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Prof. Sokolski discusses his new book, Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

On June 14, 2010, IWP Professor Henry Sokolski discussed his latest publication, Reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which he edited, and the results of the most recent NPT Review Conference, which concluded its business May 28, 2010.

This book is available online on the website of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Professor Henry Sokolski described difficulties with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s (NPT’s) implementation and the potential it holds to prevent proliferation if properly interpreted. The original aims for the NPT, he explained, were spelled out in 1958 by Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for External Affairs when he first proposed negotiation of nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The concern at the time was that nuclear weapons would continue to spread to additional states and that as a result smaller states could blackmail larger nuclear powers and possibly drag them into regional wars that, in turn, might escalate into nuclear exchanges between the super powers. Mr. Aiken also worried that prospects for significant nuclear limitations or controls would become far more difficult to reach as more and more nations acquired nuclear weapons. Finally, the Irish warned that the spread of civilian nuclear power programs would necessarily spread the means to make bombs and that it was imperative that nuclear inspections be innovative and intrusive to prevent possible military diversions.

Today, these original NPT concerns, as reflected in the first three articles of the NPT, rarely get the respect and attention they deserve. Instead, our diplomats view the NPT as having three-pillars or goals. These three pillars are reflected in Articles IV, V, VI, and X of the NPT and are 1. disarming U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals followed by other states’ nuclear weapons 2. transferring civilian nuclear technology to the less developed world, and 3. promoting internationally acceptable forms of nonproliferation.

If you believe that these three pillars are the key aims of the NPT, you are forced to read the nonproliferation requirements of Articles I, II, and III not to share or acquire nuclear weapons related capabilities in the narrowest way possible. If you instead read the NPT right of withdrawal from the treaty in Article X, the inalienable right to enjoy “peaceful nuclear energy” under Articles IV and V and the demand that earnest efforts be made by all parties to disarm under Article VI through the lens of the three original Irish concerns, the pillars are hardly as controlling in the treaty’s interpretation and implementation.

Given the desirability to increase the NPT’s nonproliferation provisions, the challenge today is to figure out how to give priority to the original Irish concerns. Ultimately, this requires a reinterpretation of the NPT. The bad news is that this will be very difficult to accomplish. The good news is it has been done before.

In fact, the NPT originally provided for the sharing of the possible benefits of peaceful nuclear explosives under Article V. Yet, this provision is now fortunately viewed as dead letter. First, it was discovered that there were no economic benefits to be had in using nuclear explosives to make canals or other civil works. The cost of radiological clean wiped out whatever money might otherwise be saved as against using high explosives. Second, India and Russia, who set off what they claimed with “peaceful” nuclear devices, were suspected of testing nuclear weapons instead. Because there were no net benefits to be had in peaceful nuclear explosives and their use was itself dangerously close to being bomb activity itself, Article V is not longer considered a living part of the NPT.

This history is important. Currently, the prevailing view of the “inalienable” NPT right to “peaceful nuclear energy” is that this right automatically allows states to participate in any nuclear activity, no matter how uneconomical or dangerous, so long as it has some conceivable civilian application and the materials or activities in questions are occasionally inspected by IAEA inspectors or their equivalent. Yet, if the NPT is dedicated to sharing the “benefits” of peaceful nuclear energy, these benefits presumably must be measurably beneficial and be distant enough from bomb making or the risk of being easily diverted to that purpose to enable nuclear inspections to reliably detect their military conversion in a timely fashion.

“What currently is defended as being ‘peaceful nuclear energy’ and protected by the NPT can, and perhaps should, be questioned,” Professor Sokolski argued. Are nuclear fuel making and large nuclear programs economically competitive, i.e., “beneficial” in places like the Middle East, when compared to making power with readily available natural gas or buying nuclear fuel from other producers? How economically competitive are such programs against safer alternatives in any region? Can nuclear fuel making be safeguarded anywhere reliably to detect military diversions in a timely fashion? Aren’t such activities dangerous in any non-weapons state? Should these activities be allowed to be expanded in non-weapons states and to new locales?

This set of questions, Professor Sokolski concluded, is not all that different than the set of questions raised regarded the NPT’s promised provision of peaceful nuclear explosive services under Article V. The answers to the questions regarding “peaceful nuclear energy” ought now to inform how the NPT is read. In specific, they need to be raised and answered to clarify what nuclear activities ought to be protected as being truly beneficial and peaceful. Given the poor economics of nuclear power as compared to its nonnuclear alternatives and the difficulty of safeguarding nuclear activities in noncooperative states, there is reason to believe that the honest answers to these questions would give far greater priority to the original Irish view of the NPT.

Finally, Professor Sokolski noted, it would be imprudent to force this view of the treaty directly. A far more sensible approach would be to encourage states to come to terms with the true costs of civilian nuclear power projects by agreeing in forms such as the G-20 to common energy project cost accounting procedures. This could be promoted as a way to determine the quickest and cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions.

Similarly, it would be most helpful to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with verifying compliance with the NPT, to be far more candid about what nuclear activities and materials it can inspect in a manner that will enable it to meet its own publicly states “timeliness detection goals.” This is something the U.S. Congress has expressed and interest in having the United States government determine along with whether or not the IAEA’s inspection goals are tough enough. Any serious effort to “strengthen” the IAEA must start here. Indirectly, getting clarity on nuclear power’s true costs and what can and cannot be effectively safeguarded against military diversions would go a long way to fortifying the NPT’s ability to identify and block future Irans and North Koreas.