Foreign policy experts say the international community must increase its efforts to curtail the possible spread of nuclear weapons.
A recent United Nations report on global security says the issue of nuclear proliferation is one of the major challenges facing world leaders today. The report paints a stark picture, saying the international community "is approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation".
The report says as of this year, eight countries are known to have nuclear arsenals: the United States, Britain, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, although not all of them admit it. And, the U.N. document goes on to say almost 60 states currently operate or are constructing nuclear power or research reactors. And at least 40 possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure which would enable them, if they chose, to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice.
Foreign policy experts say in the months ahead, world leaders will have to deal effectively with two countries, Iran and North Korea, in an effort to curtail the possible spread of nuclear weapons.
The United States and Europe believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear arms. But Tehran says its nuclear program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful purposes. In a recent agreement with three European countries, Britain, France and Germany, Iran decided to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program: a technology that could lead to producing nuclear weapons. Europeans and Iran will continue negotiations, talks the European Union hopes will make the suspension permanent in exchange for trade deals.
Graham Allison, from Harvard University, has written extensively about nuclear proliferation issues. A former senior Defense Department official, he says the United States must play a greater role in discussions with Iran.
"Given the current play, if the U.S. doesn't get involved in an active way, the likelihood that this agreement is holding this time next year, I would say is very, very low," he said. "The Iranians are not going to give up their enrichment effort, which they've been working on now for 18 years, by my count, simply for the benefits Europeans can provide them."
Mr. Allison says if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it may inspire other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to do the same.
On North Korea, the United States has been saying for several years that Pyongyang has a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, North Korea has pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, expelled U.N. monitors and re-opened a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994. Pyongyang has re-started its plutonium re-processing operations and experts say North Korea may now be able to produce at least six nuclear weapons.
Daryl Kimball, Executive-Director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington research firm, says the situation is critical.
"So right now, North Korea has a very advanced, almost fully-functioning plutonium re-processing facility that can extract plutonium from what are called "spent fuel rods" from a reactor there. There are no inspectors in North Korea to monitor what is or isn't going on. The United States has, under the Bush administration, first decided not to speak with the North Koreans to try to improve the situation. Then the United States pursued the six-party talks involving the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea, but the third round of these six-party talks was in June of 2004. There is no sign that these talks are going to be reconvened any time soon and the fear right now is that North Korea could quietly and behind its closed borders be separating more plutonium for possibly more nuclear weapons," said Daryl Kimball.
Mr. Kimball says the international community must be more aggressive diplomatically in its dealings with Pyongyang.
Graham Allison, from Harvard, believes if North Korea declares itself a nuclear state, other countries will follow suit.
"You're soon going to have Japan choosing a nuclear option and then South Korea very quickly thereafter, and Taiwan will be thinking about it. So you are going to see a set of dominoes there follow quickly," he said.
Turning to a different region of the world, Daryl Kimball from the Arms Control Association says another potential nuclear flashpoint is in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have been engaged in an arms race.
"What we see happening today is still the possibility of an armed conflict between the two countries, mainly over the disputed Kashmir territory. And now with both states armed with a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, there is the possibility the two countries could become engaged in a nuclear conflict. It was only two years ago in the summer of 2002 that there were some one million armed troops on the India-Pakistan border facing off against one another and there was a severe crisis and the United States helped intervene and quell the crisis. But that just shows how short the nuclear fuse is in that region."
Foreign policy experts say another major proliferation issue is the one known as "loose nukes": the possibility that nuclear material from the former Soviet Union might make its way into terrorists' hands.
Former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay says it is difficult to know how much nuclear material is out there.
"We unfortunately do not know how much is available. And in fact, I don't think the Russians know how much is available from the old Soviet program," said Mr. Kay. "The end of the Soviet Union was welcome but messy and controls just came off. And it turned out those controls weren't all that good to begin with. The Soviets depended on guns, gates and guards as opposed to scientific, technical accounting methods."
Mr. Kay says the United States has been involved in several buyback and assistance programs to help the Russians install better controls over the old Soviet stockpile. And he says Washington has helped move and make more secure materials from former Soviet republics.
Experts say nuclear issues will be discussed next year in New York, during the review of the Non-Proliferation treaty - the legal cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts. Under terms of the pact, non-nuclear states are bound not to acquire nuclear weapons while the five declared nuclear states (the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia) pledge to disarm.
The four-week session in May will bring the 187 signatories together to debate whether the treaty needs to be revised and strengthened to meet the nuclear challenges in the years ahead.