The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: History and Current Problems

By Bunn, George | Arms Control Today, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: History and Current Problems


Bunn, George, Arms Control Today


Fifty years ago this month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his "Atoms for Peace" address to the UN General Assembly. He proposed to share nuclear materials and information for peaceful purposes with other countries through a new international agency. That speech led to negotiations which, several years later, created the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA today has the dual responsibility of helping countries that do not have nuclear weapons to engage in peaceful nuclear programs while ensuring that they do not make nuclear weapons. In the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, the IAEA gained authority for policing the nuclear activities of member countries to ensure that those without nuclear weapons did not acquire them.

Today, the NPT is a worldwide treaty that bans all members except the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, and the United States from having nuclear weapons and commits those five states to eventually eliminating their atomic arsenals. The treaty provides the norm and the foundation for an international regime to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. The 187 states that subscribe to the NPT include all significant states of concern with the exception of India, Israel, Pakistan, and-arguably-North Korea.1 According to Ambassador Robert T. Grey, a former U.S. arms control negotiator, the NPT is "in many ways an agreement as important as the UN Charter itself."2 Yet, many believe that the NPT regime is battered and in need of strengthening.3

The NPT has in fact suffered major blows. Since 1991, uranium enrichment, plutonium separation, and other possibly weapons-related activities that Iraq, North Korea, and Iran hid from IAEA inspectors have been discovered. Iraq's weapons program was found after the 1991 Persian Gulf War thanks to UN Security Council orders demanding more intrusive inspections than were then required by IAEA inspection standards. North Korea's weapons program later became known through intelligence, IAEA inspections, and North Korea's own admissions. The IAEA's discovery of Iran's failure to disclose experiments with plutonium separation and uranium enrichment to inspectors has recently led to a standoff with Tehran.

Historically, the IAEA has rarely demanded inspections beyond the perimeter of reactors or related nuclear sites that had been declared open for inspection by the countries where they were located. Further, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation does not violate the NPT if done for peaceful purposes under IAEA inspection. In fact, a number of more developed countries (e.g., Japan) conduct such activities. In the three countries where uranium enrichment or plutonium separation was thought to have been conducted for weapons purposes-Iran, Iraq, and North Korea-the activities had taken place largely at locations not declared open for inspection to the IAEA.

Moreover, that North Korea and Iran both obtained enrichment technology from Pakistan suggests dangers to the NPT regime from nonparties that are not bound by the treaty's prohibition against assisting non-nuclear-weapon states in acquiring nuclear weapons. The back-toback nuclear tests by New Delhi and Islamabad in 1998 illustrate the dangers that an arms race in South Asia can have and suggest the temptation that such tests could encourage current nonnuclear-weapon parties to withdraw from the treaty in order to follow suit.

At the same time, the United States has not complied with some of its own NPT-created obligations. For example, in 1995 the United States won the agreement of the non-nuclear-weapon NPT states-parties to extend the NPT indefinitely by promising to negotiate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty was duly negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but the Senate failed to ratify it in 1999. The Bush administration now opposes the CTBT, and the Senate is unlikely to consider it again, at least before the next election.

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