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An End to Nuclear Nonproliferation

Terrorism, new weapons, old hostilities threaten to kill off the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

July 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 30

Here's the deal: 183 nations that lack nuclear weapons pledge to never develop them, and, in return, five nations—China, France, Russia, the U.K, and the U.S.—that have nuclear weapons promise to eliminate their arsenals.

The deal is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Since 1967, it has been the primary mechanism to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons while setting up a framework to allow the nations of the world to continue developing nuclear resources for nonweapon uses.

Its goal is to eventually do away with all nuclear arms, and in some ways it has succeeded. Over the past 30 years, there has been no nuclear war and the growth of new nuclear weapons states has been limited to three, possibly four, countries.

But recent events raise doubts about the treaty's value for the future. Many arms control advocates fear that the treaty as written and enforced may no longer work.

World instability, terrorism, lax controls over nuclear materials spread throughout the globe, and the U.S.'s continued dependence on nuclear arms are driving the need for an NPT overhaul, says Mohamed ElBaradei, general director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Vienna-based IAEA has the huge task of trying to verify NPT compliance. ElBaradei and IAEA must take a balanced approach, encouraging peaceful use of nuclear technologies while trying to limit development of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, peaceful use of nuclear technology for energy, R&D, and medicine is intertwined with efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. Hence, toughening arms control affects all uses of nuclear materials.

Last month, ElBaradei joined some 750 other arms control experts at a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the treaty. The conference was organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which released a 95-page draft report that offered sharp recommendations to strengthen NPT.


AN OPPORTUNITY to reexamine and supplement the treaty will come next April when an international conference to review NPT is planned. ElBaradei said, however, that the problem has moved beyond where "a few quick fixes" will help the treaty. He noted that world tensions are such that a committee established to prepare for the conference was unable even to agree upon an agenda.

In trying to sort out what is going wrong, ElBaradei and the Carnegie report trace today's international instability to the Cold War's end a decade and a half ago. With détente, the bipolar world of U.S.-Russian hegemony was swept away, but in its place was created a new world order as well as new instability. Long-running tensions were left unchecked, and conflicts festered in the Middle East, Korean Peninsula, and South Asia.

In 1998, India and Pakistan announced their successful detonation of nuclear devices. Neither nation signed NPT. And, like Israel, another nuclear-armed nonsigner of NPT, the two countries have brought a much more dangerous nuclear threat to the volatility of old rivalries.

Three years later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. signaled the entry of a new, non-nation-based threat that would be greatly strengthened by access to nuclear materials. Suddenly, it became quite clear that the global dispersion of nuclear technologies and materials by the U.S. and Russia over the past 50 years must be quickly brought under control.

Then, late last year, it was revealed that a network of scientists from Pakistan, Switzerland, England, Germany, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia had been making and selling nuclear bomb designs and equipment to North Korea, Iran, Libya, and possibly other countries.

The Carnegie report and ElBaradei also point to other recent signs of NPT impotence, particularly North Korea's withdrawal from the treaty and its boast that it had developed nuclear weapons. Then came the discovery in Iran, an NPT-signatory, of the suspected makings of a nuclear weapons program.

There are bright spots, too: most notably, Libya's recent decision to swear off the weapons and South Africa's announcement a decade ago to do the same.

Faced with this myriad of problems, the Carnegie report identifies the single greatest nonproliferation priority as the need to secure weapons-usable fissile materials--highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Joseph Cirincione, Carnegie director for nonproliferation, adds in an interview that gaining control of plutonium and HEU means reforming the nuclear fuel cycle, and that is the toughest nonproliferation issue.

In part, the problem is simply due to the amount of money and the sheer number of interests involved in the commercial production of reactor fuel.

THE REPORT urges a decades-long moratorium on plutonium production and a pause of three to five years in uranium enrichment activities. It urges countries that reprocess spent fuel, such as Japan and France, to end the practice of obtaining plutonium for reuse as fuel in power reactors.

