Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

Author: Mr Henry D Sokolski

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As currently interpreted, it is difficult to see why the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) warrants much support as a nonproliferation convention. Most foreign ministries, including that of Iran and the United States, insist that Article IV of the NPT recognizes the “inalienable right” of all states to develop “peaceful nuclear energy.” This includes money-losing activities, such as nuclear fuel reprocessing, which can bring countries to the very brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. If the NPT is intended to ensure that states share peaceful “benefits” of nuclear energy and to prevent the spread of nuclear bomb making technologies, it is difficult to see how it can accomplish either if the interpretation identified above is correct. Some argue, however, that the NPT clearly proscribes proliferation by requiring international nuclear safeguards against military diversions of fissile material. Unfortunately, these procedures, which are required of all non-nuclear weapons state members of the NPT under Article III, are rickety at best.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear inspections, which are intended to detect illicit nuclear activities and materials, certainly have a mixed record. Not only has the IAEA failed to find existing covert reactors and fuel-making plants, which are critical to bomb making, the agency still cannot assure the continuity of inspections for spent and fresh reactor fuels that could be processed into bomb usable materials at roughly two-thirds of the sites that it currently inspects. What is easily as worrisome is that even at declared nuclear fuel-making sites the IAEA routinely loses count of many bombs worth of production each year. Finally, in the practical world, the NPT hardly admits of modification and is far too easy for violating states to withdraw from. Under Article X, treaty members are free to leave the NPT with no more than 3 months notice merely by filing a statement of the “extraordinary events [relating to the subject matter of the treaty] it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.” As demonstrated by North Korea with its withdrawal from the NPT, these slight requirements are all too easy to meet. As for amending the treaty, it is nearly impossible. Not only must a majority of NPT members ratify any proposed amendments, but every member of the IAEA government board and every NPT nuclear weapons state member must ratify the proposal as well, and this is only to get amendments for consideration by those states that have not yet ratified the NPT. Ultimately, any state that chooses not to so ratify is free to ignore the amendment, and therefore the treaty is functionally incapable of being amended. For all of these reasons, the NPT is not just seen as being weak against violators and difficult to improve, but it is seen effectively as a legal instrument that enables nations to acquire nuclear weapons technology.

Consequently, each chapter of this book is dedicated to clarifying the NPT’s key ambiguities, and the chapters are roughly structured to trace the NPT’s text, article by article. The analysis set forth here was mostly written or commissioned by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Much more, of course, could have been included in this book. But rather than seeking to be comprehensive, the aim throughout is to provide a guide for both policymakers and security analysts. This guide should assist in navigating the most important debates over how best to read and implement the NPT and, in the process, spotlighting alternative views of the NPT that are sound and supportable.