How bad is the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Military analysis.
May 3 2005 5:57 PM

The Real Nuclear Option

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is a mess. We have to save it anyway.

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Going nucular

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.

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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.)

The Iranians haven't been entirely legal in their actions. Article III states that countries must open their nuclear-energy facilities to inspections and other safeguards. Yet the Iranians built their enrichment facility covertly and opened it only after a dissident group revealed its existence to Western intelligence agencies.

The problem here, though, is that there's nothing much the rest of the treaty's signatories can do about this violation (though inspectors are now monitoring the facility). The NPT in general has no enforcement clause.

The big powers enjoy a loophole, too: Article VI, which obligates the countries that already have nuclear weapons to reduce their own nuclear arsenals—a token of good faith to those who promise to forgo nukes altogether.

Many critics of American foreign policy note that the rest of the world can hardly be expected to observe the NPT when the United States hasn't lived up to its side of the bargain.

Yet Article VI is so loosely constructed, it's amazing that anyone ever took it seriously. It states that the five nuclear countries will "undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective means relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date." Read that again closely: not a cessation to the arms race, but "meansrelating to cessation"; and not even to hold negotiations, but to "undertake to pursue negotiations."

It's worth noting that the nuclear powers, including the United States, have negotiated fairly substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals over the decades. It is also doubtful that deeper American and Russian nuclear cuts would have kept North Korea or Iran from pursuing nuclear ambitions.

That said, it is senseless for President Bush to chide and threaten other countries for pursuing nukes at the same time that he is funding not merely the maintenance of America's nuclear arsenal but the development of a whole new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons—especially since these new weapons (for instance, low-yield nuclear bunker-busters) are developed explicitly because they're easier to use in wartime. The main goal of a non-proliferation policy is to persuade the rest of the world that nuclear weapons have no military utility, so it is counterproductive to build new nuclear weapons with enhanced military utility.

In sum, the treaty has three major loopholes: It lets countries get to the brink of nuclear weapons and then quit the treaty and build the weapons; it provides no penalties for quitting or violating the treaty; and it doesn't really require the big five to cut back on their nuclear weapons.

Can these loopholes be mended? First, a more basic question must be addressed: Why do countries want nuclear weapons in the first place? Well, some want nukes for self-defense; they're a relatively cheap way of deterring an attack. Some want them as cover for their own aggressive plans; brandishing a few nukes can discourage resistance. Some want them as a badge of prestige. Probably most nuclear-wannabes are motivated by some mix of all the above.

Another way of asking the same question: Why do most countries not want the bomb? Some possibilities: They face no serious threats. They have other means of security, either through self-protection or alliances. They harbor no aggressive ambitions. They have moral qualms about pursuing the bomb. They don't have the financial or technical prowess to build or maintain a bomb—or, if they do, their society is too open to build one covertly.

Any plan to strengthen the NPT must not only shrink the loopholes but also deal with these more basic questions—which boil down to the issue of incentives. Back in the 1970s, the bribe for signing the NPT was cheap access to nuclear energy. But this has backfired, because nuclear energy turned out not to be so cheap, and because peaceful nuclear programs have proven such a useful backdoor to developing nuclear weapons. So, the big powers need to devise another payoff involving economic aid or security guarantees. This should be Topic A at the NPT review.

Some wannabes will not be bought off, of course; they simply want nukes. In those cases, the treaty must be amended to provide an enforcement clause—and, harder still, an enforcement agency. Some have proposed eliminating Article X, which allows a country to abrogate the treaty. The problem is, all treaties have an exit clause; it's an acknowledgement that the countries haven't signed away their sovereignty.

Yet this dilemma forms the core of the problem. It may well be that, in order to stop or seriously curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons, countries must sacrifice a little bit of sovereignty.

This has already taken place, to a small extent, with the NPT's "Additional Protocol," a measure that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct short-notice inspections of any site where it believes nuclear activity might be going on. (Before the Additional Protocol, the IAEA could inspect only sites that the host country had "declared" to be nuclear facilities.) This measure went into effect in 1997, and since then 65 countries have signed it.

The signatories should discuss extending this principle. It's time to discuss, for instance, forming a multinational expeditionary force equipped and empowered to invade or bomb the nuclear facilities of a country that has either clearly violated the NPT or abrogated it without a reason of legitimate self-defense.

And to get the bold gestures going, President Bush should attend the review-conference and announce that he is canceling all U.S. programs for new nuclear weapons.

But now we're plunging into fantasy. The dreadful thing is that, without such plunges, we're likely to see more nuclear-armed countries—some of them led by terrible people—in the years to come.

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