ElBaradei recommends international controls on the enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel as well as for management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The Carnegie report does not address the disposal effort, Cirincione says, but offers options to bring the reactor fuel cycle under tighter controls.

The report and ElBaradei note that more than 40 countries already have large amounts of HEU or plutonium in storage. The report cites statistics estimating that there is 540 metric tons of plutonium in civilian and military stockpiles around the world, enough to make more than 100,000 bombs.

The report calls for a "global cleanout" of these materials from vulnerable sites over the next four years. Also urged is quick elimination of HEU use in research reactors. The report notes that 50 of 135 research reactors operating worldwide, which are fueled by HEU, are in the U.S. or use U.S.-supplied fuel. Both the report and ElBaradei applaud a recently announced Energy Department program to convert these reactors to use low-enriched uranium or to shut them down.

DOE intends to reengineer 105 of these HEU-fueled civilian reactors to use low-enriched uranium. DOE plans to commit $450 million to the project in the future but wants 10 years to complete the program. ElBaradei and Carnegie officials back these programs but say the pace is far too slow. They are pushing for four years to complete the project.

ElBaradei and the Carnegie report also strongly endorse a U.S.-Russia program in which the U.S. has agreed to purchase 500 metric tons of HEU from Russia and downblend it to low-enriched uranium for use in civilian power reactors. So far, the report says, 200 metric tons has been accepted into the U.S., and the report urges quicker action on the remainder.

It also urges a speedup in the U.S.-Russia program to dispose of surplus plutonium, noting that the project now under way to address the first 68 metric tons of several hundred tons that are in each country could stretch out for decades. Again, both Carnegie arms control officials and ElBaradei say the pace is too slow for today's international climate.

Both also call for tougher penalties for withdrawal from NPT, including freezing the use of nuclear materials and technology gained when a country was a member. They also would require Israel, India, and Pakistan to join NPT and maintain that North Korea is still a member, despite its view that is has withdrawn.

They also call for much tougher enforcement mechanisms, inspections, and criminal penalties for treaty violations.

Additionally, ElBaradei said his vision for global security must include seeking an end to the root causes of regional rivalries and conflicts that are pushing nations to seek nuclear weapons.

"We should not forget that nearly all efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are to be found in the Middle East and other areas of instability," he said. Eliminating security threats will be aided by closing the gap between rich and poor, he said, noting that two-fifths of the world lives on less than $2.00 a day, and while the world spends $900 billion a year on arms, it spends only $60 billion on development assistance to the developing world.

But nuclear instability and the demise of NPT is not just a problem of loose nuclear materials in the developing world, ElBaradei and the Carnegie report say, pointing to the recent U.S. decisions to explore a new generation of nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration is seeking $36 million next year to study a deep-earth-penetrating nuclear weapon, the so-called bunker buster. This year's request, which is tied up in a hot debate in Congress, is but a down payment on some $485 million the Administration seeks to complete a study of this weapon.

Funds are also being sought to speed the government's ability to return to underground testing of nuclear weapons, which the Administration argues may be needed for the future.

ElBaradei called the U.S. program "divisive" and "counterproductive," and noted that the goal of NPT is disarmament. "If such efforts continue," he warned, "it is hard to understand how we can ask the nuclear Ôhave nots' to accept additional nonproliferation obligations and to renounce any sensitive nuclear capability as being adverse to their security."

Versions of his views were echoed throughout the conference and in the Carnegie report. The report recommends that the U.S. drop development of new nuclear weapons, reaffirm the moratorium on nuclear testing, and narrow the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. It also warns that the U.S. risks beginning a new arms race among the 40-plus nations that have the ability to produce nuclear weapons but have not.

The Administration adamantly defended its nuclear policy at the conference, however. Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), charged in a keynote address that the Administration's position is "frequently misunderstood and even distorted by opponents who seek to mislead rather than inform."

NNSA, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for the design, manufacture, and maintenance of nuclear weapons as well as nonproliferation programs.

