During the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign both President George Bush and his opponent, Senator John Kerry, said nuclear proliferation is the single greatest global threat. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- all possess nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and Israel have them as well. Iran and North Korea have been making headlines recently with their efforts to produce them.
On August sixth, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima -- immediately killing an estimated 80,000 civilians. Twenty years later there were five declared nuclear weapons states and it was predicted the number could grow to 20 to 30.
To prevent another Hiroshima, the United Nations resolved to ban the acquisition and transfer of nuclear weapons, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was born. The pact, which now has nearly 190 signatories, took effect in 1970. In 1995 it was extended indefinitely. But in the decades since its inception, the agreement's effectiveness has been questioned.
Victoria Samson, of the Washington, D.C.Center for Defense Information, says not all countries feel the agreement is fair. "A big concern of many of the developing countries is that it keeps basically a 'have--have not' sort of circumstance, official; and it allows nuclear weapons states to go on in perpetuity with nuclear weapons and it prevents them (developing countries) from having nuclear programs."
Under the current system, the United Nations holds periodic meetings to assess the status of the non-proliferation treaty. High on the agenda at the next review conference in New York City, in May of 2005, will be be the number of countries pursuing nuclear weapons and the added threat that poses.
In the last year, Iran and North Korea have been accused of renewing their nuclear weapons programs. Libya apparently gave up its program. A black market that helped at least Libya was broken up, and al-Qaeda said it was still trying to get the bomb.
Ms. Samson says, "Nuclear weapons are highly destabilizing and they are truly the only weapons of mass destruction that exist. They have the capability of wiping out millions of people in one fell swoop, so it's something you do not want everyone to have, especially countries that maybe do not have very strong control of their weapons systems."
For some countries the pursuit of nuclear technology is driven by regional rivalries and the desire for self defense. India and Pakistan is one example. Another, the efforts to produce an "Islamic" bomb to counter Israel's weapons. In that climate, pleas for non-proliferation may fall on deaf ears.
Another big concern: nuclear material in the civilian sector. Michael Krepon is the founding president of the Henry L. Stimson Center -- a Washington, D.C. institution devoted to promoting international peace and security. Mr. Krepon says, "There's a lot of nuclear material in the world. The worst of it is related to bomb making, so highly enriched uranium and plutonium. If terrorists can get their hands on that, they could make a mushroom cloud."
Mr. Krepon added, " But there's other kinds of nuclear material that exists in hospitals, for cancer patients, for research labs, and this material cannot make a mushroom cloud, but it can have a huge psychological impact if it is exploded in a city center, or in a subway, in a financial center. 'Dirty bomb' is what we call it. So we have to do a lot more, all of us, in every country, to lock down nuclear materials."
Another problem is what are called "loose nukes" -- nuclear material used for weapons that is not properly secured. It is of particular concern in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Victoria Samson says progress has been made on that, but more money -- and more work -- are needed. "The Soviet Union had a vast, vast nuclear repository and they've been able to pull in most of the nuclear materials from the former Soviet states. But, even within Russia, you have situations where their facilities are guarded maybe by a lone security watchman with a flashlight. They may have a rusty chain link fence that would protect it. They just don't have the funding to do everything that they should."
Michael Krepon agrees. He says, "Highly enriched uranium, which is the most amenable to manipulation and use by terrorist groups, some of it's not well-guarded still, over a decade after the Cold War ended. So, we have work to do here."
Henry Sokolski, of the Washington, D.C. Nonproliferation Policy Center, says the U.S. is pressing Russia to better protect its nuclear materials, but that does not mean it will happen. "The problem of securing Russian nuclear material is not simply a matter of American priorities and the force feeding of American spending and programs, it's getting the Russians to open up and cooperate."
During the Cold War, the ultimate deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons was mutually assured destruction -- the knowledge that a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union against the U.S. -- or vice versa -- would mean annihilation of both sides.
Charles Pena, of the Washington, D.C. "think tank" the CATO Institute, says the U.S. nuclear arsenal is still a strong deterrent to anyone considering using nuclear weapons or selling them. "Our large strategic arsenal of nuclear weapons acts as a very powerful deterrent against these countries, even if they acquire nuclear weapons; first and foremost, from using them directly against the United States, but even maybe to the extent of the concern of passing them on to terrorists."
But, if a terrorist group were to acquire nuclear weapons and attack the United States, how would the U.S. know where -- or against whom -- to retaliate? It is one of many vexing questions sure to be debated at the 2005 non-proliferation treaty review -- and for years to come.