while they are making sure it is not being used for nuclear weapons development.”
Having experienced the effects of the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine, Barth is also concerned with the potential safety and health hazards posed by nuclear energy. “I lived in Germany during Chernobyl and every morning we had new reports about which salad you couldn’t eat, which carrots to stay away from. This hit home.”
Barth emphasizes that he does not believe in double standards when it comes to nuclear technology and that no country should possess nuclear weapons. “I would never argue that the countries in the Middle East should not have something other countries should have,” he explains. “I only argue that if you want to get rid of nuclear weapons, you have to prevent new nuclear states and roll back existing programs.”
Ever optimistic, Barth believes that a nuclear free world is possible. “When I grew up I could never imagine the end of the Soviet Union. While limited imagination has blocked us in many, many ways before, I quite frankly don’t find it incomprehensible to imagine a world without nuclear weapons.”