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Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a Success, But Faces Key Challenges

One-hundred-87 countries have signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, the legal cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts. Three countries: India, Pakistan and Israel, have not signed the treaty and a fourth, North Korea, has withdrawn from it. The treaty was opened for signature in 1968, and entered into force two years later. In 1995, the member states agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely.

William Potter is the director for non-proliferation studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He says the treaty involves three bargains, or deals, between the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. Mr. Potter says, "Essentially, one deal was the pledge by the nuclear weapon states to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament, although no specific date was set for the accomplishment of that objective. In return, the non-nuclear weapon states promise to forego the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and, in addition, -- and this issue has become more contentious quite recently -- the nuclear weapon states promise to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy with the non-nuclear weapon states. So, these are the three essential components of the treaty."

Experts say the treaty has been effective in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. Daryl Kimball heads the Arms Control Association, a non-profit organization based in Washington. According to Mr. Kimball, "The treaty has been very successful, when you consider the fact that, in the 1960's, before the treaty was negotiated and opened for signature, it was expected that there might be dozens of states with nuclear weapons. And today, we have eight states clearly with nuclear weapons stockpiles: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, as well as India and Pakistan and Israel, those last three states not being party to the treaty. And then there is the question about North Korea, which claims that it has manufactured nuclear weapons. So, today we have nine states, when that number could be much higher."

While agreeing that the NPT has played a key role in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, many experts say the treaty faces unprecedented challenges. They say those must be addressed by the NPT review conference coming up in New York during the month of May.

Jon Wolfsthal, non-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington D.C.), looks at some of the issues facing the review conference delegates. Mr. Wolfsthal says, "You have one country, North Korea, which violated the treaty, and then withdrew, without any response of any consequence from the other members. You have serious questions raised about the commitment on the part of nuclear weapon states to disarm, and you have concerns that the consensus that the treaty embodies -- that nuclear weapons should not be used normally within international affairs, that they are not valuable and not beneficial to the conduct of international affairs -- is breaking down. And you do have an increased perception that nuclear weapons are both desirable and beneficial, and that is something, which could lead to the erosion of the (enforcement) regime."

A recent United Nations report said almost 60 states currently operate, or are constructing, nuclear power or research reactors. And at least 40 possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure that would enable them, if they chose, to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice.

William Potter, from the Monterey Institute, says a key problem is that it is very easy to move from peaceful to military uses of nuclear energy. Mr. Potter notes, "The fundamental dilemma that one confronts is that there really is no clear distinction between good atoms for peace and bad atoms for war: the same technologies can, in fact, be used for necessary civilian nuclear programs, but in the hands of a state that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons, could be used for military purposes, as well."

Jon Wolfsthal from the Carnegie Endowment puts it this way. He says, "The example that I always use is that a pistol in the hands of a police officer can be a very important tool for good. But if he loses that gun, or it is stolen and ends up in the hands of a criminal, can be extremely dangerous, and that's the way I often think about nuclear fuel cycle facilities -- in the right hands, with the right leadership, can be very helpful. But, they have an inherent capability to do harm, if the goals of the countries running those facilities change."

To address that issue, experts say, delegates at the NPT review conference must agree to strengthen controls on the materials and technologies that can be used to produce nuclear weapons. They say the NPT must be made stronger to avoid what the U.N. report says could be a cascade of proliferation in the years ahead.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.