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Analysis: Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime Needs Overhaul

  • Brian Whitmore

IAEA head el-Baradei (file photo) The system of controls and safeguards the world has relied on for more than three decades to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons is no longer adequate and needs to be dramatically overhauled to reflect new realities, nonproliferation officials and diplomats say.

The ongoing diplomatic wrangling over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, Libya's admission in 2004 to having a nascent weapons program, and unsuccessful efforts to persuade North Korea to disarm have exposed major weaknesses in the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the main legal bulwark in international efforts to halt the spread of atomic arms.

Moreover, the confession in February 2004 of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, to providing atomic secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea since the late 1980s exposed a massive international trafficking network -- described by one official as a "nuclear supermarket" -- largely beyond the reach of international law.

Muhammad el-Baradei, director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), at the time called Kahn's network "just the tip of an iceberg" and has repeatedly said the world needs to take a fresh look at how it combats nuclear proliferation and trafficking.

"We need to find the choke points and try to plug them," a senior Western official close to the IAEA said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The global economy of the 21st century has spawned a black market for nuclear technology that allows countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction more easily.

Moreover, states with the desire to develop weapons have become increasingly adept at acquiring the know-how on their own -- and at hiding their efforts from international scrutiny. Officials at the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog responsible for monitoring compliance with the nonproliferation treaty, say the agency's mandate and authority are becoming increasingly inadequate to prevent the spread of weapons technology.

"Technology is catching up as knowledge spreads," a senior Western diplomat in Vienna said. "Technology that was once classified is now more open, and more countries can get access."

From Accountants To Detectives

Efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime have gained greater urgency since the attacks of 11 September 2001, but have actually been under way for more than a decade. The original treaty was beefed up in the early 1990s with provisions to give inspectors more authority.

Under the NPT, only the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France are permitted to possess nuclear weapons, and they agree not to provide them to other nations.

All other signatories, in addition to forswearing atomic arms, must submit their civilian nuclear-power programs to IAEA safeguards, inspections, and monitoring to ensure they are not used to build weapons. Countries found in violation of the treaty are reported to the UN Security Council, which can impose sanctions.

Three nuclear nations -- Pakistan, India, and Israel -- have refused to sign the treaty and, thus, are not subject to its provisions. North Korea pulled out of the treaty in 1993, rejoined in 1994, but withdrew again in 2003.

The original version of the NPT allowed inspections and monitoring only at sites those countries officially declared to be nuclear facilities, which meant potential nuclear powers could conduct secret and illegal atomic weapons research elsewhere with minimal fear of detection.

This loophole was exposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when IAEA weapons inspectors discovered that Iraq had developed a covert nuclear-weapons program despite being subject to IAEA monitoring and safeguards.

The discoveries in Iraq led to an amendment strengthening the NPT called the Additional Protocol, which provides for tougher and more stringent inspections that are not limited to declared nuclear facilities.

As one official put it, with the Additional Protocol, IAEA inspectors changed from "accountants" who basically cataloged and verified what was happening at declared nuclear facilities into "detectives" responsible for uncovering covert nuclear activities.

But although nonproliferation officials say they want to make the Additional Protocol the new "gold standard" for inspections, so far just 87 nations have signed it. Of these, 61 have ratified it and put it into force.

Closing More Loopholes

Just as the discovery of a weapons program in Iraq in 1991 led to the adoption of the Additional Protocol, revelations over the past year about Iran's and Libya's nuclear activities discoveries about Kahn's illicit nuclear trafficking network have moved the battle against proliferation "to another juncture," officials say.

One of the biggest loopholes to emerge in the current system, IAEA officials say, is the risk of what they call "breakout" -- the ability of states to develop nuclear weapons know-how while at the same time abiding by the letter of the NPT and adhering to IAEA monitoring and safeguards. If such a state then decides to pursue nuclear weapons, it can withdraw from the treaty with three months' notice.

Over the past year, el-Baradei has floated several proposals, some of them controversial, to close this loophole. Most notable was a suggestion that some aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle be placed under international control. Such a move would require major changes in international law.

"The most critical part of acquiring nuclear weapons remains the acquisition of weapons-useable material," el-Baradei told reporters in December 2003, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" proposal.

Under the NPT, "this is still a national prerogative. Any country can have full control over enrichment activities, reprocessing activities. I think that is just too close for comfort," el-Baradei added, referring to highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium, which can be used for nuclear weapons.

The IAEA chief has also proposed that states not be allowed to withdraw from the NPT and urged member states to be more proactive in sharing intelligence with the agency.

Additionally, el-Baradei has urged governments to take stronger measures to combat nuclear trafficking. Currently, multilateral efforts against trafficking are centered around the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an ad hoc organization that includes 44 countries.

Established following India's successful atomic test in 1974, the NSG seeks to prevent nuclear exports for commercial purposes from being used for weapons. Its members coordinate export controls on civilian nuclear material and dual-use technology to non-nuclear-weapon states.

El-Baradei has called for the NSG to be transformed from a voluntary association into a binding treaty. "The current system relies on a gentlemen's agreement that is not only nonbinding, but also limited in its membership: it does not include many countries with growing industrial capacity," el-Baradei wrote in "The New York Times." "And even some members fail to control the exports of companies unaffiliated with government enterprise," he added.

Officials at the IAEA repeatedly stress that the UN nuclear watchdog can only be as powerful as its member states allow it to be, and needs help from the world's most powerful states to combat proliferation. "The IAEA is an important player, but we have never pretended that we can do this on our own," a senior Western official close to the IAEA said. "There are middlemen and black marketers selling stuff willy-nilly, and we cannot control that."
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