Policy Paper

Atomic Bombast: Nuclear Weapon Decisionmaking in Sweden 1945-1972

in Program

Since the invention of the atomic bomb, the world has faced the threat that these weapons might spread to more and more states as the related technology and civilian nuclear power became globally available. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, however, only a handful of states beyond the initial five “declared” nuclear weapon states are known or suspected to have actually built a nuclear device. Yet, in addition to these blatant proliferators, there exists another category of potential “proliferators”– “virtual” nuclear weapon states. Countries that fall in this category have acquired the know-how, technology, and access to fissile materials necessary to develop nuclear weapons, but have chosen not to actually build an arsenal. Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan are often cited as examples. In the case of such “virtual” nuclear powers, one analyst argues, the critical question is “not whether” these states could build nuclear weapons but “how quickly.”

How concerned should we be about these “virtual” nuclear states? What factors might prompt a “virtual” nuclear power to develop an arsenal of assembled, usable, and deployed weapons? Conversely, what factors might work toward keeping states with “virtual” nuclear arsenals from acquiring a full-blown weapon capability?

In this study of Sweden’s “virtual” nuclear capability, Paul Cole demonstrates that decisions related to nuclear weapons are likely to involve a complex calculus of international, domestic, and cultural/historical factors and to entail multiple decisions. Before Sweden finally signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1972, Swedish leaders had embarked on a research program that provided the country with the know­ how required to produce sophisticated nuclear weaponry even without actual testing. To secure weapons-grade fissile material, Sweden began a program to produce plutonium indigenously by burning domestically mined uranium in heavy water power reactors. It also purchased uranium reactor fuel and small quantities of weapons-grade plutonium from outside sources. Military planners worked seriously on defining the role nuclear weapons could play in Swedish defense policy. By the late 1950s, everything was in place for Sweden to become a nuclear weapon state.

Yet, as Cole points out, Sweden faced many constraints, both domestic and international, on the development of a nuclear arsenal. First, there were compelling strategic reasons to refrain from weapons production and deployment. Sweden was warned by the Soviets that there was no such thing as a “neutral” nuclear deterrent. Swedish leaders consequently reasoned that an independent nuclear capability would make Sweden a more likely target for attack in the case of an East-West nuclear exchange. Nuclear weapons, therefore, would have been more of a war magnet than a deterrent for Sweden.

The economic costs of nuclear weapons also proved to be quite prohibitive. Sweden could not afford a welfare state, strong conventional defenses, and a nuclear force at the same time. Since the ruling Social Democratic party in Sweden was committed to the welfare state, in the end a choice had to be made between conventional and nuclear capabilities.

Finally, there were important domestic political reasons for a policy of forbearance. While Sweden sustained a de facto nuclear weapons program, Swedish leaders-both at home and abroad-stressed the  objectives  of  disarmament  and  the virtues of neutrality. Over time, Sweden’s disarmament rhetoric and neutral ideology helped to create a national anti-nuclear ethos among the Swedish population. When the time came to move forward with the production, assembly, and deployment of nuclear weapons, Sweden’s leaders, afraid to pay the political price of  weapon  acquisition, balked. Nuclear weapons were simply incompatible with Sweden’s image of itself as the model  peaceful state.

The decision to forego nuclear weapons did not come easily. For a number of years, Swedish leaders postponed a final decision on weapons production while continuing research on weapon design. In the final analysis, however, policy makers concluded that the costs associated with nuclear weapons outweighed the potential benefits. As Cole concludes, in the end it was politics, rather than a lack of technology, that led to the decision to end Sweden’s nuclear weapon program.

Although Sweden made a conscious choice not to become a nuclear weapon state and submitted its nuclear facilities to international inspections under the NPT, it still retains the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Cole cautions that Sweden’s 1972 decision was more of a moratorium than an eternal ban. In evaluating the durability of Sweden’s decision, the critical question is not just “how quickly” Sweden could build nuclear weapons, but rather what circumstances might compel it to do so. As Cole reminds us, a distinction must be made between the technical ability to produce nuclear weapons and the political will to do so, both of which are necessary for a country to acquire nuclear weapons. His study underscores the important-and often decisive–rnle domestic political structures and political culture may play in proliferation incentives and disincentives.

This study is the third in a series that examines decisionmaking in countries that have chosen to back away from the nuclear threshold. Using a common framework of analysis, these studies seek to assess the relative influence of international, regional, and domestic factors in helping to change perceptions of the utility and/or the cost of nuclear weapons, and to examine closely the implementation and verification of decisions toforego the development of nuclear capabilities. The studies are authored by experts with an extensive understanding of non-proliferation issues and, importantly, of the domestic and regional politics of the countries under review.

This series is part of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, which seeks to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. The project is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental assumptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Through research and public education efforts, the Center seeks to explore the obstacles to, and implications of, the progressive elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from all states, and to consider measures that might bring all states closer toward that goal.

A central focus of the project’s research efforts are evolving national and international perceptions of the benefits, costs, and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Understanding the motivations for proliferation in the post-Cold War environment is essential to this task. Equally important, however, is an examination of cases of nuclear forbearance, which may hold valuable lessons for future non­ proliferation efforts.

The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Shepard Forman and Christine Wing of the Ford Foundation, and Peter Goldmark and Tom Graham of the Rockefeller Foundation for their continued support. We also wish to thank Howard Kee, Christine Wormuth, and Susan Welsh for their comments, and editorial and administrative support.

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