World Leaders Rethinking Key NPT Provision

Christine Kucia

Stung by the apparent strides of North Korea and Iran toward developing nuclear weapons, U.S. and international policymakers are rethinking Article IV of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In recent speeches, key officials have proposed changing the provision, which facilitates procurement of nuclear technology and material by non-nuclear weapon-states for peaceful applications if they agree not to build nuclear weapons. The changes would help prevent countries seeking nuclear weapons from gaining access to the materials needed to build a bomb.

“Recent events have made it clear that the nonproliferation regime is under growing stress,” Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the UN General Assembly Nov. 3. Reiterating an idea he expressed in an October interview with Arms Control Today, ElBaradei suggested that nonproliferation security structures needed to be overhauled. (See ACT, November 2003.) In his UN speech, ElBaradei recommended “limiting the processing of weapon[s]-usable material…in civilian nuclear programs—as well as the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment—by agreeing to restrict these operations exclusively to facilities under multinational control.” He said controlling the availability of fissile material worldwide is crucial to allowing nuclear power development to proceed while guarding against the spread of nuclear weapons know-how.

ElBaradei’s annual report to the United Nations cites Iran’s breach of its safeguards agreements in developing its nuclear power fuel-cycle. He also expressed hope that North Korea would rejoin the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea announced its withdrawal as a state-party to the NPT after announcing the existence of a uranium-enrichment program and restarting its suspended plutonium program. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) In response, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which includes representatives of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union, told North Korea Nov. 21 that it would suspend its nuclear power assistance program, citing Pyongyang’s nonproliferation violations.

Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev and U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham offered similar perspectives of a fragile nonproliferation framework during their presentations to a meeting of the UN First Committee, which focuses on disarmament matters. Rumyantsev emphasized the security of nuclear and radiological materials worldwide. Russia, the United States, and the IAEA have been actively engaged in the retrieval of Soviet- and Russian-supplied highly enriched uranium from research reactors around the world in order to stem the proliferation threat posed by vulnerable stores of the weapons-usable material. Rumyantsev built upon a proposal offered by ElBaradei, suggesting “construction in the long term under IAEA auspices of several large international [spent nuclear fuel] handling centers.” Russia previously has suggested that it could host such centers, but no action has been taken to date.

Abraham called the NPT and IAEA “properly the center of the nuclear nonproliferation regime” but stressed that world leaders must “think about how to ensure that the essential ‘bargain’ between nuclear and non-nuclear states—a bargain central to advancing the underlying principles of Atoms for Peace—can be sustained into the future.”