IN A grim warning that the world is facing a major expansion in the number of nuclear-armed states, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that up to 30 countries could have the technology to develop the bomb "in a very short time".
Speaking at a conference on ways to improve controls to prevent proliferation, Mohamed El Baradei admitted "the knowledge is out of the tube" and said it was now becoming "fashionable" for countries to look at the possibility of developing nuclear missiles to defend themselves against attack.
It is feared that North Korea's successful atom bomb test could lead to a ripple effect with other states in the region deciding they had no choice but to join the nuclear club.
The US and Europe also believe Iran is developing a nuclear weapons programme that could have a similar effect in the Middle East.
Mr El Baradei did not name any countries, but anti-nuclear campaigners pointed to 43 nations round the world that they believe could acquire the bomb. The IAEA chief warned that more countries than ever were "hedging their bets" as they seek to develop the technology that forms the core of peaceful nuclear programmes, but would allow them to develop such weapons at short notice.
"The knowledge is out of the tube ... both for peaceful purpose and unfortunately also for not peaceful purposes," Mr El Baradei said. "It's becoming fashionable for countries to try to look into possibilities of shielding themselves ... through nuclear weapons.
"Another 20 or 30 would have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time [if they chose to do so]."
Even before the North Korean test, Iran's focus on developing uranium enrichment despite a UN Security Council demand that it stop had heightened international concerns.
Mr El Baradei was clearly alluding to Iran and to other nations further along the path of developing uranium enrichment capacities, such as Brazil.
Countries, including Australia, Argentina and South Africa, recently announced they were considering developing enrichment programmes to be able to provide nuclear fuel for countries wanting to generate energy.
Nations already with the means to produce weapons-grade fissile material include Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania. All are committed non- nuclear weapons states, and no-one has suggested that they want to use their programmes for weapons. But, in theory, the fuel enrichment technology would allow them to do so.
Countries considering developing nuclear programmes are Egypt, Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Namibia, Moldova, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen.