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Slate's War Stories: Nonproliferation Loopholes

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In New York this week, the United Nations is reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is the worldwide agreement designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. It undergoes a review every five years. Slate's military affairs writer Fred Kaplan has a new column up on NPT, as it's known, calling it `an utter mess that we nonetheless must try to put right.'

Fred, welcome back to the show.

FRED KAPLAN reporting:

Good to be here.

CHADWICK: North Korea appears to have joined the nuke club, Fred. Iran looks headed that way, but you write that this treaty actually has been fairly effective. And I'd forgotten that back in the '60s, a lot of experts thought that there might be 25 or 30 nuclear nations by now and that hasn't happened.

KAPLAN: Right. There are maybe eight or nine, depending on how you count them. You know, the NPT isn't the only reason why this is true, but it's been a reason. And, you know, once you sign something like this, forces in favor of developing nuclear weapons have another hurdle to climb. So it's definitely been a force for restraint, for reinforcing restraint.

CHADWICK: There are 189 signatories. That's all but three nations in the world. The standouts are India, Pakistan and Israel. But there are loopholes in this treaty. The biggest one is the one that involves Iran now, the peaceful use of nuclear...

KAPLAN: Right.

CHADWICK: ...power to generate electricity. Tell us what happened there.

KAPLAN: Yeah, well, see, the NPT was signed in 1970, back when there was a lot of talk about peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And so they said, `Look, to the countries of the world, if you agree not to develop nuclear weapons, we will give you, at very low prices, the technology, everything you need to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.'

But what's happened over the past few years is that, see, the technology for nuclear energy and the technology for nuclear weapons is essentially the same. You have to do something with the material. You have to enrich the uranium or reprocess the fuel rods to make plutonium which are bomb-grade materials. But in the past it was thought, well, that's very difficult, they wouldn't be able to do that. But lately, well, some have been able to do that, so there's a loophole. What the NPT makes possible is that a country can go right up to the border between nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry completely legally and then say, `OK, we're abrogating the treaty'--which is allowed by the treaty; anybody can step out with 90-day notice--and then take one more step and, all of a sudden, they have nuclear weapons.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, the particular issue at hand now is Iran and its purported pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy which many, many people worry actually is about nuclear weaponry. To address this problem, Mohamed ElBaradei, the UN's chief atomic weapons inspector, says what we should do is freeze uranium enrichment; everyone should agree to do this for five years. but the US and other powerful countries say no. What's going on there?

KAPLAN: Well, the US wants to modernize its nuclear power plants which involves enriching uranium. France and Japan have quite a lot of nuclear power plants, and they don't want to submit to that kind of restriction. And Iran, as a matter of principle, wants to continue enrichment. So, yeah, there you have the United States, France, Japan and Iran agreeing on the same point. So take that snapshot real fast.

CHADWICK: What do you think the conference might do to be able to address these loopholes and try to get over these obstacles? The Europeans and the Americans both discouraging Iran, but Europe and the United States perhaps not on exactly the same side on this.

KAPLAN: Well, for example, I mean, the part of the NPT that lets people develop nuclear energy at cheap cost, that was kind of a payoff. That was a bribe to get them to forego nuclear weapons. Well, now they need other kinds of bribes. The core nuclear powers have to start offering new kinds of incentives: security guarantees, economic assistance. One thing that we might think about doing is creating not just an international inspection force, which exists, but an international enforcement agency--I mean, you know, an expeditionary force that, to put it frankly, can go in and invade or bomb nuclear facilities that are in violation of the treaty.

CHADWICK: Is it at all possible to envision the United Nations doing something like that?

KAPLAN: Well, it would be difficult but, you know, I think there does have to be some sacrifice of this measure if you want to keep the prediction of the '60s, that, you know, 24 countries will have nuclear weapons over the next decade, from coming true.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan. He writes the War Stories column for our partners at Slate magazine.

Fred, thank you.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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