Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:14 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:14 | SYDNEY

Nuclear pessimism sets in again


Fiona Cunningham

8 July 2010 15:27

It is never a bad idea to wait a few weeks for the dust to settle after a big event to reflect on whether it has really changed anything. So, along with a dozen or so nuclear policy experts, that is exactly what I did at a recent event hosted by ANU on the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon), held in New York in May.

I was asked to focus on emerging and evolving threats to the nonproliferation regime. While my fellow panelists examined the North Korean and Iranian threats in detail, in my opinion the acquisition of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities (sensitive nuclear technologies) that give states the capacity to build a bomb remain the greatest threats to the nonproliferation regime.

This threat is all the more serious because it is permissible within the framework of the NPT and requires drastic changes in the institutional framework of the global nuclear order if it is to be neutralised. The 2010 RevCon has done nothing to remedy this threat, and the problem is well illustrated by the outcome of the recent Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in Christchurch.

The NSG tries to rein in the supposed NPT-guaranteed right to civilian nuclear technology by limiting and conditioning supply. States may join the group if they supply nuclear materials to other states. In so doing, they sign up to a set of voluntary guidelines for nuclear exports.

The magnitude of the fault-line in the nonproliferation regime created by the spread of nuclear technology was illustrated the inability of the NSG's 46 members to agree on guidelines to limit access to sensitive nuclear technology during its Christchurch meeting.

Since news of the AQ Khan nuclear smuggling network broke in 2004, the NSG has been negotiating a set of guidelines on sales of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, including limitations on sales to states in regions of 'special proliferation concern' and requirements that recipient states are NPT members, have an Additional Protocol safeguards agreement in place with the IAEA and are in compliance with those safeguards.

Opposition to the guidelines has dwindled over the years and G8 countries have decided to impose them regardless of whether agreed to by the NSG. But these draft guidelines remain just that, after Turkey took an almost ideological stance in opposition in Christchurch, because the proposed guidelines infringed upon their 'nuclear sovereignty' as guaranteed by the NPT.

Turkey's opposition to limits on the sales of enrichment and reprocessing activities are representative of the objections of many states, probably motivated at least in part by commercial or security imperatives, but  also motivated by a desire to preserve 'nuclear equality'.

As one of my fellow panelists remarked, the greatest challenge for the global nonproliferation regime will be to reconcile the divergent interests of states protecting nuclear equality, such as Turkey, and those seeking nuclear peace and security; their interests will conflict where sensitive nuclear technology transfers are concerned. As the post-RevCon optimism subsides and business as usual takes over again, the nonproliferation regime will need to think outside the NPT square to solve this lingering threat to its existence.

The Nuclear Reactions column is supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, as part of a wider partnership between the NSP and the Lowy Institute. 

Photo by Flickr user Swobodin, used under a Creative Commons license.