The worldwide review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which takes place at the United Nations every five years, is usually a boring business: diplomatic boilerplate, capped by vague resolutions. This year's session, which got under way Monday, could—and should—have been an exception: a vital forum for a frightening time.
The NPT—in effect for 35 years and signed by 189 countries (every country in the world but three)—is teetering in crisis, possibly on the edge of obsolescence. One country, North Korea, has abrogated the treaty, the first signatory ever to do so, and has since reprocessed enough plutonium to build at least a half-dozen bombs. Another, Iran, is poised to go down the same road via enriched uranium.
More broadly, vast loopholes in the treaty, which have long been noticed, are finally being exploited. It is increasingly doubtful whether the NPT, in its current form, can remain a useful tool for constraining nuclear ambitions.
It desperately needs repair, yet the Bush administration has sent only a midlevel State Department official as its delegate to the review session. Not just Iran, but also the United States, France, and Japan have rejected—for commercial reasons—a proposal by Mohamed ElBaradei, the U.N.'s chief atomic-weapons inspector, to freeze uranium-enrichment for five years. Nobody in a position of power seems willing to take any new steps to avert a crisis that everyone sees as looming and dangerous.
So, should we care about this halfheartedness? Does the NPT matter to begin with? What does it do? How is it flawed? Can it be fixed?
It's clear that the world is a better place because of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the 1960s, presidents, prime ministers, and arms-control analysts predicted that 25 to 30 countries would possess nuclear weapons by the end of the century. Since 1970, when the NPT was signed, the circle of nuclear powers has swollen only slightly, from five countries (the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China) to eight or nine (adding India, Pakistan, Israel—the only non-signatories—and probably North Korea). The NPT wasn't the only reason for this restraint, but it was one of the reasons, and it reinforced the others.
The treaty forbids the five original nuclear countries from supplying any other country with the materials, technology, or other resources needed to make atomic or hydrogen bombs. It forbids all the other countries from acquiring or manufacturing such materials or technology. As a reward for this restraint, the NPT not only permits but encourages these countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The technology for this will be provided, according to Article V, "on a non-discriminatory basis" at a price "as low as possible."
Here's where the first loophole appears. The technology for producing nuclear energy is the same as the technology for producing nuclear weapons. To convert from peaceful to non-peaceful use takes only enriching the uranium or reprocessing the fuel rods into plutonium. The NPT's negotiators knew this. But they counted on two impediments. First, the treaty requires the recipients of nuclear technology to allow international inspectors to monitor nuclear facilities in order to ensure nothing is diverted. Second, at the time of the signing, these evasions were far from easy. Enriching uranium requires thousands of centrifuges—assembled just so—to separate the tiny quantities of bomb-grade U-235 from the mass of non-bomb-grade U-238. Processing plutonium requires a separate, complex, and large facility.
Two things have happened in recent times: First, owing to the spread of science and the ingenuity of black-marketeers, seemingly unsophisticated countries have learned how to enrich uranium; second, owing to the limitations of intelligence-monitoring, especially in closed societies, some of these same countries have learned how to elude inspectors, even to the point of covertly building large nuclear facilities.
So, the Iranian mullahs can argue that under the treaty they have every right to develop nuclear energy, even to enrich uranium, as long as they do so for allegedly peaceful purposes. In other words, the NPT allows a country to step right up to the line that separates nuclear energy from nuclear weaponry—then to declare it's abrogating the treaty, step across that line, and suddenly emerge as a nation armed with the all-powerful bomb. (Article X of the treaty allows a country to abrogate; all the leader has to do is give 90 days notice and declare he's doing it for national-security interests.)