NONPROLIFERATION: Proliferation Threats

February 16, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Does the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty need an overhaul?

Many experts say it does. They concede that the, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which went into effect in 1970, has helped limit the number of nuclear-armed countries. But they say the NPT has structural flaws that undermine its effectiveness against states determined to acquire nuclear weapons or terrorist groups bent on using them. Critics of the treaty and supporters alike will get a chance to air their views at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) NPT review conference in New York, May 2-27. There, the 189 signatories to the NPT--and observers, including India and Pakistan--will meet to discuss treaty reforms.

Which articles do critics object to in the NPT?

The main criticisms from member countries deal with the following articles:

  • Article 4, which gives all parties to the treaty the "inalienable right" to the "research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." This was intended to allow all countries to share the benefits of nuclear power. But critics say Article 4 grants countries too much leeway to convert a lawful nuclear program into an illegal weapons program. The problem, says Jon Wolfstahl, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that some countries now interpret Article 4 to mean they can legally build a civilian nuclear program and gain the knowledge they need to make nuclear weapons, then renounce the treaty to construct them.
  • Article 2, which states that all non-nuclear weapons states that sign the NPT agree not to receive, manufacture, or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. In addition, they agree "not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." The United States claims that Iran has already violated this article by acquiring nuclear technology from other countries, including Pakistan, and will push for it to be interpreted more strictly.
  • Article 6, which states that all parties to the NPT will pursue negotiations and other measures in good faith to stop the nuclear-arms race and seek nuclear disarmament "at an early date." Because the treaty does not specify a date, however, the goal of nuclear disarmament has not been reached nearly 40 years after the treaty’s creation. Experts say many non-nuclear countries around the world accuse the nuclear-weapons states of dragging their feet on complete disarmament. Non-nuclear countries may lobby to add a fixed deadline, perhaps 10 or 15 years from now, by which disarmament must be completed.
  • Article 10, which gives each member state the right to withdraw from the treaty with only 90 days notice if its "supreme interests" are jeopardized.

What’s the treaty’s biggest flaw?

That there is limited power to enforce it, experts say. Most international inspections mandated by the NPT are voluntary, and countries largely control inspectors’ movements. There are no penalties for breaking the terms of the NPT--as North Korea did when it developed an illicit nuclear-weapons program--except being reported to the U.N. Security Council. Thus far, the Security Council has taken no punitive action against North Korea. "The nonproliferation regime is like a pyramid scheme," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It works as long as everyone believes in it. As soon as they stop doing that, it collapses."

Why are critics raising questions about the NPT now?

An active nonproliferation camp has long pointed out flaws in the treaty. The 1997 Additional Protocol to the NPT was an attempt to address some of those flaws by authorizing stricter monitoring measures. To date, 65 nations have adopted the protocol, and another 25 countries have signed but not yet ratified it. Pressure for more extensive reforms has increased since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as global focus has centered on terrorists’ stated desire to get their hands on nuclear weapons. The nuclear programs in North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and is believed to have material for at least six nuclear bombs, and Iran, which most experts believe is secretly developing nuclear weapons, have also raised the issue’s profile.

Who is calling for change in the NPT?

Many officials, experts, and world leaders. During the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) stressed the risks of proliferation, calling nuclear weapons in terrorist hands the single-greatest threat to America’s security. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at a December 2004 meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "We must ... take strong multilateral action to keep deadly weapons out of dangerous hands," and called for stricter rules for IAEA inspections and a stronger framework to prevent nuclear proliferation. Members of the New Agenda Coalition--Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, and Sweden--support NPT reform while pushing existing nuclear weapons states to fulfill their NPT commitments and move toward total disarmament.

What efforts are being made to reform the nonproliferation regime?

A high-level study group on multilateral nuclear alternatives, appointed by IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei, recently explored ways the nonproliferation regime could be strengthened. The group researched several options, according to its policy director,Lawrence Scheinman, a proliferation expert and distinguished professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. To curb proliferation, the group proposed that non-nuclear states be permitted to invest in existing nuclear reactors managed by international consortiums. This would guarantee their access to nuclear energy while minimizing the risk of the technology being diverted to illicit programs. The group reported to ElBaradei in March 2005, and its findings will be discussed at the May review conference.

What are the NPT’s goals?

The text of the NPT says the treaty is designed to "make every effort to avert the danger of [nuclear] war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples" by stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. It also aims to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, stop the nuclear arms race "at the earliest possible date," and move signatories toward nuclear disarmament. States that sign the treaty agree to the NPT’s restrictions. Israel, India, and Pakistan have never signed the treaty, and North Korea signed but later withdrew.

What is covered by the treaty?

It governs the entire cycle that creates nuclear fuel: the "front end," or uranium enrichment, and the "back end," in which uranium fuel used in a reactor is reprocessed to extract plutonium. Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be used to fuel either nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons; nuclear-weapons fuel requires much higher levels of refinement than that used in reactors. The IAEA deploys international nuclear inspectors to NPT member states to monitor and verify compliance with the treaty. The Additional Protocol allows more intrusive inspections and gives the IAEA more effective monitoring tools.

