New Gaps in Controlling the Spread of Nuclear Arms ; Moves in N. Korea and Developing Countries Coincide with Global Review of a Nuclear Treaty

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While in Pakistan to help break ground for a nuclear reactor, China's premier talks about enhancing bilateral nuclear cooperation by selling the country two more nuclear power plants.

The United States, as part of a stepped-up energy dialogue with India, suggests it could eventually sell India nuclear reactors - in part to keep it from going into the natural gas pipeline business with Iran.

And North Korea shuts down its nuclear reactor, which could mean it is planning to ramp up nuclear arms production - or just using routine maintenance to scare others about its nuclear ambitions.

All these events, spread over the past month, occur in a global context of "erosion of the nonproliferation regime [that] could become irreversible," a high-level United Nations panel recently concluded.

With the world community set to take up a five-year review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next week, experts point both to advances and to worrying signs to bolster a preponderant view that more must be done if a dangerous wave of proliferation is to be stopped.

"Right now there's a mixed picture," says Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

He puts North Korea, which last year withdrew from the treaty and boasted of nuclear weapons, and Iran, an NPT signatory suspected of pursuing weapons development, as two black marks on the nonproliferation ledger. But he counts Libya's renunciation of its nuclear program, a recent UN resolution binding members to strict laws on nuclear-materials exports, and other added international safeguards as positive signs.

"Fundamentally the international community is rallying to the cause," Mr. Spector says, "so I'd imagine that if anything, [the treaty, after the May review] will be a little stronger."

Yet for others, the picture is darker - for reasons stretching beyond North Korea and Iran and ranging from developing countries' drive for cheaper, abundant, and nonpetroleum energy sources, to US moves to build replacement nuclear weapons.

"There's a lot of bad news," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. His organization and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month issued a statement, signed by prominent former officials and nuclear-weapons experts, warning that the world is on the "threshold" of a new round of proliferation that next month's NPT review must address.

The review will be buffeted by events in Iran and North Korea.

Iran is expressing growing impatience in its talks with three European countries over its uranium-enrichment program. And by the time the review begins May 2, North Korea's intentions may be clearer. North Korean officials have said their intent is to obtain plutonium to fuel nuclear bombs, but whether that is mere rhetoric to focus world attention is unclear.

Existing global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium - the fissile materials that fuel nuclear bombs - probably constitute the biggest threat to nonproliferation, experts say. …