6 April 2017

Putting the nonproliferation back in the NPT

Victor GilinskyHenry Sokolski

Victor Gilinsky

Victor Gilinsky is program advisor for The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) and served as a Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner under presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

Henry Sokolski

Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia and the author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (Strategic...


Often criticized as full of holes and unenforceable, the near-universal 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nevertheless retains a degree of respect that still matters when, say, Japan and South Korea debate whether to outfit themselves with nuclear weapons. It needs our help to sustain its principal function—barring the way to more nuclear weapons countries—because it has been getting watered down. The NPT community both in and out of government has taken to describing the treaty as resting on three pillars, only one of which is nonproliferation. In recent years, nonproliferation has even dropped to second spot. The Trump administration is reported to be reviewing the government’s nonproliferation policy. The unhelpful aspects of the three-pillar formulations should be part of that review.

The treaty started out in the early 1960s as an idea of countries without nuclear weapons that hoped to increase their security by all agreeing not to get them. But the effort turned into one in which the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain (China and France joined later) hoped to keep other states from obtaining nuclear weapons with which they could challenge the nuclear nations. This shifted the negotiating dynamics. Nonproliferation became a concern of the countries with bombs, and mainly the United States. In view of the evident eagerness of the nuclear states to gain treaty adherents, the non-nuclear states put a heavy price on their signatures.

One condition was a declaration that it was the “inalienable right” of all states to access “peaceful” nuclear technology. The treaty didn’t say how close a country could get to nuclear weapons under the cover of peaceful uses, which led nuclear bureaucracies all over the world to push the envelope to the extreme. That legitimized access for all to reprocessing technology to extract plutonium—a fuel, but also a nuclear explosive. And it legitimized access to uranium enrichment technology, which opens the door to highly enriched uranium, the other key nuclear explosive.

The NPT came to be described as a bargain between nuclear have-nots and haves: Countries without the bomb would promise not to get it (a promise weakened by the treaty’s 90-day withdrawal clause), and countries with the bomb would share all nuclear technology short of the bomb (which meant almost all technology needed to make a bomb). The nuclear bureaucracy in our Energy Department and the nuclear industry, which wanted nothing so much as to spread nuclear technology everywhere, liked the bargain’s implied obligation for us to do so and stood in the way of efforts to emphasize nonproliferation by restricting technologies close to bomb-making.

One of the deleterious features of the treaty is that it singles out nuclear power as, in effect, the preferred energy source for generating electricity, and it does so not for economic reasons but for political reasons. The fundamental goal of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an adjunct to the treaty, is to further the worldwide commitment to nuclear energy. It would be helpful to direct the agency’s efforts more clearly to its security function.

The world needs to bring the treaty up to date to reflect what we have learned about nuclear proliferation. When there is a suggestion to restrict certain aspects of nuclear energy technology most closely related to bomb-making, a frequent response from the treaty’s self-appointed defenders is that it is impossible to amend the treaty. In fact, the members did exactly that, reading out of the treaty Article V, the provision that requires the nuclear weapon states to provide nuclear explosive services to non-weapon states. It is necessary to make clear that some nuclear technologies—like reprocessing and enrichment—are simply too dangerous for widespread national ownership.

A second condition imposed at the outset was a vague promise by the authorized nuclear states, in effect, to eventually give up their nuclear weapons. As this also required total disarmament, it was not at first taken seriously, but it is becoming increasingly important. The treaty came to be talked about as being based on “three mutually reinforcing pillars”: nonproliferation, disarmament, and access to nuclear energy. This downplaying of the treaty’s main goal provides diplomats with excuses for failing to make progress on nonproliferation—their easy answer is that we haven’t done enough on disarmament and sharing of technology. The State Department seems to have adopted the three-pillar formulation in the run-up to the 2010 NPT Review Conference: “The NPT consists of three equally important pillars: nuclear nonproliferation; peaceful nuclear cooperation; and nuclear disarmament, and the premise that progress in any one pillar strengthens the integrity of the whole.” By the next NPT Review Conference in 2015, nonproliferation had fallen to second place. Will it fall to third place by 2020? It is a worrisome trend.

We need to get the treaty focus more squarely back on nonproliferation. Nuclear disarmament and nuclear technology sharing (so long as it is consistent with nonproliferation) are important elements of the treaty. But as Christopher Ford, then a US delegate speaking to the 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee, cautioned: “One should not infer from such [three pillar] phrasing, however, that these three elements are of equivalent importance to the regime. In fact, the NPT, as its title suggests, is a nonproliferation treaty ... [T]he NPT is about preventing the spread of nuclear weaponry, and everything about the treaty needs to be seen through this prism.” A good start on such a sensible approach would be if the State Department dropped the three-pillar description of the treaty altogether.