How did the NPT come about?

In 1960, the only nuclear powers were the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. These states wanted to retain their military advantage and prevent the unchecked spread of nuclear weapons around the world. They pushed for the creation of the NPT. At the same time, some countries without nuclear weapons, fearful of an atomic arms race, urged disarmament. They were also attracted by the treaty’s provisions to guarantee them access to and assistance with peaceful nuclear technology. By the time the treaty was ready for signing in 1968, China had joined the nuclear club.

Has it been effective?

Experts say yes, overall. Only a handful of countries have developed and maintained nuclear weapons in the last four decades: India, Pakistan, North Korea (reportedly), and Israel, which is widely considered to have nuclear weapons, although it has never officially admitted possessing them. Some countries have given up their nuclear weapons: South Africa, which developed nuclear weapons during the apartheid regime, dismantled them by 1991; and three former Soviet republics--Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine--were persuaded by the United States, Russia, and others to ship their arsenals to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. "It’s a pretty good track record, especially in comparison to President John F. Kennedy’s warning in 1963 that the 1970s could see 15 to 20 nations going nuclear," says Charles D. Ferguson II, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Which is the greater threat, that states or terrorist groups will acquire nuclear weapons?

They’re both serious. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo --a Japanese apocalyptic group whose goal is to start a nuclear war to bring about spiritual purification--have reportedly tried to buy nuclear components. Once terrorists have nuclear weapons, experts warn, there may not be a way to deter or prevent them from using them. And the increasing number of nuclear states is causing international concern. "Whether [or not] we solve the terrorism problem, the long-term threat is an expanded number of nuclear states," Wolfstahl says.

Which countries represent the biggest nuclear risks?

Cirincione says they currently are:

  • Russia. "It has stockpiles of insecure nuclear material that could be acquired by terrorists," Cirincione says.
  • Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf’s government is unstable--Musharraf has been the target of several assassination attempts--and several large and organized groups of terrorists, notably Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda network, operate in Pakistan. If instability in the country increases, there is a risk these groups could acquire part of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
  • Iran. Experts say Iran’s strategic location makes its potential nuclear status particularly significant. "The risk is not that they would use nuclear weapons to attack us, or give them to terrorists," Cirincione says. "Rather, the danger is what happens next in the region"--a potential nuclear arms race among Middle Eastern countries. Other experts point out that Iran has long-established ties to Hezbollah and other extremist groups, and worry that Iranian nuclear weapons could wind up in their hands.
  • North Korea. The isolated country led by dictator Kim Jong Il is widely suspected of having the materials for six to eight nuclear weapons.

What about regional threats?

Experts also worry about "regional spillover," the destabilizing effects of a country going nuclear. Some examples of dangerous regions include:

  • The Far East. North Korea’s efforts to build nuclear weapons may spark similar efforts by its neighbors, experts say. Japan has long had nuclear energy and possesses the latent capability to develop nuclear weapons. South Korea, which started to research nuclear weapons in the 1970s, supposedly halted its program by the early 1980s as a result of U.S. pressure. But in 2004, South Korean scientists admitted they had continued a small, experimental nuclear research program for years longer than anyone suspected, even though they disavowed any intention to make nuclear weapons. Taiwan, which had a nuclear weapons program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also gave it up in response to U.S. pressure. But, "Taiwan still has a fairly active nuclear industry and a lot of talented nuclear scientists," Ferguson says.
  • The Middle East. Iran, which the Bush administration suspects of trying to develop an illicit nuclear weapons program, is in one of the most volatile and dangerous regions in the world. Ferguson says Iran wants nuclear weapons as a deterrent against its two main enemies, both nuclear-armed: Israel and the United States. U.S. troops are currently stationed in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, adding to Iran’s concerns. In addition, Iran is surrounded by potential proliferators, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and, in the long term, Iraq, which had its own nuclear-weapons program until the early 1990s. Iran’s theocracy wants to build a self-sufficient nuclear energy program with the latent capability to produce nuclear weapons "as a kind of insurance policy," Ferguson says.
  • Southeast Asia. Pakistan, India, and China make up a nuclear-armed triangle. India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars in the last 50 years, came to the brink of nuclear conflict in 2002. Experts say each country has a specific security goal: India is trying to counterbalance both China and Pakistan, Pakistan is trying to deter India, and China is wary of the United States and Russia. U.S. plans for missile defense, experts say, seem tailored to defend against China’s ballistic missile capacity, currently about 20 nuclear-armed weapons that can reach the United States. In response, experts say, China is quietly building up its arsenal.

Are experts also worried about existing nuclear arsenals?

Yes. The United States and Russia have 28,000 nuclear warheads between them, Cirincione says, raising the specter of accidental or unauthorized deployment. Many of Russia’s weapons have fallen outside the reach of the elaborate nuclear command-and-control structure that kept track of them during the Cold War. "We’re worried about North Korea having eight [nuclear] weapons, and [the United States and Russia] have thousands," he says. Experts stress it is also critically important to secure existing arsenals so terrorists cannot buy, steal, or otherwise get access to them.

— by Esther Pan, staff writer, cfr.org

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