Nuclear Proliferation—International Treaties

More from David Bodansky’s Nuclear Energy (second edition), again, read it yourself for more details. Recommended readings include Richard Garwin and Georges Charpak’s Megawatts and Megatons, and Robert Mozley’s The Politics and Technology of Nuclear Proliferation.

Eisenhower began the Atoms for Peace program in 1953. The first successful international agreement led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. The IAEA reports to the United Nations but is not part of the UN. All countries with nuclear activities, excepting North Korea, which withdrew in 1994, are among the 136 members.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was next, going into force in 1970. Its motivating purposes were to

• Prevent the wider dissemination of nuclear weapons,
• Make peaceful applications of nuclear technology widely available.
• Achieve cessation of the nuclear arms race and move toward nuclear disarmament.
• Seek to achieve discontinuance of test explosions of test explosions of nuclear weapons.

There has always been an asymmetry between nuclear-weapon states (NWS, those with nuclear weapons before 1967: China, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and non-nuclear-weapon states. A NWS is obligated not to aid weapons development in a non-NWS. Each non-NWS is committed to not receive or build nuclear weapons, and to accept safeguards against the diversion of nuclear activities from peaceful to weapons purposes. A conference was to be held in 1995, to determine whether to continue the treaty indefinitely, or to extend it for additional purposes.

Inducements for the non-NWS include the commitment by NWS to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. The parties also agree to share fully the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The most important holdouts are India, Israel, and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew in 2003.

The NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, though many of the non-NWSs felt that nuclear disarmament should be more rapid, and Arab states objected to Israel’s absence. Among 20 principles and objectives adopted were these:

• A call for a comprehensive test ban treaty by 1996 and a universal ban on production of fissile materials for weapons. NWSs were called to make “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally” with an eventual goal of eliminating them.
• A call to encourage “the development of nuclear-weapon-free zones, especially in regions of tension, such as in the Middle East”.
• An affirmation that the peaceful use of nuclear energy is an “inalienable right of all parties to the treaty”.

An every 5-year review to monitor progress in 2000 showed continuing tensions between NWSs and non-NWSs, but also pointed a finger at countries which had not adhered to the treaty: Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan for not signing, and India and Pakistan for weapons test. The NWSs agreed to an “unequivocal undertaking” toward “total elimination of their nuclear arsenals”, but without a deadline or timetable.

Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

The CTBT, adopted by the UN in 1996, commits the parties to not carry out nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosion. By the end of 2003, it was signed by all the NWSs and 170 out of 193 states, and ratified by 108. It will only go into effect if all 44 states with nuclear power or research reactors (Annex 2 states) sign and ratify the treaty. India, North Korea, and Pakistan have not signed. Another nine of these 44 states have not ratified it, including the US.

While it would be more effective if it had been ratified by all Annex 2 states, it may serve to inhibit some countries, including the US. The CTBT led to a large network of seismic observation points; these detected the 1998 nuclear weapons tests in India and Pakistan.

The NPT and CTBT do not command the universal adherence that a fully effective nonproliferation regime should have. Nonetheless, they are taken seriously.

One problem can be lack of a strong response due to sympathy for the country arming, such as India threatened by China and Pakistan or Pakistan threatened by India or Israel threatened by the Arab world. Some countries are unwilling to condemn, or may even help, allies: the USSR provided political and technical help to India, and the US has tolerated Pakistani and Israeli nuclear weapons programs.

There have been NPT failures with signatories as well: Iraq in 1991, though it had a full safeguards agreement with the IAEA. However, NPT provided the legal basis after the first Iraq war for weapons inspections.

Forms of Proliferation

Proliferation includes increases in the number of nuclear weapons, or the means of making them, whether the country already has weapons or not.

These range from obtaining technical advice to obtaining weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. The barrier against proliferation is substantially lowered if a country possesses facilities for enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium, and the development of such facilities is taken as a danger signal, however much the country involved professes a peaceful intent.

Proliferation includes, but is not limited to, the following:

• Increases in the number of effectiveness of weapons in a state with nuclear weapons.
• Public transfer of weapons to another state, though the example transfer of weapons from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan reduced proliferation dangers.
• A state with advanced nuclear capabilities openly working on obtaining a nuclear weapons program, perhaps Japan reacting to North Korea.
• Utilizing equipment for ostensibly peaceful purposes to facilitate weapons development (India, Israel, and North Korea)
• Transferring weapons material from states with weapons to states without, with the aid of a government or dissident officials, or by theft. The former Soviet Union and Pakistan have been thought to be particularly vulnerable as sources for such transfers.
• Transfer of technology, including designs and specialized equipment, by states, private companies, or individuals. Pakistan shared designs and equipment for centrifuges with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. China may have forwarded instructions on bomb construction through Pakistan.
• Purchase of theft of a weapon or fissile material by subnational groups or individual terrorists.

The original nuclear weapons concern was use of nuclear weapons by one of the original NWSs. Now concern has shifted to the spread of nuclear weapons to other states and terrorists. Moreover, numerous reports of small-scale nuclear materials thefts may indicate other, undiscovered thefts.

It is unlikely that any attempt to classify and rank the specific threats can be fully satisfactory. Detailed information on nuclear technology is now held by many countries, commercial enterprises, and individual scientists, and the industrial capability to manufacture specialized components is widespread. The prospect remains that additional countries or subnational groups may seek to obtain weapons. Given the variety of avenues for obtaining fissile uranium or plutonium, the many sources of technical knowledge and equipment, and the potentially large array of aspirants, nuclear weapons proliferation may appear in unexpected places and forms.

How many nuclear weapons exist? As of 2002 the US had 10,600 warheads, down from 31,700 in 1966. Russia had 8,600, down from 40,700 in 1986. China had 400, down from 435 in 1991. France had 350, down from 540 in 1991. The UK had 200, down from 350 in 1975. Among non-signatories of the NPT, in 1999, India was thought to have 30 weapons, Israel 100, Pakistan 40, and North Korea 1 – 2.

Each of the NWSs achieved nuclear power after nuclear weapons. The United States produced nuclear power in 1957 (weapon 1945), the former USSR in 1958 (weapon 1949), the UK in 1956 (weapon 1952), France in 1964 (weapon in 1960), and China in 1992 (weapon in 1964).

The next post will look in some detail at the history of weapons programs in other countries.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 6 The Bomb Spreads
Part 7 Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat
Part 8 Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

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