Atomic kitten

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2008, 12:00am

The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aims to stop the spread of atomic weapons. Yet the organisation set up to police its provisions, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is having an uphill struggle carrying out this task. Syria is proving evasive on inspections of facilities which Israel and the US claim are being used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has, for the past six years, been similarly obstructive. North Korea pulled out of the NPT in 2002, kicking out IAEA inspectors so that it could go ahead with making bombs. Iraq misled the organisation in 1991 and was unco-operative with investigative teams. India, Israel and Pakistan are the only nations not to sign the accord, allowing them to develop nuclear weapons and, in the case of the latter, proliferate.

To suggest that the NPT is stopping the spread of nuclear arms or even making an atomic war less likely is, in such circumstances, laughable. A way has to be found to strengthen its provisions so that the risk of terrorists making dirty bombs, or weapons being developed to threaten rivals, can be prevented.

The basis for a solution already exists. A deal formulated by US President George W. Bush's administration with India last August to transfer nuclear technology in exchange for contracts and safeguards is, in principle, the way forward. Where the as-yet unapproved agreement falters is in some of the details and the fact that the US is not an honest broker.

IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei has endorsed the deal; he has called it a pragmatic way to bring India into the non-proliferation community. Under it, US companies would be able to build nuclear power plants in India and provide fuel for the country's civilian energy programme. India would agree to inspections of reactors of its choosing, continue a moratorium on atomic weapons testing, strengthen the security of its arms arsenals and support international non-proliferation efforts.

India needs the accord so that nuclear reactors can be built more quickly, to meet burgeoning electricity demands. But approval is being held up by political parties opposed to the US. They have good reason to object: a stronger partnership with America will increase friction with China, furthering regional instability.

Critics like Charles Ferguson, a nuclear physicist and fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in Washington, point out that China's rise worries the US and a pact with India would be a counterbalance. That aside, the deal has insufficient safeguards to prevent India producing more weapons.

One of the provisions of the pact is that IAEA inspections of Indian civilian nuclear facilities will be permitted for the first time by New Delhi. But some sites will be exempt. Dr Ferguson told me he was concerned that uranium for reactors given to India would free up domestic Indian nuclear fuel sources, offering the potential to use them for bomb-making.

Nonetheless, he agreed that bilateral deals with non-members of the NPT, or countries seemingly trying to break the provisions, could be a way of plugging the hole in present non-proliferation arrangements. He suggested that a non-partisan nation such as Sweden, which had a good record on nuclear waste disposal, would make an ideal broker. America's staunch alliance with Israel - the source of discord with Middle Eastern nations suspected of seeking nuclear weapons - and its economic and strategic objectives prevent it from being a worthy deal-maker.

Since coming into force in 1970, the NPT has had considerable success in stopping the spread of nuclear materials. But there have also been significant failures. And with Iran and Syria suspected of wanting to break the NPT agreement, fears over the security of Pakistan's stockpile of weapons and North Korea yet to comply with China-brokered efforts, it is time to put in place a complimentary mechanism to build confidence and trust in the NPT. There is no reason to deny countries nuclear technologies if they are to be used for peaceful purposes. Putting a nation like Sweden in charge of deal-making is the way forward.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor