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HOME > The Nonproliferation Regime      
The Nonproliferation Regime

What is the future of the Nonproliferation Regime?

Britain´s Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart (second from right, seated) signs the NPT on 1 July 1968 at Lancaster House, London, witnessed by United States Ambassador David Bruce (far right, seated) and Soviet Ambassador Mikhail N. Smirnovsky (second from left, seated). (Extreme left) British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who opened the Treaty signing. (Photo: AP)
A lot has changed in over 40 years, but where is the Nonproliferation regime headed in the 21st century? Above, Britain´s Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart (second from right, seated) signs the NPT on 1 July 1968 at Lancaster House, London, witnessed by United States Ambassador David Bruce (far right, seated) and Soviet Ambassador Mikhail N. Smirnovsky (second from left, seated). (Extreme left) British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who opened the Treaty signing. (Photo: AP)

Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), all nations have an inalienable right to the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”, so long as any exchange conforms to the first two articles of the treaty. When the treaty was being written, states were concerned that many nuclear techniques and access to so called “special fissionable materials” such as highly enriched uranium would be limited to the nuclear weapons powers who had originally developed them. Non-weapons states wanted to ensure that they would always have the right to “the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology” and so pushed for the inclusion of this article in exchange for their commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons.

With time, this focus put an increasing strain on the global nonproliferation regime, as nations, such as Iran and North Korea, demanded their “right” to acquire nuclear fuel making capabilities could bring them to the brink of creating nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, there is no way to reliably detect significant military diversions from nuclear fuel making plants (e.g., plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment plants). International nuclear inspectors have repeatedly failed to detect the loss of significant amounts of weapons usable nuclear fuels in Japan and several European states until well after this material has gone missing, and the IAEA has been slow to react when they find such issues at all. The fact is that certain processes cannot be fully safeguarded, despite the hopes of delegates at the NPT’s drafting, who thought that it could be possible to develop new methods of ensuring compliance. Unfortunately such techniques are unlikely to materialize.

For More on the Nonproliferation Regime:

Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

For More on Safeguards:

Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom
Edited by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski


The NPT and Plutonium
By Eldon Greenberg

Can Nuclear Fuel Production in Iran and Elsewhere Be Safeguarded Against Diversion?
By Edwin S. Lyman

Unfortunately, United States and its allies have historically condoned the nuclear fuel making activities of friends and supported the general expansion of nuclear power through programs like Atoms for Peace (For more on this program, see Albert Wohlstetter's Spreading the Bomb without Quite Breaking the Rules published in NPEC's book Nuclear Heuristics) when the U.S. supplied reactors to a host of countries in the 1950s and 60s. U.S. and allied reading of the NPT’s “inalienable right” to “peaceful nuclear energy” to include a per se right to any nuclear technology or material so long as they have some conceivable nonmilitary purpose and are occasionally inspected, continues today. Yet, a much more restrictive reading of this right is at least as defensible on legal, historical and technical grounds.

When the treaty was being written, certain states pushed for the inclusion of references to uranium enrichment and other sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle but these proposals were voted down. Other commentators (See Chris Ford’s "Nuclear Technology Rights and Wrongs: The NPT, Article IV, and Nonproliferation”) have noted that the article as written, refers to “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”, not the full exchange but only what is possible without undermining the prohibitions contained in articles I and II.

In addition to the IAEA’s ability to safeguard certain activities and materials, their commercial viability should be considered. Even rights established by the treaty, such as to the potential benefits of peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) described in article V, were never demanded, principally because no commercial benefits could be found. The costs to contain and clean up such events are still far greater than any benefits that could be derived. Secondly, once nuclear testing moratoriums began, governments came to recognize that was there is no way to distinguish a peaceful nuclear explosion from the test of a nuclear weapon. Article V is important because it shows that the NPT can be reinterpreted with regards to the safety or danger of the activities and that the treaty is a living document. The current consensus over the uneconomical and unverifiable nature of PNEs has not yet extended to other sensitive aspects of civilian nuclear energy.

Besides access to the peaceful benefits of the atom, nonweapons states’ agreement not to acquire nuclear weapons came in exchange for commitments from weapons states to disarm and “end the nuclear arms race, “ which are encapsulated in article VI. It calls for nations “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” This article, along with references in the treaty’s preamble to a desire to “achieve the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons” and for nuclear disarmament, has linked the NPT to a host of demanding arms control initiatives, including strategic arms reductions treaties, a comprehensive test ban treaty and ending nuclear weapons production.

Partly because of concerns as to whether the weapons states would actually disarm and some states’ cynical interests in developing nuclear weapons options of their own, the treaty allows for relatively easy withdrawal. It only requires states to describe which “extraordinary events related to the subject matter” of the NPT “jeopardized” their “supreme interests”. As a result, it is all too easy even for NPT violators to withdraw with impunity, citing the continued threat of the weapons states’ nuclear arsenals, as North Korea did in 2003. (For more on the subject of withdrawal, see “Locking Down the NPT” by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski and Victor Gilinski and Avoiding the Void, by the Pierre Goldschmidt, formerly IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards.)

This withdrawal, Iran’s continued dangerous nuclear activities and a growing number of other cases worldwide all illustrate the desirability of reexamining the current conventional wisdom regarding how the NPT’s key strictures should be interpreted.


Learn More:

Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty edited by Henry Sokolski.

Spreading the Bomb without Quite Breaking the Rules, an essay from Albert Wohlstetter's archive collected in NPEC's Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter.

Nuclear Technology Rights and Wrongs: The NPT, Article IV, and Nonproliferation by Chris Ford.

A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Lightwater Reactors by Victor Gilinsky with Marvin Miller and Harmon Hubbard.

Locking Down the NPT in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, by NPEC executive director Henry Sokolski and Victor Gilinsky.

Avoiding the Void, by Pierre Goldschmidt.

 

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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