The need to explore new nuclear weapons' applications sprang from an internal review—the Nuclear Posture Review—that was completed in December 2001, Brooks said.

The review reaffirmed that nuclear weapons are a crucial element of U.S. security policy and an "integral component of American military policy," he said. The weapons are to assure U.S. allies of the U.S.'s commitment to them as well as to dissuade, deter, defend against, and defeat U.S. enemies, Brooks said.

DEFENDING the Administration's policies, Brooks noted the President's commitment to lower the nation's nuclear profile by reducing its nuclear arsenal to 1,700 to 2,200 weapons by 2012, a two-third reduction from today's levels. At least 1,000 more, however, will be held in ready reserve, he said, to guard against unexpected geopolitical changes or other conditions.

The new nuclear earth penetrator is needed, he explained, to enable the U.S. to adjust to changing deterrence requirements. The funding is for a study, Brooks emphasized, to determine if it is possible to adapt an existing warhead to a weapon that could attack an enemy's hardened, deeply buried facilities. He added that to move past exploration, congressional approval will be required.

He charged that Administration critics had misperceived a series of unrelated events when claiming, as some had done at the conference, that the U.S. is preparing a military doctrine of preemptive use of nuclear weapons.

He acknowledged, however, that over the past year, the Administration had reaffirmed that in "rare circumstances" the U.S. would respond militarily to threatened attacks by weapons of mass destruction from an adversary; that the Administration had gained repeal of restrictions on developing small nuclear weapons; and that it is requesting funds to explore new weapons.

But he called a policy of nuclear preemption "nonsense."

"While no one wants to constrain a future president's options in advance, I've never met anyone in the Administration who can foresee circumstances in which we would consider nuclear preemption to counter rogue-state weapons of mass destruction threats," Brooks said.

He placed great emphasis on the role nuclear weapons play in deterring an attack. Later in the conference, the role of deterrence was boldly underlined in a presentation by C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, one of three NNSA nuclear weapons labs.


"NUCLEAR DETERRENCE," Robinson said, "must remain the cornerstone of our defense posture for many, many years to come, at least until such time as nations cease stockpiling major weapons systems for use against others."

Earth-penetrating nuclear weapons are a key part of that deterrence formula, Robinson said. The weapons, he said, are needed to ensure that "no aggressor can escape our deterrent and its effects in securing peaceful behaviors. Earth penetrators prevent anyone from breaking the deterrent equation—thus they are needed to preserve the peace."

But Alexei Arbatov, a Russian scholar and for 10 years a member of the Russian Parliament, said at the conference, "In the Russian strategic community, the American program of low-yield penetrators is overwhelmingly perceived as directed against Russia."

A simple reason, he continued, is that "to use that special weapon, you have to locate a target with very high precision—a few hundred meters or less. If you locate such a target in Iran or North Korea or elsewhere, you can take it away with other means than with nuclear weapons. You can bomb and bomb and bomb with conventional weapons. Russians perceive it as a weapon designed to take away Russian underground command centers."

Arbatov added that ongoing work on the U.S. national ballistic missile defense system is also seen as being directed against Russia. And, he said, it will have the effect of encouraging Russia to enlarge and modernize its strategic nuclear forces.

Cirincione noted that there will be no compromise for this policy debate. "Compromise doesn't mean we meet halfway here. Somebody is going to lose."

In closing his speech to the conference, ElBaradei said the world must build a security system that is not dependent on nuclear deterrence, and he called for the end to a past based on "the early bird gets the nukes."

"I repeat that it is time to abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them. Our aim must be clear—a security structure that is based on our shared humanity and not on the ability of some to destroy us all."

ElBaradei and Cirincione called for a first-ever summit meeting of nuclear nations to meet to discuss nonproliferation and try to hammer out differences in preparation for the April NPT review.

Cirincione predicted that no matter who is elected president in November, the U.S. and the world will develop a new nuclear weapons policy. "Obviously, what we are doing now is not working."


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