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A New Global Nuclear Order

North Korea ... Iran ... and the list is growing. The treaty that once limited the spread of atomic weapons know-how is unraveling.

October 15, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — When North Korea announced its nuclear test last week, it was just the latest sign that the effort to contain the spread of atomic weapons was breaking down: Several countries are on the verge of beginning uranium enrichment programs, and others have already started such efforts, policymakers and experts say.

Brazil recently inaugurated an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant, and Argentina and South Africa are interested in similar projects. Australia, which has large supplies of natural uranium, is also considering an enrichment program. Iran has defied requests by the international community to suspend its program to enrich uranium, the first step toward making the fissile material suitable for a bomb.

North Korea's announcement of a test follows ones by India and Pakistan in 1998. The rise of a new generation of nuclear states has led to increasing concerns that others could follow, and fueled fears that the more countries with nuclear capability, the greater the risk that fissile material will fall into terrorist hands.

"We are, at present, at the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime and the global nuclear order that we've taken for granted," said Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton, who directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "This is a huge event whose importance may only become evident in five years....

"In terms of global order, global nuclear order, this is a nuclear blast," he said.

On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea for its declared nuclear test Monday.

But China's reluctance to take part in inspections of North Korean cargo to help stop the flow of weapons materials throws into doubt how effective the sanctions can be.

Policymakers point to three levels of problems with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been in force for 36 years: weaknesses in the treaty itself, at the political level in the Security Council, and at the technical level in the ability of nuclear inspectors to detect undisclosed nuclear programs.

Countries that had nuclear weapons when the treaty went into effect -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- were allowed to keep them, whereas others were asked to forswear them.

The "haves" made the commitment to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals, and the "have-nots" agreed not to seek atomic weapons as long as they could have the advantages of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, was put in charge of making sure countries refrained from taking steps toward making fissile material suitable for bombs. But the treaty, in effect, permitted any country that wanted nuclear weapons capability to go down that road.

Nuclear technology is such that once a country masters uranium enrichment, it is relatively easy to go from low-level enrichment, which produces fuel for nuclear power plants, to high-level enrichment, which produces material used for a bomb.

Although 187 countries have signed the treaty, some developing nations are skeptical of the intentions of the five original nuclear states and are reluctant to give up the option of enriching uranium, leaving the door cracked to nuclear weapons capability.

Immediately after the Cold War, the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear arsenals by thousands of weapons. Since then there has been a standstill.

There are now about 27,000 nuclear warheads worldwide -- the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia. And most of the five original nuclear states have moved to modernize or, in China's case, expand their arsenals.

Countries that have pursued nuclear capability outside the treaty or by hiding their programs have, after an initial distancing by the international community, gone unpunished over the long term.

Three countries -- India, Pakistan and Israel -- refused to sign the treaty. Pakistan and India have developed nuclear weapons, and Israel is thought to have them.

All three enjoy the favor and respect of world leaders, setting an example of what countries can get when they acquire nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan, initially sanctioned over their nuclear tests, have seen the bans diminish, and India has been offered a multibillion-dollar deal with the United States that includes nuclear technology. The agreement has not been approved by the U.S. Senate.

Two other countries have refused to abide by the treaty, although they signed it: Iran and North Korea. The latter withdrew from the treaty three years ago. Neither nation has suffered significant consequences for refusing to comply.

That is because until Saturday, the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council could not agree on a punishment. At least one of the five has had national interests that superseded its intention to bring the countries to heel.

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