The Nuclear Conundrum: Reconciling Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation

By Scheinman, L.; Potter, W. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Nuclear Conundrum: Reconciling Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation


Scheinman, L., Potter, W., Harvard International Review


More than a half-century into the nuclear age, the world continues to grapple with the challenge of peacefully developing nuclear energy while preventing states from using their nuclear knowledge, technology, and assets to acquire nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) and the regime that it anchors are the foundations for addressing this challenge. The NPT, the most widely adhered to arms control treaty in history, has on the whole succeeded in substantially reducing the threat of proliferation.

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Developments, particularly since the end of the Cold War, have resulted in significant changes in the international political and security environment in which the NPT was negotiated. A number of these changes have a bearing on the nonproliferation regime and raise questions regarding the ability of the treaty and regime to accomplish their objectives in the absence of corrective adjustments or additions. The regime is dynamic and, with the necessary political will and leadership, capable of adjusting to changing circumstances. A number of adjustments already have been made in response to changing circumstances, as demonstrated by one, the progress in strengthening the IAEA inspection system established to verify compliance with key nonproliferation undertakings by non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT and two, the development of supplementary measures such as the Proliferation Security Initiative that brings like-minded states together in a coalition of the willing to impede illicit trade in nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, although the NPT is extremely difficult to amend formally, its provisions--most notably Article V related to the potential benefits from peaceful nuclear explosions--have been modified substantially in the past by other political means. Adaptability is, and will remain, an ongoing process requiring vigilance, imagination, and innovation.

Daunting Developments

One major development is the displacement of the once predominating Cold War discipline imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union. The sense of security in a changing world order may be tenuous or aspirations for regional and/or international dominance may make nuclear weapons attractive to a state. A second transforming development involves the emergence of new sources of supply of sensitive nuclear technologies and their components, particularly dual-use items that can serve as a basis for indigenous development of weapons-relevant equipment and facilities. New suppliers include non-NPT states that have routinely circumvented nuclear export controls. Even more significant is the emergence of a nuclear chain or pathway in which suppliers, brokers, trans-shippers, and end users may be acting without state sanction. This illicit sub-national black-market in nuclear commodities is underscored by revelations of the activities of Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan. Even among states, not all adhere to the guidelines accepted by more than 40 principal supplier states (a matter complicated by the fact that not all states are invited to join the nuclear suppliers group) or exercise sufficient controls on the transfer of sensitive technologies by companies or industries under their jurisdiction. It remains to be seen whether the April 2004 UN Security Council Resolution 1540, calling upon states to pass legislation and establish administrative structures to deal with illicit transfers, will have the desired effect of staunching the flow of such transfers, and whether states themselves will come into line by tightening their own export policies and practices. A third troubling development is that of state parties to the NPT either conducting clandestine weapons-relevant activities (such as Iraq, Libya, and Iran) or, more ominously, using their NPT status to openly and legally acquire fuel cycle capabilities that could put them in a position to transition to nuclear weapon status if they invoked the withdrawal clause of the NPT.

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